Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atwood, Margaret 1939–

Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, critic, and scriptwriter. At times nearly confessional in nature, hers is intensely personal poetry, praised for its imaginative imagery and striking detail. Elements of fantasy pervade her fiction and poetry alike. Atwood's tightly controlled, deceptively simple style allows her work an impact which Melvin Maddocks calls "the kick of a perfume bottle converted into a Molotov cocktail." (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Patricia Morley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You could call it an adventure thriller set in the wilds of northern Quebec. You could call it a detective story centering on the search for the main character's missing father. You could call it a psychological novel, a study of madness both individual and social. You could call it a religious novel which examines the origin and nature of the human lust to kill and destroy. You could call it any of these and I wouldn't quarrel. But you'd better call it a novel to be reckoned with, a step in the direction of that mythic creature, the Great Canadian Novel, whose siren song echoes mockingly in the ears of our writers. (p. 99)

[Margaret Atwood] said that it took a stay in Boston to make her realize she was a Canadian. This is interesting, in connection with a motif in [Surfacing] which might appear as anti-American until one examines it more closely. Americans tend to destroy what they can't eat or take home. Americans prefer powerboats to canoes, and build dams at the cost of flooding and killing the land. Come now, murmurs the voice of reason and fair play, Americans aren't the only ones who do these things. But it's okay, Atwood knows this too.

In Surfacing, the American is a metaphor of modern man in his most unlovable state: "It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning into". Eyes blank behind dark glasses, they...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Gloria Onley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature … Margaret Atwood argues that every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core: for America, the Frontier; for England, the Island; for Canada, Survival, la Survivance. In her Afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) she had previously diagnosed the national mental illness as paranoid schizophrenia …; here she develops the idea that most Canadian writers must be neurotic because, "given a choice of the negative or positive aspects of any symbol—sea as life-giving Mother, sea as what your ship goes down in; tree as symbol of growth, tree as what falls on your head—Canadians show a marked preference for the negative."… This general immersion in the turgid depths of what Northrop Frye calls "the world of experience," where tragedy darkens into irony, she attributes to Canada's colonial status. The very function of a colony and of a colonial person is to be exploited; politics are always Power Politics (Atwood, 1971), whether the area of experience is sexual love or finance and international relations.

The poet who earlier wrote of modern woman's anguish at finding herself isolated and exploited (although also exploiting) by the imposition of a sex role power structure … now perceives a strong sado-masochistic patterning in Canadian literature as a whole. She believes that there is a national fictional tendency to participate, usually at some level as Victim, in a Victor/Victim basic pattern. Only rarely, in Atwood's view, which has no patience with old-fashioned concepts of spiritual or ethical victory, do Canadian characters move from ignorance to self-knowledge, from projection to creative interaction with other characters…. She sees earlier Canadian writers preoccupied with external obstacles to survival, such as the land or climate, and later writers concerned with "harder to identify and more internal" obstacles to "spiritual survival, to life as anything more than a minimally human being."… She begins with "capsule Canadian plots" as examples of what she means, some displaying outright "failures", others, "crippled successes"…. Her satirical style, here at its crudest, relentlessly drives home her sense of a basic difficulty in human relations that seems to emerge with particular acuteness in what she briskly refers to as "Canlit." From her human relations point of view, the name of the game is to move forward into Position Four, that of creative non-victim. By definition, an author is in Position Four at the moment of writing.

To me, the structure of Atwood's thematic analysis is reminiscent of the psychology of R. D. Laing who talks about violence disguised as love, about people imposing psychological power structures or value structures on one another and on themselves, and about people in bondage to these structures. In fact, I feel that Atwood's four Basic Victim Positions (and the fifth mystical one which she postulates but leaves undefined), are almost a non-symmetrical "mapping" of Laing's psychology onto Northrop Frye's theory of fictional modes in which fictions are classified by the hero's power of action, ranging from the frustration and bondage of the ironic mode to the mythic creativity of the divine hero. For Atwood, power of action is directly related to degree of enlightenment. Atwood states that she has not read Laing, but the general idea of psychological power structures is now very much with us and has been linked, in various ways, with Laing's psychology…. These ideas have been, we might say, Surfacing all over the place for some time now, and especially in Margaret Atwood's own work, beginning with The Edible Woman (1969). To me, her most exciting contemporary significance as poet, novelist, and observer of her country's literature, lies in the fact that she is so clearly in tune with the radical spirit of her times.

In her early poetry, such as The Circle Game (1966), where she first enunciates the theme "Talking is difficult,"… she is acutely aware...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)

Valerie Trueblood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is the life-impulse [Atwood] uncovers and venerates [in Surfacing] alone on the island peeling off her civilized skins. This is the impulse [she] uncovers in her poetry, honoring the claim-to-life of whatever lives.

The narrator of Surfacing sees a heron killed for sport hanging in a tree and is as powerfully converted as Saint Eustace coming upon the stag with the cross between its antlers…. Her magnified understanding is not occupied with what the heron might stand for, or mean to humans, but with the mutilated bird itself, the violation of its life. Atwood's birds and beasts aren't symbols. She hails in each thing its own life, and its own physique: for her these are enough to express its sacredness. (p. 19)

A new poetry of love and death has been taking shape since the outrush of feminist energy in the 60's. Some of its elements are that the speaker is (usually) a woman, revoked love is seen as a public act which deflects the secure progression of life, a grave, reciting, schoolgirl voice may announce intention to do violent harm, and the poet's quarrel is less with an individual than with a modern temperament unsuccessful at keeping love going or assenting to Yeats' idea of love as a discipline. In [the poems in You Are Happy] Atwood avoids the litigious, civic-minded mood of the bereft that has colored much of this poetry. Her misdoers are just as hapless as their victims…. The thrill of the carnal, when it is allowed at all, is a sad thrill. (pp. 19-20)

In this book, and each of her others, what is at the root of the sorrow? While it feeds the feminism and anger that show aboveground, the root seems to tap something much purer and colder, two things really: a disaffection from people, the mishandlers of all that is sacred, and a female sense of kinship with the natural world that waits to be plundered. People are the unhungry consumers, killers of animals, disrupters of old rhythms, living in a time they have appropriated for themselves and for whose wretchedness they are responsible…. The same sense is present everywhere in her work, most notably in The Animals in that Country and in the fine Procedures for Underground, where poem after poem celebrates the patience of the landscape under the human spur….

[Unlike Annie Dillard, who works in the same area and] can become rhapsodic, Margaret Atwood is not a poet susceptible to happiness. Flushing out the harm-doers she keeps encountering herself. Her personae at various times repudiate food, love, which is predatory, Americans (this belongs elsewhere than in a parenthesis: Atwood is a Canadian with a deep fear of usurpation by the consumerism of the United States), and civilization. Her poetry has the steady unrelenting pace of conscience. But out of the same mouth proceedeth...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

Elspeth Cameron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atwood's central theme in [Lady Oracle and Dancing Girls] is the "self,"… a complex and fascinating mixture of reality and fantasy. Playing a part, or, as Atwood would put it, dancing a role, involves difficult decisions. Mainly it means choosing between a private and a public life…. Both in Lady Oracle and Dancing Girls the "self" competes with one or more "roles" for center stage.

With characteristic wit, Atwood explores the tensions involved in the fractured identity of the artist in Lady Oracle. The first overlay of Joan's real self occurs as a result of her mother's determined imposition of two mutually inconsistent roles on her daughter…. Responding...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)