1 life and work of margaret atwood 1 margaret atwood a canadian postmodern icon


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In the first chapter we deal with some basic facts about the life and work of Margaret Atwood and introduce special tendencies and methods which are so typical of her works of art.

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Otawa. As a little child she spent a part of her early years in the forests of North Quebec with her younger sister and her parents. Her father was a forest etomologist. When Margaret was seven her family moved to Toronto, her father became a professor at university and Margaret studied at University of Toronto. Then she took her master‘s degree at Radcliffe College in 1962 in Massachusetts. During her study she wrote and reviewed for the college magazine. After graduating in 1961 she published her first book. It was the book of poems called Double Peresphone.

Margaret Atwood was successful in her young life but she still lacked something. She was not able to get used to life in a city and missed the wonderful nature in which she grew up. Margaret’s first contact with the United States was when she went on a graduate fellowship at Harvard. Atwood was shocked because Americans who she had met had just a dim idea about the existence of Canada. They simply had no attitudes toward it. This came to the point where she developed her Canadian nationalism. And in the works Surfacing and Survival she expressed the fact that her nationalism defined itself against the United States. After some time Margaret Atwood moved back to Canada where she taught English at the university.

During the 1970s she wrote three novels, short stories, five books of poetry, a book of literary criticism and also a book for children. Margaret Atwood is best known for her novels where she creates strong, enigmatic women characters, tells open-ended stories and analyzes city life and sexual politics. The Edible Woman (1969) – her first novel, depicts the way of life of a woman who feels that she is being eaten and simply cannot eat. Another novel Surfacing (1973) which concerns with investigation of one woman into her father’s disappearance. Then she wrote novels: Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979).

In the late seventies Margaret Atwood decided to travel, and lecture in Britain, Italy, Australia and Afghanistan. During this time she divorced her first husband and started relationship with the novelist Graeme Gibson. Later she moved to Toronto again. She permanently lived in Toronto but she also made some international travels as well. She worked as a Professor of Creative Writing at university campuses. Then she spent some time in England and in France.

Margaret Atwood wrote more than one book a year. She wrote poems True Stories and novel Bodily Harm – the story of a journalist who was recovering on a Caribbean Island, in 1981; Second Words: Selected Critical Prose in 1982; prose poems Murder in the Dark and short stories Bluebeard’s Egg in 1983; book of poems Interlunar in 1984; novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985; Selected Poems ll in 1986; The Can Lit Food Book in 1987; novel Cat’s Eye in 1988; Margaret Atwood: Conversations in 1990; short stories Wilderness Tips in 1991, short fictions Good Bones in 1992 and poems Morning in the Burned House 1995; The Robber Bride in 1993; Allias Grace – story of a man who is accused of involvement in two murders but he says that he does not remember anything, in 1996; The Blind Assasin in 2000; Oryx and Crake – a vision of scientific dystopia, in 2003 and The Penelopiad in 2005.

Atwood received many awards for the novel Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye were nominated for the Booker Prize for Fiction. The Blind Assasin won a prize in 2000.

There was a time, and it was not that long time ago, when Canadian literature was not treated seriously, particulary in the United States of America. There were just a few books which were not taken as a joke by the English – speaking literary community. Then suddenly Margaret Atwood appeared with her first novel The Edible Woman (1969), which was looked at as a strict critique of women’s role within society and her writing was typical of use of irony and metaphor.

Margaret Arwood is an icon in Canada for whom hyperbole seems an understatement. Her way of writing is a mixture of wit and intelectual fair and she seems to be able to manage anything from Bildungsroman in Cat’s Eye (1989), to Orwellian dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (1986).

She is noticeable for her use of untied ends of the stories, so it is left on the reader’s creativity and ability to imagine their own endings. The Handmaid’s Tale, the futuristic vision of “what if“ in the United States ends with a question what really happens to the main protagonist, the Handmaid Offred, when taken by the Black Van. It is just up to the reader if she/he believes in happy ending – Offred joins the underground society May Day, or she ends either at some Colony cleaning up toxic waste or hanging on the Wall with a paper bag over her head as an example of the sin.

