Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 84) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Atwood 1939–

(Full name Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Atwood's career through 1994. For further information on her career and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15, 25, and 44.

Internationally acclaimed as a poet, novelist and short story writer, Margaret Atwood has emerged as a major figure in Canadian letters. Using such devices as irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators, she explores the relationship between humanity and nature, the dark side of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and politics. Popular with both literary scholars and the reading public, Atwood has helped to define and identify the goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues.

Biographical Information

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 first 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 published her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961. In 1962 Atwood completed her A.M. degree at Radcliffe College of 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 at the University of British Columbia for a year and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). After a year of teaching Victorian and American literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1967, Atwood began teaching creative writing at the University of Alberta while continuing to write and publish poetry. 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 Power Politics in 1971. Requiring an escape from increasing media attention, Atwood left a teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, with her husband, Graeme Gibson. Atwood received the Governor General's Award in 1986 for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, which was published that same year. She continues to be a prominent voice in Canada's cultural and political life.

Major Works

Since 1961 Atwood has produced a highly acclaimed body of work that includes fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. The Circle Game established the major themes of Atwood's writing: inconsistencies of self-perception, the paradoxical nature of language, the issue of Canadian identity, and conflicts between humankind and nature. In the same year that she published her second novel, Surfacing (1972), Atwood also earned widespread attention for Survival (1972), a seminal critical analysis of Canadian literature that served as a rallying point for the country's cultural nationalists. In the poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Atwood devoted her attention to what she calls the schizoid, or double, nature of Canada. Based on the autobiographies of a Canadian pioneer woman, The Journals of Susanna Moodie examines why Canadians came to develop ambivalent feelings toward their country. Atwood further developed this dichotomy in Power Politics, in which she explores the relationship between sexual roles and power structures by focusing on personal relationships. Atwood's novels explore the relationship between personal behavior and political issues as well. These include Lady Oracle (1976), about a protagonist who fakes her own death and thereby creates a new life for herself; The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel concerning an oppressive future society; Cat's Eye (1990), a coming-of-age novel that contains autobiographical elements; and The Robber Bride (1993), a contemporary recasting of a folktale, which explores jealousy and sexual manipulation.

Critical Reception

Criticism of Atwood's work has tended to emphasize her political and social views. Many critics identify her use of grotesque, shocking imagery and heavy irony as hallmarks of her style. Because her poetry and fiction 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 found her a visionary interpreter of feminist thought. The Handmaid's Tale, for example, has been favorably compared with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and other distinguished dystopian novels for its disturbing extension of contemporary trends and its allegorical portrait of political extremism. The many critics who praise Atwood's work admire her spareness of language, emotional restraint, and willingness to examine the harsh realities of both society and the natural world.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Barbara Hill Rigney (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'After the Failure of Logic': Descent and Return in Surfacing," in her Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, pp. 91-115.

[In the following excerpt, Rigney discusses the theme of discovering the self through descent and return in Atwood's Surfacing.]

It is inevitable for Margaret Atwood's nameless protagonist of Surfacing that there should occur a "failure of logic," for her journey "home" is an exploration of a world beyond logic. Her quest, like that of Jane Eyre, Clarissa Dalloway, and Martha Quest Hesse, is for an identity, a vision of self. She must find that self—not only through the father for whom she searches the Canadian backwoods, but also through the mother for whom she must search in the depths of her own psyche.

Atwood, much like Virginia Woolf, juxtaposes and compares two internal worlds: the world of the male principle, characterized by rationality and logic but often also by cruelty and destruction, and the world of the female principle, which for Atwood implies an existence beyond reason, a realm of primitive nature where there are connections between life and death, suffering and joy, madness and true sanity, where opposites are resolved into wholes. A failure to recognize these connections is a failure to perceive the "female" part of one's self, and this results, for Atwood, in a catastrophic splitting of the self. Like R. D. Laing's patients in The Divided Self, alienated from the self and from society, Atwood's protagonist perceives herself as rent, torn asunder:

I'd allowed myself to be cut in two. Woman sawn apart in a wooden crate, wearing a bathing suit, smiling, a trick done with mirrors, I read it in a comic book; only with me there had been an accident and I came apart. The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or, no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb.

