If one were merely to glimpse the life, work, and reputation of Margaret Atwood, one could not be blamed—or then again, easily forgiven—for thinking she’s just another radicalized ideologue from the bygone days of the 1960s, one of the many cookie-cutter feminists who invaded academia in the subsequent decades.
When she published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, professors of women’s studies across North America embraced her with a sycophantic love bordering on the cultish. And many of the sources she employed in her famous six Cambridge University Empson Lectures in 2000—as a typical example of her academic work—reek of predictability: Isaiah Berlin, E.L. Doctorow, Peter Gay, John Irving, D.H. Lawrence, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alice Munro, Sylvia Plath.
Ugh. Utterly boring and disappointingly unoriginal.
But a closer look at her Cambridge lecture sources reveals a bit more. In addition to the unenlightened and unimaginative list of scholars above, there also lurk the works and ideas of L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Graham Greene, Stephen King, and, most wonderfully, Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin.
Peter Gay? Again, ugh. But Peter Gay and Ray Bradbury? Far more interesting.
Then, browsing even the first several pages of the first Cambridge lecture, the reader is struck by a profound truth about Margaret Eleanor Atwood (b. 1939). Whatever dubious intellectual company she keeps, she is rather gloriously and absolutely her own person.
Physically quite striking as a woman in the latter half of her 70s, she likes to joke that while she might look like a “kindly granny,” she is anything but. Her neighbors even tease her that she looks best with a broom, sweeping the blustery October leaves. “Witch,” however, would not be the best word to describe her. These words work, however: brilliant, genius, quirky, funny, merciless, odd, gothic, rational, individual, personal, moving, witty, maddening, and eclectic. Whatever one might say or write about her, she is not and never was boring.
Thinking about her childhood, spent moving from place to place in the lesser-known reaches of Canada, she explains what she believes to be the source of her imagination:
Because none of my relatives were people I could actually see, my own grandmothers were no more and no less mythological than Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and perhaps this had something to do with my eventual writing life—the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.
The dreadfully uptight and haughty Peter Gay does not readily emerge from such a passage, but the irrepressible Ray Bradbury leaps from it in full ecstasy.
Yet however interesting her imagination, Atwood never dismisses or downplays her more rigorous and intellectual side. Indeed, Atwood describes herself in interviews as an 18th-century rationalist who just happens to have all kinds of voices and persons and stories floating around and interacting with one another in her head. She falls more clearly, though, into the broad camp of the humanists (Christian and otherwise). As such, she expertly sculpts, caresses, and condemns in her art the horrors and the achievements of the human person.
“Why is it that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell?” she plaintively asks. “I’m not sure, but so it is. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings.” Lumpiness, indeed. Neither Thomas More nor Russell Kirk could have said it better.
To explore the humanist aspect of Atwood, it’s worth reconsidering her most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale, a story that has been made into a major motion picture as well as a forthcoming television series and that is read throughout high schools and colleges in the English-speaking world as gospel. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum—“don’t let the bastards grind you down”—playful faux Latin words that inspire the novel’s heroine to resist her enslavement.
When it first came out in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was both praised and condemned for being anti-male as well as pro-abortion. Those who loved it and hated it viewed it as an updated, feminist 1984. Whether it was a poor reflection or a logical extension of Orwell’s classic, no one much cared. It was what it was.
Little has changed today. Nearly every public school in the United States offers it as a modern classic, sometimes replacing and sometimes supplementing Brave New World and Lord of the Flies. Now it’s so pervasive that it’s taught in an almost perfunctory way. When pressed, however, those who teach it and those who read it claim to do so for the very same reasons as those who first adopted the book in the mid-1980s.
The Handmaid’s Tale has become a significant artifact of North American postmodern culture. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the myriad of shelves dedicated to young-adult fiction at your local Barnes and Noble without the influence—however indirect or incorrect—of The Handmaid’s Tale. After all, in our age of intellectual stagnation, who better to destroy patriarchal oppression than a noble and brave teenage girl, a postmodern Joan of Arc?
But this is a most superficial reading of the novel. In reality, the story is as complicated as anything Huxley or Orwell wrote. Indeed, in many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale is the best dystopian novel written thus far, even better than its predecessors, in part because it builds so effectively on what came before it. As a grand work of art, it is deep. The story moves rapidly, but the symbolism and nuances take innumerable readings to discover. Without question, it is far too deep to be categorized in the simplistic terms of left or right.
I read it the first semester of my junior year in college. Not surprisingly, as this was 1988, I had to read it for a course on the history of women in America. While written by a Canadian, The Handmaid’s Tale served as an updated Scarlet Letter; we had begun the course with colonial women and the plight of those living in New England. Though I had devoured science fiction and dystopian fiction for years at that point—they were my favorite genres of literature—I suspected The Handmaid’s Tale to be some sick joke of a politicized feminist imposition on the sacred realm of intellect and art. I was still proudly wearing my anti-PC button on my buffalo-check-lined jean jacket in those days.
