Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Atwood at Eden Mills Writers' Festival 2006, Blackwattle Bay
Born November 18, 1939 (1939-11-18) (age 72)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Occupation Novelist, Poet
Nationality Canadian
Alma mater Victoria College, Toronto
Period 1953 to present
Genres Romance, Historical fiction, Speculative fiction, Science fiction, Dystopian fiction
Notable work(s) The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Surfacing

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC, OOnt, FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice.

While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she is also a poet, having published 15 books of poetry to date.[1][2] Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age.[3] Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.


Early life

Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children[4] of Margaret Dorothy (née Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist.[5] Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in eighth grade. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto and graduated in 1957.[5]

Atwood began writing at age six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. Her professors included Jay Macpherson, and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and minors in philosophy and French.[5]

In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for 2 years, but never finished because she never completed a dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance”. She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.

Personal life

In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto. In 1976 their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.

Critical reception

The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic", but commented that her logic does not match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,[6] a book which commences with the conception of debt and its kinship with justice. Atwood claims that this conception is ingrained in the human psyche, manifest as it is in early historical peoples, who matched their conceptions of debt with those of justice as typically exemplified by a female deity. Atwood holds that, with the rise of Ancient Greece, and especially the installation of the court system detailed in Aeschylus's Oresteia, this deity has been replaced by a more thorough conception of debt.

In 2003, Shaftesbury Films produced an anthology series, The Atwood Stories, which dramatized six of Atwood's short stories.

Atwood and science fiction

The Handmaid's Tale received the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The award is given for the best science fiction novel that was first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." and on BBC Breakfast explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled among advocates of science fiction, and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.[7]

Atwood has since said that she does at times write social science fiction, and that Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, while admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth", and said that science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.[8]

Margaret Atwood and Feminism

Margaret Atwood is a part of a long line of strong females in her family. She’s related to Mary Webster . Mary survived being hanged for witchcraft in Connecticut during the seventeenth century (“the drop” wasn’t invented as of yet). Mary’s “tough neck” has continued to run through the family with not only Atwood’s mother and aunts being very capable women but with Atwood herself. Surrounded by intellectual dialogue by the female faculty members at Victoria College at UofT and her outspoken involvement in the literary journal, Acta Victoriana, it’s no surprise that Atwood’s books would encompass the notion of strong women.[9] You can see Atwood’s feminist influence through Fiona Tolan’s book, Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction, which goes through each of her books and breaking them down. For example, The Edible Woman was published in 1969 which coincided with the early second wave of the feminist movement. The themes in the book were much like the ones discussed through the movement but Atwood goes on to deny that the book is feminist and that she wrote it four years before the movement. Atwood believes that the feminist label can be applied to writers who consciously work within the framework of the feminist movement.[10]

Contribution to the theorizing of Canadian identity

Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally.[11] In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival.[12] This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship.[13] The "victor" in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim[13] Atwood’s Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye’s theory of garrison mentality; Atwood instrumentalizes Frye’s concept to a critical tool.[14] More recently, Atwood has continued her exploration of the implications of Canadian literary themes for Canadian identity in lectures such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995).

Atwood’s contribution to the theorizing of Canada is not limited to her non-fiction works. Several of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Surfacing, are examples of what postmodern literary theorist Linda Hutcheon calls “Historiographic Metafiction”.[15] In such works, Atwood explicitly explores the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history.

Ultimately, according to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history and by unquestioned adherence to the community.

