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Lire Margaret Atwood

Marta Dvorak


Marta Dvorak

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1One of the best-known writers in the English language today, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has published since the country’s literary renaissance of the sixties, almost a dozen novels, but also a dozen collections of poetry, as well as several collections of short stories and short fictions, children’s books, and literary criticism. Her books have been published in 25 countries, and translated into over twenty languages. Twice winner of the Governor-General’s Award, once for poetry, once for fiction (Canada), winner of the Premio Mondello (Italy), and twice short-listed for the Booker Prize (Great Britain), Margaret Atwood is a writer who is committed to the causes of freedom of expression and equal rights. She has always emphasized the close relationship that exists between literature and the social, political and cultural context from which it emerges.

2In her writing, Atwood pinpoints with great precision the differences between Canadian and American cultures, as well as their resemblances and specificities as North American cultures. On the one hand, in a speech given at Harvard, she explains with her characteristic irony, “Americans have riots ; Canadians have panel discussions on riots”. On the other hand, the protagonist of her novel Surfacing judiciously sums up the social and cultural dimension both countries have in common when she alludes to the social ostracism she was subjected to as a child when she was culturally atypical, or as the other little girls put it, “socially retarded”. She confesses, “It was harder for my brother ; our mother had taught him that fighting was wrong so he came home every day beaten to a pulp”.

3The dimension of social criticism and satire in Atwood’s works is perhaps what strikes readers and critics most predominantly. The Handmaid’s Tale notably was one of the greatest literary successes of the eighties in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. It won the Governor-General’s Award for best English language fiction in Canada ; in Great Britain it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Prize for best work of science fiction, although it actually belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, or that branch of science fiction called ’near future fiction’. In the USA, it won the Los Angeles Times’s literary prize for best work of fiction, and the New York Times Book Review proclaimed it one of the two best works of fiction of 1985, along with The Progress of Love by fellow Canadian writer Alice Munro. This success can perhaps partly be attributed to the scenario that North American readers particularly found both terrifying and all too plausible. “Read It While It’s Still Allowed”, proclaimed the Houston Chronicle. In fact, like all works belonging to the genre of utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale is a reflection on our own time, and it reflects the dangers embodied in American fundamentalist groups, but also in religious fanaticism encountered elsewhere, as well as all forms of dogmatism. Furthermore, like other twentieth-century anti-utopias, as Jean-Jacques Wunenburger points out in L’Utopie ou la crise de l’imaginaire, the novel also demonstrates the dangers inherent in the very concept of utopia itself.

4Like Atwood’s other works, the novel is actually much more than a portrait of society or the indictment of evils, of social or political tendencies. And in spite of her concern for social justice, Atwood is much more than a feminist or a social activist. I would apply to Margaret Atwood her own words concerning another contemporary poet who has made her mark, Adrienne Rich. In a review published in the New York Times Book Review, Atwood said of Rich that if she were not a good poet, “it would be easy to classify her as just another vocal Women’s Libber, substituting polemic for poetry, simplistic messages for complex meanings. But she is a good poet, and her book is not a manifesto, though it subsumes manifestoes ; nor is it a proclamation, though it makes proclamations”. In the same vein, we should think about one of Atwood’s phrases in which she once more takes liberties with language : “It is not enough to state the truth ; it must be imaged, imagined”. One does sense in her work this poetic gift for the image, both original and striking.

5Finally, what many of us readers appreciate in Atwood’s work is the room that she leaves for us in the construction of meaning. We are active participants, almost partners in the creative process, for this writer who declares, “Writer and audience are Siamese twins. Kill one and you run the risk of killing the other”.

6When The Handmaid’s Tale was included in the programme of the prestigious CAPES and Agrégation national competitions for the recruitment of English teachers in 1999, the Centre d’Études Canadiennes of Rennes with the help of the Cultural Services of the Canadian Embassy, the French Association for Canadian Studies and its president Jean-Michel Lacroix, organized events that included the writer’s visit to Rennes. Margaret Atwood interrupted work on her new novel to come to Paris, Rouen and Rennes in order to meet with academics, critics, students, and the general public. The address that she gave in Rennes in front of 450 students focussed on the theme : “The Handmaid’s Tale : a Feminist Dystopia ?” Her talk and the discussion that ensued have been transcribed and placed immediately following this foreword. It should allow those who could not be at the event and see what a marvellous speaker she is, to benefit by her analytical and enlightening remarks, and to appreciate the scope of her culture as well as the warmth and humour that conquered our hearts.

7The Handmaid’s Tale belongs as we have seen within the line of utopian/dystopian narratives, alongside of other works of speculative fiction such as 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, or We. It belongs more precisely perhaps to the marginal genre of utopia described by R. Muchieli in Le mythe de la cité idéale, the category that contents itself with radicalising existing facts, taking them to their extreme limit, for as Atwood has pointed out in many interviews, the novel is merely “a logical extension of current trends”. But through its female narrative voice, the focus is not on those who hold knowledge and wield power in the public sphere, but on the ordinary, humble people caught up in the system, and the effects on the private sphere. Like other twentieth century u/dys-topian works of fiction written by women, the novel gives a voice to those individuals on the periphery of power who have been denied one. As Atwood pointed out in her Paris talk on Nov. 14 1998, “The best stories come from the margins because the official versions have been sanitized”.

8Simultaneously, like Atwood’s other works, The Handmaid’s Tale also belongs within the current of postmodernism, which characteristically contests writing conventions and constraints. As specular fiction and metafiction, the novel is remarkable for its dislocated narrative patterns, its multiple embeddings, its playful intertextuality, and the connivance set up between speaker and receiver. Like many of her contemporaries, Margaret Atwood constructs a textual universe in which discourse prevails over event. Enunciation and commentary take precedence over statement and fact, and process prevails over product. By weakening the powers of the narrator, by emphasizing her unreliability, Atwood empowers the narratee, and by extension, reinforces the role of the reader.

9This volume collects studies of The Handmaid’s Tale which were presented on December 5 1998 at the Margaret Atwood conference organised by the Centre d’Études Canadiennes in Rennes. The authors, who are with the exception of one Canadian, French academics, analyse the novel from different perspectives. The articles are arranged into three sections. The First part entitled “Text and Testimony” focusses on the relationship between literature and society, and explores the moral and political dimensions of the writing process. The second section entitled “Transgression and Subversion” analyses the strategies of resistance and displacement established by the writer. Finally, the third and last section, entitled “Discourse and Community”, examines from another angle the relationships between words and the world, between communication and community.


President of the Centre d’Études Canadiennes, Rennes 2

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999

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