Margaret Atwood

Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, teacher, environmental activist,pépiniériste and inventor

Margaret Eleanor Atwood (born 18 November 1939) is a Canadian novelist, poet, and literary critic.

The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.

Quotes edit

The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.
I would rather dance as a ballerina, though faultily, than as a flawless clown.
War is what happens when language fails.
  • "Well, maybe I'm a latent homosexual." He considered that for a moment. "Or maybe I'm a latent heterosexual. Anyway, I'm pretty latent. I don't know why. Of course, I've taken a number of stabs at it, but then I start thinking about the futility of it all and I give up. Maybe it's because you're expected to do something and after a certain point all I want to do is lie there and stare at the ceiling."
  • The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.
    • Surfacing (1972) p. 107
    • Variant: The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them; there ought to be as many for love.
    • The premise for this quote is now known to be a linguistic myth stemming from the early 20th century work of Franz Boas. This quote by Atwood has been cited as an example of the perpetuation of this myth.
    • Note: The word "Eskimo" has come to be considered offensive, especially in Canada. The term is still used worldwide by historians and archaeologists. Source: Wikiquote.
  • A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.
    • Time magazine (19 March 1973)
  • He's just a contact of hers, which is not the same as a friend. While she was in the hospital she decided that most of her friends were really just contacts.
  • He had that faint sick look in his eyes, as if he wanted to give her something, charity for instance.
    • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • The policemen's faces glisten too, they're holding themselves back, they love this, it's a ceremony, they're implementing a policy.
    • Bodily Harm (1981)
  • "Why do men feel threatened by women?" I asked a male friend of mine. (I love that wonderful rhetorical device, "a male friend of mine." It's often used by female journalists when they want to say something particularly bitchy but don't want to be held responsible for it themselves. It also lets people know that you do have male friends, that you aren't one of those fire-breathing mythical monsters, The Radical Feminists, who walk around with little pairs of scissors and kick men in the shins if they open doors for you. "A male friend of mine" also gives — let us admit it — a certain weight to the opinions expressed.) So this male friend of mine, who does by the way exist, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. "I mean," I said, "men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power." "They're afraid women will laugh at them," he said. "Undercut their world view." Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, "Why do women feel threatened by men?" "They're afraid of being killed," they said.
  • Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
  • Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
    • Cat's Eye (1988)
  • An eye for an eye only leads to more blindness.
    • Cat's Eye (1988)
  • Roughing it builds a boy's character, but only certain kinds of roughing it.
    • Wilderness Tips (1991)
  • Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.
    • The Robber Bride
  • I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.
  • I'm working on my own life story. I don't mean I'm putting it together; no, I'm taking it apart.
    • The Tent (2006)
  • I plunged in, and set up a Twitter account. My first problem was that there were already two Margaret Atwoods on Twitter, one of them with my picture. This grew; I gave commands; then all other Margaret Atwoods stopped together. I like to think they were sent to a nunnery, but in any case they disappeared. The Twitterpolice had got them. I felt a bit guilty.
  • I soon had a few thousand people I didn’t know sending me messages like “OMG! Is it really you?” “I love it when old ladies blog,” one early follower remarked. … and they really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that "Own the podium" was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested "A podium might be nice." Their own variations poured onto a feed tagged #cpodium: "A podium! For me?" "Rent the podium, see if we like it." "Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?" I was so proud of them! It was like having 33,000 precocious grandchildren!
    • "Atwood in the Twittersphere", The New York Review of Books (29 March 2010)

Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1976) edit

  • The weapons
    that were once outside
    sharpening themselves on war
    are now indoors
    there, in the fortress,
    in glass cases

    Why is it
    (I’m thinking
    of the careful moulding
    round the stonework archways)
    that in this time, such
    elaborate defences keep
    things that are no longer
    worth defending?

    • "The circle game"
  • Your righteous eyes, your laconic
    people the streets with villains:
    as you move, the air in front of you
    blossoms with targets

    and you leave behind you a heroic
    trail of desolation
    beer bottles
    slaughtered by the side
    of the road, bird-
    skulls bleaching in the sunset.

    • "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
  • I am the horizon
    you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso

    I am also what surrounds you:
    my brain
    scattered with your
    tincans, bones, empty shells,
    the litter of your invasions.

    I am the space you desecrate
    as you pass through.

    • "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
  • When you hear me singing
    you get the rifle down
    and the flashlight, aiming for my brain,
    but you always miss

    and when you set out the poison
    I piss on it
    to warn the others.

