On this list, lovers of Margaret Atwood’s novels will find ten of the best quotes from Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, and more. Over her lifetime Atwood has written 18+ novels, in addition to 18 books of poetry, collections of short stories, books for children, and even an opera. This collection of lines represents a small but essential part of her oeuvre.
What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves—our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.
These lines come from Atwood’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin. It features in the third part of the book after Iris describes her mother’s death. These lines lightly outline the young woman’s reaction to the loss of her mother. She turned to Laura, who filled the maternal space she longed for. At the same time, she was left without the support she needed as she moved forward in life. She realizes that this idolization, either of her deceased mother, Liliana, or of Laura, her stand-in mother, is dangerous.
They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen’s trousers. The Governor’s wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.
These striking lines come from Chapter Three of Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. Grace Marks is the speaker in this passage. Here, she is talking about the various ways that women are confined and controlled in her modern world. Their legs are tied in by their hoop skirts so that they don’t go “rubbing up against the gentlemen’s trousers”. There is a powerful moment when Grace transitions from talking about the different ways that women are treated. While alive, they are meant to maintain some aloof, pureness, but in death they are used as the “newspapers” see fit. They had no trouble talking about Nancy’s legs.
Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.
This quote also comes fromThe Blind Assassin, in Part XV, the epilogue of the novel. In these lines, it appears that the main character is thinking back on her experiences and how they’ve changed her. If she had not suffered, she wouldn’t have broken through her sheltered life and had experiences that changed her. It is only due to the “loss and regret” as well as the bits of happiness and joy, that the story moves forward at all. This also relates to another character, Iris, who wouldn’t have been inspired to write if hadn’t been for her emotional connection to Alex.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
These important lines come from The Handmaid’s Tale. In them, the protagonist, whose real name is never revealed, is thinking about forgiveness and power. She is contemplating the control, or lack thereof, that she has in her life and those who have power over her. She draws a line between those who can participate in the broader misdeeds of society and still be forgiven. They have a different kind of power.
Strange to think of the endless labor, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.
This excerpt comes from the perspective of Snowman, later known as Jimmy, in Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, the first in the Maddaddam series. In these lines, he is reflecting on the state of his world, which has crumbled like “Sandcastles in the wind”. Atwood uses this metaphor to depict the devastatingly easy destruction of all the “labor” of previous years and decades.
We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls. If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse.
These lines are spoken in tandem by the twelve maids in Atwood’s Penelopiad. This story, which is a feminist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, focuses on Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. Readers get her perspective on what it was like to stay behind in Ithaca while her husband was gone for twenty years. These lines reference the maids who were murdered by Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope’s son. They were killed, as the quote suggests, for apparently laying with suitors. They were deemed “dirty”. Their musical refrains are among the most noteworthy elements of the short novel.
Some of the women have a Watchbird beside them […] This is a Watchbird watching YOU.” I see that there will be no end to imperfection, or to doing things the wrong way. Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face […] somebody frowning.
These are some of the best-known lines from Cat’s Eye, Atwood’s 1988 novel about the painter Elaine Risley. The quote falls at the end of the novel in Chapter 26 when Elaine is faking an illness in order to stay home. She’s looking at women’s magazines while considering the impossible standards, for a woman’s life and body, that these magazines set. She realizes that there is no way to win in this scenario. Atwood uses the word “Watchbird” to define Elaine’s experiences of being watched during childhood. It expands to include the patriarchal gaze that effects all women no matter their age.
He would create a fit setting for this reborn Miranda he was willing into being. He would outdo himself as an actor-director. He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled. There was a feverish desperation in those long-ago efforts of his, but didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?”
Readers can find these lines in Atwood’s novel, Hag-Seed. It is a modern retelling of the Shakespearean play, The Tempest. These lines are spoken by the narrator and refer to Felix’s staging of The Tempest. The quote considers art, what makes it successful and what makes it a failure, and the “desperation” at its core. In Felix’s case, this is the desire to bring his daughter back to life. It is a “challenge to Death”.
The canoe glides, carrying the two of us, around past the leaning trees . . . The direction is clear, I see I’ve been planning this, for how long I can’t tell.
This short section of lines comes from Atwood’s novel Surfacing. Here, the narrator is speaking about her body as a canoe that carries two people, a reference to her pregnancy. She is very aware of what her body is doing and what it means to carry this life. Her previous pregnancy ended with an abortion and now she’s trying to relieve her guilt about that choice.
Next he goes to a nearby Staples and scores a large pack of construction paper in various colors, a roll of brown wrapping paper, and some felt markers: cactuses, palm trees, those kinds of things, for the island sets. All you need is a few items: the brain completes the illusion.”
These lines are another except from Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Here, the narrator is commenting on theatre specifically rather than art broadly. Theatre requires viewers to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to the “wrapping paper” and “construction paper” world of the play. The audience has to be willing to participate in what’s playing out in front of them, otherwise, a play won’t work.