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Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most decorated and beloved authors. Although she has published several books of poetry and critical essays, Atwood remains best known for her many novels, two of which have received one of fiction's most prestigious honors: the Booker Prize. Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and she spent much of her childhood in the heavily forested areas of northern Quebec. An insatiable reader from childhood on, Atwood felt inclined to a writing career from an early age. She pursued literary studies at the University of Toronto, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1961, and then at Harvard University, where she completed a master’s degree in 1962. Atwood began work on a doctoral degree, but her dissertation, which she never finished, took a backseat as her writing career took off. She published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, appeared eight years later. Atwood has since published a number of significant novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), The Testaments (2019), and a trio of dystopian novels known collectively as the MaddAddam Trilogy (2003–2013).
Throughout her long and prolific career, Atwood has made a name for herself by depicting a diverse range of female characters, often portraying their struggles to survive the harsh and constricting conditions of a patriarchal society. In her first novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood’s protagonist Marian comes to suspect that men have little real respect for her and would simply prefer to “consume” her before moving on to the next woman. Atwood takes her critique of patriarchal attitudes further in The Handmaid’s Tale, which offers a vision of a dystopian future in which women have lost nearly all of their agency to authoritarian male leaders. Many of Atwood’s subsequent novels continue to explore the lives of different types of women. In Alias Grace, Atwood provides a fictionalized account of the notorious nineteenth-century Canadian “murderess” Grace Marks. The Blind Assassin weaves a mystery out of the lives of two sisters. Finally, The Penelopiad (2005) offers a feminist revision of Greek mythology told from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who looks back on her life from the land of the dead.
The publication in 1985 of The Handmaid’s Tale marked the beginning of Atwood’s interest in speculative fiction, a broad category of fiction that imagines what could become of the world given the current social, political, and technological state of affairs. Although some critics believe that science fiction and fantasy belong under the umbrella of speculative fiction, Atwood distances herself from these genres. As she has stated in numerous public interviews, she understands science fiction as a genre that imagines a world filled with futuristic technologies that do not yet exist. By contrast, speculative fiction imagines events that could really happen given the political and technological means that are already part of our world. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, Atwood explored the possibility of a near future in which a totalitarian state replaces the United States government and institutes the Republic of Gilead, a repressive patriarchal regime that strips women of their rights. The dystopian world Atwood imagines in The Handmaid’s Tale could potentially come to be, and this plausibility gives the novel both its power and relevance for contemporary readers.
The Handmaid’s Tale achieved a new relevance in recent years, which inspired a sequel: The Testaments. The resurgence of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale relates closely to the release of Hulu’s adaptation of the novel for television. The first three seasons of the show earned popular and critical acclaim, and they have drawn a new generation of readers to Atwood’s work. As a response to the surge of renewed interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood decided to write a sequel to her landmark novel. The Testaments, which appeared in September 2019, returns readers to the dystopian world of Gilead approximately fifteen years after the events depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead of focusing on the fate of Offred, the protagonist from the earlier novel, the sequel follows three very different women whose lives converge at a crucial moment to exploit the weakness in Gilead’s oppressive theocratic regime. Like its predecessor, The Testaments has received widespread popular and critical praise. The novel also earned Atwood the second Booker Prize of her remarkable career.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Testaments!