Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Eleanor)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret (Eleanor) Atwood 1939–

Canadian novelist, poet, critic, and short story writer.

Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone, in the early sixties, Margaret Atwood has been recognized as an outstanding poet. The publication of The Edible Woman several years later initiated her reputation as an important novelist—a reputation confirmed by her feminine quest novel, Surfacing, judged by many to be a contemporary classic. Although Atwood writes well in either form, most critics maintain that her true gift lies in poetic expression because of her spare, controlled, and direct style.

As a spokesperson for the culture and psyche of her native Canada and, also, for the feminist point of view, Atwood frequently uses dual themes and images. A favored combination is the search for identity coupled with a journey motif, especially a journey into the wilderness, such as the one outlined in an early collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Atwood advocates a return to a simpler, more natural way of life, in order to shed the roles imposed upon people by commercial culture. She aims to find the real, hidden self and to regain the lost past. This attempt to break out of role-playing, survive the accompanying pains, and establish relationships without illusions, is the basis for Dancing Girls and Other Stories and the novel, Bodily Harm. A recent collection of poetry, True Stories, also emphasizes the importance of self, bolstered by the instinct for survival. But despite her often solemn subject matter, Atwood infuses her writing with satiric wit, and both The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle are regarded as comic novels.

Although most of Atwood's writing has been widely acclaimed, there is one point upon which many critics agree: that her characterizations lack depth. Her males in particular are stereotypical, representing only negative and destructive elements. In addition, critics note that the constant re-use of her themes, images, and narrative styles has tended to make her work somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, such techniques as direct address, dramatic monologue, and the use of personal and historic events allow Atwood to achieve a uniquely personal style and voice. She has the ability to present the ordinary in extraordinary ways, giving the reader new options for reevaluating those things previously taken for granted.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)

R. P. Bilan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Atwood's first collection of short stories [Dancing Girls] … centres on the relationships between men and women…. Atwood writes mainly of the struggles between men and women, of painful failures and of equally painful readjustments. Atwood's women tend to suffer the most in these relationships; their male friends have affairs, or simply leave them, and the women have to shore up their defences just to get by…. [Atwood's stories] range in tone from cool detachment, to suppressed hysteria, to the lightly ironic and humorous. And Atwood's considerable ability as a poet is often evident in the stories in the vividness of phrasing and imagery. The use of suggestive imagery to convey meaning is in fact one of the most distinctive features of the best stories—'Under Glass' and 'Polarities,' for instance.

By the standard of Atwood's own best fictionSurfacing, that is—Dancing Girls is a reasonably good, but not major work. It may be unfair or even inappropriate to compare a collection of short stories with a novel, but none of the stories has the reach or depth of Surfacing . Further, many if not most short-story collections are of uneven quality, and Atwood's is no exception; her stories, it is true, do not differ radically in quality, but distinctions between them can be made. The stories of sexual politics, nearly all told in the first person from the woman's point of view, achieve varying degrees of success. 'Under Glass,' for instance, is successful...

(The entire section is 10,171 words.)