Atwood's works encompass a variety of themes including gender and identity, religion and myth, the power of language, climate change, and "power politics". Many of her poems are inspired by myths and fairy tales which interested her from a very early age.
She did not attend school full-time until she was 12 years old. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimms' Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957. Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of 6.
As a child, she also participated in the Brownie program of Girl Guides of Canada. Atwood has written about her experiences in Girl Guides in several of her publications.
Atwood realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal, and participated in the sophomore theatrical tradition of The Bob Comedy Revue. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and minors in philosophy and French.: 54
In 1961, Atwood began graduate studies at Radcliffe College of Harvard University, with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued doctoral studies for two years, but did not finish her dissertation, The English Metaphysical Romance.
Atwood has a sister, Ruth Atwood, born in 1951, and a brother who is two years older, Harold Leslie Atwood. She has claimed that 17th-century witchcraft-lynching survivor Mary Webster is her ancestor. Webster is the subject of Atwood's poem "Half-Hanged Mary", as well as the subject of Atwood's dedication in her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985).
Atwood married Jim Polk, an American writer, in 1968, but later divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon afterward and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, where their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born in 1976.
The family returned to Toronto in 1980. Atwood and Gibson were together until September 18, 2019, when Gibson died after suffering from dementia. She wrote about Gibson in the poem Dearly and in an accompanying essay on grief and poetry published in The Guardian in 2020. Atwood said about Gibson "He wasn't an egotist, so he wasn't threatened by anything I was doing. He said to our daughter towards the end of his life, 'Your mum would still have been a writer if she hadn't met me, but she wouldn't have had as much fun'".
Although she is an accomplished writer, Atwood says that she is "a terrible speller" who writes both on a computer and by hand.
While reviewers and critics have been tempted to read autobiographical elements of Atwood's life in her work, particularly Cat's Eye, in general Atwood resists the desire of critics to read too closely for an author's life in their writing. Filmmaker Michael Rubbo's Margaret Atwood: Once in August (1984) details the filmmaker's frustration in uncovering autobiographical evidence and inspiration in Atwood's works.
Atwood's reputation as a writer continued to grow with the publication of the novels The Robber Bride (1993), finalist for the 1994 Governor General's Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Alias Grace (1996), winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize, finalist for the 1996 Governor General's Award, and shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction. Although vastly different in context and form, both novels use female characters to question good and evil and morality through their portrayal of female villains. As Atwood noted about The Robber Bride, "I'm not making a case for evil behavior, but unless you have some women characters portrayed as evil characters, you're not playing with a full range."The Robber Bride takes place in contemporary Toronto, while Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction detailing the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood had previously written the 1974 CBC made-for-TV film The Servant Girl, about the life of Grace Marks, the young servant who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of the crime. Atwood continued her poetry contributions by publishing Snake Woman in 1999 for the Women's Literature journal Kalliope.
Atwood followed this success with the publication of Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first novel in a series that also includes The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), which would collectively come to be known as the MaddAddam Trilogy. The apocalyptic vision in the MaddAddam Trilogy engages themes of genetic modification, pharmaceutical and corporate control, and man-made disaster. As a work of speculative fiction, Atwood notes of the technology in Oryx and Crake, "I think, for the first time in human history, we see where we might go. We can see far enough into the future to know that we can't go on the way we've been going forever without inventing, possibly, a lot of new and different things." She later cautions in the acknowledgements to MaddAddam, "Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory."
In 2005, Atwood published the novella The Penelopiad as part of the Canongate Myth Series. The story is a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and a chorus of the twelve maids murdered at the end of the original tale. The Penelopiad was given a theatrical production in 2007.
On November 28, 2018, Atwood announced that she would publish The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, in September 2019. The novel features three female narrators and takes place fifteen years after the character Offred's final scene in The Handmaid's Tale. The book was announced as the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize on October 14, 2019.
In 2016, Atwood began writing the superhero comic book series Angel Catbird, with co-creator and illustrator Johnnie Christmas. The series protagonist, scientist Strig Feleedus, is victim of an accidental mutation that leaves him with the body parts and powers of both a cat and a bird. As with her other works, Atwood notes of the series, "The kind of speculative fiction about the future that I write is always based on things that are in process right now. So it's not that I imagine them, it's that I notice that people are working on them and I take it a few steps further down the road. So it doesn't come out of nowhere, it comes out of real life."
With her novel Scribbler Moon, Atwood is the first contributor to the Future Library project. The work, completed in 2015, was ceremonially handed over to the project on May 27 of the same year. The book will be held by the project until its eventual publishing in 2114. She thinks that readers will probably need a paleo-anthropologist to translate some parts of her story. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Atwood said, "There's something magical about it. It's like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they'll wake up, come to life again. It's a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years."