  • I am yours. If you feed me garbage,
    I will sing a song of garbage.
    This is a hymn.
  • In view of the fading animals
    the proliferation of sewers and fears
    the sea clogging, the air
    nearing extinction

    we should be kind, we should
    take warning, we should forgive each other

    Instead we are opposite, we
    touch as though attacking,

    the gifts we bring
    even in good faith maybe
    warp in our hands to
    implements, to manoeuvres

  • In restaurants we argue
    over which of us will pay for your funeral

    though the real question is
    whether or not I will make you immortal.

    • "They eat out"

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) edit

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Anchor Books
  • There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.
    • Chapter 5 (p. 24)
  • Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
    Even when there is no one.
    • Chapter 7 (pp. 39-40)
  • Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
    • Do not let the bastards grind you down.
    • Chapter 9 (p. 52)
  • Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 56)
  • You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth.
    • Chapter 12 (p. 64)
  • These pictures were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animation; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom. But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.
    • Chapter 13
  • The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical; it’s one of the shapes money takes when it freezes.
    • Chapter 14 (p. 79)
  • Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
    Nobody said when.
    • Chapter 15 (p. 89)
  • Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.
    • Chapter 19 (p. 109)
  • A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.
    • Chapter 20 (p. 121)
  • You can think clearly only with your clothes on.
    • Chapter 24 (p. 143)
  • He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.
    • Chapter 24
  • I'll take care of it, Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real.
    • Chapter 30 (pp. 192-193)
  • (She is reciting the Lord’s prayer) Now we come to forgiveness. Don’t worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.
    • Chapter 30 (pp. 194-195)
  • You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
    Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
    Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.
    • Chapter 32 (p. 211)
  • Freedom, like everything else, is relative.
    • Chapter 36 (p. 231)
  • A movie about the past is not the same as the past.
    • Chapter 37 (p. 235)
  • By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
    • Chapter 41 (p. 268)
  • As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
    • Historical Notes (p. 311)

Selected Poems 1976-1986 (1987) edit

Marrying the Hangman edit

Originally published in Two-Headed Poems (1978)
Full text online
  • She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
    may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
    woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
    time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
    There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
    not fantasy, it is history.
  • To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live
    without mirrors is to live without the self.
    She is
    living selflessly, she finds a hole in the stone wall and
    on the other side of the wall, a voice. The voice
    comes through darkness and has no face. This voice
    becomes her mirror.
  • In order to avoid her death, her particular death, with
    wrung neck and swollen tongue, she must marry the
  • She must
    transform his hands so they will be willing to twist
    the rope around throats that have been singled out
    as hers was, throats other than hers. She must marry
    the hangman or no one, but that is not so bad. Who
    else is there to marry?
  • You wonder about her crime. She was condemned
    to death for stealing clothes from her employer, from
    the wife of her employer. She wished to make herself
    more beautiful. This desire in servants was not legal.
  • He was not condemned to death, freedom awaited
    him. What was the temptation, the one that worked?
    Perhaps he wanted to live with a woman whose life
    he had saved, who had seen down into the earth but
    had nevertheless followed him back up to life. It was
    his only chance to be a hero, to one person at least,
    for if he became the hangman the others would
    despise him. He was in prison for wounding another
    man, on one finger of the right hand, with a sword.
    This too is history.
  • My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
    which cannot be believed and which are true. They
    are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
    they have not yet happened to me, they have
    happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
    unbelief with horror.
  • He wants only the simple things: a chair,
    someone to pull off his shoes, someone to watch him
    while he talks, with admiration and fear, gratitude if
    possible, someone in whom to plunge himself for rest
    and renewal. These things can best be had by marrying
    a woman who has been condemned to death by other
    men for wishing to be beautiful. There is a wide
  • Everyone said he was a fool.
    Everyone said she was a clever woman.
    They used the word ensnare.
  • The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends that will make them feel better. History cannot be erased, although we can soothe ourselves by speculating about it.
  • NOTES: Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.
    —Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770

Morning in the Burned House (1995) edit

  • There is so much silence between the words,
    you say. You say, The sensed absence
    of God and the sensed presence
    amount to much the same thing,
    only in reverse.