Offred´s tale lacks conclusive ending. The reader does not know what really happened to her. Is she alive and free? Did she escape? We do not know if Nick helped her or betrayed her.

“Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can´t be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 307)1

We can never know what is the author´s intention. It is just up to us if we take it or not. The reader has space for his/her imagination and opinion. He/she does not have to accept everything that is written.

“The reader is implicated in the narrative process and actively participates in the construction and reconstraction of the narrative before slipping from his role as a participant to that of an observer in the Historical notes at the end of the novel.“ (Vervaina, 1996, p.72-73)2

It is true that on the one hand Atwood’s work often deals with brutality, emotional cruelty, murder and religious totalitarianism but on the other hand she is never insensitive or sensational. In our opinion she writes very intelligent and beautifully displayed works. Her novels show great understanding of human beings, and although she is often seen as a feminist writer we think that this is a controversial question. In our opinion her main concerns are not just women’s needs and rights but all human rights. She mostly criticizes society which breaks these “unwritten“ rules in order to fulfill its own wishes. On the first place Margaret Atwood is a humanist. She often places her characters in specific, challenging situations, which allows her to picture human‘s real way of behaviour and act towards one another. The main protagonists are mostly women who are forced to change their lives completely, to change their way of thinking, attitudes towards other people, society and the world around them. As a result they are, in fact, forced to achieve courage and self-reliance.

Although she writes about suffering, there is always present her sense of the absurd which, actually, rescues her from an overt bleakness. Think of the conclusion to the Handmaid’s Tale. There is a situation which leaves the reader unsure of what is real and what is just made up. Remarkable is the last sentence: “Any questions?“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 324)3, which probably makes all readers say: “Yes, thousands.“

In many cases the reader can hardly know whether the fact narrated by Offred is true or false. “Offred’s contradictory versions of events put into question the trust in history’s ability to tell the truth and challenge the common sense distinction that sees history as referring to the actual real world while fiction refers to a fictive universe.“ (Rao, 1993, p. 123)4

Offred usually provides the reader with more than one possible version of some situation. It is difficult to differentiate what is real or what is just made up. Moreover she herself refuses to believe any of the versions or she does not really know which version is right or she simply believes in all of them.

“The things I believe can‘t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I’ll be ready for it.“ (Atwood, 1985, p.116)5
The reader can be confused what to believe. What is more, the whole book is just double reconstruction made by Professor Pieixoto who finds a non-ordered sequence of recording. He chooses the facts and retells the story. It is unknown if he mentions all the facts or if he does not make some of them up. Nothing can be done objectively and even Professor Pieixoto surely leaves something subjective in that text.
“This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction... It is impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances, too many gestures, which could mean this or that, ...“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 144)6
As it has been already mentioned Atwood is also a poet so it is quite unsurprising that her novels have a lyrical quality. Her stories are not just told from the beginning till the end.They can be admired by their puns, rhytms and delicious ironies. If we think of Offred’s description of Serena’s garden in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale we can see a very sensitive and lyrical piece of art.

“Then we had irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 161)7
Atwood’s main thematic concerns with which she deals in her works are: detailed examination of relations between male and female; Canadian nationalism and relationship with the United States; ecological problem and warning about huge pollution; all human rights and their breaking by the institutional opression. Atwood expresses her ideas through the influence on the people’s lives and she often looks from the critical point of view at the powers which caused all these problems, unhappiness and pain among people.

The reader can observe that the texts of Margaret Atwood are full of allusions to other texts which can reflects her literary inheritance but also marks differences from her predecessors. To illustrate this feature we can think of the Gothic romance Bodily Harm, where humorous comedy changes to something which is much more frightening – a female fear from a male violence comes from fiction into reality, first as a sexual crime in Toronto and then through a military coup in an independent Caribbean republic. Here we can see a kind of shift between Gothic romance and realism.

