Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Eleanor) - Essay


(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 fiction—Surfacing, 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 because the narrator is fully individualized, and, even as she considers that ultimate defence of Atwood's heroines, withdrawal and a retreat from all pain, she shows an appealing sense of humor. In 'The Grave of the Famous Poet,' on the other hand, the central situation is simply never brought to life. The story portrays the typical Atwood battle: the characters fight for the role of victim, establish a truce, resume the battle. The format is familiar, but we never really see the characters; they never become individualized, realized, alive. (pp. 329-30)

'The Resplendant Quetzal,' one of the finer stories in the book, has a mellow tone unusual in Atwood, and while the story may lack the sheer...

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Tom Marshall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atwood is a swimmer. The familiar Canadian "underwater" motif, the notion of the self and Canada itself trapped underwater like Atlantis, occurs in the first poems of her first full collection and is repeated throughout her work, reaching a kind of climax in the novel Surfacing. The notions of inner order and outer space, garrison and wilderness, the issue of perspective and of the ways of seeing also recur, as they do in the work of Avison, Page and numerous other writers. Like Al Purdy and others, she has a concern for ancestors and for evolution, even for the geological past. There is the familiar Canadian identification with animals and a sense of fierce native gods. There is both social satire and an interest in the metaphysics of landscape, as in the work of P. K. Page…. [But] Atwood utilizes Canadian traditions in an apparently more conscious way than most writers of her generation. She taps Canadian culture's most important concerns. And she brings to traditional materials her own sensibility, her own way of saying things: the famous cool, apparently detached tone, the canny disposition of loaded words in short, punchy lines without much heightening of rhythm. It is a style highly distinctive both in its limitations and its strengths. Atwood attempts, for better and/or worse, and certainly to her immediate advantage with readers, to clarify what is complex and difficult, to get right to what she regards as the essential point.

Metaphysics and metaphor: the search for ways in which to find one's whole self, to find identity with one's body, one's instincts, one's country—in this emotional pioneering Atwood moves to the centre of national concerns. (pp. 154-55)

The Journals of Susanna Moodie enlarges upon the national theme; as a poem sequence it enlarges Atwood's scope and is highly successful, indeed an advance on her two earlier books [The Circle Game and The Animals in That Country], which were uneven though often striking. In the person and experience of Susanna Moodie the poet finds an appropriate objective correlative for her own thoughts and emotions. The book is both personal and objective, both nationalist and universal in its metaphysical enquiry….

Procedures for Underground presents family poems, the deep well of childhood memories, the bush, Canada under water, the descent into the earth to recover the wisdom of the spirits of place, alienation in cities, travel, and marriage. It is a quieter book of individual poems with a quieter and, for some, a more enduring appeal than the one that follows. Power Politics is, as they say, something else again—an account of grim sexual warfare that restores all the Atwood bite and mordant humour. It makes surreal black comedy out of the historic difficulties of women and the destructive games, projections and illusions of modern lovers in a world built on war and the destruction of the environment. But in You Are Happy, which can be regarded as a kind of sequel, the Atwood protagonist moves forward toward a new country of relationship without false hopes, promises, defences, evasions, mythologies. The singularity, the uniqueness of things, of people, in the flux: this is something nameless, beyond language, as in Surfacing. One gives oneself to the flux. (p. 157)

Her first two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, are enlargements upon the themes of her poems. In each of them a young woman is driven to rebellion against what seems to be her fate in the modern...

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Sherrill Grace

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Atwood has remarked that her poetic tradition is Canadian…. [Her nearest of kin] are James Reaney and, possibly, Jay Macpherson. (p. 129)

Influenced by Frye, both Reaney and Macpherson believe in the power of the imagination to create autonomous poetic worlds. Atwood, while celebrating the imagination, often in disturbing images that recall, for example, Reaney's The Red Heart … or Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster …, is aware of its dangers. In her poetry physical reality constantly assails imagination, challenging its proud autonomy so that the poet must adopt an ironic eye and an ambivalent attitude towards both realms. Atwood further resembles Reaney in the emphasis she...

