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Margaret Atwood

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English Literature

Margaret Atwood is largely celebrated for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its continued relevance in modern society. However, the Canadian writer has also published other successful, significant novels and collections of poetry, earning her several Booker Prizes and other awards.

Margaret Atwood's Biography

Atwood was born in Ottawa on 18 November, 1939. Atwood spent much of her early childhood roaming the Canadian wilderness of Ontario due to her father’s career as an insect-based biologist. She began school at the age of 12. Her youth was filled with different creative pursuits such as writing poetry, fiction, opera, morality plays, as well as painting and puppetry (a passion she has recently rediscovered in her remake of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death).

Atwood was also an avid reader, and claims to have read the entirety of Poe’s works by the age of 11. He became her favourite writer as a teenager, alongside the Brothers Grimm and others.

Atwood says that it was her childhood isolation with 'no radio, no television, no theatre, no cinema, no electricity, and no books' that drew her to reading in particular and then again, pushing her to her future career.1

At the age of 12, Margaret Atwood joined the education system after being home-schooled during the British equivalent of Year 9 (Grade 8) at Leaside High School. She graduated at the age of 16 and, certain that she wanted to pursue a career in literature and writing, went into further education.

In 1957, the same year she graduated from high school, Atwood began as an undergraduate at Victoria College, University of Toronto. After graduating with a Bachelor's, she completed her Master's at Radcliffe College of Harvard University in 1962. Throughout her higher education, she predominantly studied English Literature, but also touched upon French and Philosophy as minors.

Atwood's Career

Atwood published her first collection of poems Double Persephone in 1961, and continued to publish other collections like Cranbrook Academy of Art (1965), The Circle Game (1966), and The Animals in That Country (1968) over the next few years. She began her academic career as an English lecturer at the University of British Columbia and then became a lecturer at Sir George Williams University and the University of Alberta.

Throughout the decade, Atwood lived in America and Canada, moving between Boston, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Edmonton, until 1968, when she moved to London, England. While there, she published her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), which critiques the commercialisation and consumerism that dominates America.

Atwood then explored more of Europe, living in France and Italy before she returned to Canada as an Assistant Professor of English at York University, Toronto. She then transferred to the University of Toronto as a writer-in-residence until 1973. Atwood took a pause in her career in education until the following decade so she could prioritise her writing.

During her hiatus in the 70s, she released several more poetry collections and novels, including the non-fictional, influential analysis of Canadian literature, Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).

Atwood soon achieved significant literary success, particularly following her publishing of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Consequently, she spent a short time as the President of the Writer’s Union of Canada for a year in 1981. Atwood also resumed several teaching roles over the decade, spending time teaching at the University of Alabama, New York University, Macquarie University, and Trinity University.

Atwood released a significant number of novels and books as she removed herself from teaching at universities. One of these includes Alias Grace (1996), which was recently made into a television series in 2017. The 1990s also brought the cinematic version of one of her most famous novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, five years after it was published.

The film was critically and commercially unsuccessful. It changed elements of the story plot that resulted in minimisation and dismissal of some of the horrors of Gilead that Atwood had depicted. For example, the film names the main character, removing the universality of Offred's tale in Gilead, and gives the plot a happier ending by letting Offred kill the Commander.

The beginning of the 2000s also treated Atwood with great success, with an acknowledgement on the Canadian Walk of Fame in 2001. This fame continued as she released more novels, including the MaddAddam trilogy, featuring the novels Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009,) and MaddAddam (2013). In 2019, Atwood also released the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale after 30 years, called The Testaments, whose success was increased with a recent Hulu television series based on the first book.

Beyond her novels and poetry, Atwood has also been engaged in several other projects. In 2013, Atwood conceived the idea of LongPen, which allows a robotic hand to mimic an individual’s. This allowed book tours to be completed without being actually present.

Although Atwood has largely given up teaching at Universities, she has engaged in multiple online lectures that act as lessons for creative writing through Masterclass. She was also the first contributor to the Future Library Project where her submission will be held and published 100 years later.

Atwood's Personal life

Although very little of Atwood’s personal life has been released to the public (something that Michael Rubbo, who released a filmed biography of Atwood in the 1980s, became frustrated over), some elements are known.

Atwood has had three significant romantic relationships throughout her life. The first was an engagement to another student, James 'Jay' Ford, but she ended this in 1964. Atwood then began a relationship with her friend Jim Polk, whom she married in 1967. The couple moved around America and Europe together, with Atwood taking on teaching posts as they went. With her increasing literary success, the pair began to distance themselves from each other, until they divorced in 1973.

