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Margaret Atwood’s Tale

Moral Disorder

by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 230 pp., $24.95

The Handmaid’s Tale

by Margaret Atwood, with an introduction by Valerie Martin
Everyman’s Library, 392 pp., $24.00

Surfacing

by Margaret Atwood, with a new introduction by the author
Anchor, 199 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood, with a new introduction by the author
Anchor, 376 pp., $14.00 (paper)

1.

Author of twenty volumes of prose fiction including most notably the novels Surfacing, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, as well as thirteen volumes of poetry, six works of nonfiction, and six children’s books, Margaret Atwood has an international reputation that differs considerably from her reputation in her native Canada, where she became, virtually overnight in 1972, at the age of thirty-three, the most celebrated and controversial Canadian writer of the era. The daughter of an entomologist at the University of Toronto, with a master’s degree in Victorian literature from Harvard (1962), Atwood would seem to have an instinct for taxonomy; for the casting of a cold but not unsympathetic eye upon the strategies by which individuals present themselves to others in order to confirm their identity or, simply, like the desperate captive in The Handmaid’s Tale, her most widely read novel, to survive.

Atwood’s first novel, a feminist “anti-comedy” (Atwood’s description) titled The Edible Woman, had appeared in 1969, to enthusiastic but limited press coverage, but in the late 1960s Atwood was most known for her distinctive poetic voice in such early, acclaimed volumes as The Circle Game (1966), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), and Power Politics (1971) with its wonderfully terse, mordant prefatory lines:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye

Curiously, and ironically, the book that in 1972 catapulted the young author to such unexpected celebrity has never been published in any country outside Canada: this is Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. (Now published in Canada in a revised edition by McClelland and Stewart, it was originally published by the small Toronto-based press House of Anansi as one in a series of “self-help guides” to help defray the costs of literary publishing.) Conceived as an “easy-access” book for the use of high school and college instructors of Canadian literature (a category that, in 1972, scarcely existed and was more likely to arouse derision than admiration), Survival is, as its subtitle indicates, not a survey of Canadian literature, not an evaluation of distinctive Canadian texts, or a compendium of histories and biographies, but a taxonomy outlining “a number of key patterns” intended to “function like the field markings in bird-books: they will help you distinguish this species from all others.” Atwood’s methodology follows that of such influential critical theorists of the time as Leslie Fiedler, Perry Miller, and Northrop Frye, whose student Atwood had been at the University of Toronto. Her intention in Survival is to identify “a series of characteristics and leitmotifs, and a comparison of the varying treatments of them in different national and cultural environments.”

Immensely readable, entertaining, and insightful, a treasure trove for non-Canadian readers to whom such gifted Canadian poets and writers as Susanna Moodie, Margaret Avison, Margaret Laurence, Graeme Gibson, Jay Macpherson, A.M. Klein, Gabrielle Roy, Marie-Claire Blais, Earle Birney, Sinclair Ross, Austin Clarke, and numerous others are likely not to be well known, Survival exudes a schoolgirl zest and playfulness rarely found in works of literary criticism, as original in its way as D.H. Lawrence’s brilliantly cranky Studies in Classic American Literature. In her opening chapter Atwood ventures the “sweeping generalization” that each country or culture has a single dominant symbol at its core, notably The Frontier (America), The Island (England), and Survival, or la Survivance (Canada):

Our central [Canadian] idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which The Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/ or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival.

Atwood divides Canadian literature into thematic categories that suggest an ambitious course syllabus: “Nature the Monster,” “Animal Victims,” “First People: Indians and Eskimos as Symbols,” “Ancestral Totems: Explorers, Settlers,” “The Casual Incident of Death: Futile Heroes, Unconvincing Martyrs and Other Bad Ends,” “Ice Women vs. Earth Mothers,” and, particularly appropriate in 1972 when sales of most Canadian literary novels and volumes of poetry were minuscule, “The Paralyzed Artist.” (Born in 1939, Margaret Atwood began her career like most Canadian writers of the era: traveling the (vast) country giving readings and toting cardboard boxes of her own books to sell afterward since there wasn’t likely to be a bookstore to supply them.) That Canadian writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, and Atwood herself would one day acquire critical and commercial success outside Canada could hardly have been expected. In academic and literary circles, it was taken for granted that the work of Canadian writers was merely colonial, derivative, and third-rate.

