Volume Five, December 2004

home » articles » Ramona Cojocaru-Fletcher


1. ‘Great unexpectations’ that led to the ‘Atwood phenomenon’
Although I believe that beginning a paper from a writer’s biography is quite a didactic approach, I hope I will escape that trap by focusing exclusively on details that are relevant for the understanding of the phenomenon of canonization of Margaret Atwood. I consider that to be of utmost importance when discussing the issue of cultural identity and Canadian literary tradition. Why is Atwood such a mediated and media-liked personality? What makes her so appealing to and so appreciated by the general public? What is her recipe for success?
In trying to answer these questions, I will start from Atwood’s ‘autobiographical foreword’ which takes us back to 1960:

I wanted to be – no, worse – was determined to be, was convinced I was – a writer. I was scared to death. I was scared to death for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was Canadian, and the prospects for being a Canadian and a writer, both at the same time, in 1960, were dim. The only writers I had encountered in high school had been dead and English, and in university we barely studied American writers, much less Canadian ones. Canadian writers, it was assumed – by my professors, my contemporaries, and myself – were a freak of nature, like duck-billed platypuses. Logically they ought not to exist, and when they did so anyway, they were just pathetic imitations of the real thing.

The self-irony breathing throughout this passage is characteristic of Atwood and it pervades most (if not all) of her non-fictional writing. In fact, it is one of the qualities that make her writing so appealing. The passage quoted captures the un-usualness of making a living from writing in Canada, at a time when the nation was barely emerging. This is indicative of the scarcity of texts written by Canadian writers, due to lack of interest in a Canadian literary tradition. Margaret Atwood herself, alongside many other critics, will take up this theme in her seminal work Survival.
In the same foreword cited above, Atwood also points out to another debilitating factor in her career as a writer: “in addition to being a Canadian, I was also a woman.” Despite the fact that there were some advantages of being a woman writer, the disadvantages almost outweighed them. Yet, she managed to surpass the un-surpassable and succeeded in making a name for herself, so much so that, nowadays, critics talk about Atwood as a ‘national icon and cultural celebrity’, a ‘phenomenon’, “Canada’s most gossiped-about writer” who had turned into a ‘national monument’. Nevertheless, she seems to be acutely aware of her position especially in taking on the responsibility that comes with international acclaim. Pilar Cuder notes:

Margaret Atwood is more than a writer. She is a cultural icon. She grew up in a country without a literature of its own. At school and at university, she studied British or American writers, but no Canadian literature had reached the classroom yet. She contributed to change this state of affairs both as a critic and as a publisher. In her thematic guide to Canadian literature, Survival, she was among the first to suggest that Canadian texts possessed truly distinctive features. Later, with the foundation of House of Anansi Press, she helped young writers reach an increasing readership. Since then, she has continued to be an influential voice in cultural politics both inside and outside her country.

Margaret Atwood takes her role very seriously and, because of this, critics like Graham Huggan talk about a certain constructiveness of Atwood’s status. Although Huggan’s article reverberates a rather negative response to “the active role” Atwood plays in marketing herself (which Huggan senses as artificial), he is insightful in detecting some of the factors that contribute to the making of Atwood in a celebrity:

First, Atwood is a tireless and by all accounts extremely powerful performer, coveting media attention in numerous well-timed interviews, talk-shows and public readings, she is flexible enough to be called upon as an authority on many different subjects. Second, she has benefited from the multiplication of her own media image: as a writer and critic, of course, but also as a Canadian commentator, a nationalist, an environmentalist, a feminist.… she has helped enhance her status as a national icon by speaking out on national issues…her international image as a translator and interpreter of Canadian culture.

