Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood American Literature Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Margaret Atwood Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Margaret Atwood American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4,476 words.)