The protagonist has separated her body from her head, divided the parts of her self, and thus committed psychological suicide: "If the head is detached from the body, both of them will die." "At some point," she says, "my neck must have closed over, pond freezing or a wound, shutting me into my head…."

The division of the self is, at least partly, "a trick done with mirrors." In Atwood's novel and in much of her poetry, the mirror becomes a symbol of the split self, and one's own reflection functions like a kind of negative doppelgänger. Presumably, the mirror provides a distorted image of the self, thus stealing one's sense of a real or complete self, robbing one of an identity. Anna, that character in Surfacing who has no self left to lose, whose identity has been lost in her preoccupation with the false, made-up self in the mirror, has become "closed in the gold compact." In order to see herself as whole, the protagonist ultimately realizes, she must "stop being in the mirror." The mirror must be turned to the wall so that its reflection will not intrude between "my eyes and vision." She wishes, finally, "not to see myself but to see." In the poem "Tricks with Mirrors" Atwood considers the dangers of perceiving reflection rather than whatever reality might exist, and concludes: "It is not a trick either, / It is a craft: / mirrors are crafty." It is interesting at this point to recall that in Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane's first visual contact with the mad Bertha, her doppelgänger, is a reflection in a mirror.

The camera is another device which Atwood sees as revealing the split self or doppelgänger, the "not me but the missing part of me." Cameras, like mirrors, according to Atwood's protagonist, can also steal the soul, as the Indians believed. Like "toilets and vacuum cleaners," other examples of "logic become visible," cameras might operate to "make people vanish," stealing "not only your soul but your body also." Photographs serve to shut one in "behind the paper."

As products of the world of logic, cameras are always operated by men in Atwood's works. The fiancé in The Edible Woman, for example, is a camera enthusiast. When he explodes his flash attachment in the eyes of the protagonist, she runs for her psychological life. In Surfacing, David and Joe complete their victimization of Anna by what amounts to a form of rape as they coerce her into revealing her naked body before their intrusive, phallic movie camera, which they use against her "like a bazooka or a strange instrument of torture." The protagonist considers herself reprieved in having evaded the movie camera, and, ultimately, she demonstrates a superior wisdom by emptying the footage of movie film into the lake. But those characters in Atwood's works who victimize others with cameras are themselves victims of faulty vision. David perhaps more than Joe sees reality only through a lens, which clouds and distorts. Perhaps it is also symbolic of a lack of vision that the protagonist's father is associated with cameras; it is the weight of a camera which prevents his drowned body from "surfacing."

Cameras and mirrors thus serve to make the self more vulnerable by emphasizing its division, but the doppelgänger or missing part of the self is also detectable by other means. Anna, employing a perverted version of the magic which is part of Atwood's representation of the female principle, reads the protagonist's palm. She perceives that some of the lines are double and asks, "Do you have a twin?" The protagonist's twin, of course, is that part of herself which is alienated, suppressed, and almost irretrievably lost.

Part of that lost self is an artist who compromised and became an illustrator, acting on the advice that "there has never been any important women artists." All Canadian artists, according to Atwood, suffer a kind of schizophrenia. In Survival Atwood's exploration of Canadian literature and the Canadian psyche, she writes:

We speak of isolated people as being "cut off," but in fact something is cut off from them; as artists, deprived of audience and cultural tradition, they are mutilated. If your arm or leg has been cut off you are a cripple, if your tongue has been cut off you are a mute, if part of your brain has been removed you are an idiot or an amnesiac, if your balls have been cut off you are a eunuch or a castrato…. Artists have suffered emotional and artistic death at the hands of an indifferent or hostile audience.

The subject of the protagonist's illustrations is, significantly, children's fairy tales. "I can imitate anything," she declares. She does not, however, imitate reality, but rather she creates a fantasy world with her sketches of idealized princesses and unconvincing giants. She also has created a fairy tale for her own history, the facts of which are obscured even in her own mind. Thus, she has lost a part of herself somewhere between memory and lie. She fears the truth, but also fears losing it, as she takes inventory of her memories. "I'll start inventing them and then there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone. I run quickly over my version of it, my life, checking it like an alibi."

