Discussion Topics

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In what ways do Margaret Atwood’s early childhood experiences in the Canadian wilderness affect her works?

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Compare and contrast the dystopias in Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.

In “Death by Landscape,” why does the protagonist have trouble letting go of her friend?

Alias Grace has been both praised and criticized for its attention to the details of Victorian life. How and why do such details affect the momentum of the novel?

Chronicle Elaine’s growth as an individual throughout her journey in Cat’s Eye.

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Margaret Atwood’s publishing history is a testimonial to her remarkable productivity and versatility as an author. She is the author of numerous books, including poetry, novels, children’s literature, and nonfiction. In Canada, she is most admired for her poetry; elsewhere, she is better known as a novelist, particularly for Surfacing (1972) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Her other novels include The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1976), Bodily Harm (1981), and Alias Grace (1996). Among her volumes of poetry are The Circle Game (1964), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Interlunar (1984), and Morning in the Burned House (1995). In 1972 she published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a controversial critical work on Canadian literature, and in 1982, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, which is in the vanguard of feminist criticism in Canada. Atwood has also written for television and theater, one of her successful ventures being “The Festival of Missed Crass,” a short story made into a musical for Toronto’s Young People’s Theater. Atwood’s conscious scrutiny, undertaken largely in her nonfiction writing, turned from external political and cultural repression to the internalized effects of various kinds of repression on the individual psyche. The same theme is evident in her fiction; her novel Cat’s Eye (1988) explores the subordination of character Elaine Risley’s personality to that of her domineering “friend” Cordelia.


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Margaret Atwood is a prolific and controversial writer of international prominence whose works have been translated into many languages. She has received several honorary doctorates and is the recipient of numerous honors, prizes, and awards, including the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1967 for The Circle Game, the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1986 and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale, the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award in 1986 from the Canadian Jewish Congress, the American Humanist of the Year Award in 1987, and the Trillium Award for Excellence in Ontario Writing for Wilderness Tips in 1992 and for her 1993 novel The Robber Bride in 1994. The French government honored her with the prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1994.

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A skillful and prolific writer, Margaret Atwood has published many volumes of poetry. Collections such as Double Persephone (1961), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics(1971), You Are Happy (1974), Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981), Interlunar (1984), and Morning in the Burned House (1995) have enjoyed a wide and enthusiastic readership, especially in Canada. During the 1960’s, Atwood published in limited editions poems and broadsides illustrated by Charles Pachter: The Circle Game (1964), Kaleidoscopes Baroque: A Poem (1965), Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein (1966), Expeditions (1966), and What Was in the Garden (1969).

Atwood has also written books for children, including Up in the Tree (1978), which she also illustrated, and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2004). Her volumes of short stories, a collection of short fiction and prose poems (Murder in the Dark, 1983), a volume of criticism (Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972), and a collection of literary essays (Second Words, 1982) further demonstrate Atwood’s wide-ranging talent. In 1982, Atwood coedited The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. She has also written articles and critical reviews too numerous to list. She has contributed prose and poetry to literary journals such as Acta Victoriana and Canadian Forum, and her teleplays have been aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.


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Early in her career, Margaret Atwood received critical recognition for her work. This is particularly true of her poetry, which has earned her numerous awards, including the E. J. Pratt Medal in 1961, the President’s Medal from the University of Western Ontario in 1965, and the Governor-General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor, for The Circle Game in 1966. Twenty years later, Atwood again won this prize for The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood won first prize in the Canadian Centennial Commission Poetry Competition in 1967 and won a prize for poetry from the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation in 1969. She has received honorary doctorates from Trent University and Queen’s University. Additional honors and awards she has received include the Bess Hoskins Prize for poetry (1974), the City of Toronto Award (1977), the Canadian Booksellers Association Award (1977), the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction (1978), the Canada Council Molson Prize (1980), and the Radcliffe Medal (1980). The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Prize, and Atwood received Spain’s Prince of Asturias literary prize for 2008.

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Margaret Atwood’s publishing history is a testimonial to her remarkable productivity and versatility as a writer. As well as a poet, she is a novelist, a short-fiction writer, a children’s author, an editor, and an essayist. The Edible Woman (1969), Atwood’s first novel, defined the focus of her fiction: mainly satirical explorations of sexual politics, where self-deprecating female protagonists defend themselves against men, chiefly with the weapon of language. Other novels include Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (2005), and The Year of the Flood (2009). The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a dystopian novel set in a postnuclear, monotheocratic Boston, where life is restricted by censorship and state control of reproduction, is the best known of Atwood’s novels and was made into a commercial film of the same title, directed by Volker Schlöndorff.

Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (1977) and Bluebeard’s Egg (1983) are books of short fiction, as are Wilderness Tips (1991), Good Bones (1992), and Moral Disorder (2006). Atwood has written children’s books: Up in the Tree (1978), which she also illustrated, Anna’s Pet (1980, with Joyce Barkhouse), For the Birds (1990), Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995), Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003), and Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2004). A nonfiction book for young readers is Days of the Rebels: 1815-1840 (1977).

Atwood’s contributions to literary theory and criticism have also been significant. Her idiosyncratic, controversial, but well-researched Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) is essential for the student interested in Atwood’s version of the themes that have shaped Canadian creative writing over a century. Her Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982) is one of the first works of the feminist criticism that has flourished in Canada. She also produced Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995). A related title is Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002).


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Critical success and national and international acclaim have greeted Margaret Atwood’s work since her first major publication, the poetry collection The Circle Game. Poems from that collection were awarded the 1965 President’s Medal for Poetry by the University of Western Ontario in 1966, and after commercial publication, the collection won for Atwood the prestigious Governor-General’s Award for poetry in 1967. In that same year, Atwood’s The Animals in That Country was awarded first prize in Canada’s Centennial Commission Poetry Competition. The Chicago periodical Poetry awarded Atwood the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize in 1969 and the Bess Hokin Prize in 1974. Since that time, Atwood’s numerous awards and distinctions have been more for her work in fiction, nonfiction, and humanitarian affairs. She has received several honorary doctorates and many prestigious prizes, among them the Toronto Arts Award (1986), Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1986, the Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award from the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the American Humanist of the Year Award for 1987. In fact, at one time or another, Atwood has won just about every literary award for Canadian writers. In 2000, Atwood won the Booker Prize for the best novel by a citizen of the United Kingdom or British Commonwealth.

Discussion Topics

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Margaret Atwood’s works always seem to involve a journey of some kind—literal, emotional, or both. What initiates the journeys, what impedes them, and how do the journeys end, if they do?

Often in an effort to improve society, authorities resort to repressive measures. Discuss the motivations, expressed or covert, behind such efforts in Atwood’s novels, especially The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.

Prisons, metaphorical and literal, play a large role in Atwood’s works. Discuss the effect of both kinds of prisons on the characters in her works.

Identity or the obfuscation of identity is a theme in many of Atwood’s works, especially her novels. Not only do characters’ names change, but they change with their names. Discuss Atwood’s use of names and the problem of identifying just who some of her characters are. Why do you think Atwood uses this theme?

Identify some positive or semipositive male characters in Atwood’s fiction. What appear to be their flaws and what do their flaws disclose about the society and the nature of male/female relationships?

Atwood uses unreliable narrators in many of her novels. To what purpose? How are the narrators related to the nature of truth in her novels?


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Margaret Atwood. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Collection of essays by literary critics provides analyses of Atwood’s major novels. Includes brief biography, chronology of Atwood’s life, and an informative editor’s introduction.

Brown, Jane W. “Constructing the Narrative of Women’s Friendship: Margaret Atwood’s Reflexive Fiction.” Literature, Interpretation, Theory 6 (1995): 197-212. Argues that Atwood’s narrative reflects the struggle of women to attain friendship and asserts that Atwood achieves this with such reflexive devices as embedded discourse, narrative fragmentation, and doubling.

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ont.: ECW Press, 1998. Although this is not an authorized biography, Atwood answered Cooke’s questions and allowed her access, albeit limited, to materials for her research. A more substantive work than Sullivan’s biography The Red Shoes (cited below).

Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks, 1984. Presented from a feminist perspective, this book is a nine-chapter examination of Atwood’s language, patterns of thought, and imagery in her poetry and prose. The accompanying bibliography and index are thorough and useful.

Deery, June. “Science for Feminists: Margaret Atwood’s Body of Knowledge.” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Winter, 1997): 470-486. Shows how the themes of feminine identity, personal and cultural history, body image, and colonization in Atwood’s fiction are described in terms of basic laws of physics. Comments on Atwood’s application of scientific concepts of time, space, energy, and matter to the experience of women under patriarchy in an adaptation of male discourse.

Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. These nine essays by nine different critics treat Atwood’s poetry and prose, examining the “Atwood system,” her themes and her style from a variety of perspectives, including the feminist and the syntactical.

Hengen, Shannon, and Ashley Thomson. Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2007. Atwood’s writings from 1988-2005 are covered in this resource which includes citations, reviews, quotations, and interviews. Also contains a guide to Atwood resources on the Internet and a chronology of her publishing career.

Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. Feminist criticism on the writing of Atwood, Alice Walker, and Jean Rhys. The chapter on Atwood presents an insightful commentary on her novel Lady Oracle with reference to other criticism available on this novel. Discusses the novel’s gothic elements, the use of satire, and its political implications.

Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Lively critical and biographical study elucidates issues that have energized all of Atwood’s fiction: feminist issues, literary genres, and her own identity as a Canadian, a woman, and a writer.

Howells, Coral Ann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collection of twelve excellent essays provides critical examination of Atwood’s novels as well as a concise biography of the author.

Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1990. Contains many interviews with Atwood.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Indispensable volume comprises thirty-two essays, including assessments of patterns and themes in Atwood’s poetry and prose. Discusses her primary works in chronological order, beginning with The Circle Game and ending with The Handmaid’s Tale. An editor’s introduction provides an illuminating overview of Atwood’s writing career. Includes a primary bibliography to 1986 and a thorough index.

Meindl, Dieter. “Gender and Narrative Perspective in Atwood’s Stories.” In Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, edited by Colin Nelson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Discusses female narrative perspective in Atwood’s stories. Shows how stories such as “The Man from Mars” and “The Sin Eater” focus on women’s failure to communicate with men, thus trapping themselves inside their own inner worlds.

Nischik, Reingard M., ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. This sturdy gathering of original (not reprinted) criticism includes Lothar Hönnighausen’s comprehensive “Margaret Atwood’s Poetry 1966-1995” as well as Ronald B. Hatch’s ”Margaret Atwood, the Land, and Ecology,” which draws heavily on Atwood’s poetry to make its case.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. This satisfying book consists of six chapters, examining Atwood’s works, poetry, and prose, up to the early 1980’s. Chapters 2 and 3 deal exclusively with her poetry. The chapters are preceded by a useful chronology and succeeded by thorough notes and references, a select bibliography, and an index. Rosenberg’s writing is lucid and readable; his rationale for this study is presented in his preface, providing insight into the focus of his examination of Atwood’s writing. An indispensable study.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. Presents a thorough overview of Atwood’s writings in all genres. Includes references and a selected bibliography.

Suarez, Isabel Carrera. “’Yet I Speak, Yet I Exist’: Affirmation of the Subject in Atwood’s Short Stories.” In Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, edited by Colin Nelson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Discusses Atwood’s treatment of the self and its representation in language in her short stories. Demonstrates how in Atwood’s early stories characters are represented or misrepresented by language and how struggle with language is a way to make themselves understood; explains how this struggle is amplified in later stories.

Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood, Starting Out. Toronto, Ont.: HarperFlamingo Canada, 1998. Biography focuses on Atwood’s early life, until the end of the 1970’s. Attempts to answer the question of how Atwood became a writer and to describe the unfolding of her career.

Wall, Kathleen. “Representing the Other Body: Frame Narratives in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Giving Birth’ and Alice Munro’s ‘Meneseteung.’” Canadian Literature, no. 154 (Autumn, 1997): 74-90. Argues that the nineteenth century nude pictures in these stories are not the traditional object of male observation but rather serve to remove the image of the female body from the reification of Romanticism. Contends that in both stories the images subversively call attention to the margin and the marginal.

Wilson, Sharon Rose. Margaret Atwood’s Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. One of the most extensive and thorough investigations available of Atwood’s use of fairy-tale elements in her graphic art as well as her writing. Covers her novels up to Cat’s Eye.

Wilson, Sharon Rose, ed. Margaret Atwood’s Textual Assassinations: Recent Poetry and Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. Collection of scholarly essays examines Atwood’s work, with a focus on her writings published since the late 1980’s. Includes discussion of the novels Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin.

York, Lorraine M., ed. Various Atwoods. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. Critical essays chiefly on the later poetry and fiction.

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