Atwood is known as the “Octopus” and as a “Medusa” by critics for her wit and her biting sense of humor. She is concerned with the creation and function of art as well as its importance in both the political and social worlds. For Atwood, art is an issue of morality; her writing provides a way to look at the world critically, to witness the world’s shortcomings, and to offer solutions for redemption. Atwood believes that, ultimately, art must function as an agent of truth and that the artist should provide both knowledge and confrontation.
Often, Atwood teaches through negative example in her work. Many of her protagonists do not appear heroic at the start of her novels. Also, her narrators are usually not reliable, and they may even be mentally unstable. They are often fragmented and isolated from others and from their settings; they have mixed feelings about their pasts and about their connections to their homeland, Canada.
Thematically, Atwood explores the contradictions behind Canada as a nation and the identity of those who consider themselves Canadians. She has argued that Canadians have always felt victimized. This victimization is a result of the merciless nature that Canadians encountered when they first settled in the country’s vast wilderness and of the colonialist forces that overpowered their political and cultural trends. Through her work, Atwood hopes to encourage Canadian writers and readers to create a more positive and independent view of themselves. This fresh self-image is rooted in identification with indigenous cultures such as Native American and French-Canadian rather than with British and American cultures.
Atwood’s own contradictory feelings toward her native land are apparent in her work. Her negative feelings toward Canada mingle with nostalgia. Her Canadian heritage is the source of plentiful images and archetypes that are fundamental to her novels. Just as Atwood is constantly exploring her identity through her writing, each of her protagonists is fighting to find a new voice. Moreover, Atwood’s Canada, a symbol of unexploited wilderness and innocence, is feminine in an otherwise masculine world. Atwood’s attention to gender goes beyond her portrayal of Canada, for she is concerned with the power struggle between men and women on many levels.
Although by the early 1970’s, many critics viewed Atwood as one of the most influential feminist writers, Atwood states that she is against the concept of power as a whole in the hands of men or women. Although she does not consider herself a feminist writer, her concern with feminist issues began with her early interest in the nineteenth century British novel. Many such novels were written by women, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot. Similarly, Atwood has chosen to write criticism on numerous contemporary female American and Canadian feminist authors; this is an indication of her interest in the content area.
In Atwood’s fiction, her female characters are often exposed to abundant suffering. Atwood has stated that these characters suffer because they mimic the experiences of women in reality. Also, she exposes women’s deepest fear of being used by those around them, unable to extricate themselves from their situations. Atwood’s work presents the physical survival of women in terms of a sisterhood rather than on an individual level. Her feminist concerns are integral in many of her novels, specifically in The Edible Woman, Surfacing (1972), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Just as Atwood does not identify herself as a feminist writer, neither does she consider herself a science-fiction writer. A majority of her fiction is set in the present day, with details that allude to North America. For this reason, she has been associated with realism: the way things are currently rather than how they might be. Her most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was a blatant exception to this trend. The work won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for the best science-fiction novel published in the United Kingdom. Additionally, a sprinkling of her short stories and poems, as well as her later novel The Blind Assassin (2000), illustrates a concern with the future and the fantastic. Atwood herself refuses to classify her own writing as science fiction because her work does not contain technological hardware. She deems futuristic gadgetry fundamental to science fiction, so she prefers the term speculative fiction in regard to her own writing.
As a writer of poetry, Atwood states that she has a distinct personality from that of a writer of prose. She views poetry as a lens through which one condenses and reflects. In her poetry, she often blurs the line between the real and the unreal. She accomplishes this to the degree that what the reader would view as reality becomes illusion and the unseen becomes more tangible and true. However, Atwood’s prose and poetry contain common thematic material and stylistic choices. Her novels and short stories are poetic in style, and her poems maintain a strong narrative strain.
Stylistically, Atwood chooses to incorporate irony, symbolism, self-conscious narrators, allegory, and bold imagery into her poetry and fiction in order to explore complex relationships between humans and the natural world, discomforting human characteristics, and power struggles between genders and political groups. Although her voice has been criticized as being overly formal and emotionally detached, she has been compared to writers such as George Orwell.
