Margaret Atwood's Theory of Natural Survival Term Paper

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Margaret Atwood's Theory Of Natural Survival

Margaret Atwood is arguably one of the most influential female Canadian writers of the last four decades. Her best-selling books have one many awards and, in the case of novels such as Surfacing and Handmaid's Tale, have inspired/enraged/empowered women in several decades to seek out their own power and challenge the patriarchal domination of their lives. Surfacing, which first appeared in 1972, was particularly embraced by the feminist community, which found a sort of odd manifesto in the heroine's descent into primeval nudity and her return which rejected all forms of victimhood and colonization of the body in exchange for a new strength and innocence in her mothering and mating relationships.

This above all, to refuse to be a victim" (Atwood, Surfacing, 197) became a sort of credo for many feminists of the era. There is something vaguely ironic about the way in which that phrase was latched up, though, for Atwood herself considered a certain degree of victimhood to be that characteristic which most truly defined Canadian literature as such.

Atwood was not merely a novelist, for if she had been her impact on Canadian literature -- though nonetheless still likely to be profound-- would certainly have been less. To her credit, Atwood is also the author of one of the more formative treatises on Canadian literature. In her book Survival, she claimed that Canada did indeed have a distinct national literature which could be distinguished from that of American or British standards, and which served as a context for interpreting and understanding the work of emerging and established Canadian authors.

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According to an informal interview, Atwood is said to have described the work as written "because some people said that Canadian literature didn't exist... [though] it was always out there" (Strong)

Term Paper on Margaret Atwood's Theory of Natural Survival Margaret Assignment

According to this work, nations tend towards having some sort of myth or metaphor which infuses their culture and is manifested in their art and literature. Canada's guiding myth is not the same as that of Britain or of America, and thus its literature may be marginalized by those who judge based on the standards of these more established bodies of work. The guiding myth of Canadian literature, Atwood proposes, is that of survival -- the protagonist who survives (or fails to survive) in the face of overwhelming odds stacked against them from nature, society, or self. Canadian literature is filled with tragic or senselessly destructive endings; its protagonists die suddenly at the hands of whimsical fate/nature, or survive alone past the destruction of all others.

A thinking critic might point out that something in this guiding myth idolizes victimhood, rather than refusing to indulge in it.

However, the key to that Canadian heroine's determination to refuse to be a victim is in its simultaneous commitment to accept responsibility for her actions and commitment to continue struggling in the human world which was so puzzling and destructive -- it is not a commitment to resist being harmed or to resist being destroyed, but rather a commitment to resist giving up in the face of adversity. It is this sort of gameness which is the core of the successful Canadian protagonist's soul, as Atwood portrays it in her defining book Survival.

Yet the key feature of survival, which Atwood claims is so typical of Canadian literature, is not enough to explain the character development and messages of Atwood's intensely alinear stories of female self-discovery and transcendence, such as those transcribed in Surfacing and (years later) Cat's Eye. These two stories (particularly the first) further depend on defining the delicate relationship between internal and external reality, and the relationship of Nature to self and to truth.

Through-out her body of work, from Surfacing to the Handmaid's Tale to Oryx & Crake, Atwood develops a subtle cosmology in which th e self must strive towards the same sort of truthfulness as the external world of Nature, and mankind's effacement of the wild is paralleled and complicit in its effacement of the self. Nature, in Atwood's works, is not merely made (as in so many other fictions) to reflect the inner state of the characters, storming when they are angry or sun-drenched when they are happy. Rather, the character is judged by the degree to which they are able to merge with Nature and coexist within its absolute truth.

Nature -- which is at once dangerous and pure -- is the truth at the core of our mammalian natures, and the degree to which the characters in a story are able to embrace that instead of turning against it with artificiality, instinct-denying logic, cold religion, commercialism, or any other such facade, is precisely the degree to which they are capable both of survival and of becoming truly themselves. In the following pages, the deep relationship between nature, self, and survival in Atwood's works will be both explicated within her written works and --as much as possible-- its experiential source within her personal life will be noted and explored.

Atwood's Career History

It seems certain that Atwood's childhood would be far more informative to the subject at hand than would a dry recital of her "long, remarkable career." (Strong) Like Stephen in Cat's Eye, one might say that Margaret Atwood needs no introduction - but she must be introduced with a long list of her qualifications nonetheless. It seems prudent to quickly survey her work, so as to give some perspective on her place in modern Canadian fiction. It is quite difficult to imagine the Canadian literary landscape today were it not for her prodigious and often formative involvement. Atwood was involved in writing from an early age, and pursued it through many years of university study. She was active in her local artist community as she pursued her doctorate which she never completed but which did give her a great deal of perspective. Within a few years of receiving her first teaching position she had completed numerous stories, a book of poems, and her first novel. At age 27 she was the youngest poet to be honored by the Governor General's poetry award. (Strong) Subsequently, she published dozens of books and received numerous awards. Her novels the Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye were both shortlisted for the Brooker Prize, and she was likewise a finalist for the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (more than once). She won the booker Prize with Blind Assassin, while the Robber Bride and Alias Grace both were awarded a Giller Prize. She has received numerous other honors, including being given the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S., the Le Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the first London Literary Prize to be awarded to a female writer. Despite failing to earn her Ph.D in school, she has received honorary degrees from numerous universities including Oxford. She has been published in over 25 countries, and lectured across the globe. (Sciliano)

Her long and well-received career, both as an academic and as an acclaimed writer, gives Atwood a certain perspective on the subject of Canadian literature, and also prepares her to analyze her own work - which for some may seem almost inseparable from the literature of her nation.

Survival: The Theory

In her ground-breaking book Survival, Atwood argued that the central organizing metaphor or "symbol" for Canadian literature is that of survival. This survival is not merely that act of living through difficult times, but rather an entire mind-set which pervades the people and literature of the nation.

For comparison, Atwood argues that America and England also have their own symbols. England is "The Island," by which Atwood refers to a sense of isolation, self-adoration and completion, and terraced in a patriarchal way: "island-as-body, self-contained, a Body politic evolving organically with a hierarchical structure in which the King is the head, the statesmen the hands, the peasants or farmers or workers the feet, and so on. The Englishman's home as his castle is the popular form of this symbol." One can see this sense, she suggests, through-out English literature, constantly concerned with structure and the way the classes support and interact with each other. America, meanwhile, is "The Frontier." It is typified by utopias (failing and succeeding), by the restless search for something new, the conquest of virgin space, and the movement of revolutions.

For Canada, this symbol of survival is far more personal than the island of English symbolism and far more desperate and angst-ridden than the American conception of the frontier, even when that frontier is seen as dangerous or impossible. Atwood distinguishes at several sorts of survival which infuse Canadian literature: bare survival, grim survival, cultural and emotional survival are among these. Bare survival is that defined by merely "hanging on, staying alive." Canadian literature recognizes the difficulty of making it through each day and year. The obstacles to survival may be physical, based in the land and climate or the clash of needs between… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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