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Margaret Atwood: The Author

born in Ottawa in 1939

brilliant student at the University of Toronto
won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to
Harvard in 1961
her poetry first drew her to public attention

published The Edible Woman in 1969

Most books are set in Toronto.
initially, Atwood was seem as a radical
feminist: but as Atwood continued to produce
novels and short stories, a much more
complicated pattern emerged. Her men
continued to be weak and petulant, but the
true villains of her fiction turned out to be
Companions of the Order of Canada Gallery
female (Toronto Star, Nov. 8 2000).

Throughout her forty years of writing,

Margaret Atwood has received numerous
awards and several honorary degrees. She
is the author of more than twenty-five
volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
Her newest novel, The Blind Assassin,
which won the prestigious Booker Prize,
was published in the fall of 2000.
Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on
Writing (2002), published by Cambridge
University Press in March 2002, is her
latest book and her new novel, Oryx and
Crake, was published in April, 2003. She
has an uncanny knack for writing books
that anticipate the popular preoccupations
of her public.

Atwood's fiction is often symbolic. She has

moved easily between satire and fantasy, and
enlarged the boundaries of traditional realism.

About The Handmaids Tale:

What inspired The Handmaids Tale? Ive
often been asked. General observation, I
might have said. Poking my nose into books.
Reading the newspapers. World history.
One of my rules was that I couldnt put
anything into the novel that human beings
hadnt actually done.

I began the actual writing in West Berlin, in

the spring of 1984. In five years the Wall
would topple and the Soviet Union would
disintegrate, but I had no way of knowing
that. I visited East Berlin at the time, as
well as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Id
followed events in Romaniawhere
women were forced by the ruling regime to
have babiesand also in China, where
they were forced not to. Id been to Iran,
and traced the advent of the repression of
women under the Ayatollahs.

Just as importantly, I was born in 1939, at the outbreak of the

Second World War, so Ive always taken an interest in the Nazis,
and in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. I read Churchills memoirs when
they came out, and Orwells 1984 and Koestlers Darkness At
Noon soon after they were published. As a college student, I was
a volunteer worker with immigrants wishing to improve their
English, and my charge was a woman doctor whod escaped from
Czechoslovakia. She was a wreck. I got an earful. On the other
hand, I lived through the McCarthy years. They were no humanrights picnic either.

At Harvard Graduate School in the '60s. I studied American Literature and

Civilization, as part of English Literature. I found Puritan New England
fascinating, especially since these folks were my ancestors.
Far from being the seekers after freedom often depicted, the Puritans were a
repressive lot: their preoccupation with the state of their souls did not save them
from expelling dissenters and hanging Quakers. I took a particular interest in the
Salem witchcraft trials. What sorts of conditions produce a group mentality that
so blatantly violates justice and defies common sense, in the name of God and
righteousness? What sorts of people benefit from egging such things on? Ive
always remembered the words of one New England divine, who preached a
sermon of repentance after theyd all realized how badly theyd been bamboozled:
The Devil was indeed among us, but not in the form we thought. Its no accident
that The Handmaids Tale is set in Massachusetts

After 9/11, after the coming of right-wing religious ideology to the

After 9/11, after the coming of right-wing religious ideology to the

after the after
of erosion of
of many
kind, this
of many
seems eerily
prescient. In The Handmaids Tale, the eye from the American dollar
prescient. In The Handmaids Tale, the eye from the American
bill is used as their logo by the Gilead secret police, who control
bill is used
logo byIts
credit as
same eye
just police, who
the Homeland
can nowyes
Its the same eye
control people through credit card information. Thats what
just adopted by the Homeland Security folks, who can nowyes
biologist would call convergence.

control people through credit card information. Thats what

biologist would call convergence.

The following is an excerpt from

The Toronto Star following
Atwoods receiving The Booker
The Booker Prize plants Atwood firmly on the
throne of English literature, although she is
already a respected literary figure here, and
her work is part of the standard curriculum in
the universities of half a dozen countries. Her
writing has been translated into more than 30
And, she says, she owes some of her success to her previous nominations for
the Booker award.
When I was first shortlisted in 1986 (for The Handmaids Tale), the book
had sold 3,000 copies, she joked, adding that now thousands of students
are tortured by it.

Dystopian literature presents fictional worlds or societies that are

depicted as utopias, but under closer scrutiny illustrate terrifying
and restrictive regimes in which individual freedoms are often
suppressed for the greater good.
Atwoods dystopia , Gilead, depicts a society in which religious
extremists have taken over and reversed the progress of the sexual

The Handmaids Tale as Dystopian Literature:

In the 1980s, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the
religious right, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash
(mostly hugely misinformed) against the women's movement led writers
like Atwood to fear that the antifeminist tide could not only prevent further
gains for women, but turn back the clock.

The backlash!
Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain social
trends and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities.
They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it
is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here
examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking
of the religious right and which she finds particularly threatening.

The Handmaids Tale is reminiscent of Chaucers Canterbury Tales it conjures the

immediate image of a medieval world full of knights and their ladies.
It is written in first person, as an interior monologue, narrated by one of the
handmaids. Her thoughts are the story, as she is forbidden to express her thoughts
out loud. Her strength lies in insight, not action.
Note the double entendre on the word, tale the dual meaning establishes the
conflict: the protagonist versus a world that sees her as a sexual object void of sexual

The Handmaids Tale is both a satire and a parody

Satire: a novel, play or film that ridicules peoples foolishness or hypocrisy
often by parody.
In the novel, Atwood's strong point is her satire, often hilarious, often very
pointed. Humor is in short supply in this novel, but it is a satire nonetheless.
Atwood's love for language play (apparent in the anagram of her name she
uses for her private business "O. W. Toad") is a major feature of the
protagonist of The Handmaids Tale. Her jokes are dark and bitter, but they
are pervasive.
Parody: a grotesque or absurd imitation

Atwood calls the novel a speculative fiction ie. What

could occur if society closes its eyes to what is going on in
the world. If people are not paying attention, they may
experience loss of freedoms; in the worst case scenario,
they become slaves

The fictional Republic of Gilead represents an atavistic Puritanism.

Atavism refers to the reversion to the appearance, behavior of our ancestors.
As for Puritanism, think of The Crucible, and the repressive lives of the
citizens of New England.

Do you see some irony in

the naming of this new
society Gilead?

Atwood illustrates how fear guarantees collusion the

individual is afraid to speak up or rebel; therefore, the
individual shares responsibility for every aspect of the society,
including its atrocities
Through fear, a totalitarian regime is able to police itself. Its
members--even the extremely oppressed--police each other as
agents of the state. Friendship becomes obsolete as no one can
be trustedWho is a spy? The Eyes are always watching
Totalitarianism: a from of government in which no rival
parties are permitted. Total submission to the state is required.

The Heroine:
She is guilty of moral cowardiceAtwood believes that often victimization is a
matter of choice. The narrators physical safety is so important to her that she
sacrifices her moral integrity.
She attempts a withdrawal from circumstances for which she does not accept
Her voice is a voice crying in the desertthe
reader feels her isolation. For the most part,
she learns that she must make decisions from
moment to moment on her own.
She has many similarities in situation and character
to Hamlet:

They both are living in an evil, corrupt world

which is masquerading as good and


They both lack the strength to confront the evil

in their worlds.