Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In what ways do Margaret Atwood’s early childhood experiences in the Canadian wilderness affect her works?
Compare and contrast the dystopias in Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.
In “Death by Landscape,” why does the protagonist have trouble letting go of her friend?
Alias Grace has been both praised and criticized for its attention to the details of Victorian life. How and why do such details affect the momentum of the novel?
Chronicle Elaine’s growth as an individual throughout her journey in Cat’s Eye.
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Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Margaret Atwood’s publishing history is a testimonial to her remarkable productivity and versatility as an author. She is the author of numerous books, including poetry, novels, children’s literature, and nonfiction. In Canada, she is most admired for her poetry; elsewhere, she is better known as a novelist, particularly for Surfacing (1972) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Her other novels include The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1976), Bodily Harm (1981), and Alias Grace (1996). Among her volumes of poetry are The Circle Game (1964), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Interlunar (1984), and Morning in the Burned House (1995). In 1972 she published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a controversial critical work on Canadian literature, and in 1982, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, which is in the vanguard of feminist criticism in Canada. Atwood has also written for television and theater, one of her successful ventures being “The Festival of Missed Crass,” a short story made into a musical for Toronto’s Young People’s Theater. Atwood’s conscious scrutiny, undertaken largely in her nonfiction writing, turned from external political and cultural repression to the internalized effects of various kinds of repression on the individual psyche. The same theme is evident in her...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Margaret Atwood is a prolific and controversial writer of international prominence whose works have been translated into many languages. She has received several honorary doctorates and is the recipient of numerous honors, prizes, and awards, including the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1967 for The Circle Game, the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1986 and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale, the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award in 1986 from the Canadian Jewish Congress, the American Humanist of the Year Award in 1987, and the Trillium Award for Excellence in Ontario Writing for Wilderness Tips in 1992 and for her 1993 novel The Robber Bride in 1994. The French government honored her with the prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1994.
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
A skillful and prolific writer, Margaret Atwood has published many volumes of poetry. Collections such as Double Persephone (1961), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics(1971), You Are Happy (1974), Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981), Interlunar (1984), and Morning in the Burned House (1995) have enjoyed a wide and enthusiastic readership, especially in Canada. During the 1960’s, Atwood published in limited editions poems and broadsides illustrated by Charles Pachter: The Circle Game (1964), Kaleidoscopes Baroque: A Poem (1965), Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein (1966), Expeditions (1966), and What Was in the Garden (1969).
Atwood has also written books for children, including Up in the Tree (1978), which she also illustrated, and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2004). Her volumes of short stories, a collection of short fiction and prose poems (Murder in the Dark, 1983), a volume of criticism (Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972), and a collection of literary essays (Second Words, 1982) further demonstrate Atwood’s wide-ranging talent. In 1982, Atwood...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Early in her career, Margaret Atwood received critical recognition for her work. This is particularly true of her poetry, which has earned her numerous awards, including the E. J. Pratt Medal in 1961, the President’s Medal from the University of Western Ontario in 1965, and the Governor-General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor, for The Circle Game in 1966. Twenty years later, Atwood again won this prize for The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood won first prize in the Canadian Centennial Commission Poetry Competition in 1967 and won a prize for poetry from the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation in 1969. She has received honorary doctorates from Trent University and Queen’s University. Additional honors and awards she has received include the Bess Hoskins Prize for poetry (1974), the City of Toronto Award (1977), the Canadian Booksellers Association Award (1977), the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction (1978), the Canada Council Molson Prize (1980), and the Radcliffe Medal (1980). The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Prize, and Atwood received Spain’s Prince of Asturias literary prize for 2008.
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Margaret Atwood’s publishing history is a testimonial to her remarkable productivity and versatility as a writer. As well as a poet, she is a novelist, a short-fiction writer, a children’s author, an editor, and an essayist. The Edible Woman (1969), Atwood’s first novel, defined the focus of her fiction: mainly satirical explorations of sexual politics, where self-deprecating female protagonists defend themselves against men, chiefly with the weapon of language. Other novels include Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (2005), and The Year of the Flood (2009). The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a dystopian novel set in a postnuclear, monotheocratic Boston, where life is restricted by censorship and state control of reproduction, is the best known of Atwood’s novels and was made into a commercial film of the same title, directed by Volker Schlöndorff.
Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (1977) and Bluebeard’s Egg (1983) are books of short fiction, as are Wilderness Tips (1991), Good Bones (1992), and Moral Disorder (2006). Atwood has written children’s books: Up in the Tree...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Critical success and national and international acclaim have greeted Margaret Atwood’s work since her first major publication, the poetry collection The Circle Game. Poems from that collection were awarded the 1965 President’s Medal for Poetry by the University of Western Ontario in 1966, and after commercial publication, the collection won for Atwood the prestigious Governor-General’s Award for poetry in 1967. In that same year, Atwood’s The Animals in That Country was awarded first prize in Canada’s Centennial Commission Poetry Competition. The Chicago periodical Poetry awarded Atwood the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize in 1969 and the Bess Hokin Prize in 1974. Since that time, Atwood’s numerous awards and distinctions have been more for her work in fiction, nonfiction, and humanitarian affairs. She has received several honorary doctorates and many prestigious prizes, among them the Toronto Arts Award (1986), Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1986, the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award from the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the American Humanist of the Year Award for 1987. In fact, at one time or another, Atwood has won just about every literary award for Canadian writers. In 2000, Atwood won the Booker Prize for the best novel by a citizen of the United Kingdom or British Commonwealth.
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Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Margaret Atwood’s works always seem to involve a journey of some kind—literal, emotional, or both. What initiates the journeys, what impedes them, and how do the journeys end, if they do?
Often in an effort to improve society, authorities resort to repressive measures. Discuss the motivations, expressed or covert, behind such efforts in Atwood’s novels, especially The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.
Prisons, metaphorical and literal, play a large role in Atwood’s works. Discuss the effect of both kinds of prisons on the characters in her works.
Identity or the obfuscation of identity is a theme in many of Atwood’s works, especially her novels. Not only do characters’ names change, but they change with their names. Discuss Atwood’s use of names and the problem of identifying just who some of her characters are. Why do you think Atwood uses this theme?
Identify some positive or semipositive male characters in Atwood’s fiction. What appear to be their flaws and what do their flaws disclose about the society and the nature of male/female relationships?
Atwood uses unreliable narrators in many of her novels. To what purpose? How are the narrators related to the nature of truth in her novels?
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Margaret Atwood. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Collection of essays by literary critics provides analyses of Atwood’s major novels. Includes brief biography, chronology of Atwood’s life, and an informative editor’s introduction.
Brown, Jane W. “Constructing the Narrative of Women’s Friendship: Margaret Atwood’s Reflexive Fiction.” Literature, Interpretation, Theory 6 (1995): 197-212. Argues that Atwood’s narrative reflects the struggle of women to attain friendship and asserts that Atwood achieves this with such reflexive devices as embedded discourse, narrative fragmentation, and doubling.
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ont.: ECW Press, 1998. Although this is not an authorized biography, Atwood answered Cooke’s questions and allowed her access, albeit limited, to materials for her research. A more substantive work than Sullivan’s biography The Red Shoes (cited below).
Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks, 1984. Presented from a feminist perspective, this book is a nine-chapter examination of Atwood’s language, patterns of thought, and imagery in her poetry and prose. The accompanying bibliography and index are thorough and useful.
Deery, June. “Science for...
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