I found some of Huggan’s statements harsh, especially when he asserts that “Atwood’s celebrity status owes to the careful management of multiple images that ensures that she and her work will generate maximum public appeal, both in Canada and elsewhere in the world” and that “she is highly aware of herself, and of her writing, as a commodity; and she is conscious, too, of the role she plays in the image-making industry that surrounds her work.” After being exposed to a variety of Atwood’s non-fictional writings (including interviews, lecture notes, introductions, forewords, etc), I see her multiplicity as a result of the post-modern condition with its frantic changes and re-contextualizations. Nor do I think she intended to become a commodity, but I agree that she is clever enough to realize that, in this day and age, it would be virtually impossible for her to escape media coverage. Thus, rather than fighting it, she saw it better to control it, but not in a manipulative way as Huggan suggests. I tend to agree with Susanne Becker’s statement that Atwood’s “provocative metaphors and her wry humour have been her best weapons against the curse of celebrity.”
To my mind, Margaret Atwood has the right dose of academic knowledge to pass the test of being an artist that has something to say, and the right playful approach to show that, as well as being an academic, she is also a wife, a mother, and a woman, which makes her appealing to the general public who sense glory to be less untouchable in this way. She can be deep, without using obfuscatory language. All these appraisals, recognitions and demonizations had their say in the “canonizing” of Atwood. Caroline Rosenthal points out that “in a 1997 Globe & Mail survey entitled “The Takeout Window of Canadian Nationalism,” Atwood is listed among the ten most famous and internationally known Canadians.” Being an author with such a wide-reaching impact and resonance, Atwood’s novels are more than mere commodified pieces of literature; they are mirrors of Canada and statements of Canadian imagination and identity and, as intimated previously, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin are no exceptions to the rule.

2. Her-story: narrating the Canadian nation
2.1. The Silencing of the Canadian Voice
In this age of international political unrest, fierce critical challenge of authoritative and hegemonic discourses, history (or, rather, histories) and the question of cultural identity has become of the utmost importance. Especially in the case of former colonies, like Canada, the appropriation of the national cultural legacy, the understanding and the coming to terms with one’s past are constitutive elements of the assertion of a cultural identity. This process of self-assertion is, in its turn, a pre-requisite for the successful dislodgement of the silencing dominant discourse, which, in Canada’s case, was either of English origin (both coming from Great Britain and the United States) or French.
However similar in many respects, the Canadian postcolonial model is distinctively different to that of other former colonies (such as the one offered by Indian, African or Caribbean countries) primarily in the type of response during the “de-colonization” process. I will come back to this idiosyncratic feature further on in the chapter. By “post-colonial,” I do not only mean the period following independence, but rather refer to Ashcroft’s et al. delineation of the term, whereby “postcolonial” covers “all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day.” The process of decolonization is understood here more in terms of the decolonization of the mind and it is less violent in nature than Frantz Fanon’s description of it in The Wretched of the Earth: “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is obviously a program of complete disorder… Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies.”
Although Fanon’s definition of decolonization is mainly descriptive of ‘Third World’ former colonies (where independence resulted from a physically violent challenge of the authorities in power), I see it as relevant for Canada because it captures the idea of tension involved in the break with an established discourse of narrated history. The colonized need to define themselves in cogent terms and they are often confronted with the situation of having to assert themselves against the colonizers, or, to be more precise, against their (preconceived) ideas of the identity of the colonized. In other words, the colonized need to find their own voice in expressing whatever they consider to be emblematic and endemic of their own (cultural and personal) selves. The corollary of this predicament is that history is ‘written’ by narrating his/her-story with the distinctive purport of articulating one’s identity through making sense of one’s one past. Yet, how do we make sense (or attempt to) of our own past?
Many a prominent figure have identified the answer to that question in the time – space equation. Although Canada was quite amenable in the process of colonization, she retains the status of former colony, and, therefore, the same rules apply. Ashcroft et al. remarked that “a major feature of post-colonial literatures is the concern with place and displacement. It is here that the special post-colonial crisis of identity comes into being; the concern with the development or recovery of an effective identifying relationship between self and place.” The emphasis in this case is predominantly on the dislocation factor induced by the encumbering of self-assertion. On the same lines, but by different means, C. Wright Mills points out to the same idea:

[The sociological imagination] is a quality of mind that will help [individuals] to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. (…) The first fruit of this imagination – and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it- is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period [my emphasis], that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances… We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove.