For example, she has invented the alibi of an unsuccessful marriage and a childbirth to sublimate the more painful fact that she unwillingly underwent an abortion and was then abandoned by a complacent, middle-aged lover. Fragments of memory of the abortion itself—often described in terms of amputation, cutting, splitting—cause such pain that she cannot accept their reality. She considers that her invented son, in reality an aborted fetus, is "sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh canceled." But it is an unborn child who represents her twin, a part of her self, and she is haunted by unbidden visions of the abortion which symbolizes her division from herself:

I knew when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn't let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air.

The abortion itself, however, is not a cause for but an effect of the protagonist's split psyche. If a complete self had been in control, she is ultimately to realize, the operation would never have occurred. In order to become an autonomous, completed self, however, the protagonist must heal yet another kind of split—that between "good" and "evil." She must come to terms with herself as perpetrator as well as victim, or at least as a correspondent in her own victimization. During an interview, Atwood explained her protagonist's problem in the following way:

If you define yourself as intrinsically innocent, then you have a lot of problems, because in fact you aren't. And the thing with her is she wishes not to be human. She wishes to be not human, because being human inevitably involves being guilty, and if you define yourself as innocent, you can't accept that.

Atwood's concern with this delusion of female innocence is also reflected in other of her works. Marian in The Edible Woman, for example, maintains her own innocence throughout a destructive sexual relationship until the very end when she realizes that she, too, is guilty of exploitation and destruction. In Survival, Atwood groups the subjects of Canadian literature into what she terms "basic Victim Positions." She states that the central question in Canadian literature is: "Who is responsible?" The answer to that question, provided most clearly in Surfacing, is that ultimate responsibility lies almost inevitably in the self. Like Lessing's Martha Quest Hesse in The Four-Gated City confronting the "self-hater," that part of the self which victimizes both the self and others, Atwood's protagonist must confront her own complicity in such acts as the abortion. Carol P. Christ, in her article "Margaret Atwood: The Surfacing of Women's Spiritual Quest and Vision," upholds a similar contention:

Her association of power with evil and her dissociation of herself from both reflect a typical female delusion of innocence, which hides her complicity in evil and feeds her fake belief that she can do nothing but witness her victimization. In order to regain her power the protagonist must realize that she does not live in a world where only others have power to do evil.

Even God, or perhaps most especially God, the protagonist comes to realize, incorporates evil: "If the Devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also, they were advantages."

In searching her childhood for the self she has lost and the memories of evil which she has unconsciously suppressed, the protagonist comes across two scrapbooks preserved by her mother. One contains drawings by her brother, all depicting war, bomber planes decorated with swastikas, people under torture—all obvious symbols for what the protagonist sees as male power in its most evil form. Her own drawings, in contrast, are representations of an impossible innocence, a feminine vision of fertility represented by artificial Easter heavens of bunnies and eggs and colored grass. The male and female principles, always in perfect balance in these childish drawings, are represented by a moon in the upper left hand corner and a sun in the right. A more enlightened, adult protagonist recalls:

I didn't want there to be wars and death, I wanted them not to exist; only rabbits with their colored egg houses, sun and moon orderly above the flat earth, summer always, I wanted everyone to be happy. But his pictures were more accurate, the weapons, the disintegrating soldiers: he was a realist, that protected him.

At another point in her memory gathering, the protagonist recalls her brother's childhood occupation of capturing and imprisoning wild animals and insects, and then allowing them to die. Her own "feminine" role was to free the animals, risking her brother's anger. A memory which is less congenial to her self-delusion of feminine innocence involves her cooperation with her brother in an act which foreshadows her cooperation in the abortion, the stabbing and dismembering of a doll, left then to float, mutilated, in the lake.

For the protagonist, the brother thus represents male power in general, manifesting itself in war games and in the violation of an essentially feminine nature, the wilderness. His exploitation of animals is repeated in the actions of "the Americans," hunters and fishermen who come to Canada to gratuitously destroy for sport. The Americans represent society's destruction of nature, obvious even in the Canadian backwoods as pollution and land "development" encroach upon the island sanctuary which is the protagonist's home. Americans, she says, "spread themselves like a virus." They represent power: "Straight power, they mainlined it…. The innocents get slaughtered because they exist." Finally, the Americans are manifestations of that origin of evil, the Hitler-boogie of the protagonist's childhood. They call to mind the fascist figure as sexual oppressor in the works of Woolf and Lessing.

