Pivotal Works by Margaret Atwood
“Make Margaret Atwood fiction again” read protesters’ signs at the Women’s Marches that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. While this slogan was specifically inspired by Atwood’s most famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale, much of the author’s prolific oeuvre—which includes novels, poetry, short stories, children’s books, comics, and essays—has been heralded for its eerily accurate descriptions and predictions of social realities, from misogyny to class warfare.
Politics “enters a writer’s work,” Atwood said in 1981, “not because the writer is or is not consciously political, but because a writer is an observer, a witness, and such observations are the air he breathes.”
On April 8, Margaret Atwood will take the stage in a special discussion event presented by Stanford Live, the Stanford Storytelling Project, and the Stanford Speakers Bureau. In preparation, take a tour through several of Atwood’s major achievements.
The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970)
Atwood first came to prominence as a poet in the 1960s. Her sixth verse collection, The Journals of Susana Moodie, reimagines the diaries of an English settler who immigrated to Quebec in the 1830s. Journals tackles a perennial North American theme: humans’ struggle to connect with the natural world. Initially appalled by the stark Canadian wilderness, Moodie eventually achieves a profound kinship with the land, and encourages her modern reader to strive for the same.
Survival put Atwood on the map as a cultural critic and put Canadian writing on the map as a literary tradition independent from those of other Anglophone nations. Atwood argues that the central theme of her homeland’s poetry and prose is that of survival: the struggle to persevere, whether in the face of a hostile natural landscape or in the face of political, linguistic, and cultural erasure by England and the United States.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
The novel that made Atwood a household name imagines an authoritarian America whose ruling class weaponizes religion to brutally control women. It’s a dystopia in which each new generation of readers has found chilling resonances—from a 1980s audience living in fear of the spread of totalitarianism (Atwood wrote the book while living in Cold War Berlin) to the women who have donned scarlet handmaid’s robes at reproductive rights protests around the world in recent years.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Atwood’s first Booker Prize– winning novel earned praise for its innovative combinations of genres. Assassin deftly blends Gothic tropes with historical fiction, detective plots with sci-fi story lines, faux newspaper clippings with a novel within a novel. As Atwood expert Sherrill Grace points out, such mixtures of the fictional and the factual have become a major literary trend in the years since, with authors such as Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk writing in the same vein.
The MaddAddam novels (2003, 2009, 2013)
The speculative fiction trilogy made up of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam displays Atwood’s deep interest in the sciences. Published during the decade in which climate change became a staple of public discourse, Atwood’s tale of a worldwide apocalypse brought about by man-made epidemics and environmental collapse struck many as all too plausible. The series asks readers to consider the potentially horrific outcomes of corporate control of the sciences—and how humans might rebuild after catastrophe.
The Heart Goes Last (2015)
Demonstrating Atwood’s abiding commitment to experimenting with literary form, The Heart Goes Last was originally released as a four-part Web serial. The near-future satire centers on an impoverished couple who sign up for Consilience, a sinister “social experiment” wherein they can live for free in a cheery suburb for half the year—and in a prison for the other half. The protagonists’ terrifying discoveries about Consilience offer a biting critique of present-day conformity, capitalist greed, and the prison system.
This long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which won Atwood her second Booker Prize, takes place 15 years after the original. Interlinking the testimonies of three women living in a still-theocratic Gilead, Testament develops themes to which Atwood has returned throughout her career as an author and activist: witness, complicity, and literature’s role in both. The writer is both “the one to whom personal experience happens,” Atwood has said, “and the one who makes experience personal for others.”
Margaret Atwood in Conversation
Wed, April 8, 2020