Biography of Margaret Atwood, Canadian Poet and Writer

Award-Winning Author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and More

Margaret Atwood holding a microphone onstage
Atwood participates in a Q&A in 2014.

 Phillip Chin/Getty Images

Margaret Atwood (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian writer, known for her poetry, novels, and literary criticism, among other work. She has won several prestigious awards over the course of her career, including the Booker Prize. In addition to her writing work, she is an inventor who has worked on remote and robotic writing technology.

Fast Facts: Margaret Atwood

  • Full Name: Margaret Eleanor Atwood
  • Known For: Canadian poet, lecturer, and novelist
  • Born: November 18, 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: Carl and Margaret Atwood (née Killam)
  • Education: University of Toronto and Radcliffe College (Harvard University)
  • Partners: Jim Polk (m. 1968-1973), Graeme Gibson (1973-2019)
  • Child: Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson (b. 1976)
  • Selected Works: The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), the MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013)
  • Selected Awards and Honors: Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General's Award, Franz Kafka Prize, Companion of the Order of Canada, Guggenheim Fellowship, Nebula Award
  • Notable Quote: “A word after a word after a word is power.”

Early Life

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She was the second and middle child of Carl Atwood, a forest entomologist, and Margaret Atwood, née Killam, a former dietician. Her father’s research meant that she grew up with something of an unconventional childhood, traveling frequently and spending a lot of time in rural regions. Even as a child, though, Atwood’s interests foreshadowed her career.

Although she didn’t start attending regular schools until she was 12 years old, Atwood was a devoted reader from an early age. She read a wide variety of material, from more traditional literature to fairy tales and mysteries to comic books. As early as she was reading, she was writing too, drafting her first stories and children’s plays at the age of six. In 1957, she graduated from Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto. After high school, she attended the University of Toronto, where she published articles and poems in the school’s literary journal and participated in a theatrical troupe.

In 1961, Atwood graduated with honors with a degree in English, as well as two minors in philosophy and French. Immediately following this, she won a fellowship and began grad school at Radcliffe College (the female sister school to Harvard), where she continued her literary studies. She got her master’s degree in 1962 and began her doctoral work with a dissertation called The English Metaphysical Romance, but she ultimately left her studies after two years without finishing her dissertation.

Several years later, in 1968, Atwood married an American writer, Jim Polk. Their marriage produced no children, and they divorced only five years later, in 1973. Soon after the end of their marriage, however, she met Graeme Gibson, a fellow Canadian novelist. They never married, but in 1976 they had their only child, Eleanor Atwood Gibson, and they lived together until Gibson’s death in 2019.

Early Poetry and Teaching Career (1961-1968)

  • Double Persephone (1961)
  • The Circle Game (1964)
  • Expeditions (1965)
  • Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein (1966)
  • The Animals in That Country (1968)

In 1961, Atwood’s first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published. The collection was well-received by the literary community, and it won the E.J. Pratt Medal, named after one of the foremost Canadian poets of the modern era. During this early part of her career, Atwood focused predominantly on her poetry work, as well as teaching.

Picture of Margaret Atwood smiling against a purple background
Margaret Atwood circa 2006.  David Levenson/Getty Images

During the 1960s, Atwood continued working on her poetry while also working in academia. Over the course of the decade, she had teaching stints at three separate Canadian universities, joining the English departments. She began as a lecturer in English at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, from 1964 to 1965. From there, she went on to Sir George Williams University in Montreal, where she was an instructor in English from 1967 to 1968. She ended the decade teaching from 1969 to 1970 at the University of Alberta.

Atwood’s teaching career did not slow her creative output in the slightest. The years 1965 and 1966 were particularly prolific, as she published three collections of poetry with smaller presses: Kaleidoscopes Baroque: a poemTalismans for Children, and Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, all published by the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Between two of her teaching positions, also in 1966, she published The Circle Game, her next poetry collection. It won the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry that year. Her fifth collection, The Animals in That Country, arrived in 1968.