Before proceeding any further I would like to make some clarifications. The sociological imagination here is considered a means of locating postmodern geographies and Edward Soja uses this quote to illustrate the appeal of historicism to the detriment of geography in contemporary critical tradition. None the less, this argument reinforces the dualism History – his/her-story, but, to my mind, the type of relations this dualism generates is different to the one implied by the author. Mills, in a truly sociological fashion, seems to suggest that the individual comes to know who he/she is by making inferences about the society around him and prior to him (sequentially, on the temporal axis). My contention is that, at least in the case of the two novels under discussion, the individuals (the heroines) represent cultural History through their individual stories. Or, differently put, a personal sense of identity presupposes the internalization of cultural identity. Thus, the direction of the interaction between society/collective history and the individual/personal history is not from outside towards within (I see what is around me, therefore, I understand who I am), but, rather, of a centrifugal nature (I can understand who I am if I can locate myself in time, i.e. if I appropriate both time /history and space/geography). Of course, the dynamics of these relations is much more subtle, but I will tackle this issue further on.
Notwithstanding, we can capitalize on Mills’ argument by stating that “the sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations of the two within society.” Soja nuances this by adding that “these ‘life-stories’ have a geography too; they have milieux, immediate locales, provocative emplacements which affect thought and action. The historical [sociological] imagination is never completely spaceless and critical social historians have written, and continue to write, some of the best geographies of the past.… An already-made geography sets the stage, while the wilful making of history dictates the action and defines the story line.” It follows from here that both space and time are essential coordinates of identity. If time is equated to history (or some kind of temporal sequence of events), how do we define the spatial coordinate of identity?
Is the idea of space reducible to locus, to the notion of ‘feeling you belong somewhere’, which would facilitate a sense of location, of not feeling up-rooted anymore? This argument would be quite short lived in the analysis of the Canadian case of identity where, at least initially, settlers felt alienated and haunted by the wild, unwelcoming land. Yet, how do we conceive of space in terms of modern identity? Michel Foucault seems to identify the answer in social practices:

The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a king of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another (my italics).

There are two things I want to note here. Firstly, this quote reiterates the idea that the relations established between the individual and society are variegated and complex; we may not identify with the geography (or site of identification) provided by our surrounding society, but we would definitely be shaped by beliefs, ideas and practices of our society. This leads us to the second point I want to make in connection with this passage: the set of relations mentioned by Foucault resonates to the notion of culture, understood as social practices. History has what Soja terms as ‘adherent spatiality’, materialized in the shape of sites that are culturally derived. In Soja’s words, this other space Foucault talks about is “the space of the actually lived and socially created spatiality, concrete and abstract at the same time, the habitus of social practices. It is a space rarely seen for it has been obscured by a bifocal vision that traditionally views space as either a mental construct or a physical form.”
Therefore, identity is understood in terms of place/displacement and in terms of culture. Yet, how does this work in the case of Canada as a “settler colony”? In order to answer this question, I will introduce a few key dates from Canadian history to illustrate the distinctive character of colonialism in this country.
Originally inhabited by Native Americans and by Inuit in the far north, today’s Canada was first claimed by the French in 1534. In time, explorers moved towards the Mississippi and, from 1682 onwards, the name Canada was used interchangeably with that of New France. In 1713 France gave up part of Canada to the English who later on (1763) conquered the rest of the territory. During the 19th century, Canada evolved from the status of a colony to that of dominion and gained complete sovereignty as late as 1982. David Staines explains that, after the English ‘take over,’ the French Canadian “were forced to assert their own individuality against the domination of the English.” Consequently, two official languages were established (English and French) and two religions. Moreover, because of the vastness of the territory, Canada is more a federation made up of a series of rather individualized regional units. David Staines makes insightful comments related to this issue:

The sheer size of the country will always deny a sense of unity to all its citizens, a unity which was the dream of the architects of confederation. The Canadian preference for a mosaic structure [my emphasis] in which all the ethnic and social regions retain their distinctness is central to an understanding of the nation. As a country Canada is not only a mosaic of ethnic cultures but also a mosaic of regions, each with its own sense of identity; the nation, therefore, exists in a dialectic of regional and ethnic tensions. (…) Canadian history follows a pattern of attempts to impose order and political unity, but not cultural homogeneity, on the whole country.

