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Companions of the Order of Canada Gallery Margaret Atwood: The Author born in Ottawa in 1939 brilliant student at the University of Toronto won a Woodrow.

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Presentation on theme: "Companions of the Order of Canada Gallery Margaret Atwood: The Author born in Ottawa in 1939 brilliant student at the University of Toronto won a Woodrow."— Presentation transcript:


2 Companions of the Order of Canada Gallery Margaret Atwood: The Author born in Ottawa in 1939 brilliant student at the University of Toronto won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Harvard in 1961 her poetry first drew her to public attention published The Edible Woman in 1969 Most books are set in Toronto. initially, Atwood was seem as a radical feminist: “but as Atwood continued to produce novels and short stories, a much more complicated pattern emerged. Her men continued to be weak and petulant, but the true villains of her fiction turned out to be female” (Toronto Star, Nov. 8 2000).

3 Throughout her forty years of writing, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees. She is the author of more than twenty-five volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her newest novel, The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, was published in the fall of 2000. Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), published by Cambridge University Press in March 2002, is her latest book and her new novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in April, 2003. She has an uncanny knack for writing books that anticipate the popular preoccupations of her public.

4 About The Handmaid’s Tale: “What inspired The Handmaid’s Tale?” I’ve often been asked. General observation, I might have said. Poking my nose into books. Reading the newspapers. World history. One of my rules was that I couldn’t put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done. Atwood's fiction is often symbolic. She has moved easily between satire and fantasy, and enlarged the boundaries of traditional realism.

5 I began the actual writing in West Berlin, in the spring of 1984. In five years the Wall would topple and the Soviet Union would disintegrate, but I had no way of knowing that. I visited East Berlin at the time, as well as Poland and Czechoslovakia. I’d followed events in Romania—where women were forced by the ruling regime to have babies—and also in China, where they were forced not to. I’d been to Iran, and traced the advent of the repression of women under the Ayatollahs.

6 Just as importantly, I was born in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, so I’ve always taken an interest in the Nazis, and in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. I read Churchill’s memoirs when they came out, and Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness At Noon soon after they were published. As a college student, I was a volunteer worker with immigrants wishing to improve their English, and my charge was a woman doctor who’d escaped from Czechoslovakia. She was a wreck. I got an earful. On the other hand, I lived through the McCarthy years. They were no human- rights picnic either.

7 At Harvard Graduate School in the '60s. I studied American Literature and Civilization, as part of English Literature. I found Puritan New England fascinating, especially since these folks were my ancestors. Far from being the seekers after freedom often depicted, the Puritans were a repressive lot: their preoccupation with the state of their souls did not save them from expelling dissenters and hanging Quakers. I took a particular interest in the Salem witchcraft trials. What sorts of conditions produce a group mentality that so blatantly violates justice and defies common sense, in the name of God and righteousness? What sorts of people benefit from egging such things on? I’ve always remembered the words of one New England divine, who preached a sermon of repentance after they’d all realized how badly they’d been bamboozled: “The Devil was indeed among us, but not in the form we thought.” It’s no accident that The Handmaid’s Tale is set in Massachusetts

8 After 9/11, after the coming of right-wing religious ideology to the White House, and, most importantly, after the erosion of Constitutional rights of many kind, this piece seems eerily prescient. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the eye from the American dollar bill is used as their logo by the Gilead secret police, who control people through credit card information. It’s the same eye just adopted by the Homeland Security folks, who can now—yes— control people through credit card information. That’s what biologist would call “convergence.”

9 The following is an excerpt from The Toronto Star following Atwood’s receiving The Booker Prize: The Booker Prize plants Atwood firmly on the throne of English literature, although she is already a respected literary figure here, and her work is part of the standard curriculum in the universities of half a dozen countries. Her writing has been translated into more than 30 languages. And, she says, she owes some of her success to her previous nominations for the Booker award. “When I was first shortlisted in 1986 (for The Handmaid’s Tale), the book had sold 3,000 copies,” she joked, adding that now “thousands of students are tortured by it.”

10 Dystopian literature presents fictional worlds or societies that are depicted as utopias, but under closer scrutiny illustrate terrifying and restrictive regimes in which individual freedoms are often suppressed for the greater “good”. Atwood’s dystopia, Gilead, depicts a society in which religious extremists have taken over and reversed the progress of the sexual revolution.

11 Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain social trends and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities. They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking of the religious right and which she finds particularly threatening. The Handmaid’s Tale as Dystopian Literature: In the 1980s, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the religious right, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash (mostly hugely misinformed) against the women's movement led writers like Atwood to fear that the antifeminist tide could not only prevent further gains for women, but turn back the clock. The backlash!

12 The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – it conjures the immediate image of a medieval world full of knights and their ladies. It is written in first person, as an interior monologue, narrated by one of the “handmaids”. Her thoughts are the story, as she is forbidden to express her thoughts out loud. Her strength lies in insight, not action. Note the double entendre on the word, “tale” – the dual meaning establishes the conflict: the protagonist versus a world that sees her as a sexual object void of sexual autonomy.

13 The Handmaid’s Tale is both a satire and a parody Satire: a novel, play or film that ridicules people’s foolishness or hypocrisy – often by parody. In the novel, Atwood's strong point is her satire, often hilarious, often very pointed. Humor is in short supply in this novel, but it is a satire nonetheless. Atwood's love for language play (apparent in the anagram of her name she uses for her private business "O. W. Toad") is a major feature of the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale. Her jokes are dark and bitter, but they are pervasive. Parody: a grotesque or absurd imitation

14 Atwood calls the novel a “speculative fiction” – ie. What could occur if society closes its eyes to what is going on in the world. If people are not paying attention, they may experience loss of freedoms; in the worst case scenario, they become slaves

15 The fictional Republic of Gilead represents an “atavistic Puritanism”. Atavism refers to the reversion to the appearance, behavior of our ancestors. As for Puritanism, think of The Crucible, and the repressive lives of the citizens of New England. Do you see some irony in the naming of this new society “Gilead”?

16 Atwood illustrates how fear guarantees collusion – the individual is afraid to speak up or rebel; therefore, the individual shares responsibility for every aspect of the society, including its atrocities Through fear, a totalitarian regime is able to police itself. Its members--even the extremely oppressed--police each other as agents of the state. Friendship becomes obsolete as no one can be trusted—Who is a spy? The “Eyes” are always watching you. Totalitarianism: a from of government in which no rival parties are permitted. Total submission to the state is required.

17 The Heroine: She is guilty of moral cowardice—Atwood believes that often victimization is a matter of choice. The narrator’s physical safety is so important to her that she sacrifices her moral integrity. She attempts a withdrawal from circumstances for which she does not accept responsibility. Her voice is “a voice crying in the desert”—the reader feels her isolation. For the most part, she learns that she must make decisions from moment to moment on her own. She has many similarities in situation and character to Hamlet: a)They both are living in an evil, corrupt world which is masquerading as “good” and b)They both lack the strength to confront the evil in their worlds.


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