During her marriage to Polk, she formed a friendship with another writer, Graeme Gibson, which then evolved into a long-term partnership. Although Gibson already had two sons, he and Atwood only had one child together: Eleanor Atwood Gibson, in 1976. Gibson died from dementia in 2019.

Margaret Atwood's major books

The Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments (2019)

Owing to the success of the multi-award-winning TV show of the same name, The Handmaid's Tale is one of Atwood’s most famous works. The Handmaid’s Tale tackles themes such as religion, morality, reproduction, gender, and rebellion through the narrative of Offred.

Offred is a Handmaid who is forced to bear children for elite couples within a theocratic society called Gilead. Its sequel, The Testaments, also covers similar themes but through three different perspectives: Aunt Lydia (a character from the first book), Nicole/Daisy, and Agnes. This allowed Atwood to explore different aspects of Gilead to the first novel.

Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam

The MaddAddam trilogy is another well-known series by Margaret Atwood that explores themes on reproduction, bioethics, environmental disaster, societal breakdown, and the dangers of technology.

The first novel, Oryx and Crake, follows Jimmy, or 'The Snowman', through an apocalyptic setting while he cares for his friend’s genetically modified race of humans, known as the Children of Crake.

Its sequel, The Year of the Flood, explores the apocalypse from a lower class point of view through the narrative of Toby and Ren. The two characters describe their tragic experiences and their time in a religious environmentalist group called God's Gardeners.

The third and final instalment, MaddAddam, combines the characters of the two prior books and further explores the reasons for the apocalypse, as well as the experiences of the last human survivors.

Alias Grace

Alias Grace is a piece of historical fiction, exploring the murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery in 1843 through the narrative of Grace Marks, who is serving a life sentence for the crime. The novel raises questions on social class, female sexuality, mental health, and memory.

Margaret Atwood’s importance in literature

Genre

Margaret Atwood is resistant to labelling her novels (beyond that of speculative fiction). This is because her work typically does not conform to the regulations of specific genres, and often overlap.

She feels that writing with the intention of a novel being in a genre may also force a writer into a 'preconceived box' of how each genre is defined.2

Atwood’s novels are capable of comfortably fitting into many genres and are particularly influential because of their cross-over elements from different genres. For example, the dystopian genre had largely focused on universal experiences, yet The Handmaid's Tale allowed greater exploration of the feminist dystopian sub-genre.

Dystopian fiction

Many of Atwood’s novels take up elements of dystopian fiction, such as The Handmaid's Tale, The MaddAddam Trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last (2015).

Atwood regards her dystopian novels more as 'dire warnings'3 on what the future might hold if we do not change but her novels ring so true to modern society that several have entitled Atwood as the 'prophet of dystopia.' 4

Atwood has been particularly influential on dystopia that focuses on more feminist themes, especially in comparison to earlier dystopian writers such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).

Feminist fiction

In her novels, Atwood focuses predominantly on women within oppressive societies. She explores patriarchal societies like that of The Handmaid’s Tale as well as those constructed by women, such as in Cat’s Eye (1988). This focus may be because she has been writing since feminism's second wave, making the female experience in society central in her focus.

Many of Atwood’s novels have been exsamined through the lens of herstory5, particularly Alias Grace and The Penelopiad (2005), which both look at a historical tale from a woman’s perspective. Herstory is a pun on the word history and features the analysis of history through a more female-based lens (whether through a woman's perspective or a focus on their roles in society). This technique is an attempt to avoid predominantly male-based historical biases.

Atwood is resistant to the label of feminist writer, owing to the different values associated with the movement. This label might, for example, suggest a feminist “who felt that women were betraying their gender to have sex with men” or “the kind that thinks that transwomen are not women” 6.

Speculative fiction

Atwood feels most comfortable labelling her work as speculative fiction. She says that many of her novels begin with a speculation of “what if”. 7 Speculative fiction is a genre that encompasses many themes and elements, making writing within it much more fluid and free than other, more restrictive genres.

Importance to Canadian literature

While Atwood has had an influence on Western Literature, her greatest impact has been on Canadian literature. Her book Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature analyses what she calls a key theme of Canadian literature: the survival of the victim against harsh circumstances. Examples of such harsh circumstances could be:

  • Environmental factors of a character's situation, such as harsh snows across Canada or perhaps a nuclear holocaust

  • The political environment that surrounds a character, or that might fundamentally clash with, or threaten, the character

  • A social climate that might cause smaller conflicts with the characters in their surrounding environment

Atwood's Literary Influence on other writers

Margaret Atwood has had a significant impact on many writers, particularly on dystopian literature with a focus on the experience of women.

