Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

Internationally acclaimed as a novelist, poet, and short story writer, Atwood has emerged as a major figure in contemporary feminist writing. Through female protagonists and narrators who often journey from victimization to self-actualization, Atwood explores women's issues using elements of science fiction, historical fact, fairy tale, and dystopian vision.


Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. As a child she spent her summers at her family's cottage in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father, a forest entomologist, conducted research. 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. Impressed with Blake's use of mythological imagery, Atwood wrote her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, which was published in 1961. The following year Atwood completed her A.M. degree at Radcliffe College, 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 for a year at the University of British Columbia and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). After a year of teaching literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Atwood moved to Alberta to teach creative writing at the University of Alberta. Her poetry collection The Circle Game (1966) won the 1967 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Atwood's public visibility increased significantly with the publication of the poetry collection Power Politics in 1971. Seeking an escape from increasing media attention, Atwood left her teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm in Ontario with her husband. In 1986 she again received the Governor General's Award for her novel The Handmaid's Tale.


Most of Atwood's fiction and poetry concerns women's issues on some level, but her novel The Handmaid's Tale has generated the most feminist commentary. The story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early twenty-first century, after Christian fundamentalists have transformed the United States into a fascistic theocracy called Gilead. Birth rates are down in the post-nuclear age of Gilead, so Handmaids—women who are fertile—are designated as sexual slaves to produce offspring for childless couples considered morally fit to raise children. Women in Gilead are not allowed to read, hold jobs, or have money. Narrated by a young Handmaid named Offred—or Of Fred, the man to whom she belongs—the novel is considered a powerful dystopian vision of anti-feminist totalitarianism. The protagonist of Atwood's next novel, Cat's Eye (1990), Elaine Risley, is a controversial middle-aged painter who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. The trip triggers unexpected memories and emotions for Elaine, particularly thoughts of Cordelia, a childhood friend to whom Elaine was attracted despite the girl's extreme cruelty. The story is a nonlinear telling of Elaine's confrontation of her past, specifically her complex and difficult friendship with Cordelia, and the ways in which women routinely betray one another. In The Robber Bride (1993) Atwood transforms the grisly Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Robber Bridegroom," about a demonic groom who lures three innocent maidens into his lair and then devours them, into another statement about women's treatment of each other. Three middle-aged friends are relieved to reunite at the funeral of the woman who tormented them in college, stealing from them money, time, and men, and threatening their careers and lives. But the villainous Zenia turns up alive, forcing them to relive painful memories and come to terms with the connection between love and destruction. In earlier novels such as The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle (1976), Atwood used sarcastic wit and irony to explore the masks women wear to impress men. In her essays and criticism she often discusses the difficulties of being a woman writer and the challenge of developing meaningful female and male characters.


Atwood's works have achieved both wide popular readership and much critical attention. Criticism has tended to focus on her political and social views as they are represented in her works, most notably her feminism, of which she has spoken frequently in interviews. Because her works often portray physical and psychological violence in relationships between men and women, some commentators have labeled Atwood pessimistic and dismissed her as little more than an ideologue, but other critics have hailed her as a visionary interpreter of contemporary feminist thought.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

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 (poetry) 1976

Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (short stories) 1977

Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978

Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978

Life before Man (novel) 1979

True Stories (poetry) 1981

Bodily Harm (novel) 1982

Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (criticism) 1982

Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) 1983

Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (short stories and poetry) 1983

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

Wilderness Tips (short stories) 1991

Good Bones (short stories) 1992

The Robber Bride (novel) 1993

The Blind Assassin (novel) 2001

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (essays) 2002

Oryx and Crake (novel) 2003

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Atwood, Margaret. "On Being a 'Woman Writer': Paradoxes and Dilemmas." In Second Words, pp. 190-204. Toronto, Can.: Anansi Press Limited, 1982.

In the following essay, Atwood explores the difficulties of being considered a "woman writer."

I approach this article with a good deal of reluctance. Once having promised to do it, in fact, I've been procrastinating to such an extent that my own aversion is probably the first subject I should attempt to deal with. Some of my reservations have to do with the questionable value of writers, male or female, becoming directly involved in political movements of any sort: their involvement may be good for the movement, but it has yet to be demonstrated that it's good for the writer. The rest concern my sense of the enormous complexity not only of the relationships between Man and Woman, but also of those between those other abstract intangibles, Art and Life, Form and Content, Writer and Critic, etcetera.

