Margaret Atwood American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4476

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.

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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 the Colonies, becomes the home of Jews and of other minorities, because the new government wants only to propagate members of their own sect. Essentially, Atwood has created a dystopia which stands in direct opposition to an ideal world or utopia. Atwood drew upon research about present-day trends in environmental degradation and diseases to create an authentic setting.

Due to massive pollution and to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction is difficult for women. Many babies are miscarried or born with defects. Women who cannot reproduce, as well as homosexuals, are considered worthless and are banished to the Colonies. Women are divided up into classes; colored clothing is used to separate the classes. The government establishes a secret police force to arrest fertile women, who become Handmaids. These Handmaids are breeders who must participate in sexual acts in order to create more members of the white race.

The women are given names that represent the men who control their lives; these names signify that women have lost their identities and that they are victimized by men. One such woman, named “Offred” is ripped away from her family. She is forced to be a Handmaid and is relocated to a center to receive the proper training for her new vocation. The Re-education Center is enclosed by barbed wire, and the conditions are rudimentary. Offred maintains her individuality, while acting as if she is conforming to the ways of the center and to the demands of her overseers, matrons such as Aunt Lydia and Aunt Elizabeth, who attempt to control the thoughts of their prisoners.

In secret, the Handmaids attempt to maintain relationships with one another and to maintain their morale. However, others adapt to the robotic ways and mental states required of them by their restrictive daily lives. Offred finishes her training at the center and is made a member of Gilead’s Handmaids. Her first attempt at conception is fruitless, so she is sent to Commander Fred, for whom she is named. Her new routine consists of food shopping and seclusion in a protected room. Her only exposure to others consists of prayer sessions, birthing, medical procedures, and executions. In a monthly ceremony, Offred mates with the commander after a Bible reading in front of his wife, Serena.

While Offred is being inseminated by the commander, she lies on Serena’s thighs. Although the commanders are considered high-ranking in the regime, they do not have much power over the household, for their aging wives govern the homes. This irony reinforces that the rigid nature of the government results in a lack of freedom for the commanders, too.

Unbeknownst to Serena, the commander develops a fondness for Offred beyond the ritualistic mating, and he calls Offred for evening visits. On such visits, they play forbidden games, such as Scrabble, and he allows her to look at his fashion magazines. Fred even gives Offred snippets of information about the world beyond her confinement. One particular evening, Fred gives her an ornate outfit of glitter and feathers to wear. Dressed provocatively, Offred accompanies him to an illegal nightclub where women of ill repute and lesbians work. The women at this club are also subject to the oppressive forces of men.

Serena learns about Offred’s illicit relationship with her husband and confronts the Handmaid. As Offred is weighing her options—for Serena is accusing her of treason—a van appears. Offred meets the operatives of an underground group called “The Eyes.” Although the commander objects, the two agents charge Offred with divulging the state’s secret information, and she leaves in the van.

The reader learns more about Offred’s fate in a speech delivered by an archivist in 2195, although the ending is ambiguous. The professor offers information about Offred’s experiences, as found on cassette tapes. The professor suggests that the Handmaid escaped her fate. He believes that she made the tapes before she escaped the country and that she lived her life in isolation in order to save her family from repercussions. Offred’s survival conveys the strength of the human spirit regardless of oppressive forces. In conclusion, Atwood refuses to call the novel a warning, even though she has alluded to current events; she says she has no political agenda of that sort.

Cat’s Eye

First published: 1988

Type of work: Novel

Elaine Risley, a reputable Canadian painter, returns to Toronto, where she revisits her childhood, her failed marriage, and her former relationships.

Cat’s Eye focuses on a fifty-year-old protagonist, Elaine, who is revisiting the city of her childhood. Elaine is a controversial artist who is returning for an exhibition of her works. During her journey, she undergoes a transformation, for she learns about herself, her art, and her life at various stages in the novel.

Elaine’s childhood begins with her traveling with her family across northern Canada. Her father is an entomologist who follows infestations; therefore, the family moves from motel to motel until she is eight years old. Elaine’s early childhood contrasts the new existence she faces when her family relocates to Toronto. She is forced to adapt to suburbia, which includes learning a new vocabulary and local etiquette. The clothing, speech, and items Elaine encounters reflect the rigidity associated with the 1940’s and 1950’s that Atwood recalled from her upbringing.

