Biography of Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
Canadian poet, novelist, and critic, noted for her feminism and mythological themes. Atwood’s texts derive from the traditional realist novel, where the female protagonist is often representative of an ‘everywoman’ character, and is victimized by gender and politics. In her stories Atwood combines fantasy and social realism, myth and parody, poetry and pastiche, and also employs postmodernist devices to unsettle the certainties of traditional realism.
“You have good bones, they used to say, and I paid no attention. What did I care about good bones, then? I was more concerned with what was covering them. I was more concerned with lust, and pimples. The bones were backdrop.”
(from Good Bones, 1992)
Margared Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, the second of three children. Her father was a forest etymologist and she spent part of her early years in the bush of northern Quebec, where he undertook research. These childhood experiences gave material later to Atwood’s metaphorical use of the wilderness and its animals as in WILDERNESS TIPS (1991).
In 1946 Atwood’s family moved to Toronto. She was eleven before she attended school full-time. Atwood graduated from Leaside High School in 1959 and studied then at the University of Toronto. She won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and became a graduate student at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, receiving her M.A. in 1962. Atwood continued her studies of Victorian literature at Harvard (1962-63, 1965-67), reading for Ph.D., but interrupted her studies in 1967 after having failed to complete her dissertation on ‘The English Metaphysical Romance’. She worked for a market-research company in Toronto and taught English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (1964-65). She has held a variety of academic posts and has been writer-in-residence at numerous Canadian and American universities.
As a writer Atwood made her debut with DOUBLE PERSEPHONE (1961), a collection of poems, at the age of 19. Her privately printed book won the E.J. Pratt medal. Another early collection, THE CIRCLE GAME (1964, rev. in 1966) received the Canadian Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1966.
While working as an editor at the Toronto publishing house Anansi in the early 1970s, Atwood published her controversial study SURVIVAL: A THEMATIC GUIDE TO CANADIAN LITERATURE (1972), in which she stated that the key pattern in Canadian writing is that of victimization. This position consists of denying victim status, claiming victimization as inescapable fate, combating the role, and becoming a nonvictim. For scholars Atwood’s tongue-in-cheek humour was hard to swallow, especially when she asserted that Canadian literature has remained blighted by subservient, colonial mentality.
“Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought she was a man in disguise. There have been such incidents.”
(from The Handmaid’s Tale)
Atwood’s early feminist treatise, THE EDIBLE WOMAN (1969), was both funny and terrifying story about a young woman, who works for a consumer company. In THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1985) the heroine was trapped in a dystopia in which free expression is banned. The book was filmed by Volker Schlöndorf from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, 1990. CAT’S EYE (1989) told of a painter who explorers her childhood memories. ALIAS GRACE (1996) used a genuine 19th-century criminal case to weave a fictional exploration of the class, psychological, and gender politics surrounding a female alleged murderer. Grace Marks was imprisoned in 1843 for almost 30 years as an accomplice to the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his mistress, the housekeeper Nancy. Her guilt was never incontrovertibly established. “A lot of what is written down is either wishful thinking or spiteful gossip,” Atwood has said. Grace’s sentence of death is commuted to life imprisonment. Grace becomes fair game for doctors who wish to analyze good and evil in women. THE BLIND ASSASSIN (2000) is about two sisters, one of whom, Laura Chase, dies in a car accident in 1945 under ambiguous circumstances. Two years later the body of Richard E. Griffen, a prominent industrialist, is found dead. And in 1975 Aimee Griffen dies of a broken neck. The only person who knows the circumstances behind these deaths is Iris Chase Griffen, Laura’s elder sister, Richard’s wife, Aimee’s mother. The richly layered story then continues as a novel-within-a-novel, using an excerpt from Laura Chase’s novella, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. It deals with an affair between a wealthy young woman and her lover, a radical on the run for. “I look back back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.” Much of the action of this novella consists of a fantasy, improvised by the man, in which child carpet weavers, blinded by the work, find new work as assassins.
Atwood’s fiction is often symbolic and she has moved easily between satire and, fantasy, and suffering. Her first and third novels were comic, the fourth, LIFE BEFORE MAN (1979), presented a bleak, harsh view of human life. She has been politically active in PEN and in Amnesty International, and her work is seen as a barometer of feminist thought. For years she has lived on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, with writer Graeme Gibson and their daughter. The Blind Assassin earned Atwood the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award for fiction, in 2000.
“But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.”
(from The Blind Assassin, 2000)
Biography By: Petri Liukkonen