Last reviewed: June 2017
Canadian author of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama.
November 18, 1939
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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.
Author Margaret Atwood attends a reading at Eden Mills Writers' Festival, Ontario, Canada in September 2006.
Commandant Eric Tremblay Royal Military College of Canada awards honourary degree to Margaret Atwood, November 2012
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.