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David Macfarlane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most obvious and compelling strength of True Stories is that, like much of Atwood's verse, it seems to grow naturally and with ease from a personal vision no less articulate for its privacy. Reading Atwood has always been like following a guide's brilliant flashlight through an eerie but not entirely unfamiliar cellar. In True Stories the guide has emerged to the light of day only to find the world no less frightening a place. Gestures of love and family and day-to-day life jive in a danse macabre with the incomprehensible and chaotic lunges of poverty, torture, and imprisonment. Familiar and foreign become indistinct, and Atwood's remarkable sensibility finds itself the choreographer of two strange partners….

In many ways, True Stories is a collection of anti-travel poems, dismissing our assumptions of both home and away as facile and ridiculous. "The palm trees on the reverse / are a delusion," she writes on a postcard, and one senses that Atwood is bent on decrying a great many delusions, about herself as much as anything else….

Throughout the collection the juxtaposition of false tranquillity and real terror weave irony after bitter irony. Ever the most gruesome poems—"Torture," "A Women's Issue," and "Spelling"—possess a grim, sardonic awareness of the cruel and absurd co-existence of love and hate. Poverty and affluence are seen as torturously entangled as the pleasures of sensuality and the pain of rape. The two worlds meet in a place that Atwood maps out in one of the most disturbing and potent poems in the book, "Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written."…

If there is not much that is pretty here, there is a great deal that is beautiful. Atwood's language and understanding of the power of language work together in careful harmonies. At times the effect is, like a chant, magical….

Margaret Atwood has a level-headed sense of compassion that strips all the potential radical chic and romantic fashionability from the causes she espouses. She does not react to issues so much as create them, finding them within herself. Even the subtle humour she employs is used to keep any nonsense from creeping into her poetry…. True Stories is a remarkable book.

David Macfarlane, "A Terrible Beauty," in Books in Canada, Vol. 10. No. 3, March, 1981, p. 10.

Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[True Stories] is centred on Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written, a sequence about present-day torture and the brutality of the past…. At moments, Atwood seems damaged by her own security; unable to shut her eyes on "darkness, drowned history," she knows prison cells and death camps by a recurrent ache of the imagination. Some poems are painful to read, for she doesn't flinch from showing us the methods and effects of evil….

Not all her poems are explicitly political, though many inhabit a borderland between private and public unease. As ever, Atwood moves with brilliant fluency from objects to emotions; her ideas often take shape and force from sharp physical details such as "cooking steak or bruised lips" and "mouthpink light." That famous cool intelligence can be sardonic with a vengeance…. In True Stories, however, the abrasiveness is subdued by tenderness, a surprising vulnerability and her consciousness of our need for love (an impossible word to define, an impossible word to do without). It's a measure of Atwood's stature as a poet that the sheer excellence of the writing can be almost taken for granted. Because it is blooded by political comment, True Stories may not be one of her most immediately appealing books of poetry, but it's among her best. (p. 52)

Mark Abley, "Bitter Wisdom of Moral Concern," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 13, March 30, 1981, pp. 52-3.∗

George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Much] of True Stories consists of a kind of poetic actuality, a continuing oblique comment on the world that is our here and now. It is perhaps the best verse Atwood has written, honed down to a stark directness, an accuracy of sound, yet imbued with the visual luminosity that makes poetry more than a verbal exercise. It tells us not only of the abdication of reason, but also of the tyranny of the senses and the cruel proximity of violence and love.

One of the striking aspects of True Stories, which it shares with much of the poetry in Atwood's previous volume Two-Headed Poems, is the metamorphic process by which thoughts merge into sensations, so that the mind seems imprisoned...

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Judith Fitzgerald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Bodily Harm is a gripping and horrific narrative (complete with CIA and spy vs. spy reinforcement) it is not merely a suspense-filled adventure thriller set in the Caribbean for an added touch of exotic flair. It is the story of Rennie Wilson, an "options open" drifter who takes a seemingly harmless vacation in St. Antoine to escape the pressures and perversions of her life….

My first impulse was to dismiss the ineffectual and introspective hold that Rennie has on her life, but nothing is that simple, a fact that becomes all too clear as Rennie attempts to escape from an essentially middle-class environment. The novel possesses the unrelenting sub-surface terror of Under the...

