Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Margaret Atwood 1939–-

(Born Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, and author of children's books.

International acclaimed as a poet, novelist, and short story writer, Atwood is recognized as a major figure in Canadian letters. Using such devices as irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators, she explores the relationship between humanity and nature, the dark side of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and politics. Popular with both literary scholars and the reading public, Atwood has helped to define and identify the goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues.

Biographical Information

Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. She began to write while in high school, contributing poetry, short stories, and cartoons to the school newspaper. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Atwood was influenced by critic Northrop Frye, who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. In 1961 she published her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone. Atwood completed her A.M. degree in 1962 at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. She returned to Toronto in 1963, where she began collaborating with artist Charles Pachter, who designed and illustrated several volumes of her poetry. In 1964 Atwood moved to Vancouver, where she taught English at the University of British Columbia for a year and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman. After a year of teaching Victorian and American literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1967, Atwood began teaching creative writing at the University of Alberta while continuing to write and publish poetry. After the publication of her poetry collection Power Politics in 1971, she left a teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm near Alliston, Ontario. Atwood received the Governor General's Award in 1986 for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, which was published that same year. She continues to be a prominent voice in Canada's cultural and political life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In her short fiction, Atwood specializes in revealing unexpected, often unsettling aspects of the human personality and behavior normally hidden by social conventions. However, her narrative voice has been described as distanced and unemotional, and her characters as two-dimensional representations of ideas rather than fully rounded individuals. Her stories, like her poems, often pivot on a single symbolic object: a visit to a Mayan sacrificial well in “The Resplendent Quetzal,” a plane crash in “A Travel Piece,” and the bizarre amorous behavior of a foreign student in “The Man from Mars,” all serve as catalysts for her protagonists' confrontations with their conflicted inner selves. More loosely structured than her poems or novels, Atwood's stories nonetheless bear her novels' trademarks of careful plotting and concise use of language. More notably, her short fiction shares with her other works Atwood's common theme of personal identity in conflict with society. In her first collection of short fiction, Dancing Girls, the title refers to the leading characters of the stories, women who obligingly dance repressive, stereotyped roles assigned to them by a male-dominated society rather than following their inner desires. Atwood portrays patriarchal social systems as oppressive and damaging to the individual psyche and her male characters as often malevolent or emotionally withdrawn. The typical heroine of Atwood's stories is intelligent, urbane, and discontented, alienated from her true nature as well as her environment. In later collections, such as Murder in the Dark and Bluebeard's Egg, she often incorporates autobiographical material into her stories.

Critical Reception

Although for the most part Atwood's story collections have met with critical favor, some reviewers note that Atwood's short fiction is of uneven quality and is secondary to her novels and poetry. Other critics maintain that her stories retain much of the wit and penetrating insight of her longer works of fiction while displaying the same compelling imagery found in her poetry. Reviewers have detected the significant influence of the German fairy tales of Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm on her work, and several commentators assert that much of her writing has been inspired by her studies of North American and European folklore and Gothic fiction. Moreover, her fiction has often been compared to another critically and commercially popular Canadian author, Alice Munro. In general Atwood's stories have earned positive attention and are regarded as further evidence of her prodigious literary talent.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Dancing Girls, and Other Stories 1977

Bluebeard's Egg 1983

Murder in the Dark 1983

Wilderness Tips 1991

Good Bones and Simple Murders 1992

Double Persephone (poetry) 1961

The Circle Game (poetry) 1966

The Animals in That Country (poetry) 1968

The Edible Woman (novel) 1969

The Journals of Susanna Moodie (poetry) 1970

Procedures for Underground (poetry) 1970

Power Politics (poetry) 1971

Surfacing (novel) 1972

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (criticism) 1972

You Are Happy (poetry) 1974

Lady Oracle (novel) 1976

Selected Poems 1976

Life before Man (novel) 1978

Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978

Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978

True Stories (poetry) 1981

Bodily Harm (novel) 1982

Second Words (criticism) 1982

Interlunar (poetry) 1984

The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1986

Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986 (poetry) 1987

Cat's Eye (novel) 1990

The Robber Bride (novel) 1993

Morning in the Burned House (poetry) 1995

Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (criticism) 1995

Alias Grace (novel) 1996

Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 (poetry) 1998

Blind Assassin (novel) 2000

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (essays) 2001

Sherrill Grace (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Versions of Reality,” in Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, edited by Ken Norris, Véhicule Press, 1980, pp. 79–86.

[In the following excerpt, Grace finds parallels between Atwood's stories and her poetry and assesses the merits and weaknesses of the stories in Dancing Girls.]