Margaret Atwood has been criticized for the way of writing her books. Some of her fictions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Allias Grase (1996) and The Blind Assasin break the rules of the traditional narrative. She uses multiple narrators, time shifts, novels within novels, reconstruction within reconstruction and uses them in a brilliant way so they are never confusing but the close reading is needed. According to Garan Holcombe “She has excelled in a variety of genres, she has a powerfully unique voice, her stories are enigmatic and demand to be read again and again, and there is an unmistakeable irony, distancing and protective, never far from the surface of each sentence.“ (Holcombe, 2003)8

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant and original storyteller and breaker of the literary codes which is obvious in her comic way of picturing her own development as a writer in the work, “Great Unexpectation“. When she was nineteen she wanted to be a writer, but she was also frightened because she was a Canadian woman and the prospects for being both a Canadian and a woman were “dim“. But we can say that her sex was an advantage in some way. “For although the male writer in Canada was branded ‘a sissy‘, writting was not quite so unthinkable for a woman, ranking as it did with flower painting and making roses out of wool“ (Bonson, 1993, p. 1)9. And what is more, Canada was what we call a “cultural backwater“, “it had been spared the wave of Freudianism that had washed over the United States“ in the 1950s; thus Canadian women were not yet expected to be fecund and passive in order to fulfill themselves“ (Bonson,1993, p. 1)10

Margaret Atwood belongs to the North-American postmodernists. “Literary boundaries are as emphatically erased as other boundaries, for the novel includes elements of the traditional dystopia as well as the gothic and operates within a predominantly modernist and postmodernist discourse.“ (Vervaina, 1996, p. 72)11

There is also a variant version of gothic in the novel, where female fear of male power is in its centre. This primary feature of a Gothic novel is present in the picturing of characters and events in the novel. Moreover, it shows postmodernist view of narrative and history and enables the reader to be implicated in the narrative process and to take part in the construction of the tale.

Postmodernistic tendencies are obvious in the depicting of the identity and main characters‘ dealing with dissolution. Atwood defines subjectivity as heterogenous and in a constant process. She provides us with a vision of identity where woman is characterized by the multiple roles and positions.

There is not only the challenge to the ideas of stability of the self involved in the Postmodernist fiction but it also depicts contradictions and paradoxes. So postmodernism is often defined as essentially contradictory, strictly historical and indispensable political.

According to Paulina Palmer‘s opinion expressed in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Narrative Practise and Feminist Theory “Atwoood combines, in her reflexive and multifaceted writing, problems of identity and her interest in the political implications of patriarchal power“ (Rao, 1993, p. xii)12. In postmodernist novels investigation into the nature of the self and presence of selfreflection exist side by side with political and ideological concerns.

Similarly to other postmodermists in the 1960s Margaret Atwood criticizes ideological principles and values of that period of time and as Linda Hutcheon in her work The Canadian Postmodernism states, she criticizes the “sexist nature of the sixties atmosphere of permissiveness, the cult of the ‘natural‘, the ‘authentic‘, the myth of spontaneity“ (Rao, 1993, p. xiii)13. Postmodernist tendencies can be seen in the fact that Atwood´s fiction can be read at the same time as popular and academic, it is because there is no division of genres into “high“ and “low“ as in traditional art.It means that “texts like Atwood’s can be read at very different levels, as they are the same popular and academic, accessible and élitist.“ (Rao, 1993, p. xiii)14


This sub-chapter is attended to introducing the whole situation that has appeared in the novel. We look at the new regime which has developed and its cruel and fatal influence on the lives of all inhabitants. We investigate their inner processes, loneliness, sadness and neverending suffering.