I find these historical factors fascinating and crucial in the shaping of “Canadian- ness” and, in her writing, Atwood seems to meet the criteria of plurality (mosaic structure) and diversity effortlessly. Her novels exhibit a thrilling ‘roundness’ given by the fact that she never gives monopoly to one point of view and she always presents ‘the other side of the story.’ Critics were quick to note this “violent duality” that characterizes Atwood and the fact that “She is constantly aware of opposites – self/other, subject/object, male/female, nature/man – and of the need to accept and work within them. To create, Atwood chooses violent dualities, and her art re-works, probes, and dramatizes the ability to see double.” To my mind, Atwood’s work is the epitome of the ‘doubleness’ of the Canadian spirit mentioned above.
David Staines investigates the literary tradition of the colony Canada and explains the general public’s lack of interest in poetry (in 1860s) through the country’s “colonial mentality; Canada would turn instinctively to England, France, and the United States for its reading material.” The same idea is embraced by Atwood herself in Survival where she laments that Canadian literature is not taught in Canadian schools. She reproachfully remarks that “writing Canadian literature has been historically a very private act, one from which even an audience was excluded, since for a lot of time there was no audience.” Consequently, writers have a political function to assert their national identity. Atwood takes this role very seriously and makes herself the spokes-person of the oppressed who, not rarely, happen to be women.
David Staines noted as well Canada’s ‘duplicitous’ reaction to imperialism: on the one hand it was amenable towards the continental imperialism, but, at the same time it was rejecting imperialism coming from the United States . Canada rejected the American Revolution and remained loyal to the English crown (this is partly why many American loyalists migrated to Canada after the Revolution). The American democracy and its separation of powers was frowned upon too. Yet, in so doing, Canada was not voicing its own culture and identity and this attitude fostered the colonial mentality and its inherent acceptance of the position of powerlessness synthesized by Atwood in the phrase “I am powerless.” In other words, Canada was very much silencing herself by accepting a victim position which was encumbering self-expression.
Atwood’s conviction is that “the preliminary task of writers in a cultural colony is a preoccupation with their literary and cultural tradition…; ‘for the Canadian writer, history is something that must be rediscovered, reclaimed, reinterpreted’.” If we turn to Stuart Hall and his definition of a “national culture” we will learn that this term is “a discourse – a way of constructing meanings which influences and organizes both our actions and our conception of ourselves. National cultures construct identities by producing meanings about ‘the nation’ with which we can identify; these are contained in the stories which are told about it, memories which connect its present with its past, and images which are constructed of it.” In this sense, Atwood does indeed narrate the Canadian nation especially in her historical novels that are overtly reflective of Canadian cultural identity.

2.2 ‘Alias Grace’ and ‘The Blind Assassin’: Canadian Fictional Histories
As shown previously, it is Atwood’s contention that all novels are, to some extent, historical in the sense that there is always a temporal and a spatial dimension in the narrative. “Atwood has closely charted Canada’s story with its political crises and shifts of ideological emphasis, as a novelist engaged in an ongoing project of cultural representation and critique.” Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin are epitomes of the intricate technique Atwood employs in re-constructing history: by direct (but not necessarily overt) reference to specific historical events from Canada’s history, as well as by proposing the entire narratives as reflections of the way people lived in certain periods of Canadian history.
Alias Grace re-cycles a Canadian ‘legend’ dating from the 1840s and based on the story of Grace Marks, a 16-year old Irish-Canadian servant that was alleged to have conspired to the murder of her master, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Atwood synthesizes the legend in her Author’s Afterword:

…Grace Marks, was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. The Kinnear-Montgomery murders took place on July 23, 1843, and were extensively reported not only in Canadian newspapers but in those of the United States and Britain. The details were sensational: Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear’s housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear’s mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow-servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers. The combination of sex, violence, and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day.

McDermott was trialled and hanged days after his arrest and Grace was imprisoned for life. Her case aroused divided opinions concerning her guilt and Grace Marks still eludes understanding. But it is precisely this “lure of the unmentionable – the mysterious, the buried, the forgotten, the discarded, the taboo” that makes her appealing to Atwood. Through this story, as Virginia Harger-Grinling and Tony Chadwick demonstrate, Atwood explores the relationship between individual and society, memory and history on the one hand, and identity on the other. Grace Marks spends almost thirty years in prison and the reader is still left to wonder whether she was just a victim of the media, a victim of the penitentiary system of the time, or, indeed a cold-blooded ‘celebrated murderess.’
The main problematic that Alias Grace epitomizes is that of the often misleading relationship between historical fact and novelistic fiction. How accurate is historical record? Does one read or interprete ‘documents’? How much is individual identity shaped by what is ‘written’ and marketed as ‘truth’? Throughout the novel, Grace is negotiating her own identity and struggling to find her own voice from this multitude of putative ‘authoritative/true’ voices:

I think of all the things that have been written about me – that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and a little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once? (AG, 25)