Jeannie isn't real in the same way that I am real. But by now, and I mean your time, both of us will have the same degree of reality, we will be equal: wraiths, echoes, reverberations in your own brain.

(“Giving birth,” DG, p. 242)

The price of this version of reality was testing the other one.

(EW, p. 271)

In an effort to distinguish between creating a poem and a novel, Atwood has remarked:

You can talk about it, but not very successfully. A poem is something you hear, and the primary focus of interest is words. A novel is something you see, and the primary focus of interest is people.1

Distinctions between poetry and prose can become gratuitous, nowhere more so than with Margaret Atwood. Her poems need to be seen on the page as well as heard, while the power of language in her best prose is fully realized when read aloud. Indeed, I am most struck with what George Woodcock calls the “capillary links between her poetry, her fiction (and) her criticism.”2

Despite the larger structure of narrative, her stories and novels resemble her poems not only in theme and symbol, but in tone, point of view and voice. As we have seen, many of the poems have a duplistic structure. A comparable sense of counter-weighted settings and the use of doubled or split characters are pervasive in the fiction as well. Atwood further neutralizes the distinction between prose and poetry by frequently writing poem sequences (as well as prose poems), thereby capturing the element of continuity expected in fiction.

On the basis of the stories and the three novels about to be considered, some generalizations can be made, however, about the type of fiction Atwood writes. The people in her fictional world are less the three-dimensional realistic characters of the traditional English novel than the types associated with romance. To some extent, this is a function of point of view, for each of the novels has a first person narrator tightly enclosed within a limited perspective. Quite naturally, then, perception of others will be one-sided. But even the narrators remain aloof from the reader and this sense of two-dimensionality results in large part from the cool, acerbic nature of the narrative itself. Atwood's stories, and even more so her novels, are highly plotted, often fantastic, her intention being to focus our attention upon the significance of event and pattern.

The importance of plot, together with the emphasis placed on symbol, is consistent with Atwood's view of literature in general, of language and her view of the self. A novel is not intended to simply reflect the objective world, but to offer us a mirror in which we may detect the shapes and patterns of our experience. Language itself is dangerous and deceptive; hence, the constant stretching and probing of words in the fiction (as in the poetry) until one senses that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. Finally, Atwood's contention that the self is a place, not an ego, a view to which I return in subsequent discussion, rules out the portrayal of character in the Jamesian or Faulknerian sense; nowhere yet has Atwood given us a rounded personality, a firm sense of the self, such as I find in Margaret Laurence's Morag Gunn. Atwood's fiction is written in what I call a mixed style combining realist and romance elements. It is a style well suited to the exploration of the contingency of life, the nature of language, and the duplicity of human perception.


Dancing Girls is a selection of representative stories which Atwood has written over thirteen years.3 All but three of the fourteen stories have been published before; the earliest “The War in the Bathroom” appeared in James Reaney's Alphabet in 1964. “Training,” “Dancing Girls” and “Giving Birth” are new. In general, the stories are of mixed quality, but I feel that none of them places Atwood in the first ranks of modern short-story writers like Bernard Malamud, Doris Lessing, or closer to home, Sinclair Ross, Alice Munro, and Clark Blaise.

The stories lack variety as individual pieces while, at the same time, they do not cohere as a collection or a unit in the way that several other collections by Canadian writers do.4 One characteristic which they have in common is the disturbing, inconclusive ending. While this is effective, especially in “The War in the Bathroom” and “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” so many of the stories end in uncertainty that the sense of being left dangling becomes exasperating. This type of conclusion mars otherwise interesting stories such as “Polarities,” “A Travel Piece,” or “Training”—something of urgent significance, I feel, almost shines through only to be finally obscured; the irony fails.

A second quality that each story shares is the confessional/autobiographical focus, not necessarily of Atwood herself, but on the part of her fictional characters. They are, for the most part, stories of the self, involving crises of perception and identity either within the individual psyche (“The War in the Bathroom,” “When It Happens,” “Giving Birth”) or arising from encounters between men and women (“Polarities,” “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” “Hair Jewellery,” “The Resplendent Quetzal”). These problems of identity and perception are recurrent, central themes in Atwood's work, and while they have been treated masterfully in short story form—Lessing's “Our Friend Judith” for example—Atwood has greater success with these themes in her...

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Gregory Houghton (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Margaret Atwood: Some Observations and Textual Considerations,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 85–92.

