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How Margaret Atwood became the voice of 2017

Margaret Atwood and her Handmaids Photo: Getty Images Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Margaret Atwood’s time has come.

Her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a hit TV show on Hulu, and her 1996 novel Alias Grace will come to Netflix this fall. And her books aren’t just getting the prestige TV treatment: They’re being treated as prophetic texts. Writing in the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead called Atwood “the prophet of dystopia.” Political protesters everywhere are waving signs demanding that we make Margaret Atwood fiction again.

Atwood, whose writing career spans roughly 50 years, 17 novels, 10 short story collections, and 20 poetry collections, is at last having her pop culture moment. So now it’s time for us to explore who she is, what her writing does, and why it’s so compelling.

Atwood has covered a great deal over her extraordinarily prolific career, but she’s returned again and again to certain preoccupations — preoccupations that are not currently fashionable.

When Michelle Dean accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing this March, she mused that she had been rereading The Handmaid’s Tale recently, and was struck by how unusual it felt in the context of 2017.

“There are so few books like that being published right now,” she said. “The application of literary intelligence to this question of power — it’s kind of out of style. And many writers just seem more interested in exploring the self.”

Atwood is a writer with the voice of a poet who has never been interested in the lyrical realist tradition so popular among literary novelists like Ian McEwan or Jonathan Safran Foer, with their minutely observed unhappy families having unhappy sex.

Instead, Atwood puts domestic characters into blown-up situations. Her books are interested in power and dualities; in the impulses we repress until we have the power to explore them, and in the anxieties expressed by dystopias and the fantasies implicit to utopias. They are highly symbolic, and they work as telescopes rather than microscopes, observing the social rather than the individual.

Atwood examines power at the level of the state, at the level of society, and at the level of individual relationships. She looks at how a government might compel a woman to bear children against her will, at how society convinces women to hate their bodies, at how a rich older man might wield power over his naive young wife, or how one teenage girl who has managed to accumulate social capital uses it to punish her less popular friends. And as she examines the way power accumulates and distributes itself, she conjures up the cramped and oppressive sensation of being powerless.

Atwood's analysis of power — how it operates, how it accumulates, what it feels like to lack it and be at the mercy of someone with lots of it — feels especially trenchant in a time when so many Americans feel that those in power are exceptionally untrustworthy. Atwood knows exactly how terrifying it is when a person with power over you doesn't mind if you suffer, when they seem to in fact want you to suffer, and she examines every nuance of that terror without flinching away from it. And that makes her perfectly suited to be the voice of the world in 2017.

Atwood’s early life would inform her 50-year career

Atwood’s books in a Venn diagram
The Venn diagram of Atwood’s career has certain preoccupations.
Javier Zarracina | Vox

Atwood believes the social context into which you are born informs your entire life. “One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen,” she told me at the beginning of June. “So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you.”

Atwood herself was born in 1939 to a Canadian entomologist, so her early life was dominated by two things: World War II, and the Canadian wilderness. That combination — of the lurking, horrific possibility of totalitarianism and human evil, and the unforgiving brutality and necessity of the natural world — would go on to inform her work for the rest of her career, perhaps most pointedly in the MaddAddam trilogy, in which human brutality nearly destroys the world and nature rushes in to fill the void.

Atwood began to attend school full time at age 8, an age that in most of her fiction is deeply traumatic. One of images that recurs across a few of her books — Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle — features a sad and humiliated 8-year-old girl standing alone in the winter snow. Her playmates have tied her up with a jump rope and then run away and left her, and what is most humiliating about the image is that the girl is trying desperately to convince herself that this is a game, that it is fun, that it is friendship. There’s no reason to believe this image comes from biographical fact, but it is a perfect microcosm of the vicious doublethink of little girl politics, in which the key is to believe that what is being done to you is fun, even when it is destructive.

Atwood briefly considered skipping college and supporting herself by writing pulp — “True Romances,” she writes in her essay collection In Other Worlds, “seemed easy enough, as they were all basically some variation of Wuthering Heights, in which the girl wrongly falls for the guy with the motorcycle instead of the one with the steady job at the shoe store” — but she found that she didn’t believe in the genre enough to pull it off. Later, she would give that career to the heroine of Lady Oracle and the hero of The Blind Assassin, both of whom joyfully plow through formulaic plot after formulaic plot and support themselves comfortably in the process.

Atwood began writing fiction professionally in 1964 with The Edible Woman, which would be published in 1969 to general acclaim. In 1979, Life Before Man was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award — Canada’s equivalent of the National Book Award — but it wasn’t until The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that Atwood broke into the literary A-list, despite a middling review from Mary McCarthy at the New York Times.

But prior to breaking into fiction, Atwood had already made a name for herself has a well-respected poet. She began to publish her poetry as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto: in college literary magazines, and eventually in collections (first self-published, later professionally published and award-winning). She would continue to work as a poet as she began her (uncompleted) graduate studies in literature at Harvard.