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Linda W. Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Margaret Atwood, life is quest, and her writing—particularly her poetry—is the charting of that journey. Atwood's journey is seldom geographical…. Unlike Charles Olson, Atwood does not dwell on location, physical presence, details of place. Her search is instead a piercing interior exploration, driving through any personal self-consciousness into regions marked by primitive responses both violent and beautiful. Atwood is interested in the human condition, a condition which exists independent of sex; and she plays a variety of games in order to explore that condition fully.

The strategies Atwood uses in her poems are similar to those of her fiction: personae described in terms of such basic...

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Frank Davey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Margaret Atwood's new novel, Bodily Harm,… readers of her previous comic novels will find much that is familiar. Here again is the opposition between a superficial world of social convention and a subsurface one of unconscious will, physiological need and barbaric impulse. Again the narrative pattern is that of Shakespearean comedy—alienation from natural order (Rennie's Toronto career), followed by descent into a more primitive but healing reality (cancer and Caribbean violence), and finally some reestablishment of order (the concluding insight). Rennie, the point-of-view character, is another of the self-preoccupied female participants in intellectual Toronto that one encounters in The Edible...

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Eve Siegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[True Stories] is a worthy successor to [Atwood's] previous works. As in an earlier book of poetry, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the poet stakes a claim in the world against natural, human and inhuman forces of uncontained, inexplicable oppression….

Through a personae of professional torturers, seen as artistic poseurs, Atwood probes for clues to the insanity and irrationality that mock the life principle. Again, the truth varies and wavers, takes on plausible and implausible facades. In "Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written" (dedicated to poet Carolyn Forche, whom Atwood admires for her courage as a political journalist in El Salvador), her linguistic control and...

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Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bodily Harm, a constantly diverting novel, fairly breathes narrative grace and skill. (p. 1)

The novel has flaws. One is narrative design run riot. There are first-person sections, set in Canada, told in the past tense, with un-quote-marked dialogue; and there are third-person sections, set on St. Antoine, told in the present, with dialogue in quotes.

So far so clear: But one understands near the end that the first-person sections are being told by Rennie to Lora in the jail cell they share; and that this setting is also the justification for the several first-person passages from Lora's point of view—passages that have had the reader rapping the walls for...

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Dana Gioia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Atwood's Two-Headed Poems are full of interesting ideas, memorable images, and intelligent observations. She has a deep understanding of human motivation, and her poetry deals naturally with an intricate sort of psychology most poets ignore. Her poems are often painfully accurate when dealing with the relationships between men and women or mothers and daughters. And yet with all these strengths, Atwood is not an effective poet. She writes poetry with ideas and images, not with words; her diction lies dead on the page. Her poems have a conceptual and structural integrity, but the language itself does not create the heightened awareness one looks for in poetry. The problem centers in her rhythms, not...

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Julia O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Bodily Harm"] bristles with intelligence and is often so witty that I wondered why I wasn't enjoying it more. The trouble may lie with the tropes. These are clever but obtrusive and can make the story seem to be no more than a hook for hanging symbols on. Atwood's metaphors are deft, but there are just too many of them: almost anything can stand for something else. When Rennie's untidy lover fails to throw out empty containers and keeps glancing at her blouse, it is because Rennie has had a mastectomy and the blouse too is an empty container.

The mastectomy itself—bodily harm—prefigures worse to come and may be an emblem of the harms wreaked by the consumer society…. Reification is rampant....

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Nancy Ramsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, has one of current fiction's more detached voices. Her tone toward her characters reflects the nature of the characters themselves: women who are divided into separate personae—one half defined by the role they feel society has thrust upon them, the other, their true self (insecure and amorphous as it is) trying to break out. Like many other characters in recent fiction, their lives are directionless; they drift in and out of relationships and find little satisfaction in work. Atwood doesn't treat them as whole persons, but rather as fragmented parts of a human being. Consequently, it's often difficult for the reader to gather much sympathy for them—they're too much the...

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Linda Rolens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"In a way I admire her, she gets through the days." That is what Margaret Atwood's characters do—get through the days. In other stories by other writers, these characters would commit suicide or join support groups and we would be forced to recognize them as contemporary victims/heroines….

Margaret Atwood does not write that kind of story. She looks deeper and sees more clearly and she insists that the reader see as well. The stories in "Dancing Girls" are painful and subtle, for Atwood's characters do not thrash but suffer quietly in ways they do not quite understand. Most are women too alone to realize their own aloneness….

Each is unsure of herself as a woman, somehow...

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