Margaret Atwood

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC, poet, novelist, critic (born 18 November 1939 in Ottawa, ON). A varied and prolific writer, Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's major contemporary authors.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC, poet, novelist, critic (born 18 November 1939 in Ottawa, ON). A varied and prolific writer, Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's major contemporary authors.

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC, poet, novelist, critic (born 18 November 1939 in Ottawa, ON). A varied and prolific writer, Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's major contemporary authors. Atwood’s writing is noted for its careful craftsmanship and precision of language, which give a sense of inevitability and a resonance to her words. In her fiction Atwood has explored the issues of our time, capturing them in the satirical, self-reflexive mode of the contemporary novel. She has written to date a staggering 14 novels, nine short-story collections, 16 books of poetry, and ten volumes of non-fiction that have collectively garnered two Governor General’s Awards, a Giller Prize, a Man Booker Prize and numerous other awards and accolades. A Companion of the Order of Canada, Margaret Atwood is among the most prolific and celebrated writers in Canadian history.

Education and Early Career

Margaret Atwood studied English, with minors in philosophy and French, at the University of Toronto from 1957 to 1961. She obtained an MA at Radcliffe College, Harvard in 1962. The influence of professors Jay MacPherson and Northrop Frye directed her early poetry toward myth and archetype in her first book, Double Persephone (1961). Atwood's reputation as a poet was established when her second book, The Circle Game (1966), was awarded the Governor General's Award.

In 1969 Atwood published The Edible Woman, a novel in which themes of women's alienation echo those in her poetry. In Procedures for Underground (1970) and The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), her next books of poetry, personae have difficulty accepting the irrational. The inadequacy of language to come to terms with experience is extended in Power Politics (1971), where words are a refuge for weak women against male force.

Early on, Atwood also had a distinguished teaching career. She held positions at the University of British Columbia (1964-65), Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University (1967-68), and York University (1971-72).

The Theme of the Wilderness

In the 1970s Atwood was involved with nationalist cultural concerns as an editor for House of Anansi Press (1971-73) and as an editor and political cartoonist for This Magazine. She published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature in 1972. When first published, it was considered the most original book ever written about Canadian literature. In Survival, Atwood argues that the central theme of Canadian literature, and culture as a whole, is survival, whether that is against the forces of nature or the forces of history, and that the paradigmatic character is the victim, which poses a problem for the development of a distinctive and positive Canadian identity. Since then Survival has continued to be read and taught at the university level, and continues to shape the way Canadians look at their cultural heritage.

Also in 1972, Surfacing was published, a novel in which the technology-nature conflict is cast in political terms. As in Atwood’s other novels, the protagonist goes through an archetypal retreat to the irrational — the wilderness, where she undergoes a transformation through contact with native and Québec cultures — before reintegrating into society.

Continued critical success marked the publication of You Are Happy (1974), which includes a reworking of The Odyssey from Circe's perspective, and Atwood’s third novel, Lady Oracle (1976), a parody of fairy tales and Gothic romances that won the 1977 City of Toronto Book Award and a Canadian Booksellers Association Award. In these years Atwood worked less successfully in new genres, writing several television scripts, including “The Servant Girl” (CBC, 1974), and a history, Days of the Rebels: 1815-1840 (1977). Her short-story collection Dancing Girls (1977) attracted more positive notice, winning the Periodical Distributors of Canada Short Fiction Award.

Two books followed in 1978: Two-Headed Poems, which continued to explore the duplicity of language, and Up in the Tree, a children's book. Life Before Man (1979) is a more traditional novel than was her earlier fiction, developing a series of love triangles through exposition rather than poetic image.

Bearing Witness

In 1980 Margaret Atwood became vice-chair of the Writers' Union of Canada. She worked on a television drama, “Snowbird” (CBC, 1981), and co-published another children's book, Anna's Pet (1980), with Joyce Barkhouse. It was adapted for stage by the Mermaid Theatre (1986). Always interested in civil rights, she was active over several years in Amnesty International, which had an impact on the subject matter of True Stories, a book of poetry, and Bodily Harm, a novel appearing in 1981. In both works she "bears witness," breaking down distinctions she herself makes between poetry (at the heart of her relationship with language) and fiction (her moral vision of the world). She continued her fight against literary censorship as president of PEN International's Anglo-Canadian branch from 1984 to 1986, on whose behalf she edited The CanLit Foodbook (1987).

Atwood's collected criticism, Second Words (1982), contains some of the earliest feminist criticism written in Canada. Her editorship of the revised Oxford Book of Canadian Poetry (1982) marked her central position among Canadian poets of her generation. Her short-story collection Bluebeard's Egg (1983) won the Periodical Distributors of Canada and the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters Book of the Year Award.