    You say, I have too much white clothing.
    You start to hum.
    Several hundred years ago
    this could have been mysticism
    or heresy. It isn’t now.
    Outside there are sirens.
    Someone’s been run over.
    The century grinds on.
    • "In the Secular Night"

The Loneliness of the Military Historian edit

Full text online
  • Confess: it’s my profession
    that alarms you.
    This is why few people ask me to dinner,
    though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
  • If I roll my eyes and mutter,
    if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
    like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
    I do it in private and nobody sees
    but the bathroom mirror.
  • In general I might agree with you:
    women should not contemplate war,
    should not weigh tactics impartially,
    or evade the word enemy,
    or view both sides and denounce nothing.
    Women should march for peace,
    or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
    spit themselves on bayonets
    to protect their babies,
    whose skulls will be split anyway,
    or, having been raped repeatedly,
    hang themselves with their own hair.
    These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
    That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
    and a sort of moral cheerleading.
    Also: mourning the dead.
    Sons, lovers, and so forth.
    All the killed children.
  • Instead of this, I tell
    what I hope will pass as truth.
    A blunt thing, not lovely.
    The truth is seldom welcome,
    especially at dinner,
    though I am good at what I do.
    My trade is courage and atrocities.
    I look at them and do not condemn.
    I write things down the way they happened,
    as near as can be remembered.
    I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
    Wars happen because the ones who start them
    think they can win.
  • Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
    or none that can be finally buried.
    Finish one off, and circumstances
    and the radio create another.
    Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
    to God all night and meant it,
    and been slaughtered anyway.

    Brutality wins frequently,
    and large outcomes have turned on the invention
    of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
    True, valour sometimes counts for something,
    as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right —
    though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
    is decided by the winner.
    Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
    and burst like paper bags of guts
    to save their comrades.
    I can admire that.
    But rats and cholera have won many wars.
    Those, and potatoes,
    or the absence of them.
  • In the interests of research
    I have walked on many battlefields
    that once were liquid with pulped
    men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
    shells and splayed bone.
    All of them have been green again
    by the time I got there.
    Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
    Sad marble angels brood like hens
    over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
  • I’m just as human as you.

    But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
    As I say, I deal in tactics.
    Also statistics:
    for every year of peace there have been four hundred
    years of war.

On Writing Poetry (1995) edit

It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.
Poetry Lecture, Hay On Wye, Wales (June 1995)
  • It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off. This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course — being also a novelist — am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?
  • I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.
  • The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house — the only other reason for going there — but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sinister at the same time. I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don't want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.
  • I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that "poetess" was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn't know — yet — that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me — yet — the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.
  • As for my birth month, a detail of much interest to poets, obsessed as they are with symbolic systems of all kinds: I was not pleased, during my childhood, to have been born in November, as there wasn't much inspiration for birthday party motifs. February children got hearts, May ones flowers, but what was there for me? A cake surrounded by withered leaves? November was a drab, dark and wet month, lacking even snow; its only noteworthy festival was Remembrance Day. But in adult life I discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry, which tends to revolve a good deal around sex and death, with regeneration optional.
  • My English teacher from 1955, run to ground by some documentary crew trying to explain my life, said that in her class I had showed no particular promise. This was true. Until the descent of the giant thumb, I showed no particular promise. I also showed no particular promise for some time afterwards, but I did not know this. A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately. If I had not been ignorant in this particular way, I would not have announced to an assortment of my high school female friends, in the cafeteria one brown-bag lunchtime, that I was going to be a writer. I said "writer," not "poet;" I did have some common sense. But my announcement was certainly a conversation-stopper. Sticks of celery were suspended in mid-crunch, peanut-butter sandwiches paused halfway between table and mouth; nobody said a word. One of those present reminded me of this incident recently — I had repressed it — and said she had been simply astounded. "Why?," I said. "Because I wanted to be a writer?" "No," she said. "Because you had the guts to say it out loud."
  • The one good thing to be said about announcing yourself as a writer in the colonial Canadian fifties is that nobody told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They simply found the entire proposition ridiculous. Writers were dead and English, or else extremely elderly and American; they were not sixteen years old and Canadian. It would have been worse if I'd been a boy, though. Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I'd read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death — poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging. If I'd been male I would probably have had to roll around in the mud, in some boring skirmish over whether or not I was a sissy.
  • I will pass over my flirtation with journalism as a way of making a living, an idea I dropped when I discovered that in the fifties — unlike now — female journalists always ended up writing the obituaries and the ladies' page. But how was I to make a living? There was not a roaring market in poetry, there, then. I thought of running away and being a waitress, which I later tried, but got very tired and thin; there's nothing like clearing away other people's mushed-up dinners to make you lose your appetite
  • After a year or two of keeping my head down and trying to pass myself off as a normal person, I made contact with the five other people at my university who were interested in writing; and through them, and some of my teachers, I discovered that there was a whole subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing that was going on just out of general earshot and sight
  • Like all twenty-one-year-old poets, I thought I would be dead by thirty, and Sylvia Plath had not set a helpful example. For a while there, you were made to feel that, if a poet and female, you could not really be serious about it unless you'd made a least one suicide attempt. So I felt I was running out of time.
  • A lot of poets published their own work then; unlike novels, poetry was short, and therefore cheap to do. We had to print each poem separately, and then disassemble it, as there were not enough a's for the whole book; the cover was done with a lino-block. We printed 250 copies, and sold them through bookstores, for 50 cents each. They now go in the rare book trade for eighteen hundred dollars a pop. Wish I'd kept some.
  • I no longer feel I'll be dead by thirty; now it's sixty. I suppose these deadlines we set for ourselves are really a way of saying we appreciate time, and want to use all of it. I'm still writing, I'm still writing poetry, I still can't explain why, and I'm still running out of time. Wordsworth was sort of right when he said, "Poets in their youth begin in gladness/ But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Except that sometimes poets skip the gladness and go straight to the despondency. Why is that? Part of it is the conditions under which poets work — giving all, receiving little in return from an age that by and large ignores them — and part of it is cultural expectation — "The lunatic, the lover and the poet," says Shakespeare, and notice which comes first. My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit. I have avoided this by being ambidextrous: I write novels too. But when I find myself writing poetry again, it always has the surprise of that first unexpected and anonymous gift.

