Margaret Atwood at a demonstration in 1988
|Born||November 18 1939
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
|Writing period||1960s to present|
|Genres||Romance, Historical fiction, Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction|
|Notable work(s)||The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing|
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, Order of Canada (November 18, 1939 - ) is a Canadian writer, a prolific poet, novelist, literary critic, feminist, and activist. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths, and fairy tales, which were an interest of hers from an early age. Her early poems revealed her love of nature born of her early experiences in the wilderness of northern Quebec.
Her later novels reveal her left-leaning sensibilities, including a distrust of religion and a critique of the excess materialism of consumer society. Her primary emphasis, however, was on the role of women in contemporary society. Titles like The Edible Woman and Surfacing use the metaphors of cannibalism and drowning to express the obstacles that prevent women from achieving success and happiness in contemporary society.
Her best known work is The Handmaid's Tale which depicts a dystopian society governed by religious fundamentalists.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Atwood is the second of three children of Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist, and Margaret Dorothy Killiam, a former dietitian and nutritionist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was 11 years old. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957.
Atwood began writing at age six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honors) and minors in philosophy and French.
In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for 2 years, but never finished because she never completed a dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance” in 1967. She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967-68), the University of Alberta (1969-79), York University in Toronto (1971-72), and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk, whom she divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto. In 1976 their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born. Atwood returned to Toronto in 1980, dividing her time between Toronto and Pelee Island, Ontario.
In March 2008 it was announced by Atwood, via television hookup between Toronto and Vancouver, that she had accepted her first chamber opera commission. Pauline will be on the subject of Pauline Johnson, a writer and Canadian artist long a subject of fascination to Atwood. It will star Judith Forst, with music by Christos Hatzis, and be produced by City Opera of Vancouver. Pauline will be set at Vancouver, British Columbia, in March 1913, in the last week in the life of Johnson.
Atwood has written thematically diverse novels from a number of genres and traditions, including science fiction/speculative fiction, space opera and Southern Ontario Gothic. She is often described as a feminist writer, as issues of gender often (but not always) appear prominently in her work. Her work has focused on Canadian national identity, Canada’s relations with the United States and Europe, human rights issues, environmental issues, the Canadian wilderness, the social myths of femininity, representations of women’s bodies in art, women’s social and economic exploitation, as well as women’s relations with each other and with men. In her novel Oryx and Crake and in recent essays, she has demonstrated great interest in (and wariness of) unchecked biotechnology.
Her first collection of poetry was Double Persephone (1961). The Circle Game (1964), her second, won the Governor General's award for poetry. Of Atwood's poetry collections, the most well-known is perhaps The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), in which Atwood writes poems from the viewpoint of Susanna Moodie, a historical nineteenth-century Canadian pioneer on the frontier.
As a literary critic, she is best known as author of the seminal Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), which is credited with sparking renewed interest in Canadian literature in the 1970s. She also wrote several television scripts, The Servant Girl (1974) and Days of the Rebels: 1815-1840 (1977).
The Handmaid's Tale is Atwood's best known work. A dystopian novel, it was first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. The novel explores themes of women in subjugation, and the various means by which they gain agency, against the backdrop of a totalitarian pseudo-Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government in the near future. Sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society.
The Handmaid's Tale won the Governor General's Award for 1985, and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen.
The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the Aunts.
Immediately following the overthrow of the government, but before the new order had completely changed things, women begin to lose whatever freedoms they had previously had.
Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values" and suggest that women should return to being housewives. Serena Joy, formerly a television preacher with a high public profile, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly not content. The religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.
However, Atwood also offers a critique of contemporary feminism. By working against pornography, feminists in the early 1980s opened themselves up to criticism that they favored censorship. Anti-pornography feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made alliances with the religious right, despite the warnings of sex-positive feminists. Atwood warns that the consequences of such an alliance may end up empowering feminists' worst enemies. She also suggests, through descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books, that contemporary feminism was becoming overly rigid and adopting the same tactics as the religious right.
Most notably, Atwood critiques modern religious movements, specifically fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, with a reference to Islamic fundamentalism such as the theocracy founded in Iran in 1979. An American religious revival in the mid-1970s had led to the growth of the religious right through televangelism. Jimmy Carter, then president, had avowed his renewed and reaffirmed Christianity; Ronald Reagan was elected as his successor using a specifically Christian discourse.
In A Handmaid's Tale Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories. A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution. Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs," echoes the famous phrase of Marx's in the Communist Manifesto, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Atwood translates the statement on class and society into one about gender roles.
The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic," but commented that her logic doesn't match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Atwood claims that this conception is ingrained in the human psyche, manifest as it is in early historical peoples, who matched their conceptions of debt with those of justice as typically exemplified by a female deity. Atwood holds that, with the rise of Ancient Greece, and especially the installation of the court system detailed in Aeschylus's Oresteia, this deity was replaced by a more thorough conception of debt.
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory. Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are currently members of the Green Party of Canada and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May, whom Atwood has referred to as fearless, honest, reliable and knowledgeable. In the 2008 federal election she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.
Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, such as suggesting that gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers be banned, and has made her own home more energy efficient—including not having air-conditioning—by installing awnings and skylights that open. She and her partner also use a hybrid car when they are in the city.
During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood came out against the deal. Her opposition included an essay she wrote opposing the agreement.
Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice. Atwood is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. While she is best known for her work as a novelist, her poetry is noteworthy.
Atwood has been vice-chairman of the Writers' Union of Canada and president of International PEN (1984-1986), an international group committed to promoting freedom of expression and freeing writers who are political prisoners. Elected a Senior Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto, she has sixteen honorary degrees, including a doctorate from Victoria College (1987), and was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001. Her literary papers are housed at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Atwood has also published short stories in numerous publications, including Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, Playboy, and many other magazines.
Atwood is scheduled to publish a new novel in 2009. The book's title was initially reported in some media as God's Gardeners, although Atwood later confirmed that this was not the intended title.
Short fiction collections
Wheel-show (1978-1981) for Times Magazine
All links retrieved September 17, 2014.
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