Margaret (Eleanor) Atwood Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Ottawa, Ontario, 1939. Education: Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1957-61, B.A. 1961; Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.M. 1962; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1962-63, 1965-67. Career: Lecturer in English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1964-65; instructor in English, Sir George Williams University, Montreal, 1967-68; teacher of creative writing, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1969-70; assistant professor of English, York University, Toronto, 1971-72. Editor and member of board of directors, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 1971-73. Writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1972-73, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, 1985, Macquarie University, North Ryde, New South Wales, 1987, and Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, 1989; Berg Visiting Professor of English, New York University, 1986. President, Writers Union of Canada, 1981-82, and PEN Canadian Centre, 1984-86. Awards: E.J. Pratt medal, 1961; President's medal, University of Western Ontario, 1965; Governor-General's award, 1966, 1986; Centennial Commission prize, 1967; Union League Civic and Arts Foundation prize, 1969, and Bess Hogkin prize, 1974 (Poetry, Chicago); City of Toronto award, 1976, 1989; St. Lawrence award, 1978; Radcliffe medal, 1980; Molson award, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981; Welsh Arts Council International Writers prize, 1982; Ida Nudel Humanitarian award, 1986; Toronto Arts award, 1986; Los Angeles Times Book award, 1986; Arthur C. Clarke Science-Fiction award, for novel, 1987; Humanist of the Year award, 1987; National Magazine award, for journalism, 1988; Harvard University Centennial medal, 1990; Trillium award, for Wilderness Tips, 1992, for The Robber Bride, 1994; Trillium award for excellence in Ontario writing, 1995; Commonwealth Writer's prize, 1994, Sunday Times award for literary excellence, 1994, both for The Robber Bride. Chevalier dans L'Ordre des arts et des lettres, 1994; Giller prize 1996; Medal of Honor for Literature (National Arts Club), 1997. D. Litt.: Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 1973; Concordia University, Montreal, 1980; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1982; University of Toronto, 1983; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1985; University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1985; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1985; Victoria College, 1987; University of Leeds, 1994; McMaster University, 1996. LL.D.: Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 1974. Honorary degree from Oxford University, Oxford, England, 1998. Companion, Order of Canada, 1981. Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1987; Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1988. Agent: Phoebe Larmore, 228 Main Street, Venice, California 90291, U.S.A.
The Edible Woman. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and London, Deutsch, 1969; Boston, Little Brown, 1970; New York, Bantam Books, 1996.
Surfacing. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1972; London, Deutsch, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Lady Oracle. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1976; London, Deutsch, 1977.
Life Before Man. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979; New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1980.
Bodily Harm. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1981; New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1982.
The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985;Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Cape, 1986.
Cat's Eye. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1988; New York, Doubleday, and London, Bloomsbury, 1989.
The Robber Bride. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Doubleday, and London, Bloomsbury, 1993.
Alias Grace. New York, Nan A. Talese, 1996.
The Blind Assassin. New York, Nan A. Talese, 2000.
Dancing Girls and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977; New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1982.
Encounters with the Element Man. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1982.
Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems. Toronto, CoachHouse Press, 1983; London, Cape, 1984.
Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1983; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986; London, Cape, 1987.
Unearthing Suite. Toronto, Grand Union Press, 1983.
Hurricane Hazel and Other Stories. Helsinki, Eurographica, 1986.
Wilderness Tips. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Doubleday, and London, Bloomsbury, 1991.
Good Bones. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1992; London, Bloomsbury, 1993; published as Good Bones and Simple Murders. New York, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1994.
In Our Nature: Stories of Wilderness, edited by Donna Seaman. NewYork, Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"When It Happens," in The Editors' Choice 1, edited by George E. Murphy, Jr. New York, Bantam, 1985.
"Theology," in Harper's (New York), September 1988.
"Kat," in New Yorker, 5 March 1990.
"Weight," in Vogue (New York), August 1990.
"Hack Wednesday," in New Yorker, 17 September 1990.
Contributor, Fiction, edited by R. S. Gwynn. New York, HarperCollins, 1993.