Atwood and animals

Margaret Atwood has repeatedly made observations about our relationships to animals in her works. Atwood offers this observation about eating animals: "The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people...And we eat them, out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life." Characters in her books link sexual oppression to meat-eating and consequently give up meat-eating. In The Edible Woman, Atwood's character Marian identifies with hunted animals and cries after hearing her fiance's experience of hunting and eviscerating a rabbit. Marian stops eating meat but then later returns to it.[16]

In Cat's Eye, the narrator recognizes the similarity between a turkey and a baby. She looks at "the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird." In Atwood's Surfacing, a dead heron represents purposeless killing and prompts thoughts about other senseless deaths.[16]

Chamber opera

In March 2008 it was announced by Atwood that she had accepted her first chamber opera commission. Pauline will be on the subject of Pauline Johnson, a writer and Canadian artist long a subject of fascination to Atwood. It will star Judith Forst, with music by Christos Hatzis, and be produced by City Opera of Vancouver. Pauline will be set in Vancouver, British Columbia in March 1913, in the last week of Johnson's life.

Political involvement

Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left-wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term.[17] Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are members of the Green Party of Canada and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May. Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, and she and her partner are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been Chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and President of PEN Canada, and is currently a Vice President of PEN International. In the 2008 federal election she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec.[18] In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.[19]

During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, including an essay she wrote opposing the agreement.[20]

Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope."[21]

Despite calls for a boycott by Gazan students,[22] and a request to boycott from PACBI[23] Atwood visited Israel and accepted the $1,000,000 Dan David Prize along with Indian author Amitav Ghosh at Tel Aviv University in May 2010.[24] Atwood commented that "we don't do cultural boycotts".[25]

In the Wake of the Flood, a documentary film by Canadian director Ron Mann released in October 2010, followed Atwood on the unusual book tour for her novel The Year of the Flood. During this innovative book tour, Atwood created a theatrical version of her novel, with performers borrowed from the local areas she was visiting. The documentary is described as "a fly-on-the-wall film vérité."[26]



Short fiction collections

Poetry collections

Anthologies edited

  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982)
  • The Canlit Foodbook (1987)
  • The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1988)
  • The Best American Short Stories 1989 (1989) (with Shannon Ravenel)
  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1995)

Children's books

  • Up in the Tree (1978)
  • Anna's Pet (1980) (with Joyce C. Barkhouse)
  • For the Birds (1990) (with Shelly Tanaka)
  • Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995)
  • Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003)
  • Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2006)


  • Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972)
  • Days of the Rebels 1815–1840 (1977)
  • Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982)
  • Through the One-Way Mirror (1986)
  • Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995)
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)
  • Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982–2004 (2004)
  • 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)


  • Kanadian Kultchur Komix featuring "Survivalwoman" in This Magazine under the pseudonym, Bart Gerrard 1975–1980
  • Others appear on her website.

Television scripts

  • The Servant Girl (1974)
  • Snowbird (1981)
  • Heaven on Earth (1987)


Audio recordings

  • The Poetry and Voice of Margaret Atwood (1977)
  • Margaret Atwood Reads “Unearthing Suite” (1985)
  • Margaret Atwood Reading From Her Poems (2005)

Awards and honours

Atwood has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally, including:


Honorary degrees

Further reading

  • Carrington de Papp, I. Margaret Atwood and Her Works. Toronto: EWC, 1985.
  • Clements, Pam. "Margaret Atwood and Chaucer: Truth and Lies," in: Cahier Calin: Makers of the Middle Ages. Essays in Honor of William Calin, ed. Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Kalamazoo, MI: Studies in Medievalism, 2011), pp. 39–41.
  • Cooke, N. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1998.
  • Hengen, Shannon and Ashley Thomson. Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988–2005. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-521-54851-9
  • Nischik, Reingard M. Margaret Atwood: Works & Impact. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000. ISBN 1571132694
  • Nischik, Reingard M. Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009. ISBN 0776607243
  • Rigney, B. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1987.
  • Rosenburg H. J. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
  • Grace, Sherrill E and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983.
  • Weir, Lorraine. "Meridians of Perception: A Reading of The Journals of Susanna Moodie" in The Achievement of Margaret Atwood ed. Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: Anansi, 1981.
  • Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 1998. ISBN 0-00-255423-2
  • Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.
  • Tolan, Fiona. Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction. Netherlands: Rodopi B.V., 2007. Print.
  • VanSpanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. USA: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. Print.
  • E. Grace, Sherrill, and Lorraine Weir. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983. Print.


