A highly versatile author, Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) is also one of the most popular and productive writers in contemporary literature. From the early focus on her poetry and the Canadian literary context from which she was writing (Sandler, 1977; Davidson and Davidson, 1981), to writing and textuality (Grace and Weir, 1983), gender and psychoanalysis (Bouson, 1993; Stael, 1995), and the emphasis on postcolonial and postmodern concerns in her work (Nicholson, 1994; Wilson, 2003), scholarship on Atwood has always noted her tendency to weave myths and fairy tales into her narratives and thus rewrite them (see particularly Wilson, 1993, 2000). This intertextuality also marks her relationship to the Bible, although this aspect is far less remarked upon.
The Bible plays into Atwood’s interest in relationships between power and narration, writing and the body—word made flesh—and authority/apocrypha. Biblical references appear particularly in Atwood’s novels, most systematically in relation to feminist and her later dystopian themes. The Bible reflects “human nature” as Atwood constructs it: a mélange of the real and the ideal (Atwood, in Larson, 1989, p. 33). Along with the Bible as a somewhat insipid cultural palimpsest, this underlies Atwood’s use of the Bible as simultaneously a potent and a polar textual site.
The Dual Bible.
Like the often-noted theme of duality in her work (Grace, 1980), the Bible embodies a split role for Atwood, both impotent and powerful. Standing metonymically for the “mainstream,” it is so culturally ubiquitous it is inescapable. But its familiarity makes of it both an obscured palimpsest and an obscure puzzle. Howells argues that Atwood balances between a respect for traditions and a persistent challenge to conventional limits (2000, p. 39). The Bible is both tradition as rigid convention and a challenging presence that surprises and provokes.
As an obscured palimpsest representing cultural norms and normativity, it is something one “needs to know” (Cat’s Eye [CE], p. 101), to be memorized (CE, p. 124; MaddAddam [M], p. 193), belonging to a “cache of serious books” (Surfacing [S], p. 32) but seemingly without significance or context. In Alias Grace the Bible is oppressively pervasive but facetiously discounted (Alias Grace [AG], pp. 71, 487). Marian of The Edible Woman exemplifies biblical cultural remainders, herself representing the female “norm,” dutifully remembering the “mote in thy neighbour’s eye and the beam in thine own, etcetera” (Matt 7:3 KJV; The Edible Woman [EW], p. 127), as well as the insipidly normative. In Surfacing, Jesus signifies the “theoretical” (S, p. 183) and is imagined “draped in a bed sheet, tired-looking, surely incapable of miracles” (S, p. 49).
In hotel rooms, on bedside tables, and in church rites, the Bible figures as an obsolete but obstinate literary-cultural weight (Bodily Harm [BH], pp. 47, 139; The Handmaid’s Tale [HT], p. 61). Showcasing this, Atwood’s biblical repertoire is mostly from the King James version, made up of fragmented clichés in “Bible-type letters” (CE, pp. 98, 352), a pastiche of “Old Testament Prophets” (Life Before Man [LBM], p. 72; M, p. 152; The Year of the Flood [YF], p. 462; Oryx and Crake [OC], p. 120), and the polemical rhetoric of Revelation (HT, p. 92; LBM, pp. 79, 290; OC, p. 397; YF, p. 508). She emphasizes violent biblical texts (The Robber Bride [RB], pp. 63, 214, 271; M, p. 40), frequently with reference to “an eye for an eye” (Exod 21:24; Matt 5:38; CE, pp. 352, 388, 405; YF, p. 508; RB, p. 246). On the one hand, then, the Bible rigidly underwrites cultural norms but superficially remains impotent in its formulaic familiarity.