In early 2004, while on the paperback tour in Denver for her novel Oryx and Crake, Atwood conceived the concept of a remote robotic writing technology, what would later be known as the LongPen, that would enable a person to remotely write in ink anywhere in the world via tablet PC and the Internet, thus allowing her to conduct her book tours without being physically present. She quickly founded a company, Unotchit Inc., to develop, produce and distribute this technology. By 2011, the company shifted its market focus into business and legal transactions and was producing a range of products, for a variety of remote writing applications, based on the LongPen technologies. In 2013, the company renamed itself to Syngrafii Inc. In 2021, it is cloud based and offers Electronic signature-technology. As of May 2021, Atwood is still co-founder and a director of Syngrafii Inc. and holder of various patents related to the LongPen and related technology.
In November 2020 Atwood published Dearly, a collection of poems exploring absences and endings, ageing and retrospection, and gifts and renewals. The central poem, Dearly, was also published in The Guardian newspaper along with an essay exploring the passing of time, grief, and how a poem belongs to the reader; this is accompanied by an audio recording of Atwood reading the poem on the newspaper's website.
In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival. This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of "victim positions" in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the "victor/victim" relationship. The "victor" in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim. Atwood's Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye's theory of garrison mentality; Atwood uses Frye's concept of Canada's desire to wall itself off from outside influence as a critical tool to analyze Canadian literature. According to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history, and by unquestioned adherence to the community. In an interview with the Scottish critic Bill Findlay in 1979, Atwood discussed the relationship of Canadian writers and writing to the 'Imperial Cultures' of America and Britain.
Atwood's work has been of interest to feminist literary critics, despite Atwood's unwillingness at times to apply the label feminist to her works. Starting with the publication of her first novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood asserted, "I don't consider it feminism; I just consider it social realism." Despite her rejection of the label at times, critics have analyzed the sexual politics, use of myth and fairytale, and gendered relationships in her work through the lens of feminism. In 2017, she clarified her discomfort with the label feminism by stating, "I always want to know what people mean by that word [feminism]. Some people mean it quite negatively, other people mean it very positively, some people mean it in a broad sense, other people mean it in a more specific sense. Therefore, in order to answer the question, you have to ask the person what they mean." Speaking to The Guardian, she said "For instance, some feminists have historically been against lipstick and letting transgender womeninto women's washrooms. Those are not positions I have agreed with", a position she repeated to The Irish Times. In an interview with Penguin Books, Atwood stated that the driving question throughout her writing of The Handmaid's Tale was "If you were going to shove women back into the home and deprive them of all of these gains that they thought they had made, how would you do it?", but related this question to totalitarianism, not feminism.
In January 2018, Atwood penned the op-ed "Am I a Bad Feminist?" for The Globe and Mail. The piece was in response to social media backlash related to Atwood's signature on a 2016 petition calling for an independent investigation into the firing of Steven Galloway, a former University of British Columbia professor accused of sexual harassment and assault by a student. While feminist critics denounced Atwood for her support of Galloway, Atwood asserts that her signature was in support of due process in the legal system. She has been criticized for her comments surrounding the #MeToo movement, particularly that it is a "symptom of a broken legal system."
In 2018, following a partnership between Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale and women's rights organisation Equality Now, Atwood was honored at their 2018 Make Equality Reality Gala. In her acceptance speech she said:
I am, of course, not a real activist—I'm simply a writer without a job who is frequently asked to speak about subjects that would get people with jobs fired if they themselves spoke. You, however, at Equality Now are real activists. I hope people will give Equality Now lots and lots of money, today, so they can write equal laws, enact equal laws and see that equal laws are implemented. That way, in time, all girls may be able to grow up believing that there are no avenues that are closed to them simply because they are girls.
In 2005, Atwood said that she does at times write social science fiction and that The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do ... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.
Atwood further clarified her definitions of terms in 2011, stating in response to a discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin that: "what Le Guin means by 'science fiction' is what I mean by 'speculative fiction', and what she means by 'fantasy' would include what I mean by 'science fiction'." She added that genre borders were increasingly fluid, and that all forms of "SF" might be placed under a common larger umbrella.
Atwood repeatedly makes observations about the relationship of humans to animals in her works. A large portion of the dystopia Atwood creates in Oryx and Crake rests upon the genetic modification and alteration of animals and humans, resulting in hybrids such as pigoons, rakunks, wolvogs, and Crakers, which function to raise questions on the limits and ethics of science and technology, as well as questions on what it means to be human.
In Surfacing, one character remarks about eating animals: "The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people ... And we eat them, out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life." Some characters in her books link sexual oppression to meat-eating and consequently give up meat-eating. In The Edible Woman, Atwood's character Marian identifies with hunted animals and cries after hearing her fiancé's experience of hunting and eviscerating a rabbit. Marian stops eating meat but then later returns to it.
