Margaret Atwood: Dystopian Literature and Feminism

  • Margaret Atwood and Dystopia

Utopian literature is a type of literature characterized by the depiction of an ideal world. A key feature of Utopian literature works is that the author normally sets their narrative in a world which aligns with their ethos and values. The formation of the word ‘utopia’ is normally accredited to Sir Tomas Moore the English philosopher. In 1516, Moore published the book titled Utopia. This work was a representation of an ideal society where everything worked almost perfectly well. Moore is credited with coining the term Utopia. However, before Moore’s time, other renowned authors had published works depicting ideal societies. Around the year 370 BC, Plato published the work ‘The Republic’ which also made a representation of an ideal society. Plato’s The Republic inspired leaders from that era to visualize a perfect and ideal society and build towards that (Fitting, 121-123). After Moore published Utopia, several works subsequently followed this genre in depicting ideal societies. Tomasso Campanella published The City of the Sun in 1623 and Samuel Johnson on the other hand published The History of Rasselas, the Prince of Abissinia in 1759.

As noted initially, Utopian literature is typically characterized by the depiction of an ideal society while the narrative often portrays ethos and values that align with that of the author. The citizens live in a harmonious society. Spreading of information, the independence of thought, and other basic human rights and freedoms are promoted. Innovation and the spirit of individuality are revered. In addition, leadership is a unifying factor in society. Society accepts change, evolution occurs and society adapts to the changes. Various ideas are also presented in Utopian literature. For utopia stories that present ecological utopia, climate, and natural; resources do not face challenges. In feminist utopia, men and women live in a world where they are equal. Technological utopias on the other hand represent an advancement of technological know-how in society. Advanced robotics are in use while technology is generally well advanced (Bagchi 2-4).

There are several famed Utopian works and writers. An example is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent by Sarah Scott is also a famous Utopian literature work from the eighteenth century. Edward Bellamy and Samuel Butler are famed Utopian writers from the nineteenth century with examples of their Utopian works being Equality and Erewhon respectively. In the 20th Century, HG Wells and Ursula Le Guin have featured.

Dystopian literature on the other hand is the complete opposite of Utopian literature. The narrative is set in a world which does not align with the author’s ethos and values. Human life in dystopian stories is often characterized by oppression and suffering(Green). The government and the ruling class oppress their citizens and take away their civil liberties. The class divides in dystopian stories are often extreme, poverty rates are high, the environment is degraded, and there is anarchy. Set in the near future, dystopian fantasy/ fiction works serve as a warning about current social events that could escalate in the future. It is a warning about the existential threats that could escalate if not dealt with accordingly.

Margaret Atwood is one of the most famous dystopian writers. Notable dystopian novels include V for Vendetta written by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, The Children of Men by PD James, and The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins.

1.1 Margaret Atwood as a Feminist Author

Margaret Atwood is the famed Canadian poet and author whose works in literature have earned her several awards. Apart from doing poetry, Atwood is a teacher as well as a novelist and environmental activist. Some of her works have also been adapted for television and film. In her literary works, Atwood normally covers a variety of themes, including the role of women in society, gender and identity, climate change, and religion. Her themes resonate with most audiences because they address contemporary societal issues. Her works addressing issues of feminism and women’s role in society, animal rights, and environmental protection notably resonate with the modern audience.

Atwood is one of the world’s most renowned feminist writers. But what exactly is feminism? Feminism is an ideology and philosophy that is aimed at empowering women to achieve equality amongst both men and women. Founded on the quest for social justice, feminism offers a range of perspectives on several societal issues ranging from economic, political, social, and cultural issues. Feminism adopts the stand that society has been conditioned to adopt views that prioritize the welfare of men as opposed to that of women. The feminist movement, therefore, prioritizes the fight against gender stereotyping and the provision of opportunities for women that are equal to that men have (Lengermann, and Niebrugge 223). Among the social justice programs that feminist movements have campaigned for include women’s right to vote, their right to education, lengthier maternity leaves for women who work, equal pay for both genders, and equal rights within marriage. Apart from the fight for various rights and freedoms for women, feminist movements have also fought for the elimination of various vices that plague the well-being and empowerment of women in society. This includes domestic violence, sexual harassment both generally and in the workplace, and rape. They have also fought for the procurement of legal abortion with the same having been approved in several countries in the world (Maynard 259-285).

Margaret Atwood has established herself as a feminist author. Feminism is a theme that runs across most of Atwood’s renowned works. While Atwood herself does not use the term feminism to refer to her work, others have used it to explain the themes in her stories and the messages she seeks to put across (Baldwin, 1). Atwood’s works that carry a feminist theme include The Edible Woman, The Blind Assassin, The Penelopiad, and Alias Grace. In The Penelopiad for example, Atwood redoes a classical literary work, Homer’s Odyssey. In The Penelopiad, she writes the story of Odysseus in a new way. While the original piece by Homer focused on the story of Odysseus returning home, Atwood’s version focuses on Odysseus’ wife Penelope. It also focuses on the maids who were slaughtered by Telemachus, along with other major occurrences in Penelope’s life, such as the endless suitors who tried to woo her.

