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About this book

Margaret Atwood is an internationally renowned, highly versatile author whose work creatively explores what it means to be human through genres ranging from feminist fable to science fiction and Gothic romance.

In this timely new study, Gina Wisker reassesses Atwood's entire fictional output to date, providing both original analysis and a lively overview of the criticism surrounding her work. 'Margaret Atwood: An Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction':
• covers all of Atwood's novels as well as her short stories
• surveys the critical reception of her fiction and the fascinating debates developed by key Atwood critics
• explores the main approaches to reading Atwood's work and examines issues such as her interventions in genre writing and ecology, as well as her feminism, post-feminism and narrative usage, both conventional and experimental.

Concise and approachable, this is an ideal volume for anyone studying the fiction of this major contemporary writer.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Margaret Atwood’s exploration of what it means to be female, Canadian and a writer in a period when all of these identities and terms have been problematised has accompanied me throughout my own development as an academic, writer and mother, as it has done also for many of my students, friends and colleagues. Her explorations and discussions of how women writers can deal with life, performance, and women’s roles have offered and still do offer an intellectually and emotionally engaged response which twists and turns as the expectations and constructions also twist and turn, in time. It is a real privilege to be able to have the opportunity to write about the different developments in her lengthy career and critical response to that career, as that response has most recently suddenly burgeoned into a huge industry. Margaret Atwood’s work is as popular as ever, or even more so, and scrutinising it again now reminds us that The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example, still speaks to a modern Iraq and Iran where women’s reproductive rights are controlled and ‘honour killings’ are prevalent, while The Year of the Flood (2009), her most recent novel, engages others of her consistent themes, survival, ecology and sustainability, which are at the forefront of everyone’s concerns today in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Gina Wisker

1. The Quest for Identity: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Surfacing (1972)

Abstract
Margaret Atwood’s work began to receive international critical attention in 1972, with the publication of the novel Surfacing and her influential, if not always locally popular, critical analysis of Canada’s literary tradition up until that time, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. While the critical work put Canadian literature firmly on a map, where previously it had been lacking, both books considered similar themes, in particular, the victim’s response to inhospitable cultural contexts and values, which Atwood identified as common to both postcolonials and women. She argued, it was ‘not only the Canadian stance towards the world, but the usual female one’.1
Gina Wisker

2. Constraining the Feminine: The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1976)

Abstract
Margaret Atwood’s early novels and short stories use varieties of comedy and the Gothic to deal with issues of social constraints upon the development of women, and to replay, undercut or expose the myths and romantic fictions which offer seductive narratives leading (in particular) to women’s disempowerment. This chapter builds on Coral Ann Howells’ explorations of Atwood’s engagement with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and the beginning of second-wave feminism. It explores Atwood’s feminist re-visioning of representations of women’s roles, and constructions of the self as woman, writer, victim, and survivor. In these two novels, Atwood’s parody subverts both the marriage plot and women’s ‘feminine’ destiny. She critiques and re-writes conventional romance plots using, while undercutting, the strategies of the popular literary Gothic. Both these novels deal with ways in which women can buy into, replay or reject various fictions about themselves in the world, in terms of relationships and gender as performance.
Gina Wisker

3. Explorations, Bones and Murders: The Short Stories (1977–95)

Abstract
Much of Atwood’s most experimental and outspoken work appears in her short stories, which are also often the crucible for the later novels, a place to try out a character, event and theme, and then build on it. Indeed, much of the formal experimentation and the playfulness concerning human behaviour and literary form appear here. The stories map against the development of the novels, consistent themes of which are survival and the wilderness. In Atwood’s more overtly feminist phase she produced Dancing Girls (1977), True Stories (1981), Murder in the Dark (1983) and Bluebeard’s Egg (1983), collections of stories concerned with women’s identities, roles, relationships, constraints on and constructions of femininity, and the downsides of the norms of women’s expectations. What she latterly chose to call ‘flash fiction’, a term used for very short fictions, can be found in her most recent collection, The Tent (2006).
Gina Wisker

4. Violence, Trauma and History: Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981)

Abstract
This chapter focuses on two novels which are considered examples of Atwood working in a realist mode. Life Before Man captures the daily detail of a particular moment in Toronto life, unfulfilling relationships, and the texture of the everyday mundane, and Bodily Harm focuses on Rennie, a journalist recovering from cancer, who gets caught up in the Caribbean in ways of life she sometimes dangerously misreads. Each novel deals with concerns about relationships and violence, including bodily violence and decay. Reviewers and critics consider debates about Atwood’s use of realism and fantasy in both novels. Coral Ann Howells suggests that Life Before Man resembles George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) because it supports a sense that life is controlled by fate, by determinism, set against individuals’ views that they are in control of their own lives.1
Gina Wisker

5. The Oppressive Future: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Abstract
For those unaware of Margaret Atwood’s immense reputation, the book they will have heard of, read or studied is The Handmaid’s Tale. This was Atwood’s first best-selling novel, establishing her reputation in the US and internationally.
Gina Wisker

