Updating the Companion

  • Coral Ann Howells (Editor)
    The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood: Second Edition. Cambridge University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sharon Engbrecht

The second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, like the first, “boasts an impressive array of essays by international Atwood scholars” (Robinson 151). In the introduction, editor Coral Ann Howells notes that since the first edition of the Companion, “Atwood has published twelve new literary works” (1), and the collection has been updated to cover the works since Oryx and Crake (2003). Each contribution now nods towards works since 2003, touching on combinations of Atwood’s novels, essays, short-story collections, and poetry, as well as the Angel Catbird series, while three of the chapters have been rewritten by different authors. Laura M. Robinson’s review of the first edition lays out the details of many of the essays that have been revised in the second edition. However, Lorraine York’s “Biography/Autobiography” and Sharon Wilson’s “Blindness and Survival in Atwood’s Major Works” have been replaced by Fiona Tolan’s “Margaret Atwood’s Revisions of Classic Texts” and Eva-Marie Kröller’s “The Hulu and MGM Television Adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.”


Like the first edition, the new Companion touches on many of the topics found in Atwood studies, from the author’s focus on Canada as a locus of her protagonists’ experiences to power, feminism, nation, environmentalism, history and historiographic metafiction, humour, poetics, genre and form, and dystopia and speculative fiction. Also like the first edition, the second offers paratextual guides, including an Atwood chronology and a bibliography for further reading. It also includes a limited index, but digitally savvy readers will likely find it more useful to search a PDF version of the collection. In addition, the end matter includes “Books of General Interest for Atwood,” with a cursory look at some of the texts that have influenced Atwood’s writing and an emphasis on the importance of the Margaret Atwood Papers in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, at the University of Toronto, as a treasure trove of Atwoodian resources.


The Companion appears to be geared towards early-career researchers and graduate students but will likely be most useful in undergraduate classrooms as a brief introduction to Atwood and general (canonical) Atwoodian topics. The treatment of many of Atwood’s texts opens up a variety of conversations surrounding each topic, while the reference sections will help students find related and significant contributions in each area. As an Atwood scholar, I found Marta Dvořák’s and Eva-Marie Kröller’s chapters most engaging; they give more in-depth analyses of their themes: Atwood’s humour and a comparative analysis of adaptation, respectively. Kröller, in particular, discusses some of the “reactionary politics” (189) that surface in The Handmaid’s Tale, both the novel and the recent TV adaptation. However, many other contributions emphasize the breadth of Atwoodian scholarship generally. No doubt J. Brooks Bouson’s “Margaret Atwood and Environmentalism”—paired with the chapter of the same name by Sharon Hengen in the first edition—will be useful in undergraduate classrooms, in many of which the MaddAddam trilogy provides an introduction to narrative ecocriticism, as will “Margaret Atwood and History,” by Gina Wisker (the first edition’s corresponding essay was by Coomi S. Vevaina), which offers an overview of historiographic metafiction and an analysis of Alias Grace (another undergraduate classroom favourite).


As for Atwood and recent feminist-centred controversies, most chapters gloss over or avoid calls for greater analysis of Atwood’s contemporary role as public intellectual, which she has stepped into as part of her status as a literary celebrity. Given York’s contribution to Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, it’s not surprising that her chapter was omitted from the updated collection. In “How Do We Get Out of Here? An Atwood Scholar, Signing Off,” York argues that Atwood has backed herself into “a corner of her own making” (132) through her support of the UBCAccountable letter and that, “in her corner, she is also operating as a nodal point in the various controversies that are linked to the UBC case in the same way that power is interlinked in literary and other hierarchies” (132). The Companion glosses over Atwood’s own use of power, even as it attests to the ways in which her writing attempts to hold power to account. This criticism is meant to shed light on another aspect of contemporary Atwood scholarship: her role as a public intellectual with international influence.


While Howells argues that Atwood “has become a Canadian voice in global culture as a major thinker, writer, and public spokesperson on issues of environmentalism and human rights, especially women’s and Indigenous rights” (1), it seems that Atwood, instead of representing or nuancing these concerns in her literary oeuvre, instead makes strategic public-relations campaigns to demonstrate her ethical stances. Howells contends that the UBCAccountable letter failed “to mention fair treatment for the female complainants—which was a serious mistake” (5)—while at the same time using Atwood’s philanthropic work and publishing connections to suggest how Atwood demonstrates her serious consideration of feminist critique. Nodding towards Atwood’s “Am I a Bad Feminist?,” Howells writes that “Atwood’s critique did not appeal to many younger women, who saw her stance as a betrayal of feminist ideology” (5). Howells reads the backlash as an underestimation of “Atwood and her genuine feminist concerns” (5) but fails to address how authors from a variety of different subject positions, including trans, queer, and BIPOC folks (see, for example, Thom), call for Atwood’s accountability as an important figure in the Canadian literary and publishing scene. After the backlash, Howells writes, Atwood “became one of the first funders of a new Canadian anti-sexual harassment program, AfterMeToo” (5). Howells gestures to The Testaments as evidence of “Atwood’s latest nuanced definition of feminism” (5) and to her publisher’s charity partnership with Equality Now for the novel’s launch as evidence of Atwood’s “genuine feminist concerns.”


