Margaret Atwood

Canadian Poet and Writer

Margret Atwood is known for her book The Handmaid’s Tale which has recently been made into a popular television series. Over her lifetime she has written numerous novels, essays, collections of poetry, and even graphic novels.  Her first collection of poetry Double Persephone was published in 1961 and her first novel The Edible Woman followed in 1969. She is considered to be one of Canada’s best and most popular writers.

Life Facts

  • Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939.
  • Atwood’s first collection of poetry was published in 1961.
  • Atwood’s first novel, ‘The Edible Woman,’ was published in 1969.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985.
  • Her most recent novel is ‘The Testaments’, a sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Interesting Facts

  • Atwood started a doctoral degree but did not finish her dissertation.
  • Her tenth novel, ‘The Blind Assassin,’ won the Man Booker Prize.
  • She participated in the Canongate Myth Series in which popular authors retold classic mythological tales.
  • Atwood knew by the time she was sixteen that she wanted to be a writer.
  • Atwood has dozens of honorary degrees from universities.

Famous Books by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly Atwood’s most famous novel. In it, she depicts the intricacies of a totalitarian theocracy known as Gilead that has replaced the United States government. Women, such as the main character Offred, are forced to have the children of infertile elite couples and are completely stripped of their freedom. They are separated from any family members they may have had before and punished if they step out of line. The novel is one of the best examples of dystopian and speculative fiction ever written.

The Handmaid’s Tale Digital Art
The Handmaid’s Tale Digital Art

Oryx and Crake is not as well-known as The Handmaid’s Tale but has many similar characteristics. The novel is also set in the future, one that has is even more apocalyptic in nature than Gilead. In the book, Atwood follows the Snowman in one storyline and another character named Jimmy in the other. The latter explains the catastrophe that came over the world and the conception of the Crakers, a genetically manipulated group of beings that are able to thrive in the post-apocalyptic environment. The Blind Assassin follows Iris Chase as she explains the circumstances around her sister, Laura’s, death. The historical fiction novel won The Man Booker Prize and is one of Atwood’s most famous works. It is set in Ontario and many important events in Canadian history are alluded to as the story unfolds. Alias Grace is based on the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace Marks is convicted of the crime, sentenced to death, and then removed from death row to live out her sentence in Kingston Penitentiary. The Penelopiad is the shortest novel on this list. It is a retelling of the story of Penelope, wife of  Odysseus, the main character in Homer’s Odyssey. The novel includes narration from the twelve maids who also feature in the original story and whom Odysseus has Telemachus kill. The novel sold well, featuring on bestseller lists in Canada after it was released. It is part of the Canongate Myth Series.

Early Life

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in November of 1939. She was one of three children born to her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, who worked as an entomologist, and mother Margaret Dorothy who was a nutritionist. Atwood spent a lot of time with her father in the wooded areas of northern Quebec during her childhood. She also spent much of her youth traveling between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto. Atwood’s first plays and poems were written when she was around six years old. 
Atwood only began to attend school regularly when she was twelve years old. During this time period, she read a great deal. She would go on to attend Leaside High School in Toronto. At the age of sixteen, she knew that she wanted to become a writer, and when she began attending Victoria College at the University of Toronto she began publishing. Her work would appear in the college literary journal, Acta Victoriana. Atwood also participated in a sophomore performance of The Bob Comedy Revue. She graduated from the university with a Bachelor of Arts in English and minors in philosophy and French.  In the early 60s, Atwood began her graduate work at Radcliffe College, Harvard University. She also started a doctoral degree but did not finish her dissertation. It was also during this time period that Atwood published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone. It was published in 1961. This work won the E.J. Pratt Medal. She would continue her career lecturing English at the University of British Columbia, Sir George Williams University, and The University of Alberta. She followed her first collection with The Circle Game and The Animals in That Country. 

Literary Career

In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk, who was also a writer. It was a year later that her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published. It is considered to be a great example of the feminist views which would become prevalent within her later work. Atwood and her husband did not remain together for long, divorcing in 1973. 
She would continue to teach throughout the early 1970s. These years were extremely prolific for the writer. She produced six collections over the decade as well as the novels, Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and Life Before Man. This last novel was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.  In the mid-late 70s, Atwood began a relationship with another novelist, Graeme Gibson. The two moved to Alliston, Ontario. It was here that their daughter, Eleanor, was born. The next novels that Atwood published solidified her career. The first was Bodily Harm, published in 1981, and The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. This novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award. It was also a finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize. This was followed by Cat’s Eye which was also a finalist for the Booker Prize.  In the 1980s Atwood was the MFA Honorary Chair at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She was also the Berg Professor of English at New York University and the Writer-In-Residence at Trinity University, San Antonio in 1989.  The 1990s saw Atwood continue to expand her collection of novels. She published The Robber Bride in 1993 and Alias Grace in 1996. Alias Grace was a finalist for the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award. Atwood’s tenth novel, The Blind Assassin, won the Booker Prize, the monetary award from which she donated to environmental and literary causes. The Blind Assassin also won the Hammett Prize in 2000. It was received a great deal of praise from critics. A year later she was introduced into Canada’s Walk of Fame. 

Recent Literary Accomplishment

More recently Atwood completed Oryx and Crake, the first in an apocalyptic science fiction trilogy which included The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. Atwood was a participant in the Canongate Myth Series in which short novels were written as retelling and expansions of ancient myths. Her contribution was titled, The Penelopiad, and concerned Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and the struggles she went through in his absence. More recently, Atwood published Hag-Seed which was a retelling of The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare. It was part of another series developed by Penguin Random House. Her most recent novel is The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

Influence from other Writers

Margaret Atwood was notably influenced by writers such as George Orwell, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, and Ray Bradbury.

Literature by Margaret Atwood

Explore literature by Margaret Atwood below, created by the team at Book Analysis.