The Classical Tradition in Margaret Atwood

Judith de Luce

Miami University

"…writers are not acts of God; they come out of specific communities and are the individual points where those communities have become articulate."

Northrop Frye,  The Educated Imagination 

I propose to examine the Classical world in  Margaret Atwood. Atwood recommends herself for a discussion of the classical tradition for a number of reasons. Atwood exemplifies Frye's perspective; she has formal background in Latin; she has  written feminist revisions of Classical mythology; and she reconsiders the relationships among gender, power, and language.  Finally, she provides a vibrant example of a writer controlling the reality which Alicia Ostriker identified when she wrote that mythology appears to be "inhospitable terrain" for a woman writer. (1)   In the end, we find Atwood meeting with consummate skill the challenge of a tradition that has often silenced a woman's voice. 

Margaret Atwood is perhaps best known as the author of  The Edible Woman, The Handmaid's Tale, and Blind Assassin, as a literary critic, certainly as one of the most accomplished Canadian writers, but it is as a poet that I want to consider her. Before entering university she had studied Latin because, as she says, one could not gain admission to Honors English without Latin. At the University of Toronto she encountered Northrop Frye, whose work on myth and metaphor  (Anatomy of Criticism (1957),Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988) has raised provocative questions which encourage us to consider more carefully how myth functions and the relationship between mythology and the literature that receives it. I want to examine Atwood's uses of myth in her poetry, starting with" Orpheus" 1 and 2," Letters from Persephone", and "Cyclops."  My primary interest however, is " Circe/Mud Poems" in which we find the poet articulating and re-fashioning Circe's confrontation with the "ruthless story" in which a woman provides invaluable help to a hero who then abandons her.  (2) "Cicrce/Mud Poems" also prompts an initial examination of Atwood's latest work, Penelopiad. By reading Atwood with an eye on the classical tradition, we can consider the reception of Greek and Latin tradition in the hands of this formidably skilled writer.  In addition, such a reading challenges us to propose how myth, which has so often  told the stories of men, might be revised to tell women's stories.

1.  Alicia Ostriker, "Thieves of Language," Signs 8, no. 1 [1982]: 68-90; ------, "O, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing": A Footnote on Metamorphosis, Silence, and Power", in Woman's Power, Man's Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King, ed. Mary DeForest, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1993.

2.  ------, "Reading and Re-Reading the Helpful Princess," in Compromising Traditions, ed. Judith P. Hallett andThomas Van Nortwick, Routledge, 1996.


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