Dancing Girls (1996) edit

  • Her mother volunteered that the thing about people from another culture was that you could never tell whether they were insane or not because their ways were so different.
    • Short story, 'The Man from Mars' , at p.26 [Page numbers per the 1996 Vintage Books paperback edition.]
  • She attracted people he called "sponges".
    • Short story, 'Betty' , at p.34

Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For (1997) edit

Speech at the Stratford Festival (September 1997)
  • It must be said at the outset that the field of mental illness has always been debatable ground. Who is sane, who isn't, and who is qualified to judge? Standards have fluctuated wildly, and abuses have been numerous. In the last century, in the United States, a wife could be committed to an asylum on the say-so of her husband and two easily-paid-off doctors alone, and there are cases on record of wives who were "put away" for holding theological opinions that differed from those of the husband, or for refusing to have as much sex as he would like.
  • That old standby of melodrama, the rich uncle shoved into the bin so the greedy relatives could get their hands on his estate, had a sound basis in fact. The Victorians cleaned up the straw and the chains of the old Bedlam-like institutions of the eighteenth century, but they didn't always clean up the practices. Patients were drugged, starved, drained of vast quantities of blood, beaten up, swung from ropes, immersed in cold water and whirled around in the air upside-down, all in the belief that it would improve their mental states. Ask yourself whether this is likely to have been true.
  • For every age there is a popular idea about what madness is, what causes it, and how a mad person should look and behave; and it's usually these popular ideas, rather than those of medical professionals, that turn up in songs and stories and plays and books.
  • For a thousand years, the Bible was almost the only book people read, if they could read at all. The stories that were officially told and portrayed were Biblical and religious stories. That other fount of Western civilization as we know it today — the Greek classics — went largely unknown until the Renaissance. For our purposes, there's a noteworthy difference between these two literatures: in the Bible people are hardly ever said to be mad as such, whereas in Greek drama they go off their rockers with alarming frequency. It was the rediscovery of the classics that stimulated the long procession of literary madpeople of the past four hundred years.
  • However, there are all sorts of behaviours in the Bible that might be called mad now, but aren't designated as insanity by the text itself. People see visions — of angels going up and down ladders, of fiery chariots — and, like Moses, who hears a bush talking, and Balaam the prophet who has a conversation with his donkey, they hear voices of those who cannot be said to be present in any usual sense of the word. They also speak in tongues, as the disciples do at Pentecost. Like madness, the visions, the voices and the speaking in tongues are due to external and usually divine agencies. In a world so permeated with supernatural powers, there are no accidents, and in one so riddled with prophets — who went into a frenzy while prophesying — many more kinds of behaviour were accepted as normal, at least for a prophet or an inspired person, than would be the case now. John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins and wandering around in the wilderness denouncing his social superiors, was not thought of as a de-institutionalized street person who's gone off his medications, but as a saint. And this was the pattern for mediaeval views of aberrant behaviour — if you were acting crazy it was a divine punishment, or else you were possessed, by powers either divine or demonic — perhaps aided, in the latter case, by witches.
  • What Elizabethan playwrights learned from the Greek classics was not theories of insanity, but dramatic practice — that is, madness is a dandy theatrical element. It focuses the audience's attention and increases suspense, since you never know what a mad person may get up to next; and Shakespeare himself makes use of it in many forms. In King Lear, there's a scene in which one man pretending to be mad, another who has really gone mad, and a third who has probably always been a little addled, are brought together for purposes of comparison, irony, pathos, and tour de force acting. In Hamlet, there are two variations — Hamlet himself, who assumes madness, and Ophelia, who really does go winsomely bonkers. In MacBeth, it's Lady MacBeth who snaps.
  • When women let their hair down, it means either sexiness or craziness or death, the three by Victorian times having become virtually synonymous.
  • We tend to think of Freud as a great innovator, but the truth is that he himself rested, like a ship on an iceberg, on a huge body of theory and knowledge which had accumulated before his time. Even the famous Unconscious had made its appearance at least seven decades earlier. As for such supposedly modern phenomena as multiple personalities, the vogue for them began in the first half of the nineteenth century; and the first case in which the perpetrator of a murder pleaded amnesia, and got off, was in the eighteen eighties.
  • As I was writing about Grace Marks, and about her interlude in the Asylum, I came to see her in context — the context of other people's opinions, both the popular images of madness and the scientific explanations for it available at the time. A lot of what was believed and said on the subject appears like sheer lunacy to us now. But we shouldn't be too arrogant — how many of our own theories will look silly when those who follow us have come up with something better? But whatever the scientists may come up with, writers and artists will continue to portray altered mental states, simply because few aspects of our nature fascinate people so much. The so-called mad person will always represent a possible future for every member of the audience — who knows when such a malady may strike? When "mad," at least in literature, you aren't yourself; you take on another self, a self that is either not you at all, or a truer, more elemental one than the person you're used to seeing in the mirror. You're in danger of becoming, in Shakespeare's works, a mere picture or beast, and in Susanna Moodie's words, a mere machine; or else you may become an inspired prophet, a truth-sayer, a shaman, one who oversteps the boundaries of the ordinarily visible and audible, and also, and especially, the ordinarily sayable. Portraying this process is deep power for the artist, partly because it's a little too close to the process of artistic creation itself, and partly because the prospect of losing our self and being taken over by another, unfamiliar self is one of our deepest human fears.