Contributor, Myths and Voices: Contemporary Canadian Fiction, edited by David Lampe. Fredonia, New York, White Pine Press, 1993.
The Trumpets of Summer, 1964.
The Servant Girl, 1974; Snowbird, 1981; Heaven on Earth, with Peter Pearson, 1986.
Double Persephone. Toronto, Hawskhead Press, 1961.
The Circle Game (single poem). Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, CranbrookAcademy of Art, 1964; introduction by Sherrill Grace. Toronto, House of Anansi, 1998.
Talismans for Children. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, CranbrookAcademy of Art, 1965.
Kaleidoscopes: Baroque. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, CranbrookAcademy of Art, 1965.
Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1966.
The Circle Game (collection). Toronto, Contact Press, 1966.
Expeditions. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Cranbrook Academy ofArt, 1966.
The Animals in That County. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1968;Boston, Little Brown, 1969.
Who Was in the Garden. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn, 1969.
Five Modern Canadian Poets, with others, edited by Eli Mandel. Toronto, Holt Rinehart, 1970.
The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1970; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Oratorio for Sasquatch, Man and Two Androids: Poems for Voices. Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1970.
Procedures for Underground. Toronto, Oxford University Press, andBoston, Little Brown, 1970.
Power Politics. Toronto, Anansi, 1971; New York, Harper, 1973; second edition published as Power Politics: Poems, Concord, Ontario, Anansi, 1996.
You Are Happy. Toronto, Oxford University Press, and New York, Harper, 1974.
Selected Poems. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1976; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Marsh, Hawk. Toronto, Dreadnaught, 1977.
Two-Headed Poems. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1978; NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1981.
True Stories. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1981; New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1982.
Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written. Toronto, Salamander Press, 1981.
Snake Poems. Toronto, Salamander Press, 1983.
Interlunar. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1984; London, Cape, 1988.
Selected Poems 2: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1986; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Selected Poems 1966-1984. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Poems 1965-1975. London, Virago Press, 1991.
Morning in the Burned House. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Virago, 1995.
Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995. London, Virago, 1998.
Other (for children)
Up in the Tree. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1978.
Anna's Pet, with Joyce Barkhouse. Toronto, Lorimer, 1980.
For the Birds. Toronto, Douglas and McIntyre, 1990.
Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, illustrated by MaryannKovalski. New York, Workman, 1995.
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto, Anansi, 1972.
Days of the Rebels 1815-1840. Toronto, Natural Science of Canada, 1977.
Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. Toronto, Anansi, 1982;Boston, Beacon Press, 1984.
Margaret Atwood: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1990.
Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. NewYork, Oxford University Press, 1995.
The Labrador Fiasco. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.
A Quiet Game: And Other Early Works, edited by Kathy Chung andSherill Grace, with illustrations by Kathy Chung. Edmonton, Alberta, Juvenilia Press, 1997.
Two Solicitudes: Conversations (with Victory-Levy Beaulieu), translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1998.
Introduction, Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton. New York, Modern Library, 1998.
Contributor, The Case Against "Free Trade": GATT, NAFTA, and the Globalization of Corporate Power, edited by Ralph Nader. San Francisco, Earth Island Press, 1993.
Editor, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. Toronto, New York, and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Editor, with Robert Weaver, The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English. Toronto, Oxford, and New York, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1986.
Editor, The Canlit Food Book: From Pen to Palate: A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare. Toronto, Totem, 1987.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1989. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Editor, Barbed Lyres. Toronto, Key Porter, 1990.
Editor, with Barry Callaghan, Gwendolyn MacEwen. Toronto, ExileEditions, 1994.
Editor, with Robert Weaver, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Foreword, The Book Group Book: A Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group, edited by Ellen Slezak. Chicago Review Press, 1995.
"Margaret Atwood: An Annotated Bibliography" (prose and poetry) by Alan J. Horne, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 1-2 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 2 vols., 1979-80.
Fisher Library, University of Toronto.