Murder in the Dark (1983), a collection of experimental prose poems and short fictions, excited critical accolades for its use of language and the way it dissolved the traditional boundaries between fiction and poetry. Atwood continued to alternate prose with poetry, with Interlunar (1984) followed by Selected Poems II: Poems Selected & New, 1976-1986 (1986). However, the international critical and popular success of The Handmaid's Tale (1985) — which won the Governor General's Award, the Los Angeles Times Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction and the Commonwealth Literary Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize (UK) and the Ritz-Paris-Hemingway Prize (Paris) — won Atwood greater renown and financial success as a novelist. Probing the gender biases of historiography, this novel was made into a film in 1990 (from a screenplay by Harold Pinter) and later adapted and produced as an acclaimed opera by the Royal Danish Opera Society in 2000.

New Literary Ventures

The year 1987 brought successes in new literary ventures: the script for “Heaven on Earth,” a television movie about ​British Home Children in Canada, and The Festival of Missed Crass, a fantastic and satiric children's story transformed into a musical for the Young People's Theatre.

Cat's Eye (1988), a novel about a visual artist probing questions of subjectivity, creation and temporality, broke literary ground for its exploration of the realm of childhood, with its shifts of power, its secrecies and betrayals. The book received popular and critical acclaim, including the 1989 City of Toronto Book Award, the Coles Book of the Year Award, the Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year Award, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters in conjunction with Periodical Marketers of Canada Book of the Year Award. Cat's Eye was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Atwood's international stature as a fiction writer was further confirmed with co-editorship of The Best American Short Stories (1989). New collections of poetry appeared in Canada and England with Selected Poems 1966-1984 (1990), followed by Margaret Atwood: Poems 1965-1975 (1991). Wilderness Tips (1991), winner of the 1992 Trillium Award and the Book of the Year Award of the Periodical Marketers of Canada, contains stories with Gothic overtones about women facing middle age mixed with narratives about confrontations with the wilderness. Good Bones (1992) features brief texts about female body parts and social constraints written with devastating wit. They were adapted for the stage by Clare Coulter in 1998.

After two books of short fiction, Atwood published one of her most intricate novels, The Robber Bride (1993), which examined Toronto lifestyles and women's friendships. In the novel, three friends reflect upon their deceased university classmate, Zenia, who had stolen each of their boyfriends. Zenia, it turns out, had given them each a different life story, and in the end neither the characters, nor the reader, knows the ultimate truth. The novel won the 1993 Canadian Authors Association Novel of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Prize for Canadian and Caribbean Region, and the 1994 Trillium Award. It was adapted as a television movie for the CBC in 2007.

New Emotional Range

In 1995 Atwood published Morning in the Burned House, her first collection of new poems in a decade, which included a sequence of elegiac poems, demonstrating a new emotional range in her work. Eating Fire: Selected Poems, 1965-1995 was published by Virago Press in 1998.

Atwood did not abandon her original literary interests in this period, but rather added a darker shading. This is evident in her literary criticism, like Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1996), delivered as the Clarendon Lectures in English Literature at Oxford University in 1991. Despite the many transformations in Canadian literature — especially its predominantly urban orientation since Survival was published in 1972 — Atwood pursues her obsession with the wilderness theme in the Canadian imagination and examines image clusters connected with the Canadian North, beginning with the image of cannibalism in relation to the doomed Franklin expedition.

More Complex Narrative Structures

In 1996 Margaret Atwood published her highly acclaimed novel Alias Grace. Extensive archival research into the life and times of Grace Marks, one of the most notorious women in mid-19th-century Canada, led Atwood to revise her earlier perspective on this accused murderer and to question Susanna Moodie's opinion in Life in the Clearings (which Atwood had adopted in her 1974 TV script, “The Servant Girl”). Weaving together Marks's first-person fictional voice with 19th-century journalistic accounts and interviews, letters, traditional patchwork designs and poetry, Atwood's novel raises important questions about truth-telling and representation. How can we ever know another human being? How can we know what exactly happened in the past? The novel rejects the certainty of a verdict on Marks's actions. Instead, through the perspectives of representatives of the emerging 19th-century human sciences, Atwood plays one perspective against another, exposing the relations of power and the duplicity of language at the heart of our knowledge in law, history, literature and the media.

Formally among her most complex narrative structures, Alias Grace is also Atwood's most sophisticated articulation of her long-standing philosophical and political concerns with power, culture and identity. The book was nominated for the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, the Orange Prize (UK) and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (Ireland). The book won the coveted Giller Prize, as well as the Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year Award (1996). It also quickly became an international best-seller.

