Margaret Atwood’s prowess as an author encompasses many genres. She doesn’t shy away from difficult material, such as sexual politics and the proliferation of consumerism, yet usually interjects subtle humor into her books. Feminist issues are a constant force in nearly all her novels and collections of poetry. Her works have received critical acclaim and are often best sellers.
Atwood spent the early part of her life far away from the limelight. Until age eleven, she lived in the remote wild country of northern Ontario and Quebec. Yet even from an early age, Atwood knew her passion was writing. When she was five, she began writing poems, novels and comic books. By age sixteen she claimed to be “serious” about becoming a writer. And by age nineteen, Atwood had her first work published.
Atwood got her start in poetry. Her first published work, Double Persephone (1961), received the E.J. Pratt medal and in 1966 she published another successful poetry collection, The Circle Game.
Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), continued to explore the feminist themes, which she established in her poetry. It’s a story of Marian McAlpine, a woman who is unhappy with her place in society. Marian gets engaged to her boyfriend and quickly loses her ability to eat. It’s only after she breaks off the engagement that she can eat again. After regaining her appetite, her first nibble is a sponge cake shaped like a woman.
Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing (1972) also received critical acclaim, though it lacked the humor of The Edible Woman. In Surfacing, Atwood focuses on the fusion between woman and nature. The story is told by a nameless narrator, who is searching for her father in the wilderness of Northern Quebec. Anger and suspense seethe under the surface of the book.
Atwood returned to humor in Lady Oracle (1976). Feminist themes are still scattered throughout, but are not the main thrust. Joan Foster is a bored wife, who writes tawdry romances. Her life takes a dangerous, albeit exciting, twist when her life is threatened and she’s forced to fake her own death and reinvent herself. Like many of Atwood’s characters, Foster, initially struggles with her self-image, but soon gains confidence.
Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was a departure from her other work. The story is set in the future in the former United States-now the Republic Gilead. The President and Congress have been killed off, the Constitution suspended, and the borders shut down. Fundamentalist Christians have imposed their own dictatorship and enslaved all women. The few women who are able to bear children are forced to become handmaids-the breeders for all of society.
Though Atwood has written in many styles, she often returns to strong, witty female characters. The Robber Bride (1993) follows the lives of three very different friends-Roz, a businesswoman, Charis, who works in a new age shop, and Tony, a staid military historian. The friends met in college and though their lives have diverged, they are connected by a common nemesis-Zenia, one of Atwood’s most memorable characters. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and charming, but highly manipulative and destructive. She’s a richly crafted character that the reader loves to hate, yet gets a vicarious thrill every time she enters a page. The novel was highly successful, becoming an international best seller.
Like Zenia, the main character in Atwood’s work of historical fiction, Alias Grace (1996), is hard to classify. Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old Irish immigrant, is accused of murdering her employer and his mistress. Throughout the book the reader is unsure whether to pity or despise Grace. Alias Grace was another bestseller for Atwood, and well received by critics.
In 2000, Atwood won the coveted Booker Prize for her novel The Blind Assassin, which was followed by Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Penelopiad (2005).