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.