Atwood's symbolism involving nature as victim is, quite obviously, multilayered. The protagonist, like the exploited wilderness, represents Canada itself and its predicament as a political victim. As Brontë, Woolf, Lessing, and Laing have also maintained,… individual schizophrenia is often a reflection of a greater, more pernicious national schizophrenia. Atwood's protagonist is a divided self, as Canada is a country divided and exploited by Americans. Atwood writes in the afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie: "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."

The representative crime of the Americans in Surfacing is the killing of a heron, slaughtered not for food but in truth merely because "it exists." The bird, as a trophy of power, is hanged from a tree, wings outspread, in crucifixion position. The protagonist sees the heron as symbolic of her own psychological death, but sees herself as free of responsibility for both the heron's and her own fate. She is to learn, however, that the "Americans" are, in reality, Canadians, like herself, and thus she too is somehow guilty, involved. Through her passivity in refusing to prevent the heron's death, she has cooperated in its execution, very much in the same way that she has cooperated in the perpetration of the abortion. Of the heron's death she says, "I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it." Later in the novel, she says of her participation in the abortion: "Instead of granting it sanctuary, I let them catch it. I could have said No but I didn't; that made me one of them, too, a killer."

Thus the exploiter is not "they" but "we"; women too are human and therefore killers—but perhaps with some mitigation. The protagonist kills animals only for food and then only with a kind of religious reverence for the creature she has destroyed. She fantasizes, as she clubs a flailing fish on the back of the head or fastens a squealing frog onto a fish hook, that the animals will their own victimization just as people do and are willing to die to sustain her: "They had chosen to die and forgiven me in advance." Later, she thinks:

The shape of the heron flying above us the first evening we fished, legs and neck stretched, wings outspread, a blue-gray cross, and the other heron or was it the same one, hanging wrecked from the tree. Whether it died willingly, consented, whether Christ died willingly, anything that suffers and dies instead of us is Christ; if they didn't kill birds and fish they would have killed us. The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people, hunters in the fall killing the deer, that is Christ also. And we eat them out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life. Canned Spam, canned Jesus….

It is perhaps her delusive claim to innocence, and thus her lack of reverence, which prevents Marian in The Edible Woman from eating meat and, later in the novel, from eating almost anything at all. Only when she recognizes her complicity in her own victimization, when she understands that she has allowed men to "eat" or destroy her and that she has also attempted to destroy them, can Marian overcome her antipathy to food, bake a huge cake which is an effigy of herself, and gobble it down.

The traditional greeting of the fishermen in Surfacing, "Getting any?", is also a sexual allusion. The violation of nature by society is, for Atwood's protagonist, paradigmatic of the violation of women by men. Sexual politics, too, she sees as a battle, with herself as victim. The protagonist recalls her childhood arguments with her brother in which "after a while I no longer fought back because I never won. The only defense was flight, invisibility."

More victimized in sexual politics than the protagonist, who at least intuits something of her complicity in...

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Carol P. Christ (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Refusing to be a Victim: Margaret Atwood," in her Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, Beacon Press, 1980, pp. 41-53.

[In the following essay, Christ offers an analysis of Surfacing, focusing on the protagonist's quest for self-discovery and Atwood's focus on nature and power in the novel.]

The spiritual quest of the unnamed protagonist of Surfacing begins with her return to the Canadian wilderness, where she had lived as a child. Ostensibly, the protagonist is in search of her missing father, who is presumed dead. But the search is really for her missing parents, her mother having died a few years earlier, and for the...

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Estella Lauter (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Margaret Atwood: Remythologizing Circe," in her Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth Century Women, Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 62-78.

[In the following essay, Lauter examines Atwood's revision of the myth of Odysseus and Circe in her "Circe/Mud Poems."]

In her sequence of poems entitled "Circe/Mud Poems," Margaret Atwood engages in a complex act of remythologizing. That is, she steps back into the mythic realm of Homer's Odyssey to recreate and revise the story of the year-long sojourn of Odysseus with Circe from Circe's point of view. Simply by refocusing our attention within the story, Atwood reveals a more essential power...