6. Feminist Gothic: Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993)

Abstract
In both Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride Atwood’s exploration of female mischievousness and spite, and the use of narratives to shape versions of reality, take her work more deeply into favourite areas of concern. Both novels deal with representations and constructions of women, constraints upon their roles and the tension between artifice and authenticity. They also consider the constructions of narratives, ways that retelling or fabricating can enable us to manage events that might be puzzling, even life-denying. Both novels use female Gothic and reflective storytelling to shape histories and ultimately to own and affirm positive versions of identity.
Gina Wisker

7. No Nearer the Truth: Versions of Fictionalising: Alias Grace (1996)

Abstract
Alias Grace retells the tale of a convicted nineteenth-century Canadian murderess and cause célèbre, Grace Marks, who probably killed both her employer Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his lover and housekeeper, with the aid of her own lover, James McDermott. Grace was a poor Irish immigrant, and she could have been cajoled, tricked or seduced into taking part in the murders, or perhaps they were her idea in the first place. As a woman, she was sent to prison, while McDermott was condemned to death. The difficulties of fixing the truth at the time, and then in history, is as much the subject here as Grace Marks’s crimes. Unravelling what might have happened exposes a wealth of Victorian obsessions about women’s innocence, sexuality, and spiritualism. The case of Grace Marks fascinated Susanna Moodie, pioneer, diarist and prison visitor, as it has Atwood since. First Moodie, Atwood and then the reader piece together newspaper reports, ballads and testimonies to try and determine exactly what did happen and how guilty Grace actually was. In Atwood’s novel we match the documentary evidence and response against Grace Marks’s own tale, but still get no nearer to any final truth and, as Atwood frequently reminds us, those who tell stories cannot be trusted.
Gina Wisker

8. Rewriting History and Myth: The Blind Assassin (2000), The Penelopiad (2005)

Abstract
Both The Blind Assassin (2000) and The Penelopiad (2005) continue Margaret Atwood’s fascination with storytelling and the fictionalising process. Each novel explores ways in which narrative strategies can construct, cover up or expose family secrets and maintain myths. Each deals with roles expected of women, some fulfilled and some undermined and ironised. Penelope, faithful wife of the journeying Odysseus, reveals the plots and fictions which kept her and her court busy, her myth intact. Iris Chase Griffen both strings together various versions of the story of her own life and that of her sister, Laura, at particular moments in Toronto society, and offers alternatives through the formulae of different kinds of fiction. Both women weave stories which present different versions and undermine any final reading.
Gina Wisker

9. Writers, Readers, Constructions of the Real and the Future: Oryx and Crake (2003)

Abstract
This chapter looks at the novel Oryx and Crake although the novel’s focus on preservation of the species and preservation of language is also the concern of Atwood’s lectures/essays Negotiating with the Dead (2002), which preceded the novel by two years. The themes and characters are revisited in The Year of the Flood (2009), which is discussed in Chapter 11, and we are promised a third novel in the trilogy.
Gina Wisker

10. Re-Telling Old Tales: Moral Disorder (2006), The Tent (2006)

Abstract
In these later works, Atwood returns to several of her familiar themes and forms. In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, a collection of critical essays dealing with fiction and the fictionalising processes, she replays versions of tales of the Canadian wilderness, the fascination with lost causes and pioneering journeys, adventure and mythic forest creatures, reprising the interests of the earlier Survival (1970). Similar tales surface in her story sequence Moral Disorder, where the protagonist, Nell’s, father retells and inhabits them in his ageing mind. There are 11 tales, which feature both recollection and thoughts about the future, sometimes highly reflective and speculative, but never sentimental. The Tent is a collection of short, flash fictions rehearsing the storytelling forms and habits with which people make sense of their lives, explain the strange, build promises of the future, and speculate about how it could be otherwise. These fictions also consider the fictionalising processes themselves and evidence Atwood’s endlessly ironic, parodic, inter-textual, subtle, occasionally sarcastic satire.
Gina Wisker

11. The End of the World?: The Year of the Flood (2009)

Abstract
The Year of the Flood has received mixed reviews internationally. This may be partly due to its post-apocalyptic, sustainability theme and its mixture of the homey arts and crafts, its quasi-religious tone, and its sometimes cartoonish characters. Atwood creates a very thorough fictional world, with immediate immersion in insider jokes, invented or other appropriate names, and an adventure, survival narrative. The main characters are Toby, escapee from brutal employment, a herb grower with the Gardeners, then a worker in the AnooYoo spa; Ren, a younger, pole-dancing trapeze artist and sex worker; Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners; and Zeb, Ren’s street-fighting eco-warrior stepfather. The novel opens in Year 25, historically the same year as Oryx and Crake. It is the moment of a divided society and a divided city. It is also a time suffering from the results of an ultimately deadly, reckless experimentation with biotechnology, coupled with a widespread social lack of any investment or belief in sustainability, ecological balance or natural harmonious existence.
Gina Wisker

12. Conclusion

Abstract
On entering the St Lawrence Market in Toronto, you meet a small stand offering examples of ecologically sound goods and views. The advertisement fronting it portrays Margaret Atwood, watering can in hand, exhorting us to act in a sustainable fashion. A TV programme casually switched on gives her talking about the future of the planet and the plight of the polar bear, or talking, reading and being interviewed at the World Book night in March, London, 2011. She is culturally active and creatively prolific, at the height of her powers, and seemingly everywhere.
Gina Wisker
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