Margaret Atwood Margaret Atwood World Literature Analysis

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Margaret Atwood World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although she has written poetry, short stories, screenplays, and novels, Atwood’s work is remarkably consistent in content and theme. In spite of her international reputation, she remains resolutely Canadian in residence and in temperament. She has become more political and certainly is a writer of ideas, but, with the notable exceptions of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, she is not propagandistic and heavy-handed. Regardless of the genres in which she writes, Atwood is analytical, almost anatomical, in her dissection of characters and relationships. For the most part, hers is a landscape of the mind, although her writing is also rooted in geography, whether it be Toronto, the Canadian wilderness, or futuristic settings. In many ways, Survival, her literary criticism of Canadian literature, is a key not only to Canadian writers but also to Atwood herself. Much of her work is related to survival in an environment or relationship at once native and alien because, while ostensibly familiar, such contexts are also foreign to a character’s sense of wholeness. For the most part, her characters live defensively, creating superficial, ordered lives that enable them to live in modern urban settings, but there is another, darker side that they repress. That darker, irrational self is associated with the wilderness, with nature, in an almost Emersonian sense.

In her novels, Atwood’s protagonists are usually young women who have roots in the wilderness but who currently live in an arid urban (or suburban) environment characterized by materialism, consumerism, exploitation, and male chauvinism, all of which are seen as products of the United States. The landscapes, both literal and symbolic, of her novels shape the lives of her female characters, who are both women and products, objects in a society where everything is for sale. Ill at ease, uncomfortable, half-aware of their problems, they leave a society that ironically seems safe, despite the psychological and spiritual threats that it poses, for another environment, a more primitive and dangerous one; it is, nevertheless, a healing environment, because the journey, in Atwood’s novels, is mythical, psychological, and literal. In Surfacing, the protagonist travels to a wilderness island; in Bodily Harm, she goes to the Caribbean. In both cases, the new environment seems alien or foreign, but in the new environments the characters confront the realities that they had repressed and emerge or “surface” as re-created people. The healing process is spiritual, usually related to a culture seen as more primitive. In Surfacing, the Native American culture aids the heroine.

Part of the healing process concerns regaining control of one’s body and one’s language. In Edible Woman, the protagonist sends her lover a woman-shaped cake as a substitute for herself; in Surfacing, the narrator uses her lover to replace the baby she had aborted; and in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred flees her role as breeder. In the novels, Atwood equates language with power, and the protagonist must articulate her feelings in gender-bound language. For example, in Surfacing, language erodes as the narrator returns to the primitive, irrational side of her nature. By “reporting” their experiences, her protagonists gain power and expose the ruling culture.

In her fiction, Atwood uses language as a poet would; she uses puns (“Offred” is “of Fred,” but also “off red” with many meanings in The Handmaid’s Tale), images (particularly water), and recurrent motifs. Moreover, she is aware, and hence suspicious, of the limits of language, of the problem of narration and voice. Her Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (1983) explores the issue of writing and the relationship between writer and reader (in 2002 she addressed the nature of writing in her Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing ), but it also reflects the ease with which she moves from poetry to short fiction and blurs the...

(The entire section is 5,205 words.)