Atwood's renown grew in other fields and languages as well. Her Charles R. Bronfman lecture on the novel In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction (1996) was published by the University of Ottawa (1997). Also in 1997 Atwood co-edited, with husband Graeme Gibson, an anthology of Canadian short fiction, Desde El Invierno, for the Cuban Writers Union. Some of her teenaged writing was collected and edited by Kathy Chung and Sherrill Grace as A Quiet Game and Other Early Works (1997). Two Solicitudes: Conversations (1998) was a translation by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott of radio dialogues with Québec writer and publisher Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, first published as Deux sollicitudes: entretiens (1996). Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002) considers the place and perception of the writer in society. A companion to her first collection of essays, Second Words (1982), appeared in 2004, entitled Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004. This was followed by Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 (2005).

The Blind Assassin was published in 2000, to great popular and critical acclaim. This novel won the Booker Prize and was shortlisted for both the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. Set in the first half of the 20th century, The Blind Assassin is a multi-layered narrative collage. Critics praised Atwood's deft handling of multiple voices, perspectives and plot lines. The work is complex, but always accessible.

A Return to Science Fiction

Atwood returned to the science-fiction genre with her novel Oryx and Crake, published in 2003. Like The Handmaid's Tale, the book portrays a dystopian future, with humanity brought to the verge of extinction by contemporary social trends and technologies. The book garnered high critical praise and accolades, including being shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award. The Year of the Flood (2009) is set in the same time and place, and the plots of the two novels converge. Lyrics from within The Year of the Flood were set to music by Orville Stoeber and released as a CD, Hymns of the God's Gardeners (2009), and a documentary film of the book tour, In the Wake of the Flood, premiered in 2010.

In The Penelopiad (2005), Atwood invites readers to reconsider the story of Homer's Odyssey as she adopts the perspective and voice of Penelope, backed by a chorus of maidens. Her stage adaptation of The Penelopiad was premiered by England's Royal Shakespeare Company in July 2007. Atwood published two prose collections in 2006: a set of linked stories titled Moral Disorder and The Tent, a series of very short stories and prose fragments. Her 2007 poetry collection, The Door, filled with her customary wit and with reflections on the nature of responsibility, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Poetry.

Atwood's writing, in all her chosen genres, has always been clearly connected to global and personal politics; it particularly focuses on themes of environmental degradation, women's roles in society, and the power dynamics of social organization. Her non-fictional Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008), originally delivered as the 2008 Massey Lectures, extends this concern with the social world to a study of the idea of debt throughout history — and, frequently, in literature.

More recently, and lightly, Atwood and British co-writer Naomi Alderman consider the uncanny and undead in the serialized comic-horror zombie novel The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home (2012-13).

Margaret Atwood has received numerous honorary degrees, including ones from Concordia University, University of Toronto, Université de Montréal, Harvard University, and The Royal Military College of Canada. In addition to being a Companion of the Order of Canada, in 2012 she was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Canada.

Selected Awards

  • The President's Medal, University of Western Ontario (1965)
  • The Centennial Commission Poetry Competition Award (1967)
  • The Union Poetry Prize (1969)
  • The Bess Hoskins Prize (1974)
  • The St Lawrence Award for Fiction (1978)
  • The Molson Prize (1981)
  • Guggenheim Fellowship (1981)
  • Companion, Order of Canada (1981)
  • The Welsh Arts Council International Writer's Prize (1982)
  • Toronto Arts Award (1986)
  • Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation (1992)
  • Le Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France (1994)
  • Medal of Honour for Literature, US (1997)
  • Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, Spain (2008)
  • Nelly Sachs Prize, Dortmund, Germany (2010)

Selected Works of
Margaret Atwood

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Further Reading

  • J. Castro and K. Van Spanckeren, eds, Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms (1988); A.E. Davidson and C.N. Davidson, eds, The Art of Margaret Atwood (1981); S. Grace, Violent Duality (1980); Grace and L. Weir, eds, Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System (1983); Eleonora Rao, Critical Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood (1994); Lorraine M. York, ed, Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction and Novels (1995); Rosemary Sullivan, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998); Nathalie Cooke, Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion (2004); Coral Ann Howells, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (2006).

  • J. Castro and K. Van Spanckeren, eds, Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms (1988); A.E. Davidson and C.N. Davidson, eds, The Art of Margaret Atwood (1981); S. Grace, Violent Duality (1980); Grace and L. Weir, eds, Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System (1983); Eleonora Rao, Critical Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood (1994); Lorraine M. York, ed, Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction and Novels (1995); Rosemary Sullivan, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998); Nathalie Cooke, Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion (2004); Coral Ann Howells, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (2006).

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