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.
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.
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.