Published in the same year as Survival, and seemingly written with the predominant themes of the “guide” to Canadian literature in mind, Atwood’s lyric, quasi-mystical second novel, Surfacing, drew a good deal of attention, not all of it sympathetic. By the standards of Atwood’s carefully researched, multilayered, and often multinarrated later novels, Surfacing is a slighter work, at times almost parable-like, or diagrammatic, in its structure: the pilgrimage of an unnamed, wounded, and self-deluded young woman narrator to enlightenment in a remote wilderness setting. Atwood’s emotionally repressed narrator travels with her laconic lover and a singularly disagreeable married couple to a lake-side cabin in northern Quebec where she’d come with her family as a child; the narrator’s friends are filmmakers, but her purpose in journeying to the cabin is to search for her missing father, who seems to have vanished into the wilderness. In the course of this minutely introspective novel, in which the narrator examines herself as one might examine a biological specimen, she comes to terms with her distorted and self-lacerating memories: the humiliation of a failed love affair, the trauma of an abortion. Journeying into northern Quebec would seem to mimic a journey into the heart of darkness if by “darkness” is meant the demons of the self, imagined as ghosts, as in a vision of her aborted fetus glimpsed in a dive into the lake:

It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead.

The release of this blocked memory gives the narrator the courage to resist her lover’s crude demands for quick sex:

I didn’t want him in me, sacrilege, he was one of the killers, the clay victims damaged and strewn behind him, and he hadn’t seen, he didn’t know about himself, his own capacity for death.

What is strongest about Surfacing isn’t the self-absorbed, rather generic young-woman narrator but the wilderness setting Atwood so vividly evokes, clearly a memorialization of the wilderness site to which her entomologist father took her and his family while Atwood was growing up: the small, simply constructed cabin where “there were always books,”1 the nearby lake, the endless, intriguing, and unfathomable forest in which one could become hopelessly lost. It’s a setting that reverberates in Atwood’s fiction with the power of recalled emotion.

Where nature is sacred, the violation and exploitation of nature are sacrilege. Surfacing casts a cold, furious eye upon intruders from south of the Canadian border: “Bloody fascist pig Yanks.” The pristine wilderness is vulnerable to invasion by American appropriation—“Rotten capitalist bastards”—and by direct assault, as in this encounter with American fishermen:

American flag at the front and another at the back, two irritated-looking businessmen with pug-dog faces and nifty outfits and a thin shabby man from the village, guiding….

Getting any?” one of the Americans yells, teeth bared, friendly as a shark….

The other American throws his cigar butt over the side. “This don’t look like much of a place,” he says.

Atwood’s narrator would seem to speak for Atwood herself in such melancholy observations as this one:

In the bay the felled trees and numbered posts showed where the surveyors had been, power company. My country, sold or drowned, a reservoir; the people were sold along with the land and the animals, a bargain, sale, solde. Les soldes they called them, sellouts….

Surfacing ends with a mystical immersion of its heroine in nature, and an ecstatic revelation of the primacy of her female, daughterly identity. Having hidden from her friends to remain alone at the lake, the narrator experiences a derangement of the senses of a benign, Jungian sort: she “sees” the ghost of her dead mother, as her mother would have been “thirty years ago, before I was born,” and imagines her mother as one of several blue jays; yet more dramatically, she “sees” her mysteriously missing father, and understands what has become of him:

His job was wrong, he was really a surveyor, he learned the trees, naming and counting them so the others could level and excavate…. He is standing near the fence with his back to me, looking in at the garden…. He has realized he was an intruder; the cabin, the fences, the fires and paths were violations; now his own fence excludes him, as logic excludes love…. I see now that although it isn’t my father it is what my father has become. I knew he wasn’t dead.

2.

Set in the near future, in a fundamentalist Christian totalitarian state called the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale retains the ease and intimacy of the first-person narration of Surfacing but is far more ambitious and provocative in scope. Originally published in 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale is now, appropriately for our times, reissued, with a thoughtful introduction by Valerie Martin which notes that the novel was conceived out of Atwood’s alarm at the frequency with which she heard, from her American friends, the facile expression “It can’t happen here” in response to Atwood’s accounts of “excursions into the darker side of religious fanaticism in Iran and Afghanistan.” Atwood’s views of the cultural contrasts between her native Canada and its “starspangled” neighbor underlie the grim, punitive puritanism of the Republic of Gilead:

The founding Puritans had wanted their society to be a theocratic utopia, a city upon a hill, to be a model and a shining example to all nations. The split between the dream and the reality is an old one and it has not gone away.

Canada suffers from no such split, since it was founded not by idealists but by people who’d been kicked out of other places. Canada was not a city upon a hill, it was what you had to put up with.

  1. 1

    In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 7, Atwood remarks:

    By the time I was born, my father was running a tiny forest-insect research station in northern Québec. Every spring my parents would take off for the North; every autumn, when the snow set in, they would return to a city—usually to a different apartment each time. At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown.

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