Authors: Margaret Atwood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Canadian author of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama.

November 18, 1939

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Biography

Margaret Eleanor Atwood is Canada’s foremost contemporary writer of novels, poetry, and literary criticism. She was born in Ottawa in 1939 to Margaret Killam Atwood and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. Her father’s university position and scientific research were responsible for his family’s dual life, spent both in Toronto and in the bush country of Quebec. After attending public school in Toronto, she enrolled at Victoria College, University of Toronto, where in 1961 she received her B.A. in English language and literature and was awarded the E. J. Pratt Medal for Double Persephone, a book of poetry.

After intermittent graduate study at Harvard University, where she was profoundly influenced by the myth criticism of Northrop Frye, she returned to Canada, where the acclaimed The Circle Game established her as one of Canada’s leading poets. While she continued to publish poetry regularly, she increasingly turned her attention to fiction, beginning with The Edible Woman, a novel that is concerned with the male-female relationships she had already explored in her poetry. In 1972, she published her second novel, Surfacing, perhaps her best fictional work, and Survival, a book of literary criticism that not only charted Canadian literary history but also identified survival as the most important Canadian theme—as well as her own predominant theme.

Author Margaret Atwood attends a reading at Eden Mills Writers' Festival, Ontario, Canada in September 2006.

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Commandant Eric Tremblay Royal Military College of Canada awards honourary degree to Margaret Atwood, November 2012

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In 1973, she left teaching (she had taught at several Canadian universities); resigned as editor of House of Anansi Press; divorced her first husband; moved to Alliston, Ontario (with writer Graeme Gibson); and became a self-supporting writer. During this watershed year, she was invited to tour the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program, but she later canceled the trip to protest the Soviet expulsion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This decision, seen in terms of her Canadian nationalism and her feminist voice, made her a reluctant political figure. She has since traveled widely, received numerous literary awards and honorary degrees, published regularly, and become the Canadian voice in literature.

Her work, regardless of genre, is remarkably consistent in theme, subject matter, and tone, though The Handmaid’s Tale, her most popular novel, did strike reviewers as a bit atypical. The dystopian, futuristic science-fiction novel does, however, have a female protagonist whose survival is threatened by a patriarchal society, and her story, preserved for a later generation of “literary” scholars, itself becomes the vehicle for ridiculing male chauvinism, modern sensibilities, and political totalitarianism.

Atwood’s interior landscape, developed early in The Circle Game and The Animals in That Country, has been characterized by critics as violently dualistic. The pervasive doubling of worlds, visions, and cultures has been linked to her childhood, when she switched back and forth from bush country to urban metropolis, and more directly to her view of people living in an “objective” world and shaping that world by how they perceive it. People are simultaneously committed to a civilized world of ostensible order and reason and cowed by their unconscious fears and phobias. According to Atwood, rather than choose to live superficially in the objective world or to retreat into self, people should reject the destructive extremes of polarity and accept duality.

When Atwood writes primarily about the present, she focuses on domestic relations in banal urban centers. When a woman journeys to the wilderness, as in Surfacing, the journey is psychological and mythic as well as geographical, and the goal is redemption and renewal through self-discovery. Unfortunately, men act as obstacles to such journeys because as consumers they exploit, even “devour,” women (in The Edible Woman the protagonist substitutes a cake for herself). For women to escape the “circle games,” they must perceive reality accurately, and Atwood expresses the duality through mirror imagery and multiple points of view (Life Before Man, Two-Headed Poems). In fact, her fiction, like her poetry, has gradually become more experimental, more concerned with narration and voice.

Atwood is at once studied, influential, popular, and controversial, and she has transcended geographical barriers, particularly with The Handmaid’s Tale, to achieve international status. Moreover, though a self-confessed recluse who does not see herself as a preacher or a politician, she has become, in typically dualistic fashion, a political figure who exercises so much literary authority through her publishing activities and her literary criticism that she has been seen as the high priestess of Canadian literature. Her novels, which depict women as victims in masculine Westernized society, also have inevitably made her, despite her protests, a heroine of the women’s movement. As resistant to labels as she is, her work remains both distinctly Canadian and feminist.