Forays into Fiction (1969-1984)

  • The Edible Woman (1969)
  • The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970)
  • Procedures for Underground (1970)
  • Power Politics (1971)
  • Surfacing (1972)
  • Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972)
  • You Are Happy (1974)
  • Selected Poems (1976)
  • Lady Oracle (1976)
  • Dancing Girls (1977)
  • Two-Headed Poems (1978)
  • Life Before Man (1979)
  • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • True Stories (1981)
  • Love Songs of a Terminator (1983)
  • Snake Poems (1983)
  • Murder in the Dark (1983)
  • Bluebeard's Egg (1983)
  • Interlunar (1984)

For the first decade of her writing career, Atwood focused exclusively on publishing poetry and did so to great success. In 1969, however, she shifted gears, publishing her first novel, The Edible Woman. The satirical novel focuses on a young woman’s growing awareness in a heavily consumeristic, structured society, foreshadowing many of the themes that Atwood would be known for in the coming years and decades.

By 1971, Atwood had moved to work in Toronto, spending the next couple of years teaching at universities there. She taught at York University for the 1971 to 1972 academic year, then became a writer in residence at the University of Toronto the following year, ending in the spring of 1973. Although she would continue to teach for several more years, these positions would be her last teaching jobs at Canadian universities.

Writer Margaret Atwood in Paris
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leans against a sculpture in Paris, 1987. Sygma / Getty Images

In the 1970s, Atwood published three major novels: Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), and Life Before Man (1979). All three of these novels continued developing the themes that had first appeared in The Edible Woman, cementing Atwood as an author who wrote thoughtfully about themes of gender, identity, and sexual politics, as well as how these ideas of personal identity intersect with concepts of national identity, especially in her native Canada. It was during this time that Atwood went through some upheaval in her personal life. She divorced her husband in 1973 and soon met and fell in love with Gibson, who would become her lifelong partner. Their daughter was born the same year that Lady Oracle was published.

Atwood continued writing outside of fiction during this period as well. Poetry, her first focus, was not pushed to the side at all. On the contrary, she was even more prolific in poetry than she was in fiction prose. Over the course of nine years between 1970 and 1978, she published six collections of poetry in total: The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), a collection of some of her previous poems titled Selected Poems 1965–1975 (1976), and Two-Headed Poems (1978). She also published a collection of short stories, Dancing Girls, in 1977; it won the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction and the Periodical Distributors of Canada for Short Fiction Award. Her first non-fiction work, a survey of Canadian literature titled Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, was published in 1972.

Feminist Novels (1985-2002)

  • The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
  • Through the One-Way Mirror (1986)
  • Cat's Eye (1988)
  • Wilderness Tips (1991)
  • Good Bones (1992)
  • The Robber Bride (1993)
  • Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994)
  • Morning in the Burned House (1995)
  • Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995)
  • Alias Grace (1996)
  • The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)

Atwood's most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale, was published in 1985 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General's Award; it also was a finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize, which recognizes the best English-language novel that reaches publication in the United Kingdom. The novel is a work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian alternate history where the United States has become a theocracy called Gilead that forces fertile women into a subservient role as “handmaids” to bear children for the rest of society. The novel has endured as a modern classic, and in 2017, the streaming platform Hulu began airing a television adaptation.

The cast of 'The Handmaid's Tale' onstage at the Golden Globes
Atwood (second from right, in red) with the cast of Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' at the 2017 Golden Globes.  Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Her next novel, Cat’s Eye, was also well-received and highly praised, becoming a finalist for both the 1988 Governor General's Award and the 1989 Booker Prize. Throughout the 1980s, Atwood did continue teaching, although she spoke openly about her hopes that she would eventually have a successful (and lucrative) enough writing career to leave short-term teaching positions behind, like many literary writers hope to do. In 1985, she served as the MFA Honorary Chair at the University of Alabama, and in the following years, she continued taking one-year honorary or titled positions: she was the Berg Professor of English at New York University in 1986, the Writer-in-Residence at Macquarie University in Australia in 1987, and the Writer-in-Residence at Trinity University in 1989.

Atwood continued writing novels with significant moral and feminist themes into the 1990s, albeit with a wide array of topic matter and style. The Robber Bride (1993) and Alias Grace (1996) both dealt with issues of morality and gender, particularly in their depictions of villainous female characters. The Robber Bride, for instance, features a consummate liar as the antagonist and exploits power struggles between the sexes; Alias Grace is based on a true story of a maid who was convicted of murdering her boss in a controversial case.