Margaret Atwood: A Symposium edited by Linda Sandler, Victoria, British Columbia, University of Victoria, 1977; A Violent Duality by Sherrill E. Grace, Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1979, and Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System edited by Grace and Lorraine Weir, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1983; The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson, Toronto, Anansi, 1981; Margaret Atwood by Jerome H. Rosenberg, Boston, Twayne, 1984; Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics by Frank Davey, Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1984; Margaret Atwood by Barbara Hill Rigney, London, Macmillan, 1987; Margaret Atwood: Reflection and Reality by Beatrice Mendez-Egle, Edinburg, Texas, Pan American University, 1987; Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood edited by Judith McCombs, Boston, Hall, 1988; Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms edited by Kathryn van Spanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988; The Novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study in Feminist Perspectives by Sunaina Singh, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1994; Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction, and Novels, edited by Lorraine M. York, Concord, Ontario, Anansi, 1995; The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje by John Cooke, Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996; Margaret Atwood by Coral Ann Howells, New York, St. Martin's, 1996; Re/membering Selves: Alienation and Survival in the Novels of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence by Coomi S. Vevaina, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Margaret Atwood: A Biography by Nathalie Cooke, Toronto, ECW Press, 1998; The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out by Rosemary Sullivan, Toronto, HarperFlamingo Canada, 1998; Margaret Atwood Revisited by Karen F. Stein, New York, Twayne, 1999; Margaret Atwood, edited by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 2000.
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In interviews, Margaret Atwood has often commented that when she started writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, "Canadian literature" was considered a contradiction in terms. Arguably, as a novelist, poet, critic, and literary/political activist, Atwood has done more to put Canada on the literary map than any other author. While Atwood is an accomplished poet—and the interconnections between her poetry, short fiction, and her longer works are both rich and complex—it is primarily as a novelist that she has gained an international reputation. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, establishes a preoccupation that remains central in all her subsequent fiction: power politics, and in particular, sexual politics. Excavating their layered histories and formative childhood experiences, Atwood explores and exposes the unequal power relations that shape and inhibit the lives of her female protagonists. Novel by novel, she extends the scope and the complexity of this examination in an astute commentary on North American social and cultural politics and an unflinching recognition of our all too human capacity to both inflict and sustain harm. Although Atwood refuses any designations that may pigeonhole her as a writer, her work is clearly feminist, and distinctively Canadian.
While Atwood's first three novels are quite different in form and tone—anti-comedy, mythic quest, and Gothic spoof—they are united by their focus on the individual effects of a society that encourages women to collude in their own objectification. The three protagonists: Marian in The Edible Woman, the significantly unnamed narrator in Surfacing, and Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, all experience (or witness) the transformations demanded by gendered social norms, with their illusory promise of a happily ever after. Atwood's heroines, however, are not the stuff of which fairy tales or costume gothics are made. Thus, The Edible Woman traces the ambivalent responses of Marian MacAlpin (who, ironically, works for a market research firm), to her upcoming marriage to a young, rising lawyer. Here, Atwood links the economy of a consumer society with women's place in the economy of the marriage market for Marian's engagement to Peter marks her transition from subject consumer to object consumed as she becomes entrapped by his conservative expectations of regulation femininity. As Peter, the epitome of a shrink-wrapped husband-to-be, starts subjecting Marian to his ideal wife makeover, Marian experiences an increasing sense of her self as an object, an alienation that is textually signaled by the movement from first-to third-person narration. While she generally acquiesces to Peter's demands, her unconscious rejection of this process is played out quite literally in terms of consumption: Marian's body begins to refuse food. This rejection begins with steak, but as the wedding day approaches her rebellion escalates in a symbolic identification with any edible object. Finally, she flees her own engagement party before she is trapped forever in the menacing photographic frame of Peter's desires. Her return to subject status is marked by the baking of an edible woman; presenting this cake surrogate to her shocked fiancé, she rejects both his marriage proposal and his objectifying construction of her. Eating the cake herself, she moves from consumed victim to autonomous consumer.