The Handmaid´s Tale is a futuristic novel where Margaret Atwood pictures a possible vision of a dystopian world in which the American New Christian Right and neo-conservatives of the 1980s have gained their power in a totalitarian republic that was kind of result of political and social situation in the United States. The narrator is one of a huge number of victims, Offred – the Handmaid, who retrospectively tells the stories of the fate of women in Gilead. ”A dystopia, the novel projects the culmination of certain ominous tendencies of out present-day social, political and technological order in a nearby future. It amplifies amongst other things the revolt of the present-day American Moral Majority, also called the New Puritans, against “excesses“ of the modern welfare state – unemployment; homosexuality; pornography; abortion; sterilization – by returning to traditional values.“ (Staels, 1995, p. 157)15

Similarly to the New England Puritans (in the seventeenth century), the main representatives of Gilead establish a theocratic state near Boston. These new rulers‘ “product“ imitates a biblical land of Jacob and Laban where Jacob brought back fertility and hope by Handmaids. “Gilead´s ideologues both literally apply and purposefully distort Old Testament texts.“ (Staels, 1995, p. 157)16. So Handmaids are used to solve the problem of infertility caused in the past.

The main protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale is Offred who belongs to the Handmaids. Generally, we distinguish a few categories of women in Gilead. At the top social level permitted to women are Wives, they are married to the Commanders who are the ruling group. Most of Wives are unfertile probably because of ecological disaster. They wear blue dresses. Aunts belong to the special category of women whose main duty is to monitor and train the Handmaids. They receive personal autonomy. We can see that Aunts are used to repress the women socially. They are dressed in brown suits. Handmaids are fertile women whose main function is to bear children for the Wives and Commanders. Their duty is to participate in the Ceremony – sexual intercourse with Commanders. This idea comes from the Bible – the story of Rachel and Leah competition in giving children to their husbands. Handmaids‘ dresses are red with white “wings“ on their heads. Marthas are infertile women who work as servants in the houses of Commanders, they are dressed in green smocks. The last category of women in Gilead are Econowives who are married to the men from the lower class. In contrast with Wives, they have much more duties. They are expected to carry out all female functions (domestic duties, child-bearing,...). Their dresses are multicoloured, which can reflect their multiple roles: red as Handmaids, green as Marthas, blue as Wives.

These are the women classes which are accepted in Gilead. But outside the society exist other classes of women. One of them are called Jezebels. These are prostitutes for Commanders who work in the illegal club called Jezebel’s. They are housed in remains of a hotel from the past and are used to entertain Commanders. These women are dressed in remnants of sexualized costumes. Sterile women, feminists, lesbians and politically dissident women are called Unwomen and sent to the Colonies to clean up the toxic waste. We can say that they are unable to fit within the Republic of Gilead’s gender categories. What is interesting is that men who are homosexuals are declared as Unwomen and sent to the Colonies as well. They are dressed in grey.

Offred is the narrator of the novel and she tells the whole story from her point of view, experiencing events and memories. She tells the story as it happens and travels back in her mind to her past life through the flashbacks. Offred is intelligent and kind, she is a “normal“ woman with her faults which make her human. In the past she took for granted the freedoms feminism won and now pays the price. Her desriptions of some horrible situations in Gilead are often full of Offred’s dark sense of humor which makes them bearable, even enjoyable. She is not a hero, Offred is just an ordinary woman who is put into extraordinary situations. Very remarkable is Aunt’s Lydia statement as reaction on Handmaids‘ fear:

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 43)17

According to Offred‘s relationship with her mother it is obvious that she is not a feminist, even more she feels uncomfortable with her mother’s activism. Offred does not agree with the rules of Gilead but on the other hand she does not want to join the resistance. Indeed, after she falls in love with Nick, she seems to lose her desire for escape and freedom, and she finds the life in Gilead bearable. At the end the reader does not know what happened to Offred but we are sure that if she finally escapes, it is not because of her own iniciative or trying, it is because of Nick.

The Commander as one of the founders of the new regime is responsible for the entire totalitarian society. He is Offred’s Commander and he beheaves to her more friendly than anybody else and we can say that his invitations to his room means little escapes from the terrible life for Offred. His loneliness and sadness makes him seem as a prisoner of Gilead in Offred’s eyes. She feels sympathy to him. Offred thinks and hopes that something has changed. She starts to impress things differently. We can see it in her opinion of the Ceremony after some secret meetings with the Commander:

“I found that things were changed... Before, I’d treated it as a job, an unpleasant job.