Atwood’s work in the 2000s and 2010s has included speculative fiction, interpretations of classics, as well as explorations of different genres and platforms. As with the The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood sees the MaddAddam trilogy, comprised of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, as speculative fiction, which she defines as fiction that takes place in the future and is limited to extensions of existing science and technology. In 2006, she published The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, which is her version of the Odyssey told from Penelope’s point of view in the Underworld three thousand years after her death. Hag-Seed, published in 2016, is Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In addition to the classics, Atwood has also made use of online publishing platforms and published in genres that were previously new to her. These include her online only works Thriller Suite (poems) and The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home (a novel coauthored with Naomi Alderman), as well as her 2016 graphic novel, Angel Catbird.

Author Works Long Fiction: The EdibleWoman, 1969 Surfacing, 1972 Lady Oracle, 1976 Life Before Man, 1979 Bodily Harm, 1981 The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985 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, 2006 The Year of the Flood, 2009 The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, 2012 (with Naomi Alderman) MaddAddam, 2013 The Heart Goes Last, 2015 Hag-Seed, 2016 Angel Catbird (graphic novel), 2016 Short Fiction: Dancing Girls, and Other Stories, 1977 Encounters with the Element Man, 1982 Bluebeard’s Egg, 1983 Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems, 1983 Unearthing Suite, 1983 Wilderness Tips, 1991 Good Bones, 1992 (pb. in U.S. as Good Bones and Simple Murders, 1994) Bottle, 2004 Moral Disorder, 2006 The Tent, 2006 I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth, 2012 Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, 2014 Nonfiction: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972 Days of the Rebels: 1817–1840, 1977 Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1982 Margaret Atwood: Conversations, 1990 Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, 1995 Deux solicitudes: Entretiens, 1996 (with Victor-Lévy Beaulieu; Two Solicitudes: Conversations, 1998) Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, 2002 Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1984–2004, 2004 Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, 2005 Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983–2005, 2005 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, 2008 In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, 2011 Plays: The Penelopiad—The Play, 2007 Teleplays: The Servant Girl, 1974 Snowbird, 1981 Heaven on Earth, 1986 (with Peter Pearson) Radio Plays: The Trumpets of Summer, 1964 Poetry: Double Persephone, 1961 The Circle Game, 1964 (single poem), 1966 (collection) Kaleidoscopes Baroque: A Poem, 1965 Talismans for Children, 1965 Expeditions, 1966 Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein, 1966 The Animals in That Country, 1968 What Was in the Garden, 1969 The Journals of Susanna Moodie, 1970 Procedures for Underground, 1970 Power Politics, 1971 You Are Happy, 1974 Selected Poems, 1976 Selected Poems, 1965–1975, 1976 Marsh, Hawk, 1977 Two-Headed Poems, 1978 True Stories, 1981 Notes towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written, 1981 Snake Poems, 1983 Interlunar, 1984 Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986, 1987 Selected Poems 1966–1984, 1990 Margaret Atwood Poems 1976–1986, 1991 Morning in the Burned House, 1995 Eating Fire: Selected Poems, 1965-1995, 1998 The Door, 2007 Thriller Suite, 2015 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Up in the Tree, 1978 Anna’s Pet, 1980 (with Joyce Barkhouse) For the Birds, 1990 Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, 1995 (with Maryann Kowalski) Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, 2003 Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, 2004 Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery, 2011 Edited Texts: The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, 1982 The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, 1986 (with Robert Weaver) The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate, a Collection of Tasty Literary Fare, 1987 The Best American Short Stories, 1989 (with Shannon Ravenel) The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, 1995 (with Robert Weaver) Bibliography Atwood, Margaret. “Full Bibliography.” Margaret Atwood, 2013–16, margaretatwood.ca/full-bibliography-2/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017. Lists Atwood’s works by genre. 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 1970s. 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 1980s. 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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