‘Great unexpectations’ that led to the ‘Atwood
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
In trying to answer these questions, I will start from Atwood’s
‘autobiographical foreword’ which takes us back to 1960:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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.
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:
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
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
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:
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.
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.
‘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
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:
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.
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
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)
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?”
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
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)
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.”
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