In Alias Grace, Atwood focuses on the stories of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear who were murdered in the Western part of Canada. Grace, along with another servant was accused of being behind the murder. Her co-accused was sentenced to death by hanging while Grace herself was sentenced to life in prison. Atwood wrote a fictional account of the story in which she focused on Grace’s innocence and her ordeal. In the novel, Atwood severally refers to the perceptions about women in Canadian society. She speaks about the ill-treatment they get and the double standards that they are subjected to. Alias Grace is a perfect example of Atwood using her literature to voice concern for issues women face.

Robber Bride also focuses on female characters. Unlike the previous two discussed above, the novel focuses on three main female characters and not just one. The story focuses on the main characters’ interactions and relationships with another woman who is named Zenia. By focusing on the three main female characters and Zenia, Atwood can communicate to the reader important aspects of womanhood and what defines a woman.

Atwood is considered a feminist writer because of her role in highlighting the plight of Canadian women through literature. When she first came to the fore, the Canadian literature scene lacked an identity. Atwood helped to carve out an identity for Canadian literature through her running themes of feminism (Newman, 2). Atwood’s literature often narrates about female characters in patriarchal societies where they are oppressed and highlights their struggles for emancipation. The quest for equality of both sexes as well as calling for social and political reforms to allow women to be at the forefront of society are messages that feature prominently in Atwood’s writings.

1.2 Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Fiction

Considering her status as one of the world’s most renowned dystopian and feminist writers, Margaret Atwood has had some pretty strong things to say about the two concepts. In an interview with Andrew Kenn, the author of the book ‘How to Fix the Future’, Atwood voiced her thoughts on democracy, fiction, and dystopian fiction as a category in literature works. According to Atwood, Dystopian literature plays an important role in society since it exists as a reminder that if present ills are not corrected, a lot could go wrong in the future. According to her, Dystopian literature serves as a warning to governments and the leaders in a society that they should not by any means resort to oppressing their citizens. Most importantly it highlights the harm that can be done by creating wide social divides and ensuring there is a gap between the rich and the poor (Keen On).

Atwood is also of the opinion that life imitates art and has warned that the stories played out in Dystopian fictional literature could come to pass. Her disdain for Utopian literature is because it is ‘too boring and too perfect’. Real-life society does not always tend to be perfect all the time and as such, dystopian fiction gives a more accurate representation of events that could happen in the future as opposed to Utopian fiction’s perfect setting. Some of the fictional parts of Atwood’s dystopian tales have come to pass in the modern-day and this vindicates her position. For example, her fictional tale of the President’s Day Massacre in her 1985 novel, in which there was a violent attack on the US Capitol came to pass with the January 6th insurrection which happened in 2021. The latter event occurred thirty-six years or so years after Atwood published her book and happened in a similar vein, with violent demonstrators attacking the Capitol (Holland, and Amanpour, 2).

Atwood says her dystopian works were based on previous occurrences and are not entirely a work of fiction. For her most popular dystopian fiction work, she says it was based on historical precedent. It is based on this that she states “All around the world and back in time, these kinds of totalitarianism have existed. So, my question was: If you were going to have one in the United States, what form would it take?” Her Dystopian fiction works are therefore a guide for society today (Holland, and Amanpour, 2).

On the feminist topic, Atwood is considered one of the leading feminist writers in the world. However, she has never called herself a feminist, refusing to do so because she believes that the term has drawn many different meanings. In a piece she wrote in the New York Times in 2017, she states: “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure, and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist” (Atwood, 1). In the piece, Atwood seems to refer to three kinds of feminism. The first casts women as an image of perfection without any flaws, with the second alluding to women as having been victimized to the extent that they are incapable of making moral choices on their own. The third version which she seems to be in support of casts women as flawed but full humans who need to be respected and appreciated for what they are.

Atwood’s views on feminism present some sort of a paradox. On the one hand, her literature works possess feminist themes and speak of the empowerment and liberation of women. On the other hand, she refuses to be called a feminist outside her works and generally steers clear of making contributions to the feminism debate. As noted earlier, she does not refer to herself as a feminist and in one interview, she outrightly declined to be referred to as one. When asked whether she is a feminist writer, she answered: “‘Feminist’ is now one of the all-purpose words. It can mean anything from people who think men should be pushed off cliffs to people who think it’s ok for women to read and write … So what do you mean?” (Wells, 2).

A few years back, she elicited a furious debate on social media when she shared an article on Twitter titled ‘Why can’t we say ‘woman’ anymore’? She was accused by some of enabling transphobia and making trans women susceptible to attack. While some accused her of having left behind her feminist values, the truth is that Atwood never identified as a feminist because she feels the concept of feminism has been misunderstood. Addressing her controversial approach to modern issues, Atwood says that she is viciously independent. For modern age debates, people form camps and everyone wants you in their camp. Only that she is not willing to do so because it only makes you a puppet of the camp you have joined, as opposed to keeping your independence of thought.

In another interview with the actress Emma Watson, she was asked whether she sometimes gets bored of being asked whether she is a feminist. In her response, Atwood clarified that she had realized that the word now bore many meanings and that explains her constant reply  “Tell me what you mean by that word and then we can talk” (Oppenheim, 1). She has denied that some of her works including The Edible Woman bear feminist titles. This is although the publication of the book coincided with the second-wave feminist movement. According to her, an author can only be labeled as a feminist if they worked willingly and consciously within the context of the feminist movement. A major takeaway from Atwood’s opinions on feminism though is the fact that she accepts being referred to as a feminist only in the context that women should be regarded as citizens with equal rights similar to men.

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