Both received major recognition within the literary establishment; they were finalists for the Governor General’s Award in their respective years of eligibility, The Robber Bride was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Alias Grace won the Giller Prize, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a Booker Prize finalist. Both also eventually received on-screen adaptations. In 2000, Atwood reached a milestone with her tenth novel, The Blind Assassin, which won the Hammett Prize and Booker Prize and was nominated for several other awards. The following year, she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Speculative Fiction and Beyond (2003-present)

  • Oryx and Crake (2003)
  • The Penelopiad (2005)
  • The Tent (2006)
  • Moral Disorder (2006)
  • The Door (2007)
  • The Year of the Flood (2009)
  • MaddAddam (2013)
  • Stone Mattress (2014)
  • Scribbler Moon (2014; unreleased, written for the Future Library Project)
  • The Heart Goes Last (2015)
  • Hag-Seed (2016)
  • The Testaments (2019)

Atwood turned her attention to speculative fiction and to real-life technologies in the 21st century. In 2004, she came up with the idea for remote writing technology that would enable a user to write in real ink from a remote location. She founded a company to develop and produce this technology, which came to be called the LongPen, and was able to use it herself to participate in book tours that she could not attend in person.

Atwood holding up a copy of her novel 'Oryx and Crake'
Atwood holding a copy of her novel 'Oryx and Crake' at a 2003 Booker Prize event. Scott Barbour/Getty Images 

In 2003, she published Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novel. It ended up being the first in her “MaddAddam” trilogy, which also included 2009’s The Year of the Flood and 2013’s MaddAddam. The novels are set in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which humans have pushed science and technology to alarming places, including genetic modification and medical experimentation. During this time, she also experimented with non-prose works, writing a chamber opera, Pauline, in 2008. The project was a commission from the City Opera of Vancouver and is based on the life of Canadian poet and performer Pauline Johnson.

Atwood’s more recent work also includes some new takes on classical stories. Her 2005 novella The Penelopiad retells the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife; it was adapted for a theatrical production in 2007. In 2016, as part of a Penguin Random House series of Shakespeare retellings, she published Hag-Seed, which reimagines The Tempest’s revenge play as the story of an outcast theater director. Atwood’s most recent work is The Testaments (2019), a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel was one of two joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize.

Literary Styles and Themes

One of the most notable underlying themes in Atwood’s work is her approach to gender politics and feminism. Although she tends not to label her works “feminist,” they are the subject of much discussion in terms of their depictions of women, gender roles, and the intersection of gender with other elements in society. Her works explore different depictions of femininity, different roles for women, and what pressures societal expectations create. Her most famous work in this arena is, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale, which depicts a totalitarian, religious dystopia that openly subjugates women and explores relationships between men and women (and between different castes of women) within that power dynamic. These themes date all the way back to Atwood’s early poetry, though; indeed, one of the most consistent elements to Atwood’s work is her interest in exploring dynamics of power and gender.

A protestor wearing a red hooded cape in front of a white governmental building
A protestor wears a costume from 'The Handmaid's Tale' after a 2019 protest in Alabama for reproductive rights.  Julie Bennett/Getty Images

Particularly in the latter portion of her career, Atwood’s style has slanted a little bit towards speculative fiction, although she avoids the label of “hard” science fiction. Her focus tends more towards speculating on the logical extensions of existing technology and exploring their impact on human society. Concepts such as genetic modification, pharmaceutical experiments and alterations, corporate monopolies, and man-made disasters all appear in her works. The MaddAddam trilogy is the most obvious example of these themes, but they also play a part in several other works. Her concerns for human technology and science also encompass a running theme of how the decisions made by humans can have a negative impact on animal life.

Atwood’s interest in national identity (specifically, in Canadian national identity) threads through some of her work as well. She suggests that Canadian identity is tied up in the concept of survival against numerous foes, including other humans and nature, and in the concept of community. These ideas appear largely in her non-fiction work, including a survey of Canadian literature and collections of lectures over the years, but in some of her fiction as well. Her interest in national identity is often tied to a similar theme in many of her works: exploring how history and historical myth are created.

Sources

  • Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. ECW Press, 1998.
  • Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Nischik, Reingard M. Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009.