Elaine must learn what it means to be feminine and to socialize with members of her own sex. She realizes that she is different from the others at school and that her parents are not wealthy. During this time, Elaine becomes fascinated by another girl her age, named Cordelia. Cordelia lives in a large home with a cleaning woman and with other extravagances that Elaine admires. Cordelia claims to befriend Elaine; however, Cordelia and her other friends constantly harass Elaine for her many shortcomings and submit her to torturous acts. Elaine does her very best to garner their approval, for she considers them her only friends and fears further isolation. Atwood is illustrating the cruelty that exists in little-girl behavior.

Miraculously, Elaine breaks away from Cordelia. As teens, the two rekindle a friendship, although of a different kind; Elaine has become the stronger of the two. Cordelia fails out of school, and independent Elaine develops a passion for art, which she studies at university. During her studies, she has a love affair with a teacher and mentor and then meets another art student, Jon, whom she marries. Among other events, Elaine has a daughter and tries to commit suicide. During this time, she finds herself involved in the emerging feminist movement. In an ironic twist, Elaine encounters Cordelia as an adult. Cordelia is now the one who has attempted suicide and who is confined to a mental institution.

Unfortunately, Elaine is still haunted by Cordelia and plagued by insecurities. Although Elaine does not meet her friend when she revisits Toronto, she does return to the place where they were children together. By returning to this setting, Elaine undergoes a catharsis, and she makes peace with Cordelia by letting go of her past. The novel portrays the personal and social implications of evil and redemption.

Cat’s Eye presents many similarities to Atwood’s experiences. Critics have commented that Elaine’s voice reflects Atwood’s own. Elaine’s travels in northern Canada, her passion for art, and her relationship with the feminist movement are all reminiscent of Atwood’s life. The novel has received praise for its chronicle of memory through a weaving of the present and past. It has also been applauded for its electrifying imagery and poetic language.

“Death by Landscape”

First published: 1991 (collected in Wilderness Tips, 1991)

Type of work: Short story

Middle-aged Lois has recently relocated to a condominium apartment; she reflects on her childhood summer camp and the mystery surrounding a particular canoe trip.

In “Death by Landscape” Lois, a widowed mother, displays her art collection on the walls of her new waterfront apartment. She spends time admiring the paintings, yet they do not fill her with peace. On the contrary, the paintings show landscapes that make her very uneasy. Lois fears the depiction of the wilderness.

She recalls her summers at Camp Manitou, which she experienced from the ages of nine to thirteen. She remembers the traditions associated with her camp experience. She can still sing the words to the songs and remember the spunky counselors. The head of the camp, Cappie, kept the camp running during the Depression and World War II, even when money was tight. The camp setting represents a domesticated wilderness, a human-made construction which hints at the true wilds.

At the beginning, Lois struggled to adapt to camp life. She did not like writing to her parents or sleeping in a room full of other girls. She then grew to enjoy herself, and she made a strong friendship with a camper named Lucy. The two maintained their friendship throughout the years and during the summers, but Lucy seemed to have changed by their last year at camp together. She grew disillusioned with her newly divorced parents and became involved in a relationship with a gardener’s assistant.

The climax of the story occurs when the girls participate in a week-long excursion in the wilderness. They set out by canoe after a ceremonious departure. On the second day of the trip, the two girls separate from the other campers to climb a trail to a lookout point; it is a sheer cliff that overlooks the lake. Lucy says she is going to go urinate, yet she does not return. Instead, Lois hears a scream, although she cannot identify it. The campers head back to camp without Lucy; even the police cannot find her. When they return, Cappie insinuates that Lois pushed Lucy.

In retrospect, Lois realizes that Cappie merely needed someone to blame for the unfortunate event, but Lois struggles to let go of her friend. She is also haunted by the wilderness. The protagonist cannot believe that Lucy has died, and for this reason she has been living two lives. At the end of the story, Lois can finally accept the wilderness as part of herself.

Alias Grace

First published: 1996

Type of work: Novel

Grace Marks has been accused of murdering her employer and his mistress; Dr. Simon Jordan attempts to unlock her story.

In her novel Alias Grace, Atwood explores the psychological mind-set of one of the most infamous Canadian women of the mid-nineteenth century. The author’s fascination with the murderess began when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked her to write a play about Grace in 1974. The protagonist is the historical figure Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who worked in Toronto in the 1840’s. The setting is established as The Kingston Penitentiary at the start of the novel, where Grace is carrying out her life sentence for the murder of her wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant mistress.