Atwood's second novel develops many of the thematic concerns of her poetry in evocative prose. Like The Edible Woman, Surfacing presents a woman disabled by the consequences of her "marital" experience, but the protagonist's journey from psychic and emotional paralysis to unified agency has a powerful mythic dimension that the earlier novel lacks. With three companions, the narrator returns to the landscape of her childhood—a remote cabin on a lake in Northern Quebec—to search for her missing father. She is ambivalent about revisiting the scene of her past, because it reminds her of a more immediate event, the loss of her child in a recent divorce. It is an experience that has left her anaesthetized, cut off from her emotions by a form of mind/body split, and her memories are so painful that she represses them in willful amnesia. The quest in search of her father, however, triggers a quest of self-discovery, as the narrator's history refuses to remain submerged; she is haunted by memories of her parents, a marriage that never was, and her complicity in the abortion of her child. Eventually, she is forced to confront her specters when a dive below the lake surface becomes a symbolic dive into her own unconscious. Abandoning her manipulative companions, she ritualistically sheds all vestiges of a language and culture that has led her into self-betrayal and murder. Alone on the island, she undergoes a shamanistic cleansing madness, ultimately surfacing with a new-found sense of self. The novel's conclusion resonates with Atwood's contemporaneous thematic guide to Canadian literature, Survival. Poised to return to the world that she has left, the narrator's vision leaves her with a resolution that speaks to her experience as both a Canadian and as a woman: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim."
Lady Oracle comes as something of a light relief as Atwood's concerns with metamorphosis and identity are given a comic spin. With a protagonist whose many incarnations give new meaning to "a.k.a.," Atwood parodies the conventions of romance and of the gothic in an exploration of the damaging effects of mass-produced fantasies for women. Joan Foster is the ultimate escape artist whose identity is made up of a number of different personae. Ostensibly, she is Joan Foster, self-effacing wife of an ineffectually radical husband, but she is also Joan Foster, celebrated author of a volume of feminist poetry. Secretly, she is Louisa K. Delacourt, author of some fifteen costume gothics. Lurking in the background is a freakish circus clown figure, the Fat Lady, a lingering self-conception from her years as an overweight, unloved child. When, under threat of blackmail, Joan's various lives are in danger of converging, she fakes her own drowning and flees to Italy. These personae, however, continue to surface as she completes her latest Harlequinesque offering, Stalked By Love, in an ironic and unconscious identification with her heroine's predicament. For all its droll comedy—Atwood even includes parodic autobiographical asides—Lady Oracle, like The Edible Woman, contains a serious message. Although Joan's recognition of her situation is debatable, the novel demonstrates the debilitating consequences for women of the beauty myth and the conventional romance plot.
Life Before Man is Atwood's bleakest exploration of relations between the sexes, and her most atypical novel to date. Although popular with readers, it has been less well received by critics, partly because of its uncharacteristic pessimism. Set in a claustrophobic one-mile radius of metropolitan Toronto, the novel is dominated by a central symbolic locale, the dinosaur exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. Atwood's specimens are emotionally isolated characters involved in a love triangle: Elizabeth, whose icy, self-control is a product of a dreadful childhood; Nate, her indecisive, politically disillusioned husband; and Lesje, a dreamy paleontologist who becomes Nate's lover. Covering a precisely dated two-year span, and structured by the alternating perceptions of the participants in this banal ménage à trois, Life Before Man traces the frustrated interactions of characters who cannot connect. Events in the novel are unrelentingly quotidian; even the dramatic suicide of Elizabeth's lover occurs before the story opens. Lesje's obsession with prehistory focuses the novel's exploration of time and extinction, since the age of the dinosaurs provides a metaphysical conceit for the eyeblink of human existence in cosmic terms. Perhaps, Atwood implies, we are only in the middle of a lengthy evolutionary process; certainly, the changes undergone by the three protagonists are minimal at best. Since they are products of social milieu that is all too recognizable as our own, "life before man" suggests that at this historical moment ours is a condition that is not yet fully human.