[In the following essay, Houghton analyzes Atwood's attempt to construct meaning by drawing attention to and highlighting the “process of exclusion in everyday experience, by focusing upon the inadequacies and illusions of overt fabrications.”]

Margaret Atwood's presentation of a public self remains enigmatic, elusive and contradictory. She self-consciously refuses all the diverse personas that have been foisted upon her, working hard at escaping the net of our expectations. Her interviews are fascinating...

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Lee Briscoe Thompson (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood's ‘Dancing Girls,’” in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson, Anansi, 1981, pp. 107–22.

[In the following essay, Thompson offers a detailed survey of the stories in Dancing Girls.]

Two-headed poems; polarities, mythic reversals: it may be from Margaret Atwood's own delight in oppositions and strong contradictions that critics often take their cue. One notices, at any rate, a tendency for commentators to deplore or dwell exclusively upon the clinical chill, the frightening detachment in Atwood's poetry, at the same time as they often criticize her...

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Frank Davey (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Short Stories,” in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics, Talonbooks, 1984, pp. 128–52.

[In the following essay, Davey discusses recurring themes in Atwood's short fiction.]


Atwood's short fiction contains some of her most successful prose outside Life Before Man and the prose poems of Murder in the Dark. For Atwood, the short story always has the iconic potential of poetry—to be oblique and enigmatic, to be a language structure of intrinsic attraction rather than one dependent on the action it narrates. It has the potential, in short, to act in the implicit way of ‘female’ language rather...

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Frank Davey (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alternate Stories: The Short Fiction of Audrey Thomas and Margaret Atwood,” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 109, Summer, 1986, pp. 5–14.

[In the following essay, Davey considers ways in which Atwood's characters cope with reality by viewing it through fictional frameworks.]

She knew now that almost certainly, whenever she saw a street musician, either he was blind or lame or leprous or there was a terribly deformed creature, just out of sight, on behalf of whom he was playing his music.1

Short stories have often focused on a character's discovery of a second perspective on experience, as in...

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Bonnie Lyons (review date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1987, p. 312.

[In the following positive review of Bluebeard's Egg, Lyons asserts that the “stories have many virtues and sources of interest, including the revelations about Atwood's biography, the exploration of her major themes and motifs, and not least of all, their excellence as stories.”]

In “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” the first story of this collection, the narrator recalls a key childhood anecdote about bunny rabbit cookies. Offered a wonderful cookie shaped like a bunny rabbit and decorated with a face and...

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Mona Knapp (review date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 629.

[In the following review, Knapp offers a negative assessment of Bluebeard's Egg.]

As much as The Handmaid's Tale was a minor literary sensation which marked Atwood's move to international prominence, her second collection of short fiction is patently unsensational. With the exception of two stories new to the American edition, the volume appeared already in 1983 in Canada. Two-thirds of the stories, in addition, have been featured previously in Harper's and other magazines, making their reappearance under one cover as much a...

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Nancy J. Peterson (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Bluebeard's Egg’: Not Entirely a ‘Grimm’ Tale,” in Margaret Atwood: Reflection and Reality, edited by Beatrice Mendez-Egle and James M. Haule, Pan American University, 1987, pp. 131–38.

[In the following essay, Peterson evaluates the influence of legends and fairy tales on Atwood's short fiction.]

In a 1977 interview, Margaret Atwood speculated that her childhood reading led to the emphasis on evolution and transformation evident in her adult fiction. As a child, Atwood said, she read legends, fairy tales, and religious stories, all involving “miraculous changes of shape” (Sandler 14). The influence of these tales on Atwood's fiction is a...

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Russell Brown (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Atwood's Sacred Wells (Dancing Girls, poetry, and Surfacing),” in Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood, edited by Judith McCombs, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 213–29.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the recurring images in Atwood's work, focusing on how they function in her fiction and poetry.]

“Think about pools.”

There is a Margaret Atwood story—“The Resplendent Quetzal”—which opens with a young Canadian woman in Mexico, sitting at the edge of a sacrificial well. The well is an unprepossessing relic of an ancient civilization, now reduced to an object at which...

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Ildikó de Papp Carrington (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Definitions of a Fool: Alice Munro's ‘Walking on Water’ and Margaret Atwood's Two Stories about Emma: ‘The Whirlpool Rapids’ and ‘Walking on Water,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 138–46.

[In the following essay, Carrington finds parallels between Alice Munro's “Walking on Water” and Margaret Atwood's “The Whirlpool Rapids” and “Walking on Water.”]

