Margaret Atwood has produced, about fifteen novels, ten short story collections, twenty poetry collections, and ten non-fiction books, including highly influential contributions to the study of Canadian literature. She has also written several children’s books, a few television scripts, even a chamber opera. Let us take a look at how she has shaped the contemporary utopian thought.
Margaret Atwood, in her long career, has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, an Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a plethora of other literary honors. She holds honorary degrees from many major Canadian universities as well as some international institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and la Sorbonne.
The Future Library Project
Atwood is a serious public intellectual who does a number of thoughtful radio and print interviews each year. She is also a part of The Future Library Project, a Norwegian public artwork that plans to collect one story by a popular author per year until 2114. The manuscripts will be on display before then, but not available for reading until 100 years from now.
Atwood’s novel, Scribbler Moon, was submitted to the Project in 2015, the very first contribution. Presumably, it’s a sweet story about puppy dogs and balloons, but one may never know.
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Literature Transcending Time
And that’s important to understanding Atwood. Not only does she care deeply about the future of the human race and the future of the planet; she also cares deeply that we believe in and think about a future beyond our own lifetimes.
What does it mean to write a novel that will not be made available until hundred years from its writing? It shows a certain leap of faith.
Also, one has to believe that literature matters in a deep and essential way—that it transcends the moment in which it’s written and has intrinsic meaning rather than contextual meaning. If one is of the belief that literature reflects current anxieties and perhaps helps readers process them, then it needs to have it read by its contemporaries.
To write a novel that’s intended only for readers of the future is to reveal an earnest belief in the power of a literary artifact to transcend time and place and “current anxieties“.
Shaping Utopian Thought
Now, Margaret Atwood is not always an earnest writer; we see lots of satire and other forms of humor even in her darkest works. But she is a deeply earnest thinker. It’s evident in Atwood’s feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, from 1985, as well as in her dystopian/apocalyptic work, the MaddAddam Trilogy.
Consider this passage from the The Handmaid’s Tale in which Offred, the narrator, never reveals her real name. She says:
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day.
But we never see Offred dig her name back up, which leaves us in the uncomfortable position of being reminded of Offred’s oppression every time we think or say her name.
Learn more about utopian studies.
What is Atwood’s Ustopia?
These texts contain very dark elements. They also exemplify four ways Margaret Atwood has helped to shape utopian thought. The foremost is the double edge of language control, a tool of totalitarian government, as we know, and of those who subvert it. The next is the importance of telling to not only understanding but also changing society.
The third are the pleasures of sliding into the space between utopia and dystopia, what Margaret Atwood has dubbed somewhat unsuccessfully ustopia; and last, deep ecology, the idea that the best way to save the Earth is to destroy the humans that have long proven themselves its enemy.
The Power of Storytelling
Margaret Atwood strongly believes in the power of narrative. We write stories and they matter. To Atwood, they matter maybe more than anything else we do since they’re what we leave behind.
And yet her stories reflect that it’s only by understanding, by acknowledging, perhaps even by celebrating that every story is only a tiny window into not only the past but also the future, that we can interact with the stories other people tell to develop our own approach to the future.
That’s the power of Margaret Atwood. She’s a strong personality and a major public figure, but in the end, she writes prose that shows us something crucial to the utopian project, the real value of the text resides not with the writer, no matter how skilled, and not with the storyteller. The real value of the utopian text lies with the reader. It lies with us.
Common Questions about Margaret Atwood and Ustopia
The Future Library Project is a Norwegian public artwork that plans to collect one story by a popular author per year until 2114. The manuscripts will be on display before then, but not available for reading until 100 years from now.
Margaret Atwood has submitted Scribbler Moon, a novel, to the The Future Library Project in 2015. It was the very first contribution to the project.
The space between utopia and dystopia is what Margaret Atwood has dubbed somewhat unsuccessfully as ustopia.