It is difficult to find appropriate words to define Margaret Atwood’s (born November 18, 1939) significance in Canadian culture and literature. Atwood is a prolific writer who not only blazes a trail for contemporary Canadian writers but also helps Canadian literature make its mark on world literature. A versatile writer whose literary career encompasses all literary genres and experimental forms (essay, fiction, poetry, drama, criticism, children’s books, political cartoons), Atwood fuses important Canadian cultural phenomena and national traditions into such a wide range of genres, creating new literary territories and reverberating sparking controversies.
Atwood’s work inherits three distinct literary traditions: Anglo-American feminism, gothic romanticism, and Canadian nationalism. As a woman writer, Atwood, in most of her novels and short fictions, situates the female body in relation to women’s conditions of entrapment, sexual politics, and social myths of femininity. Her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), for example, exposes the feminine situation already charted by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). The story centers on a college graduate, Marian MacAlpin, who resists marriage as she struggles to find her place between two men: her fiancé, Peter, and her mentor, Duncan. The “edible woman” in the title is a doll-shaped cake baked and consumed in the novel’s conclusion. As the story questions the place of a woman in a consumer society, The Edible Woman also answers the question of such struggle in the novel’s symbolic cake-woman climax: Peter refuses the cake Marian makes, but Duncan helps her eat it up. The cake baking, as Coral Ann Howells suggests, is “a gesture of complicity in the domestic myth and also a critique of it” (24). By refusing the marriage, Marian wins her independence from the feminine mystique. As does The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle (1976), Atwood’s third novel, continues to question the place of a woman, particularly that of a woman artist in the patriarchal society. Atwood allows the female artist Joan Foster (a.k.a. Louisa K. Delacourt) to voice her dilemma as a woman writer in the male-dominated literary tradition. Joan returns from a suicide attempt to continue a turbulent life authoring gothic novels and engaging in romantic affairs. The novel itself is a series of stories within the framework of Joan’s story told to a newspaper reporter. Different from Marian MacAlpin, who stops eating to reject society’s standards of femininity, Joan Foster eats excessively to resist her mother’s attempts to mold her into a svelte debutante. The “excess” and “disorder,” as Karen Stein argues, characterize the gothic romance in the way that the gothic romance “features high drama, exaggeration, repetition of events, and doubling and fragmentation of characters” (59). The sexual politics also punctuates Atwood’s second short story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg (1983). The women in the collection (13 stories, 12 narrated by women) tell stories related to the Bluebeard tale of the demonic amorous villain. Some of the women (Alma, Becka, Sally) are portrayed as the conventional victims, but others (Loulou, Emma, Yvonne), like Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, are powerful women who represent subversive power against the Bluebeardian patriarchal domination. These women find their power through storytelling, in other words, through the artistic power of changing the male-centered perspective of constructing “his-story.” Apart from these feminist concerns, the gothic sensibility and conventions pervade most of Atwood’s work.
At the core of Atwoodian gothic romance and poetry lie two axes: the exterior northern gothic landscape (Stein 9) and the interior gothic fear—women’s fear of men or fear of the darkness. The Canadian landscape, in Atwood’s eyes, represents danger, darkness, and power (Stein 10). In her earlier poems, Atwood explores the cold, gothic Canadian landscape—an important metaphor for many other Canadian writers—in her emphasis on maps, place, and spatial details as a reiteration of Canadian identity, the identity reminiscent of Northrop Frye’s provocative query “Where is here?” Topics of fear, disjuncture, dislocation, and gothic terror permeate Atwood’s early poetry (especially in Double Persephone, The Circle Game, The Animals in That Country, The Journals of Susanna Moodie). In Atwood’s first short story collection, Dancing Girls (1977), the 14 stories explore the gothic landscape that situates these stories: ancient sacrificial cisterns, timber wolves, the grave of a poet, and so forth. The shadow of the terror and disaster of the gothic (e.g., in “The War in the Bathroom,” “A Travel Piece,” and “Dancing Girl”) hover over all the stories: Women fantasize about rape; heroines experience the ends of romantic relationships; a woman is placed in a mental asylum. Most of the women expect and experience danger or disaster, a state of fear not only of the exterior bleak landscape but also of the internalized suppression by men and society. Another gothic element is the presence of the aliens, foreigners, displaced derelicts, who keep their feelings private, hidden from others. In “The Man from Mars” and in “Dancing Girls,” for example, foreign students cause consternation for women who see them as the Other. More gothic motifs are elaborated in her longer novels such as Alias Grace, Lady Oracle, and Cat’s Eye. In Cat’s Eye (1988), for instance, the cat’s eye functions as “the nexus for all those contradictions of fear and longing, love and resistance [of] the heroine Elaine” (Howell 117). Cat’s Eye tells and retells, through the heroine’s narrative and through her paintings, the fictionalized autobiography of a successful 50-year-old artist, Elaine Risley. Rooted in gothic conventions and narrated with postmodern techniques, Cat’s Eye situates the heroine in complex “space-time” coordinates: Elaine tells her own private history— together with fragments of Cordelia’s story, her brother Stephen’s story, and other people’s stories—which shifts between times and spaces, between texts and paintings, and between definitions of Canadian identity in the postwar period. Pushing the feminist centrality further, Atwood blends the “I” of the woman artist with the cat’s “eye” marble, the pivotal image of the novel, “which represents a number of times during the course of Elaine’s turbulent journey toward maturity” (Cooke 111). The generic amalgam, the intertextual travel, often characterizes Atwood’s writing.