And yet what I found in the novel had nothing, at least at its most fundamental level, to do with imposing any ideology on the reader. As with all such dystopian fiction, it served as a new type of warning. Indeed, for those of us who grew up in middle-class Goldwater households in the 1970s and 1980s, The Handmaid’s Tale describes almost perfectly the two things we were rightly taught to fear: the fascist and communist tyrannies that had inflicted so much pain and suffering on the Western world, and the puritanical televangelists who were then emerging as cultural brokers for the New Right. While Pat Robertson might be more attractive than Stalin, each represented forms of control and unjust authority.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood imagines just what might happen should a culture on the verge of collapse embrace the very tyranny it had struggled against throughout much of the century. What if after defeating the Nazis and the Communists, the United States succumbed to a new Cromwell, one who is shiny and glittering even in his despotism? Near the beginning of the novel, the heroine—who has been made a sort of demonic anti-nun through no fault of her own—describes her mistress:
It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, and suddenly she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking down at her knuckled, diamond-studded hands, and I knew where I’d seen her before. The first time was on television, when I was eight or nine. It was when my mother was sleeping in, on Sunday mornings, and I would get up early and go to the television set in my mother’s study and flip through the channels, looking for cartoons. Sometimes when I couldn’t find any I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead soprano. She was ash blond, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyes which she’d turn upwards during hymns. She could smile and cry at the same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on cue, as her voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous, effortless. It was after that she went on to other things. The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once. So it was worse than I thought.
It would be impossible for any reader of my age and background not to visualize with dread the Commander’s Wife as anyone other than the late evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. And yet one cannot stop there. Though Atwood repeatedly read 1984 and Darkness at Noon as a high-school student, nearly memorizing each, she also earned her Ph.D. under the famous Harvard scholar of the Puritans Perry Miller. In the early 1980s, Atwood lived and studied in West Berlin, taking a side trip into the communist East. Utterly horrified by the crippling leviathan of communism, she found the inspiration for her own dystopian novel, set in a new Puritan New England.
None of this should suggest that feminism does not inform Atwood’s fiction. It most certainly does. But to limit her fiction to a feminist interpretation is to distort almost beyond recognition Atwood’s deep and creative individuality. When asked about her own views of feminism not long after the astounding success of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood answered with her characteristically eccentric caution against all oppressions, left, right, above, or below—rather clearly to the surprise of the interviewer:
But I’m an artist. That’s my affiliation, and in any monolithic regime I would be shot. They always do that to the artists. Why? Because the artists are messy. They don’t fit. They make squawking noises. They protest. They insist on some kind of standard of humanity which any such regime is going to violate. They will violate it saying that it’s better for the good of all, or the good of the many, or the better this or better that. And the artists will always protest and they’ll always get shot. Or go into exile.
The Handmaid’s Tale proved an effective examination of the genre of dystopia. So, too, have several of her other tales of a horrific and bizarre Moreau-esque future: in particular, the MaddAddam trilogy—a play on Genesis—consisting of Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013).
By “flood,” Atwood is not referring to the biblical deluge but rather to the genetic manipulation of the human species into something less than human in both the immediate and far future. Though she does not generally refer to the thought or work of C.S. Lewis, except in derision of his female characters—“fond as he was of creating sweet-talking, good-looking evil queens”—her MaddAddam trilogy reflects Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. “All long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones,” Lewis wrote in the third part of The Abolition of Man. “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
In the MaddAddam trilogy, one generation of corporations and their government allies play too deeply with the genetic code, thus ending man and beginning him again as something new and alien. Though the ghost of Lewis lurks over this trilogy, so do those of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Arthur C. Clarke.
When Snowman—Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake—first describes the children who find his humanity so bizarre, uncomfortable, and simultaneously intriguing, Atwood writes in a vein that would have made Huxley blush: “Still, they’re amazingly attractive, these children—each one naked, each one perfect, each one a different skin colour—chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey—but each with green eyes. Crake’s aesthetic.”
That Atwood so readily engages previous writers in the fantasy and science-fiction genres makes her only more interesting, not less. In everything she writes, as the above passage reveals so clearly, there is at once something deeply familiar and disturbingly alien. It is one of her greatest gifts as an artist.
As one of her many loveable quirks, Atwood insists on defining genres differently than do the PR flacks for her publishers. Though one might readily label much of what she writes as “utopian” or “dystopian,” Atwood believes all utopias and dystopias are of a whole, calling them “ustopias.” Additionally, she believes her fantastic literature is not “science fiction” but “speculative fiction.” She fights vehemently on this last point, noting that her fiction never involves things that simply could not happen or that simply have not yet been invented. Every aspect of her fiction, she claims, is possible, here and now.
As I mentioned earlier, photos of Atwood taken over the last several decades reveal what a beautiful woman she is. What is most striking, however, are her eyes. Her eyes radiate intelligence and mischievousness. Truly, they are a gateway to her soul. And very bright indeed must that soul be.
Art is messy, and artists are even messier. Somehow, though, this Canadian has managed to harness the messiness of her mind and her soul in her art. Blissfully, in Atwood’s imagination, there is no one way of doing all things, and no one way of thinking about all things. If we conservatives and libertarians cannot embrace the diverse and unique art of Margaret Atwood—whatever way she votes and to whatever charity she gives—we have lost our own ability to be ourselves and celebrate the good in life.
Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.