Grace is sentenced for the murder, along with James McDermott, her coworker and supposed lover. James, a stable hand, claims that Grace incited him to perform the gruesome murders; he is hanged for his part. There is much dissent as to Grace’s guilt; she claims to have no recollection of the killings, which occurred when she was a scullery maid of sixteen. Among those who wish to exonerate Grace are a group of reformers who seek help from Dr. Simon Jordan. The reformers hope that by engaging the doctor, they can end Grace’s fifteen years of imprisonment. Jordan, a reputable figure in the fledgling field of mental health, is sufficiently intrigued to help the prisoner. Jordan is riveted by Grace, yet he continues to find her an enigma.

As Jordan encourages Grace to reveal information about her experiences, the story of her impoverished life trickles to the surface. Jordan learns about her childhood, her brutal passage from Ireland to Canada, and her employment with Thomas Kinnear from the age of twelve. By the middle of the book, the tension heightens as the secrets of her employer’s household come to light. Furthermore, Grace is haunted by flashbacks of the murder and by the memory of a friend who died during a botched abortion. As the mystery continues to unravel, antagonizing forces surface, such as gender roles, socioeconomic status, and the power of sexuality.

Still, Jordan does not know whether Grace is innocent or guilty. Despite the fact that Alias Grace is Atwood’s first venture into historical fiction, the book has commonalities with her other works. Themes include the changes in women’s morality and the power struggle between the sexes. Although a few critics noted that Atwood’s attention to historical details strains the momentum of the novel, several marveled at the author’s ability to provide Grace with a lyrical and authentic voice. They also noted the skill with which Atwood depicted the time and place in her haunting narrative.

Oryx and Crake

First published: 2003

Type of work: Novel

Snowman appears to be the only human to survive a catastrophic event; he must struggle to find nourishment and other essentials in order to endure.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a futuristic dystopia in which she places her protagonist, Snowman. Although Snowman has managed to survive some kind of catastrophe, the specifics surrounding the event are not revealed until the end of the work. The only other forms of life that Snowman meets on the barren seaside landscape are humanoids and animals that have resulted from bioengineering. The humanoids are called Crakers, innocent beings that are tractable and resistant to diseases. These green-eyed mutants manifest selected traits; they are uninterested in sex and violence, and their skin is impervious to ultraviolet light.

Along with the narrative of Snowman’s daily existence, the reader learns of his youth via flashbacks. As a child he was called Jimmy (he has renamed himself Snowman), and his best friend was named Glenn, who later adopts the name Crake. Both lived in a compound built by a bioengineering firm for its employees. The compound was isolated from other cities. Crake, a scientific whiz, and Jimmy were raised in dysfunctional families. Jimmy’s mother left the family because of her moral resistance to her husband’s work; he was responsible for creating genetic hybrids.

Crake’s father appears to have been murdered in the wake of a scandal with the firm. Crake grows from a youth who spends his time surfing the Web to a scientific mastermind in charge of a secret project. First he studies at the Watson-Crick Institute, which has a reputation like that of Harvard University—before Harvard ceased to exist. Jimmy attends Martha Graham Academy, a more liberal setting with a focus on the humanities. Even though Crake is fundamental to the story, his character is never fully developed, and he proves to be more of an instrument for the plot.

As the gap between the friends grows, and time passes, Jimmy does little more than hold menial employment and seduce women. The naïve Jimmy finally reconnects with Crake, who employs him. Crake reveals that he is altering human embryos to eliminate their faulty features; in a sense, Crake is playing a godlike role. Jimmy also comes into contact with Oryx, a captivating woman whom Jimmy recognizes from pornography. Oryx imparts snippets of her life to Jimmy, although she remains a hazy figure throughout.

Finally, it is revealed that the apocalyptic event was not a nuclear war; the cause was a potent and fatal plague. When the deadly virus took hold, it spanned the earth from Hong Kong to Toronto. Snowman perpetuates the myth of Oryx and Crake to keep the green-eyed mutants alive. At the end of the novel, there is a suggestion that a new humanity has evolved; the Crakers may be exhibiting some of the traits that Crake had attempted to eliminate in them, such as the desire to lead or to organize religion.

In this cautionary tale, Atwood manages to keep the reader riveted with her careful use of dark humor and asides. The author is known for her ability to create authentic female voices in her novels; in Oryx and Crake, she manages to construct a realistic male voice and to convey both the twisted emotional environment in which he matured and a society propelled by commercialism, pornography, and technology.

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