The poet, novelist and critic, Margaret Atwood, was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939. Spending much of her childhood in northern Ontario and Quebec bush country, Atwood did not receive formal schooling until the age of 11. Nonetheless, she went on to graduate from the University of Toronto with a Masters degree from Radcliffe College. She has held many different jobs over the years, from cashier and waitress to lecturer in English literature at the University of British Columbia. It was while she held the latter position that Atwood wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, on empty examination booklets filched from the University. She sent the finished manuscript to a Canadian publisher, but after an initial positive letter heard nothing for a year and a half. After making her own enquiries, Atwood discovered that the publisher in question had lost her manuscript. In 1979, she looked back on the incident with typically wry humour:
... the publisher took me out to lunch. 'We'll publish your book,' he said, not looking me in the eye. 'Have you read it?' I said. 'No, but I'm going to,' he said. It was probably not the first book he'd published out of sheer embarrassment.'
The Edible Woman was finally published in 1969, and was subsequently followed by a further ten novels to date. Shortlisted three times previously for the prestigious Booker Prize, it was Atwood's 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin, that finally brought her success. This complex work chronicles the life of Iris Chase, the sister of the celebrated novelist Laura Chase whose immense success with her posthumously published novel has overshadowed the life of her surviving sister. However, the Booker Prize is only one of many honours bestowed on the author, which have included the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction and the Governor General's Award for her 1985 dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale, as well as being named the Sunday Times Author of the Year in 1993.
One of the pervading concerns of Atwood's oeuvre is the role of women in societies of the past, present and future. The protagonists of all of her ten novels to date are female, while her three volumes of short stories consider such issues as sexual discrimination in the work place and the nature of relationships between men and women. However, this is by no means limiting to Atwood's work; in her novels, she considers various characters from Grace Marks, eponymous protagonist of the 1997 novel Alias Grace and convicted murderer, to Joan Foster of Lady Oracle (1976). A critically acclaimed poet and sometime writer of trashy historical romances, Joan fakes her own death in an attempt to escape her various identities, ghosts and lovers - among the latter the 'Royal Porcupine' is an eccentric creation of comic genius.
Perhaps Atwood's most famous creation is Offred, the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale. Offred lives under the oppressive dictatorship of the state of Gilead, in which the status of women is eroded to the extent that Offred is regarded merely as a vessel for the propagation of children that will never acknowledge her as their mother. Others meanwhile are shipped off to colonies to die slowly of radiation sickness, or are forced into sexual slavery in the underground club of the Establishment Commanders, called Jezebel's. The Handmaid's Tale is tremendously powerful, not least because of the author's portrayal of her spirited yet inherently flawed protagonist, and is of immense interest for its abstractions on religious fundamentalism and the feminist movement. The novel was later made into a film starring Natasha Richardson as Offred, thus widening still further the audience of the work.
Atwood considers not only relationships between men and women, but also those that exist between women themselves. This is the case in her novel The Robber Bride (1993); the book revolves around the friendship of three middle-aged women who are brought together by their mutual betrayal at the hands of Zenia, a manipulative femme fatale whose selfish actions have devastated each of their lives. The boundary between friendship and enmity is the subject of the Booker Prize-nominated Cat's Eye (1988), which chronicles the relationship between the painter Elaine Risley and her best friend Cordelia, who is also her tormentor through childhood and adolescence. Like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the novel explores children's capacity for cruelty among their peers, although Atwood places an interesting twist on the scenario through her use of female protagonists.
Below is a list of Atwood's most famous works. It is by no means exhaustive:
- The Edible Woman (1969)
- Surfacing (1972)
- Lady Oracle (1976)
- Life Before Man (1979)
- Bodily Harm (1981)
- The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
- Cat's Eye (1988)
- The Robber Bride (1993)
- Alias Grace (1996)
- The Blind Assassin (2000)
- Dancing Girls (1977)
- Murder in the Dark (1983)
- Bluebeard's Egg (1983)
- Wilderness Tips (1991)
- Good Bones (1992)
- Double Persephone (1961)
- The Circle Game (1966)
- The Animals in That Country (1968)
- The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970)
- Procedures for Underground (1970)
- Power Politics (1971)
- You Are Happy (1974)
- Selected Poems (1976)
- Two-Headed Poems (1978)
- True Stories (1981)
- Interlunar (1984)
- Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 (1986)
- Morning in the Burned House (1995)