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.
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.
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.
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.