Louise O’Neil’s Young Adult novel, Only Ever Yours (2014), seems to combine many elements of Margaret Atwood’s novels. The novel explores a dystopian society where girls are bred in a school with the intention of either fulfilling the role of a Companion (a wife of one of the men and a role the girls compete for), a Concubine (a sexual companion for the same men) or a Chastity (a teacher that grooms more girls into the society). The controlled roles for women within this novel is clearly inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale, while the cruelty that the girls inflict on each other echo elements found in Cat’s Eye.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016) is another female-focussed dystopian novel that examines gender equality when power between genders is dramatically reversed. In Alderman’s world, women suddenly regain a power to be able to release electricity from their hands, enabling them to assert their dominance over men. Alderman, like O’Neil, also seems to take influence from Atwood. In fact, Atwood was her mentor while writing the novel.

Atwood is also claimed by many writers as one of their favourites and a significant influence. Louis Sachar, writer of the YA novel Holes (1998), places Atwood amid the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, E.B White and Richard Price as one of his favourite writers. Similarly, Tracy Chevalier, writer of Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), also credits Atwood as a great influence. Other writers influenced by Atwood are Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway.

Margaret Atwood - Key takeaways

  • Margaret Atwood was born in Canada, in 1939 and spent much of her early years in the wilderness before she joined high school at the age of 12.
  • Margaret Atwood wrote one of her most famous novels: The Handmaid's Tale, in the 80s, and wrote the sequel almost 30 years later, called The Testaments.
  • Atwood is a highly influential writer in Western Literature, but even more so in Canada. She even wrote a book grouping most of Canadian literature to a main theme of survival.
  • Atwood is an important writer to the dystopian genre and the feminist genre. She is, however, reluctant to these labels and instead prefers her novels to be called speculative fiction.

1. Margaret Atwood, Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing: Getting Started as a Writer, 2018.

2. Margaret Atwood, Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing: The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre, 2018.

3. Margaret Atwood, Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 2004.

4. Rebecca Mead, Margaret Atwood - the Prophet of Dystopia, 2017.

5. Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, 1970.

6. Margaret Atwood, 'Margaret Atwood: "When did it become the norm to expect to date a pornstar on the first date?"' , Irish Times, 2018.

7. Margaret Atwood, "Margaret Atwood on the real-life events that inspired The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments", penguin.co.uk, 2019.






Margaret Atwood

Atwood uses her novel to explore multiple topics, such as an environmentally induced fertility crises, gender roles, and theocratic regimes.

Margaret Atwood says she wrote the novel The Handmaid's Tale from the starting question of "What if?", wondering how women would be forced to return to the home.

Margaret Atwood often writes in the speculative fiction genre, but also explores historical-fiction and other genres. Her novels often focus on the suppression of women, whether by other women or the patriarchy.

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale in the wake of the second wave of feminism, that primarily focused on having equality in the workplace. Atwood wrote the novel as a theory on how women might be forced back into the home.

Although Margaret Atwood is most well-known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, she has written many other novels, collections of short stories, poetry, and essays.

Final Margaret Atwood Quiz

Question

Who wrote Oryx and Crake?

Show answer

Answer

Margaret Atwood.

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When was Oryx and Crake published?

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Answer

2003.

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Question

What are the two names that the main character uses?


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Answer

Snowman and Jimmy.


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True or false: Jimmy and Crake started out as friends, but became rivals as the narrative continued.


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Answer

True.

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What other name does Crake originally go by?


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Answer

Glenn.

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What does Crake create during his research?


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Answer

Genetically modified humans and a pill called BlyssPluss.

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What are the genetically modified humans in the novel called?


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Answer

Crakers or Children of Crake.

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Who is the love interest for both Snowman and Crake?

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Answer

Oryx.

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Question

Who do the Crakers believe Oryx and Crake are?


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Answer

They see them as Gods.

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Question

Which of the following is not a main theme in Oryx and Crake?

  1. Relationships

  2. Financial issue

  3. Scientific progress

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Answer

B, Financial issue.

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Question

True or false: The novel has a chronological structure.


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Answer

False. The chapters alternate between Snowman’s post-apocalyptic present and Jimmy’s narrative as Snowman recollects his past.

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Question

Where do Jimmy and Crake first see Oryx?


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Answer

 In a child pornography video.

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Question

What causes the plague that wipes out the human race?

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Answer

Crake’s BlyssPluss pills. 

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How does Oryx help Crake with the genetically modified humans?


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Answer

She acts as their teacher.

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Question

Where does Snowman have to travel to for supplies?

  1. OrganInc 

  2. Paradice

  3. BlyssPluss

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Answer

B, Paradice.

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Question

When was The Handmaid’s Tale written?

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Answer

The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985.

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Who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale?

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Answer

Margaret Atwood.

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What is the name of the main character in The Handmaid’s Tale?