Howells’ introduction and much of the collection elide these lines of critique, which are lacking in Atwood studies. Paying attention to and offering alternative theoretical structures through which to consider Atwood’s public persona in recent years would have added much-needed depth to the otherwise authorized and canonical topics in Atwood studies. Yes, much of the Companion mirrors Atwood’s general experience and subject position “as a white anglophone woman” (3), to which I would add upper middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual, and cis-gendered. Yet extending Atwood studies to address the critical lacuna in her work, including her appropriation of Indigenous narrative elements—discussed in Wisker’s chapter without attention to the colonial histories and new directions in reconciliation in Canada—would help update current Atwoodian discourse.


Kröller’s chapter does introduce readers to some of the criticism launched at Atwood and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, including the whitewashing of slave narratives, although it fails to address the oppressive and violent histories of sexual and reproductive control concerning racialized bodies (see Goodwin). Channelling Atwood’s critics, Kröller writes that “The absence of persons of color in Atwood’s novel . . . does not absolve it from the responsibility to think about them” (200), especially given her international appeal and influence. And in many ways, as Noah Berlatsky argues, “America has always been a dystopia for people of color.” On this particular topic, Toni Morrison’s wisdom comes to mind: “What I propose here is to examine the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, and altered those notions” (11). Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination calls for a reconsideration of the ways in which whiteness (along with other hegemonic identities) allows individuals to adapt, appropriate, and “animate” (Ngai) both historical and contemporary racialized narratives. Thinking about ways in which whiteness appropriates (covertly) the racialized other to perpetuate its own privilege, Morrison asks readers to consider how “the appearance of Africanist characters or narrative or idiom in a work could never be about anything other than the ‘normal,’ unracialized, illusory white world that provide[s] the fictional backdrop” (16). Given the presence of BIPOC characters in Atwood’s work, we might need to reconsider how they are used to demonstrate her own subject position and how she uses both narrative and her public persona to perpetuate certain kinds of (white, upper middle class, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied) privilege. In her chapter on “Margaret Atwood’s Female Bodies,” for example, Sarah A. Appleton addresses criticism of the character of Oryx from Oryx and Crake. Appleton writes that “the novel depicts Oryx as a rather vapid woman who sprouts platitudes and seems incapable of displaying any sense of the real. . . . Oryx seems to have no inner core; she is all body and no self” (72). But Oryx is a child from a nameless impoverished Asian village sold into sexual slavery, and the character’s presence in the novel suggests a complex relationship with the devastation of colonialism. And it would be worth considering how Atwood uses Oryx over the course of the MaddAddam trilogy to substantiate both Jimmy and Crake’s world views and cis-gendered, heterosexual masculinities, as well as their white privilege.


Questions of race, sexuality, gender, ability, and power appear in most if not all of Atwood’s works—often as a discussion about “freedom to” and “freedom from” (Atwood, “We Are Double-Plus Unfree”)—so the omission of these critical discussions, especially in the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, is unfortunate. Nevertheless, the edition does offer a wide-ranging foundation on which to begin building new critical approaches to Atwood’s writing and international literary celebrity, and it will no doubt continue to be an important text in many classrooms.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “We Are Double-Plus Unfree.” The Guardian, 18 Sept. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/18/margaret-atwood-we-are-double-plus-unfree.

Berlatsky, Noah. “Both Versions of The Handmaid’s Tale Have a Problem with Racial Erasure.” The Verge, 15 July 2017, www.theverge.com/2017/6/15/15808530/handmaids-tale-hulu-margaret-atwood-black-history-racial-erasure.

Goodwin, Michele. “The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans.” ACLU, 1 July 2020, www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/the-racist-history-of-abortion-and-midwifery-bans.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage, 1992.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2005.

Robinson, Laura M. “Troubling Survival.” Canadian Literature, no. 195, 2007, pp. 151-53.

Thom, Kai Cheng. “Sometimes Women Have to Make Hard Choices to Be Writers.” Guts, 15 Feb. 2017, gutsmagazine.ca/sometimes-women-have-to-make-hard-choices-to-be-writers/.

York, Lorraine. “How Do We Get Out of Here? An Atwood Scholar, Signing Off.” Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, Book*hug, 2018, pp. 131-36.

This review “Updating the Companion” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 7 Apr. 2023. Web.

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