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Lecture

Unit 4 Atwood Lecture

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Department
English
Course
English 2060E
Professor
Prof
Semester
Fall

Description
Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) Biography As many critics and readers of Canadian literature have noted, Atwood is probably the best-known of Canadian writers, having produced novels, poetry, childrens books and cultural commentary from her first published work The Circle Game, which won a Governor Generals Award in 1966 to her most recent series of essays, Payback (2008) which seem to have prophesied the current global economic crisis. Atwoods persona, Lorraine York has argued, is her most compelling creation of all. Love her or hate her, however, Atwoods contributions to Canadian cultural identity and Canadian literature cannot be ignored. Atwood has spent much of her life in Toronto, though she was born in Ottawa and spent time in Northern Ontario during much of her childhood. She studied English at the University of Toronto with Northrop Frye and Jay McPherson, where she became interested in genres and mythic patterns, including the gothic. This led to her graduate work at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) in the early 60s where she received her MA and completed much of a Phd. She then taught at Sir George Brown College and UBC before turning full time to writing after her success not only with The Circle Game, but also her first published novel The Edible Woman. She has been incredibly prolific ever since and her many novels often explore different genres, as she explores the dystopian fiction in The Handmaids Tale. The Handmaids Tale cemented Atwoods international reputation. It was a critical and popular success in the United States as well as Canada. See the clips from the CBC archives for the fanfare that followed its publication in the media archive. It was the reception of this novel that further settled Atwoods public persona as a literary celebrity as well. Style Atwoods early poetic style was terse and elliptical. Her interest in languages power and the power games inevitably bound up in language foregrounds the readers own relationship with language. The problem of language is its simultaneous power and slipperiness. Often in Atwoods poems were faced with the problem of the speaking voice: Who speaks? How do we know? Often were led into questioning orthodoxies by the ironic voices of Atwoods creations. Were often led astray, to false impressions, and then were caught by the enormity of our own short sightedness. In poetry, David Bentley calls these false leads poetic boobytraps, but the narrative schema of The Handmaids Tale provides a similar need for questioning and irony. Many readers on first reading The Handmaids Tale do not read the Historical Notes, just as many readers skip introductions and afterwords that are part of classic novels packaging. However, the Historical Notes do not belong to an editor after-the- fact. They are Atwoods re-framing of her novel, putting her futuristic dystopia, ostensibly written in the first person by a singular handmaid, in the context of an even more distant future. This future, as with the republic of Gilead, is both far from and extremely close to our own society. Atwood often leads readers to face our own orthodoxy, to self-consciousness about our own conventional thinking as she turns such conventions on their heads with self-reflexive irony. Our inclination to skip what we consider to be dry factual material is one of those orthodoxies. Offreds musings about romance novels is another of these obviously self-conscious moments in her tale, which we later learn was not written but dictated onto thirty tape cassettes, adding another layer of self-reflexivity. Genre Before we get to dystopia, what is utopia? Obviously, the word comes from Thomas Mores 16 Century masterpiece, but it also comes from the Greek. eutopos, a good place, and outopos, no place. Utopias then are impossible they are the good places that do not exist. Dystopias, on the other hand, are bad places that seem altogether too possible, at least to some readers. dystopia [dis-toh-pia] A modern term invented as the opposite of utopia , and applied to any alarmingly unpleasant imaginary world, usually of the projected future. The term is also applied to fictional works depicting such worlds. A significant form of science fiction and of modern satire , dystopian writing is exemplified in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine ( 1895 ), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ( 1949 ), and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker ( 1980 ). "dystopia" The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford 2009 Atwoods alarmingly unpleasant imaginary world reacts to previous feminist utopias, idealized as women-only enclaves, in addition to dystopian writing about totalitarian states such as Orwells masterpiece. As Peter Fitting remarked in 1990, more recent fictions no longer give us images of a radically different future, in which the values and ideals of feminism have been extended to much of the planet, but rather offer depressing images of a brutal reestablishment of capitalist patriarchy (142). It became apparent in the 1980s that feminist struggle had not wrought significant change; likewise, Atwood had serious doubts about the monolithic nature of feminisms that excluded half the human race. Atwoods novel focuses attention on women, but not women alone. Atwood had spent the 1980s compiling facts from newspapers around the world from which she builds her nightmare world of Gilead. Certainly Atwoods futuristic society offers a bleak reading of the future of patriarchy that is not only capitalist but religious in nature. Atwood describes the novel as follows: Its set in the near future, in a United States which is in the hands of a power- hungry elite who have used their own brand of Bible-based religion as an excuse for the suppression of the majority of the population. Its about what happens at the intersection of several trends, all of which are with us today: the rise of right-wing fundamentalism as a political force, the decline of the Caucasian birth rate in North America and northern Europe, and the rise in infertility and birth-defect rates, due, some say, to increased chemical-pollutant and radiation levels, as well as to sexually-transmitted diseases. (qtd. in Howells 96) Atwoods authors note adds the details of her interest in the past as of as much pertinence as the future, her research into Puritan America and human nature: It is an imagined account of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about womenare taken to their logical conclusions. History proves that what we have been in the past we could be again (392). Can you think of some not uncommon pronouncements about women that might lead to dystopian visions? Dismissing women as breeders is one, but Im sure there are others. Religion/Corruption/Tammy Faye Bakker As Atwoods words attest, one of the fears to which The Handmaids Tale reacts is the fear about the American religious right, its links to government and its growing popularity with mainstream Americans. More than one commentator has remarked on the resemblance between one of Atwoods characters, Serena Joy, and Tammy Faye Bakker, the wife of a TV evangelist and convicted felon, Jim Bakker. Her husband is now famous for his conviction on fraud charges following an investigation into their TV enterprises, but Tammy Faye was more famous for her grotesque eye makeup and abundant tears until her death in 2007. In the Historical Notes Atwood reinforces the link through rhyme: Bambi Mae is one of Pieixotos suggestions for the wife in question! The links between televangelism, money, and corruption that came up in the trial engendered fear due to the amount of money Bakker put into various political campaigns in the U.S. What Atwoods description of Serena Joy (56-7) evokes besides resonances with a pop-cultural icon is the speed with which the banal and ridiculous becomes frightening in an autocratic state: Luke and I would watch her sometimes on the late-night news. Bathrobes, nightcaps. Wed watch
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