In Cat's Eye, the narrator recognizes the similarity between a turkey and a baby. She looks at "the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird." In Atwood's Surfacing, a dead heron represents purposeless killing and prompts thoughts about other senseless deaths.
Atwood is a pescetarian. In a 2009 interview she stated that "I shouldn't use the term vegetarian because I'm allowing myself gastropods, crustaceans and the occasional fish. Nothing with fur or feathers though".
Atwood has indicated in an interview that she considers herself a Red Tory in what she sees as the historical sense of the term, saying that "The Tories were the ones who believed that those in power had a responsibility to the community, that money should not be the measure of all things." Atwood also stated on Twitter that she is a monarchist. In the 2008 federal election, she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in Quebec and the choice was between the Bloc and the Conservatives. In an editorial in The Globe and Mail, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party other than the Conservatives to prevent them gaining a majority.
A member of the political action group The Handmaid's Coalition
Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, and she and Graeme Gibson were the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope." Atwood has been chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and helped to found the Canadian English-Speaking chapter of PEN International, a group originally started to free politically imprisoned writers. She held the position of PEN Canada president in the mid 1980s and was the 2017 recipient of the PEN Center USA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Despite calls for a boycott by Gazan students, Atwood visited Israel and accepted the $1,000,000 Dan David Prize along with Indian author Amitav Ghosh at Tel Aviv University in May 2010. Atwood commented that "we don't do cultural boycotts."
The novel Surfacing (1972) was adapted into an 1981 film, written by Bernard Gordon and directed by Claude Jutra. The film received poor reviews and suffers from making "little attempt to find cinematic equivalents for the admittedly difficult subjective and poetic dimensions of the novel."
Atwood's 2008 Massey Lectures were adapted into the documentary Payback (2012), by director Jennifer Baichwal. Commentary by Atwood and others such as economist Raj Patel, ecologist William Reese, and religious scholar Karen Armstrong, are woven into various stories that explore the concepts of debt and payback, including an Armenian blood feud, agricultural working conditions, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In the Wake of the Flood (released in October 2010), a documentary film by the Canadian director Ron Mann, followed Atwood on the unusual book tour for her novel The Year of the Flood (2009). During this innovative book tour, Atwood created a theatrical version of her novel, with performers borrowed from the local areas she was visiting. The documentary is described as "a fly-on-the-wall film vérité."
Atwood's children's book Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery (2011) was adapted into the children's television series The Wide World of Wandering Wenda, broadcast on CBC beginning in the spring of 2017. Aimed at early readers, the animated series follows Wenda and her friends as they navigate different adventures using words, sounds, and language.
Director Darren Aronofsky had been slated to direct an adaption of the MaddAddam trilogy for HBO, but it was revealed in October 2016 that HBO had dropped the plan from its schedule. In January 2018, it was announced that Paramount Television and Anonymous Content had bought the rights to the trilogy and would be moving forward without Aronofsky.
^Pache, Walter (2002). Reingard M. Nischik (ed.). "A Certain Frivolity: Margaret Atwood's Literary Criticism" in Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Toronto: Anansi. p. 122.
^Atwood Margaret (1996) . Survival : a thematic guide to Canadian literature (1st McClelland & Stewart ed.). Toronto, Ontario: M & S. ISBN978-0771008320. OCLC35930298.
^Findlay, Bill (1979), Interview with Margaret Atwood', in Bold, Christine (ed.), Cencrastus No. 1, Autumn 1979, pp. 2 - 6.
^Howells, Coral Ann (2006). John Moss; Tobi Kozakewich (eds.). "Writing History from The Journals of Susanna Moodie to The Blind Assassin" in Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. p. 111.
^Vogt, Kathleen (1988). Real and Imaginary Animals in the Poetry of Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood: Visions and Forms. VanSpanckeren, Kathryn; Castro, Jan Garden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 164. ISBN978-0585106298. OCLC43475939.
^Sanderson, Jay (2013). "Pigoons, Rakunks and Crakers: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Genetically Engineered Animals in a (Latourian) Hybrid World". Law and Humanities. 7 (2): 218–239. doi:10.5235/175214188.8.131.52. S2CID144221386.
^ abCarol J. Adams. 2006. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. The Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 141–142, 152, 195, 197.
Bauch, Marc (2012). Canadian Self-perception and Self-representation in English-Canadian Drama After 1967. Köln, Germany: WiKu-Wissenschaftsverlag Dr. Stein. ISBN978-3-86553-407-1.
Carrington, Ildikó de Papp (1986). Margaret Atwood and Her Works. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press. ISBN978-0-920763-25-4.
Clements, Pam. "Margaret Atwood and Chaucer: Truth and Lies," in: Cahier Calin: Makers of the Middle Ages. Essays in Honor of William Calin, ed. Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Kalamazoo, MI: Studies in Medievalism, 2011), pp. 39–41.