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John Lanchester (review date 23 July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dying Falls," in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 14, July 23, 1987, pp. 24, 26.

[In the following excerpt, Lanchester provides a mixed assessment of the short story collection Bluebeard's Egg.]

[The endings of Margaret Atwood's fiction] tend to leave things slightly in the air, and to present themselves to the reader for interpretation. The dystopian fantasy of The Handmaid's Tale was followed by a framing fiction—of the kind that is more usually put in front of a narrative—which pretended that what we had just read had been the material presented at an academic conference, centuries after the events depicted. The academic ended with a question:...

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Dave Smith (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Formal Allegiances: Selected Poems × 6," in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 127-46.

[In the excerpt below, Smith offers a mixed review of Atwood's Selected Poems II.]

Among American readers Margaret Atwood is Canadian literature. She has published a book annually for more than two decades, deploying a strong historical consciousness, a rich narrative imagination, and a willingness to use formal literary expression to confront whatever wrongs human dignity and freedom. Her accomplishments have been manifest in best-selling fiction, in literary criticism (the often cited Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature...

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Helen Yglesias (review date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odd Woman Out," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, pp. 3-4.

[Yglesias is an American-born educator and novelist whose works include How She Died (1972), Family Feeling (1976), and Sweetsir (1981). In the following review, Yglesias praises Atwood's style and commitment to issues, but finds the novel Cat's Eye an uneven work.]

The successful publication of The Handmaid's Tale transformed the distinguished Canadian poet and prose writer Margaret Atwood into a world-class, internationally acclaimed, best-selling writer—to use some of publishing's most favored phrases. Her next novel, Cat's...

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J. Brooks Bouson (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comic Storytelling as Escape and Narcissistic Self-Expression in Atwood's Lady Oracle," in his The Empathic Reader: A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 154-168.

[In the following excerpt, Bouson explores the psychology of the protagonist in Lady Oracle.]

Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle has tantalized, amused, and baffled critics who are fascinated with its duplicitous, protean narrator-heroine. "The task of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, the puzzle of Joan Foster," writes one critic, "is left to the reader." As Joan narrates the story of her life and exposes...

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Margaret Atwood with Earl G. Ingersoll (interview date Spring-Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Waltzing Again: A Conversation with Margaret Atwood," in Margaret Atwood: Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1990, pp. 234-38.

[In the following interview, Atwood discusses her relationship to her readers and critics of her works as well as the themes of Cat's Eye.]

[Ingersoll]: Since as you know I've been working on a collection of your interviews, could we begin by talking about interviews? You have been interviewed very frequently. How do you feel about being interviewed?

[Atwood]: I don't mind "being interviewed" any more than I mind Viennese waltzing—that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and...

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David Lucking (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Pursuit of the Faceless Stranger: Depths and Surfaces in Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1990, pp. 76-93.

[In the following essay, Lucking discusses the motifs of depth and surface in relation to Atwood's "thematic concern with the quest for authentic selfhood" in Bodily Harm.]

Margaret Atwood's recurrent use of the descent motif to dramatize her thematic concern with the quest for authentic selfhood makes her work a tempting target for explication in terms of the initiatory archetype as this has been analyzed by such writers as C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. This aspect of her writing...

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Earl G. Ingersoll (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 17-27.

[In the following essay, Ingersoll analyzes what he perceives as 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 critics' pigeonholes, Atwood, in a recent interview, has denied the classification of her work as "postmodern."...

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Marilyn Patton (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Lady Oracle': The Politics of the Body," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 29-48.

[In the following essay, Patton analyzes Atwood's use of goddess mythology in Lady Oracle.]

I search instead for the others
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives

Margaret Atwood wrote these words as if they were spoken by the Circe persona in the "Circe/Mud Poems" section of her book of poetry called You Are Happy. Atwood's career as poet, storyteller,...

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James Wilcox (review date 24 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hairball on the Mantlepiece," in The New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991, p. 7.

[Wilcox is an American-born short story writer and novelist whose works include Modern Baptists (1983), North Gladiola (1985), and Miss Undine's Living Room (1987). In the following review, Wilcox generally praises Atwood's Wilderness Tips, but finds some of the prose awkward and over-mannered.]

