& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"I am a word in a foreign language”

Margaret Atwood's portrait by Dominic Fetherston

Margaret Atwood’s writing career spans more than four decades, encompasses all known literary genres including the ones she invented – prose fragments and prose poems. She is all things to all people and a national icon. Anthologist Eli Mandel notes, Atwood is a “feminist, nationalist, literary witch, mythological poet, satirist, formulator of critical theories,” (1) and as David Staines pertinently says, “She is, above all else, Canadian.” (2)

This essay examines the broad strokes on the Atwoodian canvas and attempts an understanding of the trends that influenced her and those that she influenced. In this endeavour the essay relies solely on selections from Atwood’s works in Volume II of Canadian Literature in English (3).

The attempt to decipher Atwood’s work is to understand it from an immigrant’s perspective; this writer does not possess the requisite felicity to be judgemental a body of work that is so vast and diverse and about a personality that evokes such staggeringly divergent sentiments. 

Another caveat is also necessary. To compartmentalize a writer’s career into different phases is a wholly arbitrary exercise and often illogical. However, this essay does that in the belief that Atwood’s career does have distinct phases, a view that is supported by Atwood’s biographers such as Staines; although this essay does not follow Staines’ categorization (4).

This essay delineates Atwood’s career into four phases:
  • The first phase is from 1961-1968 where Canadian landscape, exploration of the self and the craft predominate.
  • The second phase is from early the 1970s to the 1980s when Atwood defines Canadian literature for Canada and the world.
  • The third phase is from the 1980s to mid-1990s when Atwood the activist is redefining the world to Canada,
  • In the last phase, we are witnessing the emergence of Atwood as a national icon.
Throughout the last four-and-a-half decades, Atwood’s work is anchored to Canada. The initial phase – which begins in 1961 Double Persephone and lasts till 1968 – is about craft. This is the phase where the accent is on “myth, language, the natural world…” (₃) as is evident in the poem This is a photograph of me. It’s also about politics, as the poem City Planners shows (ending surprisingly in a plural):

Tracing the panic of suburb
order in a bland madness of snows.

Both the poems were published in 1966. (5)

The despondency of the poet in a world going insane is depicted evocatively in It is dangerous to read newspapers (1968) – a poem that is politically charged:

It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Every time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter
speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes

A decade later in Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture (1978) this despondency is mixed with – if not completely replaced by – trenchant indignation:

he is afraid, not
of the door but of the door
opening; sometimes, no matter
how hard he tries
his children are not there

This is the second phase. Evidently, in a decade – and this is the Canadian decade that coincided with Pierre Trudeau’s tenure as the prime minister that in retrospect turned out to be epochal – Atwood has emerged from her formative shell, experienced a creative catharsis and transformed herself from a mere observer to a participant in the socio-political processes.

In addition to giving Canada a canonical definition of literature and identity in Survival: A thematic guide to Canadian Literature (1972) and The Journal of Susanna Moodie (1970), “(Atwood was) involved with nationalist cultural concerns as an editor of Anansi Press (1971-73) and as an editor and political cartoonist.” (6) 

The third phase begins in the 1980s as Atwood’s work reflects the amalgamation of her experiences as an activist seized with the issues of human rights and a woman who is also exploring her role in a patriarchal society.  

“Her collected criticism Second Words (1982) contains some of the earliest feminist criticism written in Canada,” (7) and the critically acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale “(probed) the gender biases of historiography.” (8) As Coral Ann Howells explains that the novel “represents a synthesis of Atwood’s political, social and environmental concerns, transformed into speculative fiction, where Atwood continues to ask awkward questions. What difference does it make when a dystopian narrative is told from a marginalized feminine perspective, and perhaps more radically, what difference does it make when the tale is told by the Last Man alive?” (9)

In the last two decades, “Atwood’s original literary interests have not been abandoned, but they have taken on a darker shading.” (10) Atwood’s amazing productivity is both a challenge to literary analysts, who are constantly re-evaluating her work in light of new sociological theories that gain currency every decade or so, and for the general reader, who uncritically wants to enjoy a good book.

An appropriate conclusion to the essay would be an Atwood quote on her fondness for poetry that sums up her cavalier brilliance, “I had no idea, that I was about to step into a whole set of preconceptions and social roles which had to do with what poets were like, how they should behave… I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female… when I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me -- yet -- the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.” (11)

Works Cited:

(1) Eli Mandel’s Atwood’s Poetics Politics in Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System, edited by Sherrill Grace and Lorraine Weir, University of British Columbia Press, 1983

(2) David Staines: Margaret Atwood in her Canadian Context: The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Edited by Coral Ann Howells, University of Reading. 2006

(3) & (5) Section VI: Contemporary Period, 1960-1985. Margaret Atwood, Pages 433-463. Canadian Literature in English Texts and Contexts Volume II Laura Moss & Cynthia Sugars, Penguin Academics, Pearson Canada, Inc, 2009

(4) David Staines categorizes Atwood’s career in three phases: The first phase from 1961 to the early 1970s, when Atwood interpreted Canada to Canadians. The second phase from early 1970s to 1985, when Atwood interpreted Canada to the world. The third phase from mid-1980s to present, when Atwood is interpreting the world that is in Canada.

(6), (7), (8) & (10) Barbara Godard: Margaret Atwood, The Canadian Encyclopedia 2000, Editor: James H Marsh and Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Inc and The Canadian Publishers Toronto ON

(9) Coral Ann Howells – The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Edited by Coral Ann Howells, University of Reading. 2006

(11) Margaret Atwood: Waterstone’e Poetry Lecture. Delivered at Hay on Wye. Wales, June 1995

Additional Reading:

(1) Garan Holcombe: Margaret Atwood, Contemporary Writers, Bloomsbury Publishing plc, London, England, 2008 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Dominic Fetherston: I've given you credit. Originally, I had given a link to the site from which I had taken the image. I've updated the site link.