Crossing the culture
Atwood's ambiguous words
Margaret Atwood is one of the most important and influential writers alive. Her 50 plus books — including poetry, short stories, scripts, children’s fiction, non-fiction, and 15 novels — have been translated into more than 40 languages. A Canadian literary celebrity, Atwood has won over 50 awards, including the 2000 Booker Prize, and holds numerous Honorary Fellowships. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is a cultural phenomenon.
The Handmaid’s Tale is commonly described as a feminist work, but Atwood is not exclusively interested in the politics of gender. She is keenly aware of her cultural surroundings and constantly engages with multiple facets of contemporary theory and philosophy. Her work has also been critiqued in the light of environmentalism, Canadian nationalism and postmodernism. Atwood is ironic and self-aware, playing with ideas through a humorous and detached authorial voice.
Timeless questions about God
Her most complex and interesting books, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) participate in a genre of ‘what-if’ stories, imagining the day after tomorrow and speculating on the shape of things to come. In fact, Atwood herself refers to them as ‘speculative fiction’. These narratives unfold the future to confront the timeless questions at the core of human experience. How was the world created? Where did humans come from? Is there a God and how can we please him? How should men and women relate to each other?
In addressing these issues Atwood places herself and her novels firmly in the realm of ideas, addressing questions about God and the supernatural, the self, the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge and the character of truth. The answers her works provide appear to entirely reject the Christian tradition, yet her three major pieces of speculative fiction continually refer to, challenge, and rely on the Bible — both philosophically and aesthetically.
Echoes of Scripture
Echoes of Scripture run throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, but they are twisted and obscured by those with political power, who use it to both excuse and support their own interests and allow them to control the populace.
In Oryx and Crake it is the scientists who decide to play at divinity, ‘fooling around’ with genetic modification in an attempt to adapt and create animal forms: ‘it made you feel like God’. The result is a world which is falling apart.
In The Year of the Flood the genetic engineers attempt to explain religion entirely in terms of the scientific meta-narrative, eventually concluding that ‘God is a brain mutation’. Yet the supernatural realm is still present and during the course of novel there is a return to ritualistic spiritualism in the face of moral uncertainty.
Atwood eventually retreats to a kind of skewed, mystical religion that resembles Christianity in its trappings but not its core. By cherry-picking imagery from the Bible that, when taken out of context, seems to support pantheism, she creates a new mysticism with Eastern overtones, which is born out of a distinctly Christian aesthetic.
Glimmer of hope
It is the nuggets of Christian reality submerged in the novels which provide the reader with a glimmer of hope for the bleak future that she describes. Atwood’s own answer for the future is that ‘we should try to make things better, insofar as it lies within our power. [...] We’re stuck with us, imperfect as we are; but we should make the most of us’.1 But the residual elements of Christian truth in her novels point to something better: a world beyond human imperfection, which is ‘wondrous without measure’.2
1 Margaret Atwood, The Road to Ustopia, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia
2 Taken from a mystical hymn in The Year of the Flood
This article is abbreviated from a full paper entitled, ‘Life without certainty: Margaret Atwood’s ambiguous worlds’. It was published in March 2012 by the Jubilee Centre and can be accessed at http://www.jubilee-centre.org/cambridge_papers
Rachel Thorpe works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles are available at http://www.rachelthorpe.com