When you say the name “Margaret Atwood,” it is likely that images of women in red gowns and white bonnets and the near future come to mind. Atwood’s name is tied to several genres and writing styles and her non-fiction and poetic work. But, two major themes run throughout the vast majority of her writing— feminism, and environmentalism.
Margaret Atwood’s relationship with feminism, at least publicly, is a complicated one. Throughout her career, she has been unwilling to use the term to refer to her own work, although it is often used by others. Her poems, short stories, and novels are often of interest to feminist literary critics and those seeking out feminist literature. When asked about her first novel, The Edible Woman, and if she considered it feminist, she replied, “I don’t consider it feminism; I just consider it social realism.”
Recently Atwood has faced social media backlash after trying to explain her views on feminism, especially in the current moment. She has argued that feminism is not defined as the “assumption that women are always right regardless of the context.” She asks when thinking about feminism, “Do we mean women are better than men? Do we mean all men should be pushed off a cliff? What do we mean? Because that word has meant all of those different things.”
Atwood recognizes the fact that “feminism,” as a term, is used as a catch-all. Much of the discussion around Atwood’s feminist, or not, writing centers around The Handmaid’s Tale. Since it has been thrust back into the public spotlight, Atwood has herself been asked countless times how she views the novel and what she personally believes about feminism.
Atwood has made clear that she personally aligns herself with feminism founded on equality between men and women. Still, she would not elaborate on a specific wave or part of the movement she was thinking of. She has stated explicitly that she does not believe “women are always right,” citing Theresa May, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, as an example to prove her point.
Feminism in Margaret Atwood’s Novels
When looking for themes of feminism in her books and stories, readers often cite works like Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Edible Woman, The Blind Assassin, and The Penelopiad. The latter is one of the best examples. In it, Atwood reexamines the story of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, and tells a new story based around the original. Rather than focusing on Odysseus and his quest to return home, Atwood focuses on his wife, Penelope, the maids who Telemachus slaughters, and everything that Penelope had to deal with (such as an endless line of suitors) while Odysseus was lingering on his adventures.
Alias Grace is another wonderful example. In it, Atwood delves into the true story of the murders to Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear in the Canadian West. Grace, and a fellow servant, were accused of the crime. He was sentences to hang and she got life in prison. Atwood fictionalizes the story in order to delve deeper into Grace’s innocence or guilt. There are numerous moments in this novel in which Atwood speaks about the perception of women, how they were and are treated, as well as the double standards that exist in every part of life.
Another interesting example is The Robber Bride. Like much of Atwood’s fiction, this novel focuses on female main characters, in this case, three of them. The novel uses flashbacks to explore their various relationships and their broader interactions with another woman, Zenia. Readers are required to pick through these various depictions of Zenia and try to come to a truth about who this woman is, something that is impossible through biased second-hand accounts.
Margaret Atwood and Environmentalism
Today, Margaret Atwood is known as much for her literary accomplishments as she is for her activism. She has spoken out over the last ten years regarding the present climate crisis and her “hope” that the world can return to a better path if humanity changes. Atwood sees these changes as ones that have to take place in all parts of life. Humans, she explained at Iowa State University, have to live better, eat cleaner, and make all-around better life choices. She has often touched on these topics in her novels, such as the apocalyptic series Maddaddam, which includes the novel Oryx & Crake.
When speaking about the future of earth in an interview in 2018, she stated that women would bear the brunt of dystopian climate change. She explained in a talk at the British Library in 2018 that it’s not about climate change but about “everything change.” Less food, fewer resources, less safe housing, all of it, Atwood says, will come back to women. “Supplies,” she went on, “will be unevenly distributed, even more than they are [now].” Thinking forward, Atwood believes that the present and coming climate crisis is going to lead to civil unrest and repression, something that always works against the interests of women. Atwood’s poetry is another place to look for examples of feminism.
Environmentalism in Margaret Atwood’s Novels
Oryx & Crake is one of the best examples of how Atwood has included her environmental advocacy in her novels. While The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly a near-future dystopia, it is far more focused on human relationships than nature. In Oryx and & Crake, Atwood creates an entire world that’s been destroyed through an environmental disaster. It is only as the novel progresses, and Atwood’s characters experience flashbacks that the reader understands what the world was like before.
Oryx & Crake is not the only novel that touches on a future where the climate crisis has gone unaddressed. Atwood’s most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is made possible through the environmental disasters that led to massive declines in fertility rates and toxic wastelands. Although the true extent of the destruction is never fully elaborated on, it’s made clear that the world is not as it used to be. It is a much more dangerous and deadly place.