Judging from conversations I've had with many other woman writers in this country, my qualms are not unique. I can think of only one writer I know who has any formal connection with any of the diverse organizations usually lumped together under the titles of Women's Liberation or the Women's Movement. There are several who have gone out of their way to disavow even any fellow-feeling; but the usual attitude is one of grudging admiration, tempered with envy: the younger generation, they feel, has it a hell of a lot better than they did. Most writers old enough to have a career of any length behind them grew up when it was still assumed that a woman's place was in the home and nowhere else, and that anyone who took time off for an individual selfish activity like writing was either neurotic or wicked or both, derelict in her duties to a man, child, aged relatives or whoever else was supposed to justify her existence on earth. I've heard stories of writers so consumed by guilt over what they had been taught to feel was their abnormality that they did their writing at night, secretly, so no one would accuse them of failing as housewives, as "women." These writers accomplished what they did by themselves, often at great personal expense; in order to write at all, they had to defy other women's as well as men's ideas of what was proper, and it's not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women—some younger and relatively unscathed, others from their own generation, the bunch that was collecting china, changing diapers and sneering at any female with intellectual pretensions twenty or even ten years ago—come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along. It's like being judged innocent after you've been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim. There's a great temptation to say to Womens' Lib, "Where were you when I really needed you?" or "It's too late for me now." And you can see, too, that it would be fairly galling for these writers, if they have any respect for historical accuracy, which most do, to be hailed as products, spokeswomen, or advocates of the Women's Movement. When they were undergoing their often drastic formative years there was no Women's Movement. No matter that a lot of what they say can be taken by the theorists of the Movement as supporting evidence, useful analysis, and so forth: their own inspiration was not theoretical, it came from wherever all writing comes from. Call it experience and imagination. These writers, if they are honest, don't want to be wrongly identified as the children of a movement that did not give birth to them. Being adopted is not the same as being born.

A third area of reservation is undoubtedly a fear of the development of a one-dimensional Feminist Criticism, a way of approaching literature produced by women that would award points according to conformity or non-conformity to an ideological position. A feminist criticism is, in fact, already emerging. I've read at least one review, and I'm sure there have been and will be more, in which a novelist was criticized for not having made her heroine's life different, even though that life was more typical of the average woman's life in this society than the reviewer's "liberated" version would have been. Perhaps Women's Lib reviewers will start demanding that heroines resolve their difficulties with husband, kids, or themselves by stomping out to join a consciousness raising group, which will be no more satisfactory from the point of view of literature than the legendary Socialist Realist romance with one's tractor. However, a feminist criticism need not necessarily be one-dimensional. And—small comfort—no matter how narrow, purblind and stupid such a criticism in its lowest manifestations may be, it cannot possibly be more narrow, pur-blind and stupid than some of the non-feminist critical attitudes and styles that have preceded it.

There's a fourth possible factor, a less noble one: the often observed phenomenon of the member of a despised social group who manages to transcend the limitations imposed on the group, at least enough to become "successful." For such a person the impulse—whether obeyed or not—is to disassociate him/herself from the group and to side with its implicit opponents. Thus the Black millionaire who deplores the Panthers, the rich Québecois who is anti-Separatist, the North American immigrant who changes his name to an "English" one; thus, alas, the Canadian writer who makes it, sort of, in New York, and spends many magazine pages decrying provincial dull Canadian writers; and thus the women with successful careers who say "I've never had any problems, I don't know what they're talking about." Such a woman tends to regard herself, and to be treated by her male colleagues, as a sort of honorary man. It's the rest of them who are inept, brainless, tearful self-defeating: not her. "You think like a man," she is told, with admiration and unconscious put-down. For both men and women, it's just too much of a strain to fit together the traditionally incompatible notions of "woman" and "good at something." And if you are good at something, why carry with you the stigma attached to that dismal category you've gone to such lengths to escape from? The only reason for rocking the boat is if you're still chained to the oars. Not everyone reacts like this, but this factor may explain some of the more hysterical opposition to Women's Lib on the part of a few woman writers, even though they may have benefitted from the Movement in the form of increased sales and more serious attention.