In "Hack Wednesday," one of the most engaging stories in Margaret Atwood's third volume of short fiction, Wilderness Tips, a middle-aged newspaper columnist sizes up men in an unusual way: "She can just look at a face and see in past the...

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Merle Rubin (review date 27 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time Telescoping Tales," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1991, p. 14.

[In the following review of Wilderness Tips, Rubin praises Atwood's ability to function as a "barometer" of the social climate of present and past decades in her writing, but faults her work for "a lack of energy and élan."]

I find it hard to dislike Margaret Atwood's fiction, or even to offer serious criticism of it. Thoughtfully feminist, ecologically sensitive, a clear-eyed observer of social trends from urban alienation to rural isolation, Atwood is one of those writers who seem to function as barometers of their times.

One seldom feels one has...

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Jill LeBihan (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and Interlunar: Margaret Atwood's Feminist (?) Futures (?)," in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature: Feminism and Postcolonialism, edited by Coral Ann Howells and Lynette Hunter, Open University Press, 1991, pp. 93-107.

[In the following essay, LeBihan analyzes the narrative technique and major themes in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and some of the poems in Interlunar.]

Margaret Atwood is nothing if not formidable in her utilization of different forms in her writing. Her two latest novels are strikingly different from one another in terms of the formal traditions within which they might be placed....

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Peter Kemp (review date 6 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Atwood Variations," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4675, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Kemp praises Good Bones as a "sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents."]

Pocket-sized and with sturdy covers, Good Bones looks a bit like a sketchbook in which an artist might jot caricatures, cartoons, preliminary studies, trial pieces and quick little exercises in catching the essence of a subject or delineating it from unusual angles. The miscellany with which Margaret Atwood fills its pages is, in fact, a writer's equivalent of this: a collection of lively verbal doodlings, smartly dashed off vignettes and...

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Nathalie Cooke (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Reflections: The Autobiographical Illusion in Cat's Eye," in Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Marlene Kadar, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 162-70.

[In the following essay, Cooke explores Atwood's use of a fictional protagonist and an autobiographical form in Cat's Eye.]

I have been told by friends, relatives, colleagues, and teachers—in fact, by everyone I know who has read it—that Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is 'more autobiographical than her other books.' And, of course, they are right. It is more autobiographical—or, anyway, it is more obviously about self-representation—than...

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Laura Shapiro (review date 8 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mirror, Mirror, Who's the Evilest?" in Newsweek, Vol. CXXII, No. 19, November 8, 1993, p. 81.

[In the following review, Shapiro praises Atwood's novel The Robber Bride.]

Nobody maps female psychic territory the way Margaret Atwood does, sure-footed even in the wilds. Her latest novel, The Robber Bride takes its title from the Grimm fairy tale about the robber bridegroom who kidnaps maidens and carries them off to his house to be cut up and eaten. Here the malevolent suitor is a woman named Zenia, mysterious and alluring, who insinuates herself into other women's lives and carries off their husbands and boyfriends. If they're lucky, they escape.


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Margaret Atwood with Lauri Miller (interview date February-March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Villainess," in San Francisco Review of Books, February-March, 1994, pp. 30-32, 34.

[In the following excerpt, Atwood discusses her writing process and the role of the literary villainess in reference to her book The Robber Bride.]

[Miller]: In The Robber Bride, your character Zenia is cruel, cold-blooded and calculated, so able to manipulate the female protagonists in the book

[Atwood]:… And the male …

In a recent New York Times article you said there has been a gap in the literary appearance of the villainess. Has this been particularly on the part of women writers, and have you met...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Banerjee, Chinmoy. "Atwood's Time: Hiding Art in Cat's Eye." Modern Fiction Studies 36, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 513-22.

Discusses the various narrative voices Atwood uses in Cat's Eye.

Bayley, John. "Dry Eyes." London Review of Books 13, No. 23 (5 December 1991): 20.

Compares the stories in Atwood's Wilderness Tips favorably to the works of Nadine Gordimer and Elizabeth Bowen.

Beaver, Harold. Review of Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986, by Margaret Atwood. The New York Times Book...

(The entire section is 494 words.)