  1. ^ "Margaret Atwood". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved August 9, 2009. 
  2. ^ Holcombe, Garan (2005). "Margaret Atwood". Contemporary Writers. London: British Arts Council. Retrieved October 22, 2008. 
  3. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol. 'Margaret Atwood: Poet', New York Times, May 21, 1978
  4. ^ Margaret Atwood: Queen of CanLit. CBC Archives. Retrieved April 6, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c "Luminarium Margaret Atwood Page". Retrieved October 26, 2009. 
  6. ^ "Premium content". The Economist. October 16, 2008. Retrieved October 26, 2009. 
  7. ^ Langford, David, "Bits and Pieces" SFX magazine No. 107, August 2003 [1]
  8. ^ Atwood, Margaret. "Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction" The Guardian, June 17, 2005
  9. ^ Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.
  10. ^ Tolan, Fiona. Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction. Netherlands: Rodopi B.V., 2007. Print.
  11. ^ Moss, Laura; John Moss and Tobi Kozakewich, Eds. (2006). "Margaret Atwood: Branding an Icon Abroad" in Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 28. 
  12. ^ Atwood, Margaret (1972). Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi. p. 32. 
  13. ^ a b Atwood, M. (1972), 36–42.
  14. ^ Pache, Walter; Reingard M. Nischik, Ed. (2002). "A Certain Frivolity: Margaret Atwood's Literary Criticism" in Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Toronto: Anansi. p. 122. 
  15. ^ Howells, Coral Ann; John Moss and Tobi Kozakewich, Eds. (2006). "Writing History from The Journals of Susanna Moodie to The Blind Assassin" in Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 111. 
  16. ^ a b Carol J. Adams. 2006. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. The Continuum International Publishing Group. p141-142, 152, 195, 197.
  17. ^ Mother Jones:Margaret Atwood: The activist author of Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale discusses the politics of art and the art of the con. July/August 1997
  18. ^ "Canada Votes — Atwood backs Bloc on arts defence". Canada: CBC. October 4, 2008. Retrieved October 26, 2009. 
  19. ^ Margaret, Atwood. Anything but a Harper majority. Globe and Mail. October. 6, 2008.
  20. ^ [2]
  21. ^ "Sudbury a symbol of hope: Margaret Atwood". Northern Life, November 23, 2009.
  22. ^ "Letter from Gaza students, request Atwood to deny". April 6, 2010. Retrieved August 27, 2011. 
  23. ^ "PACBI-Atwood – Do Not Accept Prizes from Apartheid Israel". April 6, 2010. Retrieved September 19, 2010. 
  24. ^ "Gaza students to Margaret Atwood: reject Tel Aviv U. prize". ei. 
  25. ^ Ackerman, Gwen. "Atwood Accepts Israeli Prize, Defends 'Artists Without Armies': Interview". Bloomberg. Retrieved September 19, 2010. 
  26. ^ In the Wake of the Flood. Website for "The Year of the Flood." Retrieved March 30, 2011.
  27. ^ Margaret, Atwood. "Snake Poems by Margaret Atwoo". Retrieved August 27, 2011. 
  28. ^ "One Ring Zero with Margaret Atwood in Toronto". YouTube. August 26, 2006. Retrieved August 27, 2011. 
  29. ^ Office of the Governor General of Canada. Order of Canada citation. Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved May 24, 2010
  30. ^ "How Atwood became a writer". Harvard University Gazette. November 8, 2001. Retrieved September 19, 2010. 
  31. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 27, 2011. 
  32. ^ Walsh, Caroline. "Margaret Atwood to be honoured by NUI Galway". The Irish Times. Retrieved on June 18, 2011.

External links

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