The Blind Assassin (2000) edit

  • Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left but charred smithereens.
    • first lines
  • All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.Think about it. There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.
  • The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

Oryx and Crake (2003) edit

  • Nature is to zoos as God is to churches.
  • He doesn't know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there's the future. Sheer vertigo.
  • After everything that's happened, how can the world still be so beautiful? Because it is.
  • “All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”
  • “When any civilization is dust and ashes," he said, "art is all that's left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them. You have to admit that.”
  • “There's something to be said for hunger: at least it lets you know you're still alive.”
  • “He has to find more and better ways of occupying his time. His time, what a bankrupt idea, as if he's been given a box of time belonging to him alone, stuffed to the brim with hours and minutes that he can spend like money. Trouble is, the box has holes in it and the time is running out, no matter what he does with it.”
  • “I am not my childhood," Snowman says out loud.
  • “Anyway, maybe there weren't any solutions. Human society, corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain."

The Year of the Flood (2009) edit

  • Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.
    We are using up the Earth. It is almost gone.
  • “What am I living for and what am I dying for are the same question.”
  • You can forget who you are if you're alone too much.
  • “we must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there's nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing.”
  • I could see how you could do extreme things for the person you loved. Adam One said that when you loved a person, that love might not always get returned the way you wanted, but it was a good thing anyway because love went out all around you like an energy wave, and a creature you didn't know would be helped by it.
  • How easy it is, treachery. You just slide into it.
  • “We shouldn't have been so scornful; we should have had compassion. But compassion takes work, and we were young.”
  • Without the light, no chance; without the dark, no dance.
  • As with all knowledge, once you knew it, you couldn't imagine how it was that you hadn't known it before. Like stage magic, knowledge before you knew it took place before your very eyes, but you were looking elsewhere.
  • “I'm fine," said Pilar, "for the moment. And the moment is the only time we can be fine in.”
  • You couldn’t leave words lying around where our enemies might find them.
  • “It's better to hope than mope!”
  • time is not a thing that passes, said Pilar: it’s a sea on which you float.