... But that night, the first since the beginning of whatever this new arrangement was between us. I had no name for it...

He was no longer a thing to me.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 169-170)18

Moreover she is sure that even his attitude to her has changed, Offred thinks that she really means something to him:

“To him I’m no longer merely an usable body.

..., a chalice with no wine in it, ... To him I am not merely empty.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 172)19

Later the reader finds out that the Commander‘s behaviour is completely selfish, he does not want to help Offred in any way, but the worst is that he does not seem to care that he puts Offred at risk. The Commander‘s only intention is to satisfy his needs. It is obvious in the fact that his previous Handmaid hanged herself when she visited the Commander and was discovered and he still invites Offred to his room. His moral blindness is apparent when he explains the convenience of Gilead’s principles and then takes Offred to Jezebel’s which is completely against the rules of Gilead. The Commander speaks about so many good changes which were brought by Gilead:

“We’ve given them more then we’ve taken away, said the Commander.

... don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 231)20

Then he talks about women who had jobs so they left their children with some brutal ignorant women and had to pay for it. The women took care only of their business and money and there was no place for family or children. But, as he says, Gilead brought peace and tidyness among people. Commander continues:
“This way they’re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 231)21
Offred just looks at him when she hears this unbelievable words and asks him if they did not overlook something very important and it is love. Commander answers cynically:

“Was it really worth it, falling in love? Arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 232)22

We can see that he is a strict protector of Gilead’s rules and against everything which comes from the past which is more than obvious from his words. But when he takes her to the illegal club full of prostitutes, he feels happy and satisfied to be at such place which, in fact, comes from the past and represents rebellion to the law of Gilead.

“‘It is like walking into the past‘, says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even.“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 247)23

Serena Joy was a famous singer and now she is just an ill woman whose function is to stay home, to lead a household as she once helped to promote. She seems to be very sad and unsatisfied with her life. Serena cannot stand Offred but on the other hand she knows that this is the only way to be. Offred often perceives herself as “a reproach to her and a neccessity“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 18)24. Serena seems to posses no compassion for Offred, she can see only difficulty of her own life. It often seems that Offred hates her because of Serena‘s attitude to Offred but she also feels sorry for her and even guilty because of the secret meetings with the Commander in his room.

“I felt I was an intruder, in a territory that ought to have been hers.

... I was taking something away from her, although she didn’t know it. I was filching. Never mind that it was something she apparently didn’t want or had no use for, had rejected even; still, it was hers ...“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 170)25

Sometimes she thinks about the question for who this whole situation is more difficult, for Offred or for Serena. In our opinion, the answer is for both of them this situation is unbearable.

“Serena has begun to cry... She always does this, the night of the Ceremony“ (Atwood, 1985, p. 101)26

The crucial point is when Serena arranges sexual intercourse between Offred and Nick. At first it seems that Serena wants to help Offred to become pregnant, but she sees only her desire – to raise the baby. Serena offers Offred the picture of her daughter on condition that she has sex with Nick. This fact reveals that Serena has always known where Offred’s daughter lives. She used this knowledge in a very brutal way. She is a cruel and selfish woman and this kind of women are the best tools for Gilead’s intentions.

Moira is Offred’s true friend from the college. She is embodiment of resistance, moreover she is lesbian which is unthinkable in Gilead.

“Moira stood up straight and looked firmly, ... This was not our usual posture.

Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, ... she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd.“ (Atwood, 19885, p. 142-143)27

Moira is the only character who stands up to authority directly by escape from the Red Center. During her escape she puts on a uniform of Aunt which confused all the Gardians. It can symbolize her rejection of regime’s attempt to define her identity. Moira is a symbol of hope and bravery for Offred but when she sees her at Jezebel’s as a prostitute, Offred is disapointed. Moira’s spirit seems to be broken and she resigned to the acceptance. Moira is a good example of great influence of the totalitarian regime even on the most independent mind.

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