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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Canada, the second of three children.  Her father was an etymologist assigned to a research station in the chilly northlands of Quebec where there were no theaters and poor radio reception; so, Atwood decided to become a writer.  She thought that in order to do so and be of any importance, she would have to become mysterious and aloof, sickly and enigmatic--that she would have to live in a garret, dress in black, smoke cigarettes, drink absinthe, and have lovers whom, she said, "I would discard in appropriate ways, though I drew the line at bloodshed.  (I was, after all, a nice Canadian girl.)"

In 1946, the Atwoods moved to Toronto.  She was eleven before she attended school full-time.  She was graduated from Leaside High School in 1959 before going on to study at the University of Toronto, where she met literary analyst Northrop Fry, whose myth, criticism, and Jungian philosophy influenced her greatly.

Atwood won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and became a graduate student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, receiving her M.A. in 1962.  She continued her studies of Victorian literature at Harvard (1962-63, 1965-67) but was interrupted in 1967 after having failed to complete her dissertation on "The English Metaphysical Romance."  She worked for a market-research company in Toronto and taught English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (1964-65).  She has since held a variety of academic posts and has been writer-in-residence at numerous Canadian and American universities.

As a writer, she made her debut at the age of 19 with Double Persephone (1961), a collection of poems.  Her privately printed book won the E. J. Pratt medal.  Another early collection, The Circle Game (1964, rev. in 1966), received the Canadian Governor General's Award for poetry in 1966.

While working as an editor at the Toronto publishing house, Anansi, in the early 1970s, Atwood published her controversial study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).  For scholars, her tongue-in-cheek humor was difficult to accept, especially when she took aim at Canadian literature, labeling it as blighted by subservient, colonial mentality. 

She used the same theme in Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995).  In it, she searches for the elusive "fabled Canadian identity," concluding that "Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it.  You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you?  Look harder.  It's where someone got axed in the snow."

Atwood's early feminist treatise, The Edible Woman (1969), is both funny and terrifying at the same time.  The Handmaid's Tale (1985), her best known work, was  influenced by George Orwell's classic, 1984.  The story unfolds in the near future United States, in the Republic of Gilead, a state ruled by religious fundamentalism.  All the freedoms women have gained are revoked and language is forbidden to all but the male elite.  The heroine, Offred, is a handmaid who is valued for her ovaries.  She is one of the few women whose reproductive systems have survived chemical pollution and radiation from power plants.

The book was filmed in 1990 by Volker Schlöndorff from a screenplay adaptation by Harold Pinter.  In the film version, the protagonist becomes an active revolutionary who finally cuts the throat of her owner.  In the book, events are seen through the eyes of the main character, whose weapon is irony and keen observation.  She keeps a secret diary.  "I try not to think too much.  Like other things now, thought must be rationed.  There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about.  Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last."   The tale is interspersed with flashbacks to her earlier life, when she had a husband, a 5-year-old daughter, and was allowed to read.

Cat's Eye (1989) tells of a painter who explorers her childhood memories.  Alias Grace (1996) uses an actual 19th-century criminal case, that of Grace Marks, one of the most notorious women in Canada.  Marks was imprisoned in 1843 at the age of sixteen and kept there for nearly 30 years for being them accomplice to the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, the housekeeper Nancy.  Her guilt was never incontrovertibly established, but she raised the interest of journalists and researchers.  Before she was arrested, she had escaped with another servant, James McDermott, to the United States.  Atwood first found her story from Life in the Clearings (1853) by Susanna Moodie."  A lot of what is written down is either wishful thinking or spiteful gossip," Atwood has said. 

The Blind Assassin (2000) is about two sisters, one of whom, Laura Chase, dies in a car accident in 1945 under ambiguous circumstances.  Two years later, the body of Richard E. Griffen, a prominent industrialist, is found dead.  And in 1975, Aimee Griffen dies of a broken neck.  The only person who knows the circumstances behind these deaths is Iris Chase Griffen, Laura's elder sister, Richard's wife, Aimee's mother. The richly layered story then continues as a novel-within-a-novel, using an excerpt from Laura Chase's novella, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947.  Much of the action consists of fantasy, improvised by the man, in which young carpet weavers, blinded by the work, find new work as assassins.

Atwood's fiction is often symbolic, moving easily between satire and fantasy and enlarging the boundaries of traditional realism.  Her first and third novels were comic.  The fourth, Life before Man (1979), presented a bleak, harsh view of human life in which marriage is a vanishing way of life.  Oryx and Crake (2003) is a love triangle set in the near-future world, where human beings have all but destroyed the planet.  "Yet for all Atwood's imaginative powers, her meticulous research, her clever literary allusions to Defoe, Swift and H G Wells, and her satire, this is an unsatisfactory novel which fails to engage the reader fully."  Some reviewers labeled the work as science fiction, but Atwood herself considered it speculative fiction.  "Had I written it 20 years ago, I would have called it science fiction," she said in an interview, "but now it's speculative fiction, believe me." 

Atwood has been politically active in PEN and in Amnesty International.  She has lived for years on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, with writer Graeme Gibson and their daughter.  In 2000, The Blind Assassin earned Atwood the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award for fiction.

Always the pragmatist, Atwood once said, "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté."

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