What places Atwood in the Canadian literary tradition is her constant concern with Canadian identity. In the classical manifesto in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood begins by asking what the central preoccupations in both English and French Canadian literatures have been, and her answer is twofold: “survival and victims.” The manifesto and the two themes have been further pursued by other contemporary Canadian writers.
In the collection of 10 stories in Wilderness Tips (1991), Canadian fantasies of the northern landscape underline three of the stories: “The Age of Lead,” “Death by Landscape,” and “Wilderness Tips.” The stories discuss Canadian popular myths about “the malevolent North” and focus on the themes of victims and survival in Canadian literature. “Wilderness Tips,” for example, alludes to actual and invented stories of the North as it questions the meanings and wilderness or Canadian identity (Howells 32–37). All of the characters have different assumptions about wilderness, and throughout the story these assumptions about the Canadian wilderness are destabilized and reevaluated.
As an influential and versatile literary magnate, Atwood continues to inform, entertain, and intrigue her readers and keeps contributing stories, ideas, and criticisms to Canadian literature and society. Not only does Atwood tell stories, but she also engages in conversations with her readers, with her peer citizens, and with the world. In her novel The Robber Bride, Atwood writes: “She will only be history if Tony chooses to shape her into history. At the moment she is formless, a broken mosaic; the fragments of her are in Tony’s hands, because she is dead, and all the dead are in the hands of the living” (461). Who is “she”? She is the woman, the historian, the storyteller, the victim, the survivor, the fragment, the Canadian, the revolutionist, the writer, the one with whom every reader can identify.
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996. ———. The Blind Assassin. Toronto: Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. ———. Bluebeard’s Egg. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983. ———. Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1987. ———. Bodily Harm. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981. ———. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988. ———. Dancing Girls and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977. ———. The Edible Woman. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969. ———. Good Bones. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1992. ———. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. ———. Lady Oracle. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. ———. Life before Man. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979. ———. Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983. ———. Oryx and Crake. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2003. ———. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005. ———. The Robber Bride. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. ———. Surfacing. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972. ———. Wilderness Tips. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991. Brown, Russell. “Atwood’s Sacred Wells.” Essays on Canadian Writing 17 (Spring 1980): 5–43. Carrington de Papp, Ildiko. Margaret Atwood and Her Works. Toronto: EWC, 1985. Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Jonas, George. “Canada Discovers Its ‘Thing.’ ” Macleans, 25 December–1 January 1995, p. 63. Lyons, Bonnie. “ ‘Neither Victims Nor Executioners’ in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction.” World Literature Writing in English 17, no. 1 (April 1978): 181–187. Mandel, Eli. “Atwood Gothic.” Malahat Review 41 (January 1977): 165–174. Nischit, Reingard. “Margaret Atwood in Statements by Fellow Writers.” In Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000, 305–310. Patnaik, Eira. “The Succulent Gender: Eat Her Softly.” In Literary Gastronomy, edited by David Bevan, 59–76. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988. Rosenberg, Jerome. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. Wilson, Sharon R. Margaret Atwood’s Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993. Woodcock, George. “Transformation Mask for Margaret Atwood.” Malahat Review 41 (1977): 52–56.