This quote explicitly points to the mediated nature of Grace’s story and casts doubt on the accuracy of the details provided. Atwood puts her readers on the guard from the very beginning of the novel, when, even before presenting the contents, she inserts the following epigraphs: “Whatever may have happened through these years, God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie” (William Morris); “I have no Tribunal.” (Emily Dickinson) and “I cannot tell you what the light is, but I can tell you what it is not… What is the motive of the light? What is the light?” (Eugene Marais).
Atwood invites her readers to keep an open mind when evaluating the documents that she proposes as factual evidence and, all along, she endeavours to present both sides of the story, often gathering contradictory discourses that are meant to avoid univocal approaches to ‘truth’; thus, we often find, for example that, while McDermott’s confession incriminates Grace by picturing her as jealous of Nancy, the former rejects this idea, maintaining that McDermott was simply taking his revenge because she resisted his sexual advances. Moreover, Atwood hinted at the intricacies of the politics of representation in earlier work, such as the poem At the Tourist Centre in Boston. Here, the poet offers a map and a handful of photos which are meant to represent Canada. In Pilar Cuder’s words,

our gaze is directed to the map and the photos. We are required to ponder their meaning (…) Although at first we might believe that the contours of the map and the machine-made photos are reliable pieces of information, the poem denies their objectivity. Instead, here they become instruments of deception, inducing dreams, fantasies, hallucinations. By such means, the poet is hinting at the politics of representation, at the fact that there may be a hidden purpose to all forms of representation. The person in control of the production and distribution of an image necessarily defines the object according to his or her own interests, whether this is a conscious process or not. (my emphasis)

With this warning in mind, the reader can only be sceptical of photos, maps, newspaper clippings, confessions and other forms of recording the past. It is perfectly justifiable to argue that, in the same manner, Atwood herself is manipulating the process of representation, since she is the producer of the Grace story. This is perfectly true, but the reader has had his/her warnings and the author does try to present a plurality of voices; these techniques help Atwood to escape from falling in the pitfall of unilateral representation, although she remains a highly political writer. Both Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin exhibit several layers of narrative given by different points of view. In the first novel there are four perspectives: Grace’s story (1st person narrative), Dr Simon Jordan’s story (3rd person narrative), a series of letters and the epigraphic insertions which take various forms: poetry lines, quotes from prose (especially Susana Moodie’s Life in the Clearings), newspaper clippings (from Toronto Mirror, Star and Transcript, Newmarket Era, Chronicle and Gazette, etc) or excerpts from the Kingston Penitentiary diary and punishment book. Understandably, the novel has been likened to a textual quilt in which dispersed pieces come together to form a unified pattern.
Equally, The Blind Assassin has been described as “brilliant tapestry” woven from four narrative threads: Iris Griffin Chase’s diary (1st person narrative), newspaper clippings (unreliable means of legitimizing allegedly objective versions of history), “The Blind Assassin” novella (attributed to Laura Chase) and the science-fictional story of the mysterious lover of the novella. Again, “all of the stories rotate around the same central story. And they unwrap to reveal their contents, as it were.” Thus, there is narratological diversity and there is coherence. Atwood creates the epic illusion of the traditional ‘realistic’ novel, but, at a closer look, postmodern features are revealed.
In an almost paradoxical way, Atwood subverts rules from within, appearing to play by them and challenging them at the same time. This is valid in the case of the concept of realism. In Alias Grace Atwood challenges the very ‘scientific’ discourse of the 18th and 19th century novels by employing parody, defined as “imitation characterized by ironic inversion or repetition with critical difference.” Martin Kuester is of the opinion that the parodic mode matches emerging literatures like the Canadian: “…in general, parody means a distancing process from the original directedness of the parodied text: a sense of difference in repetition. Such a parodic difference in repetition is…of special importance in the context of the new literatures in English that have to define their own stances in opposition to a strong literary tradition stemming from the British Isles.”


Primary Sources:
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. London: Virago Press, 1996.
Atwood, Margaret. The Blind Assassin. London: Virago Press, 2001.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Atwood, Margaret. “In Search of Alias Grace. On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction” – Public Lecture, November 21, 1996. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1997.
Atwood, Margaret. The Journals of Susanna Moodie. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997.
Atwood, Margaret. “Great Unexpectations. An Autobiographical Foreword” in Margaret Atwood. Vision and Forms. Katryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro (eds.), Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, xiii – xvi.

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