First published: 1972
Type of work: Novel
A young woman who is made mentally unstable by her oppressive social surroundings finds stability by shedding what those around her have deemed sanity.
Surfacing has been applauded for its characterizations, style, and themes. Thematically, the novel is about victimization and attempts to avoid victimization. The heroine of the novel battles the forces that suppress her, and at the end of the novel she gains confidence and a sense of freedom. In many ways, the novel is evocative of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963).
Surfacing begins with the nameless heroine and her lover Joe traveling away from the city. They are accompanied by a married couple, David and Anna, and they are all visiting her family’s cabin on an island in a Quebec lake. The heroine’s father has disappeared, and the heroine is trying to find some answers as to his whereabouts. The men hope to take some photographs for a book they are creating together. Although the father, a botanist, is not found, they decide to remain at the lake.
The flaws and ugliness in each character surface while they are at the lake. Relationships between David and Anna and between the heroine and Joe begin to unravel. Problems in the marriage of David and Anna become apparent, while Joe becomes discontented with his lover because she seems to be obsessed with her search for clues in the cabin. The heroine believes that her parents have left her these clues in her childhood home.
Toward the end of the novel, the heroine runs from all of her companions; the wild island seems to have taken hold of her. Although this journey may seem like a nervous breakdown, it is a time for her to make peace with her past and her identity. Only after the heroine frees herself from society’s influences and connects with her primitive self is she able to develop her true character and to recapture the many memories that she thought she had lost. She reconnects with her parents and with the spirits of indigenous people. She has saved herself by embracing the voice of nature that demands that she avoid all human constructs. Symbolically, the antagonist forces that destroy nature throughout the novel also represent the United States. The theme of anti-Americanism is present throughout the work; for example, American tourists overrun the previously unspoiled landscape.
Eventually, the heroine of Surfacing learns of her father’s death. She must leave the cabin and the lake, for winter is approaching. When she returns, she will need to resume working and to attempt to better her relationship with Joe. A new woman, she is no longer a passive victim.
“Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture”
First published: 1978 (collected in Two-Headed Poems, 1978)
Type of work: Poem
A man who works in a torture chamber tries to avoid thinking about the atrocities that occur in the room.
The first stanza of “Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture” introduces the torture chamber. The voice in the poem describes how the chamber defies the human imagination; it does not resemble a dungeon, it is not reminiscent of a pornography magazine, and it is not futuristic. Instead, the chamber is compared to a dirty train station—a place that is all too familiar. The image of the train station includes a man who cleans the station’s floor. This individual is the precursor to the unnamed man introduced in the third stanza who sweeps the floor in the torture chamber.
The man who cleans the torture chamber must deal with the grotesque smells and remove the remnants of the previous night’s activity. He reminds himself that he is grateful for his job and that he is not the torturer. This man remains unnamed and generic; he could be any man in any country.
Other shocking images in the poem include limp bodies of those who refuse to speak thrown onto the consul’s lawn. Bodies of children who have been killed in order to extract information from their parents are also described. Despite these atrocities, the anonymous man performs his job each day and does his best to dissociate himself. He completes his work because he must provide for his children and his wife; however, he is fear-ridden. In the back of his mind he cannot detach himself from this cruel world, and he knows that he and his family could be the government’s next targets. The poem makes a bold statement about the harsh reality behind political systems.
The Handmaid’s Tale
First published: 1985
Type of work: Novel
A young woman is forced to become a potential “breeder” after Fundamentalist Christians impose a dictatorial government on the United States.
The Handmaid’s Tale begins near Boston in the mid-1980’s. A faction of right-wing Christians establishes a dictatorship after killing members of the United States government. The result is Gilead, an ultraconservative country that denies women power. Women are unable to hold jobs, use credit cards, or seek education. Also, massive pollution exists due to nuclear and biological warfare. Radioactive territory, known as...
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