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We do not know her actual name, but the name given to her in Gilead is Offred.

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How many chapters are there in The Handmaid’s Tale?


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There are 46 chapters and the Historical Notes. These chapters are divided into fifteen sections that are split into day and night sections, with the night sections being a lot more introspective.

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Question

What is a Handmaid?


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Handmaids are women who fulfil the role of bearing children within Gilead. They are required to engage in a monthly ceremony in which they are sought to be impregnated by the Commander to whom they have been assigned.

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What is a Martha?


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Marthas are the servants of a Commander’s household. They wear green clothing and fulfil duties such as cooking, cleaning, and fire lighting. Their name comes from the biblical story in which Jesus visits Mary and Martha.

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Who is Piexoto?

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Piexoto is one of the Professors who appear at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. He refers to Offred’s narration in his historical lecture on Gilead.

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Where does the Commander take Offred?

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The Commander takes Offred to Jezebel’s, a brothel for Commanders.

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What is an Econowife, and how are they different from Commander’s wives?

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Econowives are the wives of lower-class husbands. They have to fulfil all the duties and roles in the house for which Commander’s wives have Marthas and Handmaids. This is symbolically reflected in them wearing striped clothing of red, green, and blue.

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What is the code used by the resistance?


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Mayday.

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What is a Salvaging?


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A Salvaging is a public ceremony that includes the execution of those who disobey Gilead’s rules. There are Women’s Salvagings and Men’s Salvagings. Women’s Salvagings are often followed by a Particulation, in which the Handmaids participate in the mob killing of a criminal.

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What happens during the Ceremony?


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The Ceremony includes the Commander, the Commander’s wife and their Handmaid, and involves the Commander and the Handmaid having sex together to conceive a child.

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Why is the narrator’s name Offred?


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The narrator’s actual name isn’t Offred, which is only the name given to her by Gilead to indicate that she is Of Fred’s household.

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What genre is The Handmaid’s Tale?

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The Handmaid’s Tale can fit into multiple categories but it best fits into speculative fiction.

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What is The Handmaid’s Tale's Gilead based upon?

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The Handmaid's Tale is mostly based on the strict and religious Puritan society, as well as other theocratic 20th Century societies.

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Why doesn’t Margaret Atwood like her novel being called “feminist”?


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Margaret Atwood doesn’t like her novel being labelled as feminist because of the varying definitions of the word that might not align with her own values.

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How did Margaret Atwood begin writing The Handmaid’s Tale?


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Margaret Atwood began with the simple question of what if, to begin writing the novel.

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Question

What was The Handmaid's Tale going to be called?


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The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be called Offred.

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Who is The Handmaid’s Tale dedicated to?


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The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to Perry Miller and Mary Webster.

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Who is Perry Miller?

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Perry Miller was a friend and co-student at Harvard to Margaret Atwood, who specialised in Puritan history.

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Who is Mary Webster?

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Mary Webster, also known as Half-Hanged Mary, was a woman accused of being a witch and was lynched by her prosecutors

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Why is The Handmaid’s Tale called The Handmaid’s Tale?

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The Handmaid’s Tale is titled in partial homage to Geoffrey Chaucer, who titled each of his stories as a “type of person’s” Tale in the Canterbury Tales.

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Who’s political claim to power was followed with an increase of religious fundamentalism in 1980’s America?


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Ronald Reagan was elected in the 80s and was followed by increased religious fundamentalism.

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What political change in the Middle East also inspired Margaret Atwood?


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The Islamic overthrow of the Iranian Shah was followed by a rapidly established theocratic regime that inspired Gilead’s ascent to power.

Show question

Question

When was Oryx and Crake published?

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Answer

2003.

Show question

Question

Who wrote Oryx and Crake?

Show answer

Answer

Margaret Atwood.

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Which dystopian novel is Margaret Atwood’s most famous?


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Answer

The Handmaids Tale.

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Question

True or false: Oryx and Crake is part of a trilogy of books.


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True.

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Question

Which of the following is not a message in Oryx and Crake?

  1. To care for animals the same as humans

  2. To avoid unethical science

  3. To not progress too far in technology

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Answer

A.

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Question

When was Margaret Atwood born?

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Answer

1939.

Show question

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What genre is Oryx and Crake?

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Answer

Dystopian fiction.

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What does dystopian literature focus on?


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Answer

A futuristic/different society that has removed something good about our own society.

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Fill in the blank: Dystopian society often leads to a loss of ________.


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Answer

Freedom.

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Question

What is the name for Crake’s genetically modified humans?


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Answer

Crakers. 

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Question

Which two narratives does the novel switch between?


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Answer

Snowman's and Jimmy's. 

Show question

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