Author Margaret Atwood delivers lecture on writing and politics

by Veronica Winham | 4/23/19 2:05am

On April 18, Margaret Atwood, a novelist, poet and activist best known for her critically-acclaimed novel and subsequent Emmy award-winning Hulu TV remake “The Handmaid’s Tale,” gave a public lecture at the Spaulding Auditorium through the Dorsett Fellowship Lecture Series, a program that seeks to bring practitioners and scholars of ethics to campus. 

At the lecture, Atwood was well-received for her witty and engaging discussion emphasizing the importance of protecting and furthering human rights such as gender equality as well as causes such as environmental protection to fight climate change. Atwood, who said she is well-versed in U.S. politics even though she is a Canadian citizen because she frequently writes about the U.S., used her literary work and her personal experiences to comment on the warning signs in the current political climate. 

According to Atwood, governmental control of women and babies is a sign of oppressive regimes, a concept she explored through her writing. She said her exploration of this subject was heavily influenced by her experiences traveling to countries under the Iron Curtain, where people lived in fear. For example, in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published in 1985, Atwood described the dystopian setting as a place with “no cell phones, social media or lattes,” in which women are treated like property: as handmaids forced to fulfill what is considered their main purpose, to carry children, subject to the oppresive rules and harsh punishments of a totalitarian government. 

“I create dystopia in literary forms,” Atwood said during the lecture. “I leave it to the government to create the real ones.” 

Atwood also commented on her passion about the issue of climate change, specifically citing soil regeneration and forest regeneration as cheap and effective ways to subvert carbon emissions. She also expressed interest in the Green New Deal, a plan promoted by some liberal Democrats to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in the U.S. by the year 2030. Atwood has incorporated her beliefs about the importance of the environment in her writing as well; she wrote the “MaddAddam” trilogy which is set in a once-lush society that was ruined after being overtaken by corporations, genetic enfgineering and worldwide plaugue.

Suitable for a writer who weaves her literary work with her political passion, Atwood said her philosphy in novel writing is that every novel should serve the dual purpose of instructing and entertaining. As a result, readers can be interested and engaged from the start throughout the text, facilitating their understanding of the novel’s main, underlying message. She said that authors can leave a much more distinct impression on their readers than they may think, so writers must consider moral implications when writing dystopian fiction.

Due to her prolific influence in both of her passions, political activism and writing, Atwood is considered a “rebel symbol.” She has written 17 books of poetry, 16 novels and eight children’s books; her work spans numerous genres and has been translated into multiple languages and mediums, many of them with political themes. The influence of her work is evident; she has won the PEN Pinter Prize for her political activism in life and in work, along with two Governor General’s Literary Awards — one for “The Circle Game” and another for “The Handmaid’s Tale” — as well as the Booker Prize for “The Blind Assassin.”At women’s marches and protests, women have worn red and white outfits inspired by the television interpretation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to physically express their frustrations with sexism and subjugation, mirroring those in the fictional dystopia Atwood created. 

It is important to have authors like Atwood come to Dartmouth to not only share their works, but also discuss the impact that they have had on other communities and the philosphies that their experiences have shaped. According to Atwood, she has learned many lessons through watching how her works serve as symbols in human rights movements, and these lessons were invaluable gifts to the audience.