The Progressive interview (2010) edit

A lot of people facing fascism didn’t become fascists. I don’t happen to believe that we are all monsters.
"A Progressive Interview With Margaret Atwood" by Matthew Rothschild, in The Progressive (2 December 2010)
  • There were a lot of utopias in the nineteenth century, wonderful societies that we might possibly construct. Those went pretty much out of fashion after World War I. And almost immediately one of the utopias that people were trying to construct, namely the Soviet Union, threw out a writer called Zamyatin who wrote a seminal book called We, which contains the seeds of Orwell and Huxley. Writers started doing dystopias after we saw the effects of trying to build utopias that required, unfortunately, the elimination of a lot of people before you could get to the perfect point, which never arrived. … I don’t believe in a perfect world. I don’t believe it’s achievable, and I believe the people who try to achieve it usually end up turning it into something like Cambodia or something very similar because purity tests set in. Are you ideologically pure enough to be allowed to live? Well, it turns out that very few people are, so you end up with a big powerful struggle and a mass killing scene.
  • The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.
  • After I wrote Handmaid’s Tale, people came up to me and asked why weren’t there any protests. And I said, “You don’t understand totalitarianism.” A real totalitarianism doesn’t fool around with protests in the streets.
  • A lot of people facing fascism didn’t become fascists. I don’t happen to believe that we are all monsters.

MaddAddam (2013) edit

  • There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.
  • “Life is warped. I'm just in sync.”
  • “But hatred and viciousness are addictive. You can get high on them. Once you've had a little, you start shaking if you don't get more.”

“Why is it always such a surprise? thinks Toby. The moon. Even though we know it's coming. Every time we see it, it makes us pause, and hush.”

“People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

  • Why is war so much like a practical joke? she thinks. Hiding behind bushes, leaping out, with not much difference between Boo! and Bang! except the blood.
  • Amazing how quickly the past becomes idyllic.
  • “Gender roles suck," says Swift Fox. Then you should stop playing them, thinks Toby.

"Am I a bad feminist?" (2018) edit

"Opinion: Am I a bad feminist?", Opinion in The Globe and Mail (13 January 2018)

  • My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn't need a legal system.
  • Nor do I believe that women are children, incapable of agency or of making moral decisions. If they were, we're back to the 19th century, and women should not own property, have credit cards, have access to higher education, control their own reproduction or vote. There are powerful groups in North America pushing this agenda, but they are not usually considered feminists.
  • Furthermore, I believe that in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period …
  • … Anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous.

Quotes about Margaret Atwood edit

  • she has this future that is totally non-technological; it gets harder and harder to see how we would get to a non-technological future without a terrible war or something, simply because people find technology so convenient. So it isn't likely that they would just give it up. It was an interesting book.
  • My writing ambition was sharpened by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, an unapologetically political novel that reminds us of what it costs to be a woman in this world or the next.
  • Margaret Atwood has written: "You tell the story you have to tell; let others tell the story that they have to tell."
    • 1996 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • Margaret Atwood is an extraordinarily good writer who has produced widely different books: so far, two novels, five books of poetry, and a critical guide to Canadian literature. She possesses an unusual combination of wit and satiric edge, a fine critical intelligence, and an ability to go deep into the irrational earth of the psyche. Her books are varied in genre yet through everyone of them run victor/victim and quest for self-themes, a set of symbols, and a developing underlay of theory. Some themes she shares with other Canadians, and others are characteristic of our developing women's culture. All are vital and juicy...Atwood is a large and remarkable writer. Her concerns are nowhere petty. Her novels and poems move and engage me deeply, can matter to people who read them. As she has come to identify herself consciously, cannily, looking all ways in that tradition she has defined as literature of a victimized colony, I hope that she will also come to help consciously define another growing body to which her work in many of its themes belongs: a women's culture. With her concern with living by eating, with that quest for the self that Barbara Demming has found at the heart of major works by women from the last 150 years with her passion for becoming conscious of one's victimization and ceasing to acquiesce, with her insistence on nature as a living whole of which we are all interdependent parts, with her

respect for the irrational center of the psyche and the healing experiences beyond logical control, her insistence on joining the divided head and body, her awareness of roleplaying and how women suffocate in the narrow crevices of sexual identity, she is part of that growing women's culture already...

    • Marge Piercy "Beyond Victimhood" in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1983)
  • Surfacing is not a programmatic novel. It is the work of a poet, filled with animistic and super-natural materials.

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