Challenged about the apparent hopelessness of Life Before Man, Atwood asserts the writer's responsibility to bear witness to the world around her. Moving her examination of power politics into an international arena, Atwood's next two novels, Bodily Harm and The Handmaid's Tale, translate this commitment into a moral imperative. Here, Atwood outlines the interconnected nature of various oppressions for the protagonists' personal circumstances are literally or symbolically associated with systemic abuses of power. Initially, both Rennie Wilford in Bodily Harm and Offred in The Handmaid's Tale are complacently assured of their own political neutrality, in the mistaken belief that violence happens elsewhere to other people. They quickly learn, however, that immunity is a political myth. Rennie becomes embroiled in the after-effects of British and American foreign policy, while Offred exists in a chilling aggregate of historical and contemporary events pushed to their logical extreme: a totalitarian theocracy whose seeds lie in America's Puritan history. Both take up the challenge of documenting their experiences, bearing witness to the brutal realities of the worlds that they inhabit. The novels are saved from didacticism, however, by their narrative strength and the ironic observations of the protagonists who demonstrate that history, especially personal history, is never reducible to simplistic black and white categorizations.
Bodily Harm 's protagonist is a journalist of sorts, but her work centers on surfaces rather than depths: Rennie writes trivial lifestyle pieces for city magazines. Her own insulated lifestyle, however, is disrupted by a malignant tumor. After a mastectomy, and subsequent abandonment by her lover—a more sinister version of Peter in The Edible Woman—she flees to a Caribbean island attempting to escape her feelings of violation and a life that has become too horrifically real. Structured associatively, rather than chronologically, Bodily Harm demonstrates Atwood's talent for mining the multilayered possibilities of metaphorical language as she links sexism with imperialism, cancer of the female body with cancer of the body politic. The fragmented narrative echoes Rennie's own sense of dismemberment. Like the narrator in Surfacing, she is alienated from the body that has betrayed her, a divorce that symbolically complements her inability to connect with others. Thus, she refuses to engage with the political situation in her island getaway, preferring instead to remain a professional tourist. When the island is shaken by a political coup, however, Rennie is dragged unwillingly into the thick of it. Witnessing the brutal torture of a defenseless prisoner, and the equally viscous beating of her friend and cellmate, Lora, Rennie starts making some personal and political connections. Finally, she realizes the illusory nature of her belief in her own political exemption, and of the pressing need for massive involvement. Clearly, Atwood's own involvement with Amnesty International marks this novel, for Rennie's projected response to the Canadian officials who release her and request her silence is a telling resolution: "In any case she is a subversive. She was not one once but now she is. A reporter. She will pick her time; then she will report."
The Handmaid's Tale—Atwood's first sustained prose foray into speculative fiction—struck many as a radical departure, but it is merely a versatile variation in her ongoing exploration of the intersections of sex and power. It is also the novel that best exemplifies her understanding of the political, a term that she defines as "who's allowed to do what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it and how." Revisioning Orwell's 1984 in feminist terms, Atwood creates the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian projection extrapolated from current trends. Although some critics derided its plausibility, the path of American affairs since the novel's publication makes The Handmaid's Tale read like prophetic realism. In Atwood's not-too-distant patriarchal future, New England has been taken over by right-wing Christian fundamentalists whose family values involve the state-enforced reduction of women to economic and biological functions, justified by selective readings of the Old Testament. As one of the few fertile women in a polluted world, the protagonist's role is that of a surrogate mother; she is a handmaid, ritually impregnated by the paternalistic Commander whose name she bears. Offred's "now" is partially explained by the memories that both pain and sustain her in a series of flashbacks to a past very similar to our own present. Then, Offred's chosen absence from history offered freedom; in Gilead this imposed absence constitutes historical erasure. Thus, her account documents her struggle to maintain her identity in a society that refuses to acknowledge it. Prohibited from access to pens or books, Offred's precocious command of language proves central to her self-preservation. And of course Offred is constructing and preserving her identity through the fragmented story that she relates, thus her text is strewn with postmodern allusions to the role of the reader in that process. As a subversive reporter on experience, Offred's plea for an audience becomes all the more pressing in the light of the ironic historical notes that conclude the novel.
With Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace, Atwood returns to the Toronto setting of her earlier work to explore public and private histories, and the vicissitudes of female friendships. In many ways, Cat's Eye is also a return to the territory covered in Surfacing, not only in its autobiographical echoes, but also in its exploration of time and memory. Both present an artist protagonist reluctant to examine her personal and historical depths, who eventually wrestles with her inner demons in a psychic exorcism, but Cat's Eye 's complexities are more subtle and more fully realized. The novel is retrospective both in form and content. A retrospective exhibition brings a grudging Elaine Risley back to the city of her childhood in a return that initiates an imaginative narrative retrospective of her own supposedly forgotten past. A child of the 1940s and 1950s, (like Atwood), her reflections render the Toronto scene in every minute detail, thus Cat's Eye functions not only as memoir, but also as a social document of post-war Canadian culture. The dramatic center of the novel lies in Elaine's childhood experience of victimization at the hands of her three best friends, and in her ambivalent feelings about the chief agent of her feminine indoctrination and torment, Cordelia. As Atwood presents it, the world of little girls is not marked by sugar and spice, but rather by the same power politics that characterize adult life. Artistic insight is offered, however, in the paintings that are the key to Elaine's unresolved anxieties, and ultimately her attempt to master her past in a visionary blend of revenge and forgiveness, love and loss. Cat's Eye is perhaps Atwood's most profound achievement for here she, like her protagonist, transforms the scattered details of a life into unified work of art.
If Cat's Eye ventures into the uncharted terrain of malicious little girls, then The Robber Bride plumbs the depths of female sexual competitiveness. Here, Atwood braids the contrasting histories and perceptions of three battle-scarred "veterans"—Charis, Tony, and Roz—whose weaknesses are exploited by a machiavellian seductress. In a comic gender inversion of Grimm's tale, the titular villain is Zenia, a protean femme fatale who invades the protagonists' lives only to make off with the booty—their men. Indeed, warfare is the dominant motif, for Zenia's sexual terrorism is played out against a backdrop of past and present military conflict. As in Bodily Harm, the personal and the political are intricately intermingled. The Robber Bride also develops Atwood's characteristic concern with formative influences and female identity since Zenia, like Cordelia in Cat's Eye, functions not only as an antagonist, but also as a doppelgänger for each of the characters. Although each woman's point of view is symmetrically apportioned, it is Tony—the text's literal and figurative historian—whose perspective frames the novel. Musing on the ambiguous promise of History's explanatory power, and its relation to the inexplicability of Zenia, it is she who wonders whether the evil that Zenia represents may not also be a part of us.
With Alias Grace, her most recent novel, Atwood contributes to the contemporary boom in historical fiction, even as she indulges the fascination with "bad girls" that marks her previous two novels. Raiding the nineteenth-century archive, Atwood presents the richly evoked history of Canada's answer to Lizzie Borden: the "celebrated murderess," Grace Marks, convicted of abetting the murder of her Tory employer and his housekeeper/mistress. A Zenia who is allowed to tell her own story, Grace calmly exposes the contradictory constructions of her character, and unsettles the conventional expectations of Simon Jordan, the ambitious doctor who hopes to make his reputation by curing her apparent amnesia about the case. Like the imprisoned handmaid, Grace's tale is her only power and she wields her ability with consummate skill; she is as adept at storytelling as she is at the female art of quilt-making, the novel's dominant, somewhat overdetermined metaphor. Grace Marks's narrative voice is quintessential Atwood—dispassionate, laconic, devastating in its acuity—but, much like the historians who consider the handmaid's tale, Simon Jordan cannot "hear" its political import or register his own complicity in the unequal class and gender system that her story so subtly exposes. Exhibiting the same prurient interest in Grace's case as the salivating public (and, implicitly, the reader), Simon longs for the gory details; an ever enigmatic Grace provides an uncompromisingly detailed account of the social and economic circumstances that may (or may not) have led a housemaid to murder. Although Alias Grace contains a "revelation" that demonstrates Atwood's continued attraction to the psychological possibilities afforded by the gothic mode, even this sensational conclusion is ambiguous. Ultimately, the question of Grace Marks's guilt or innocence is subordinated to a more telling exposé of the power politics that constitute Atwood's abiding concern. In this, her first extended exploration of Canada's past since The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Atwood reiterates and historicizes the central tenet of her moral vision: our human potential to be both a victim and victimizer and our responsibility to be neither.
- Margaret Atwood (1939–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
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