In 1974 Alice Munro published “Walking on Water” in Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You. In 1986 Margaret Atwood also published a short story entitled “Walking on Water.” Appearing originally in Chatelaine, it was...

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Sandra Nelson (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Blood Taboo: A Response to Margaret Atwood's ‘Lives of the Poets’,” in Mid-American Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1992, pp. 111–15.

[In the following essay, Nelson considers the poetic language of Atwood's “Lives of the Poets.”]

I am a poet and represent an interpretive community of poets when I read. When I read the name Margaret Atwood as the author of a story, I know I am about to read words which I will interpret as poetic. I read Atwood's line, “An ice cube would be nice. Image of the Coke-and-ice” (“Lives of the Poets” 183). I will read it to myself aloud creating the poetry I expect. I pick “ice,” “nice,” and “Coke-and-ice.”...

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Peter Kemp (review date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Atwood Variations,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Kemp praises Good Bones as a “sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents.”]

Pocket-sized and with sturdy covers, Good Bones looks a bit like a sketchbook in which an artist might jot caricatures, cartoons, preliminary studies, trial pieces and quick little exercises in catching the essence of a subject or delineating it from unusual angles. The miscellany with which Margaret Atwood fills its pages is, in fact, a writer's equivalent of this: a collection of lively verbal doodlings, smartly dashed off vignettes and images that...

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Neil Besner (review date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Poet's Bones,” in Canadian Literature, Vols. 138–139, Fall, 1993, pp. 105–06

[In the following laudatory review of Good Bones, Besner deems the stories in the collection as “fictions for our time, and, arguably, fictions that show Atwood's narrative talents at their finest.”]

Because Atwood is a better poet than a fiction writer, I have always read her novels and short stories with grudging admiration. Yes, I teach The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman, and I recognize the ways in which these and other Atwood novels are exciting in the classroom and out of it, but I would much rather read, teach, talk about her poems....

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Isabel Carrera Suarez (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Yet I Speak, Yet I Exist’: Affirmation of the Subject in Atwood's Short Fiction,” in Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, New Critical Essays, edited by Colin Nicholson, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 230–47.

[In the following essay, Suarez traces the development of Atwood's narrative technique as evinced in her short fiction.]

Margaret Atwood's creative world, as has repeatedly been noted, possesses a coherence which spreads across genres, its motifs and structures recurring in different texts, whether fiction, poetry or essay. In a study published in 1983 Sherill E. Grace attempts to describe this coherence by defining Atwood's system with...

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Ursula K. Le Guin (review date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of Bimbos and Men's Bodies,” in The Washington Post Book World, Vol. 25, No. 3, January 8, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Le Guin provides a favorable assessment of Good Bones and Simple Murders.]

If you know any writers or would-be writers, give them this little book, with a bookmark at the piece called “The Page.” In a couple of hundred words it says more than all the dozens of how-to-write books say about the act of writing, the reality of it.

Margaret Atwood knows a lot about reality. Too much, maybe. She scares people. She doesn't respect the institutions of our civilization or the tender feelings of her readers. There is...

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Kathleen Wall (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Representing the Other Body: Frame Narratives in Margaret Atwood's ‘Giving Birth’ and Alice Munro's ‘Meneseteung,’” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 154, Autumn, 1997, pp. 74–90.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the portrayal of women as well as the narrative structures in Alice Munro's “Meneseteung” and Margaret Atwood's “Giving Birth.”]

When I think of the framed depiction of women's bodies, I cannot help thinking of the nineteenth-century nude, those women depicted by Ingres, Bonnard, Courbet, and Manet in their baths, their beds, their dressing rooms. Those paintings might be said to represent an iconography of what Simone de...

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Karen F. Stein (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Scarlet Ibises and Frog Songs: Short Fiction,” in Margaret Atwood Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1999, pp. 125–44.

[In the following essay, Stein offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Atwood's short fiction.]

Atwood's stories combine realism and whimsy, fairy tale, myth, and fantasy as they represent the lives of contemporary women and men struggling to cope with an often puzzling or difficult world. Many of the stories contain striking symbols that stand in dramatic counterpoint to the routine or dulled lives of the characters. These short fictions explore a range of situations, from playful or provocative meditations on language and on women's...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


McCombs, Judith and Carole L. Palmer. Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, 735 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography.


Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1998, 378 p.

Biography of Atwood.


Alvarez, Kate. Reviews of Surfacing and Good Bones. TLS: Times Literary Supplement (1 July 1994): 22.

Negative assessment of Good Bones.

Clute, John. “Embracing the Wilderness.” TLS No....

(The entire section is 423 words.)