At the time, Atwood has said, female poets were expected to be mystical and mysterious and probably suicidal, like Sylvia Plath; interviewers asked her, she writes in the essay collection Negotiating With the Dead, “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when.” It was an image entirely at odds with the way Atwood describes herself, which is as “a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long.” (Having briefly met Atwood, based on first impressions I find it much easier to imagine her saying, “I eat men like air,” like Plath’s Lady Lazarus than to imagine her knitting sweaters, but on this she disagrees with me.)

Atwood would expand on this disconnect in her third novel, 1976’s Lady Oracle, in which the heroine is a nice, silly woman who accidentally hypnotizes herself into writing serious poetry when she is procrastinating at her day job of churning out pulpy costume dramas, and is promptly flummoxed by the ensuing publicity. The interviewers want to turn her into a feminist and pretend that she forces them to call her Ms. instead of Mrs. after she politely tells them she has no preference, and they treat her as a mystical goddess figure to the point that she begins to see her public persona as a separate self: “She was taller than I was, more beautiful, more threatening. She wanted to kill me and take my place, and by the time she did this no one would notice the difference because the media were in on the plot, they were helping her.”

It’s a telling characterization from Atwood, who would have a vexed relationship with the press for the rest of her career — especially when it comes to the question of genre: how she sees it, and how her critics see it.

Atwood resists being assigned to a genre she hasn’t defined for herself

Atwood’s readers often describe her as a writer of feminist science fiction, prompting Atwood herself to declare she is nothing of the sort, thereby offending both feminists and science fiction fans.

In part, that disconnect comes about because Atwood insists on defining her own terms. She’s interested in women’s rights, and she’s interested in the possibilities of technology for the future, but those questions don’t necessarily fall within the bounds of feminism and science fiction as she defines them. Moreover, she is not necessarily a part of the intellectual communities that grew up around feminism and science fiction, and she doesn’t want to set the expectation that she is.

So although The Edible Woman is about a woman whose engagement causes her to lose her identity, Atwood prefers not to call it a feminist book, because she was not part of a feminist community when she wrote it. And she was not a fan of some of the tenets of second-wave feminism, especially what she perceived as the expectation that feminists refused to like pretty clothes or believe there were good men. (Although ironically, in the first half of her career the good men she wrote were all either complicit at worst or boring at best, up until Alex in 2000’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin; it probably says something that a compelling good man is what it took to win her the Booker.)

“I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” she said to the New Yorkers Rebecca Mead in an interview earlier this year. “Having gone through that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick — I never had any use for that. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex.”

Today, Atwood is comfortable calling some of her work feminist, as long as she’s able to define the terminology herself.

“Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel?” Atwood asked herself at the New York Times in March. “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.”

Similarly, Atwood has avoided calling her dystopias “science fiction” because they don’t fall within her definition of science fiction.

“What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds,” she writes in In Other Worlds, “which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters — things that could not possibly happen.” In contrast, Atwood’s dystopias are all about things that are very likely to happen. Every atrocity that occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened elsewhere, and most of the technology in the MaddAddam series is already in development.

Confusingly, many prominent science fiction writers — including Ursula Le Guin — define science fiction as being about things that could really happen, and define fiction about things that could not possibly happen as fantasy. At this, Atwood throws up her hands and suggests that after all, they are all “wonder tales” that provide “a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown.”

While Atwood is reluctant to allow any genre or ideology that she has not clearly defined and labeled to her satisfaction lay claim to her, that shouldn’t necessarily stop us from using whatever labels are useful to us as a means of thinking and talking about her work. Her books are consistently interested in the power dynamics between men and women, and in the possibilities of what developing technologies and scientific catastrophes might allow or force us to do to one another in the near future. Feminism and science fiction are good labels for talking about those questions.

And they are incredibly useful labels when it comes to Atwood’s dystopias.

Atwood’s dystopias looks at how pyramids of power operate

Atwood’s Handmaids.
Atwood’s Handmaids.
Javier Zarracina | Vox

Dystopias take up a disproportionate amount of the conversation when it comes to Atwood and her work. Although they only make up five of her 17 novels, they’re among her most celebrated writing, particularly in the recent conversations around her and her work. It’s easy to see why: They’re the books where she is able to turn her focused attention to the question of how power replicates itself across multiple stratifications.

Atwood’s dystopias, which go from the immersive claustrophobia of The Handmaid’s Tale to the telescoping world building of the MaddAddam trilogy to the comic sex farce of The Heart Goes Last, tend to concern themselves with pyramids of power. A select few — usually wealthy, male, and white — sit at the top, and as the pyramid widens, power becomes scarcer and oppression more pervasive.

The cramped, claustrophobic Handmaid’s Tale takes place at a single point on that pyramid, which is part of what gives it its creepy force. It examines different stratifications of power — we watch as Offred is oppressed by the state, by the family in which the state has placed her, and by the social caste the state has created — always from the same viewpoint.

