Poet, fiction writer, literary critic, and essayist. A passionately political writer, Atwood has in interviews resisted narrow labeling as a feminist, primarily because of her deep distrust of categorization and her concern about the limitations of language as well as her insistence on the variety of women and feminisms. But she believes absolutely in the rights of women and in her central project of telling women’s stories and uncovering the ways in which culture and discourse construct social identity and gender.
Atwood’s early poetry and novels, including The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle, explore the construction of femininity as the insidious division of the female subject self into object and image. Employing characteristic satire and verbal irony Atwood creates “every-women,” ordinary protagonists whose entrapment in the ideology of their commercial, patriarchal societies is representative. Atwood writes prose with a poet’s sensitivity to linguistic meaning, and carefully recorded experience often takes on symbolic weight in her fiction. In the brief essay “What Is a Woman’s Novel” she calls herself one of the “literalists of the imagination” and writes that “metaphor leads me by the nose.” Her brilliant exploration of the ways in which culture and ideology operate through language has anticipated many of the central tenets of later feminist theorists.
Atwood’s identity as a Canadian writer has been instrumental in providing her with a critical vantage point on North American culture. Her publication in 1972 of Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature proved a catalyst in the recognition and recovery of the Canadian literary tradition and its prominent women writers. The Canadian perspective is central in many of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and the novel Surfacing (1972), and contributes to her insight into the experiences of colonization at the level of history and metaphor, a subject she explores in Bodily Harm.
Atwood’s fiction has developed toward a more comprehensive understanding of women’s oppression as part of a greater nexus of political, social, and economic domination, the urge to control, possess, and use rather than imaginatively perceive and love the other—whether it be nature, woman, people of color, or colonized territories. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopic vision of late twentieth-century North American society. Atwood, working in the literary tradition of prophetic satire, extrapolates from the Puritan past and contemporary political scene to create the totalitarian regime of Gilead.
Atwood’s recent novel Cat’s Eye is an intricately structured story of recovering the past, particularly the intense and painful world of young girls’ friendships and socialization into femininity. Atwood continues the process of recovering the past through a feminist consciousness in The Robber Bride.
See also FAIRY TALES
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