A couple of ironies remain; perhaps they are even paradoxes. One is that, in the development of modern Western civilization, writing was the first of the arts, before painting, music, composing, and sculpting, which it was possible for women to practice; and it was the fourth of the job categories, after prostitution, domestic service and the stage, and before wide-scale factory work, nursing, secretarial work, telephone operating and school teaching, at which it was possible for them to make any money. The reason for both is the same: writing as a physical activity is private. You do it by yourself, on your own time; no teachers or employers are involved, you don't have to apprentice in a studio or work with musicians. Your only business arrangements are with your publisher, and these can be conducted through the mails; your real "employers" can be deceived, if you choose, by the adoption of an assumed (male) name; witness the Brontës and George Eliot. But the private and individual nature of writing may also account for the low incidence of direct involvement by woman writers in the Movement now. If you are a writer, prejudice against women will affect you as a writer not directly but indirectly. You won't suffer from wage discrimination, because you aren't paid any wages; you won't be hired last and fired first, because you aren't hired or fired anyway. You have relatively little to complain of, and, absorbed in your own work as you are likely to be, you will find it quite easy to shut your eyes to what goes on at the spool factory, or even at the university. Paradox: reason for involvement then equals reason for non-involvement now.

Another paradox goes like this. As writers, woman writers are like other writers. They have the same professional concerns, they have to deal with the same contracts and publishing procedures, they have the same need for solitude to work and the same concern that their work be accurately evaluated by reviewers. There is nothing "male" or "female" about these conditions; they are just attributes of the activity known as writing. As biological specimens and as citizens, however, women are like other women: subject to the same discriminatory laws, encountering the same demeaning attitudes, burdened with the same good reasons for not walking through the park alone after dark. They too have bodies, the capacity to bear children; they eat, sleep and bleed, just like everyone else. In bookstores and publishers' offices and among groups of other writers, a woman writer may get the impression that she is "special;" but in the eyes of the law, in the loan office or bank, in the hospital and on the street she's just another woman. She doesn't get to wear a sign to the grocery store saying "Respect me, I'm a Woman Writer." No matter how good she may feel about herself, strangers who aren't aware of her shelf-full of nifty volumes with cover blurbs saying how gifted she is will still regard her as a nit.

We all have ways of filtering out aspects of our experience we would rather not think about. Woman writers can keep as much as possible to the "writing" end of their life, avoiding the less desirable aspects of the "woman" end. Or they can divide themselves in two, thinking of themselves as two different people: a "writer" and a "woman." Time after time, I've had interviewers talk to me about my writing for a while, then ask me, "As a woman, what do you think about—for instance—the Women's Movement," as if I could think two sets of thoughts about the same thing, one set as a writer or person, the other as a woman. But no one comes apart this easily; categories like Woman, White, Canadian, Writer are only ways of looking at a thing, and the thing itself is whole, entire and indivisible. Paradox: Woman and Writer are separate categories; but in any individual woman writer, they are inseparable.

One of the results of the paradox is that there are certain attitudes, some overt, some concealed, which women writers encounter as writers, but because they are women. I shall try to deal with a few of these, as objectively as I can. After that, I'll attempt a limited personal statement.

A. Reviewing and the Absence of an Adequate Critical Vocabulary

Cynthia Ozick, in the American magazine Ms., says, "For many years, I had noticed that no book of poetry by a woman was ever reviewed without reference to the poet's sex. The curious thing was that, in the two decades of my scrutiny, there were no exceptions whatever. It did not matter whether the reviewer was a man or a woman; in every case, the question of the 'feminine sensibility' of the poet was at the centre of the reviewer's response. The maleness of male poets, on the other hand, hardly ever seemed to matter."

Things aren't this bad in Canada, possibly because we were never fully indoctrinated with the Holy Gospel according to the distorters of Freud. Many reviewers manage to get through a review without displaying the kind of bias Ozick is talking about. But that it...

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General Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Goldblatt, Patricia F. "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists." World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 275-82.

In the following essay, Goldblatt discusses the transformation of Atwood's female protagonists "from ingenues to insightful women."

A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of color, shape, and form. An author's work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture. Each smacks of...

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Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World." ARIEL 22, no. 4 (October 1991): 17-27.

In the following essay, Ingersoll explores the postmodern implications of the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye.

Although one finds evidence of postmodernism in the manipulation of popular forms such as the Gothic in Lady Oracle and science fiction in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye is Margaret Atwood's first full-fledged "postmodern" work. Always the wily evader of...

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Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Blakely, Barbara. "The Pronunciation of the Flesh: A Feminist Reading of Margaret Atwood's Poetry." In Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System, edited by Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir, pp. 33-51. Vancouver, Can.: University of British Columbia Press, 1983.

Examines the notion of identity in Atwood's poetry.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Draws on feminist and psychoanalytic theory to examine...

(The entire section is 568 words.)