But “I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid,” Atwood mused in 2009. “It would be interesting."

That’s the strategy she took with 2004’s Oryx and Crake, the first volume of the MaddAddam trilogy. Jimmy, Oryx and Crake’s protagonist, is wealthy, white, and male, by any measure at the top of the social pyramid — but he, too, is destroyed by the world in which he lives. Over the course of the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood hopscotches around the pyramid of power, looking at society from the point of view of poor women, and poor men, and sex workers, and cultists, and finding it lacking from every angle.

Meanwhile, in The Heart Goes Last, she narrows her focus to the way power reproduces itself at the level of sexual desire. The Heart Goes Last is aesthetically the weakest of the Atwood dystopias, but it’s perhaps her most intimate examination of power, and its focus is on the longing to control utterly the object of one’s desire — only here, that control becomes literally possible, through operating on the loved one’s brains or creating a sexbot replica.

Those sexbots are a particular campy signifier of dystopia, but they also fit neatly into Atwood’s other major preoccupation: the idea of a shadow self.

Atwood’s novels play obsessively with dualities and shadow selves

If there’s a single image recurring throughout all of Atwood’s books, it’s that the main character has at least one double or shadow self. Sometimes that double is literal, like the sexbot replicas of real people in The Heart Goes Last. Sometimes it’s figurative, like the sisters in The Blind Assassin, who live out each other’s fantasies in the shadows. Sometimes it doesn’t even really exist, like the imagined Fat Lady and the famous author in Lady Oracle.

“Novels are often constructed in that way. Not just my novels, but anybody’s novels,” Atwood told me. “There’s a structural principle at work somewhere. That’s just something that has to do with works of art: You have a basic rhythm and then you have syncopation.”

In her criticism, Atwood reads this kind of doubling as a way of thinking about the act of writing. “The mere act of writing splits the self into two,” she writes in Negotiating With the Dead. One half of the writer is the writer who is an ordinary human being — the nice cozy domestic self Atwood described elsewhere as living under threat from the romantic idea of a death-obsessed lady poet. In novels, this half generally takes the form of the protagonist, who is sensible and orderly and only wants for everything to work out all right in the end.

The other half is the writer who is actually writing, who throws complications and horrors at her characters without mercy. It is that half who becomes the uncanny double, a figure filled with menace who threatens and simultaneously acts out all of the deepest and most repressed desires of the protagonist.

“Surely it wasn’t Charles Dickens … who caused poor Little Nell to die an early death?” Atwood writes. “No, it was the necrophiliac he carried around inside himself, like a tapeworm made of ink.”

“I don’t want this to be the story that I’m telling,” says Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. But her shadow self, the previous Offred, has left a message carved for her in the closet floor.

The shadow self isn’t only a way of thinking about writing, though. The shadow self also offers a way of thinking about the desires that we ourselves repress, and how we would enact them if only we were able to seize the power to do so.

Charmaine of The Heart Goes Last would like to lose herself in sexual abandon the way her sexbot replica does, so much so that she creates an alter ego named Jasmine that will allow her to do just that. Oryx and Crake’s Jimmy hates his shadow self Crake, but he also harbors the fantasy of wiping out the human race, the way Crake does. The three heroines of The Robber Bride fight to keep their domestic lives safe and secure from their collective shadow self Zenia, but they are also immensely drawn to the idea of doing as Zenia does: using and then discarding men with abandon, and ripping up all that is tidy and domestic. It’s just that they can’t afford to live as she does. It would render them powerless.

The shadow self trope is, at its heart, a power fantasy. That’s part of why it’s so fundamental to Atwood’s work.

Today, the questions that concern Atwood increasingly concern the rest of the world as well

“I’ve never been a person to believe, ‘Oh, they’re just funning. They’re just fooling around. It’s just to get votes,’” Atwood said at New York City’s BookCon in June. She was talking about whether or not to believe a politician’s threats. “I don’t believe that. I believe that people will actually do the things they say they’re going to do if they get the chance to do them.”

We are currently living in a time in which a politician has talked quite extensively about all the things he would like to do if he were able to — and now he’s seized enough power that he might conceivably do so. The part of the country that many on the left used to think of as America’s shadow self has seized control of the country, and dystopia feels as though it’s looming ever closer.

Part of Atwood’s gift as a novelist is that she gives us the tools and the framework to think about these questions: about what it means to be powerless, and about what anxieties and fantasies we repress when we lack the power to act on them, only to see them turned into weapons in someone else’s hands. Reading Atwood now, at this moment, feels like peering behind a curtain at the invisible levers of power at work all around us: She makes them visible and legible.

Atwood began this work of naming and describing power 50 years ago, and she continued working on it as it cycled in and out of fashion. And now, at last, as she enters the elder statesman phase of her career, her time has come. The questions that have informed her work for the past 50 years are now some of the most urgent questions facing today’s society.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that dystopias make up 5 of Atwood’s 17 books. They actually make up 5 of her 17 novels.