On the other hand, the Bible is conveyed as open to playful engagement in its pervasive presence and simultaneous strangeness. The nebulousness of perception is a persistent motif for Atwood, with recurring references to seeing “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12 KJV; AG, pp. 442, 502; RB, p. 45; YF, p. 201), emphasizing the Bible as a more flexible literary lens that acknowledges ambivalence and uncertainty. In Life Before Man, the Bible is both a familiar formula and the utterly bizarre, embodied in the two sisters Elizabeth and Caroline (LBM, p. 79). In The Robber Bride, the Bible is “always a potent object” (RB, p. 417), used to drop a pin to a page to draw meaning from it (RB, pp. 45, 248, 253, 285) and for Charis to pick her new name (RB, p. 264); for Elaine its content is like a secret password (CE, p. 101); and on a more sociopolitical level in The Year of the Flood, the Bible is a code to critique capitalist consumerism (YF, pp. 63, 108, 109, 224).
This dual portrayal of the Bible arguably exemplifies what Reingard Nischik calls Atwood’s “combination of complicity and critique” (2009, p. 4). The Bible is thus frequently a conventional canon embodying the staid and the somber but is simultaneously a more supple and strange textual body.
Feminism and the Bible.
According to Nischik, Atwood has been gender-conscious throughout her literary career (2009, p. 3). For her female characters the Bible dualistically represents the judgmental, potentially violent patriarchal mainstream, but also a possibility for resistance to authority, conformity, and convention. The two novels that most consistently draw upon biblical references are Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both do so to portray religious societies that are saturated with the “biblical” but whose female protagonists pose challenges to the dominant societal structures through their rewriting of biblical material. As Wisker points out, Atwood’s interest in myth intersects with her political engagement in feminism (2012, p. 11).
The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace.
The central idea in The Handmaid’s Tale of surrogate reproduction draws upon Genesis 30:1–3, the story of Jacob’s wife who does not bear her husband children and consequently asks him to have a child with her maid, Bilhah (Wisker, 2012, p. 93; Wilson, 1993, p. 274; Wilson, 2008, p. 16). Larson likens Atwood to a biblical prophet (1989, p. 27) and suggests that Atwood’s intertextuality in this novel is itself “biblical” (p. 35). The “Handmaid” refers to Mary in Luke 1:38 (KJV), and the servant-women in the novel are dubbed “Martha’s,” a reference to Luke 10:38–42, where Martha attends to the domestic sphere while her sister sits with Jesus. Commanded to be “meek” (Matt 5:5; HT, p. 74), the protagonist mournfully remembers a time when no one read Bibles (HT, p. 61), whereas now the Bible is “an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?” (HT, p. 98). Despite her powerlessness, she creatively edits the Lord’s Prayer to suit her conditions (Matt 6:9–13; HT, pp. 204–205).
The convicted servant girl of Alias Grace interweaves her narrative with biblical stories, having learned to read through the Bible for her edification, but reveals the idiosyncrasy of this in her shock at “how many crimes the Bible contains” (AG, p. 30). Grace is linked to Eve as the sinful temptress but outwits the male character who patronizes her (AG, p. 45; see also Norris, 1998, on Atwood and Eve). Her doctor is likened to Simon the Apostle (AG, pp. 441, 490), whose interest in psychology is likened to casting out devils (Luke 4:35; Mark 16:17; Acts 16:18; AG, p. 59). She envisions herself walking through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”(Ps 23:4 KJV; AG, p. 390) and connects dream interpretation to the biblical story of Joseph (Gen 41; AG, p. 114); her father is said to have the mark of Cain (Gen 4:15; AG, p. 120); in the ship from Ireland to Canada she thinks of Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jonah; AG, p. 134) and likens Toronto to the tower of Babel (Gen 11; AG, p. 144). A woman’s menstruation is “Eve’s curse,” although the real curse is said to be putting up with the blame and “nonsense of Adam” (AG, p. 190). Grace is implicitly likened to Sarah (Gen 12:20–30; 20) when she and McDermott pretend to be brother and sister (AG, p. 395) and when wondering over a late-age pregnancy (Gen 21; AG, p. 533). The apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders is retold in Alias Grace and used to portray the power of male accusation over vulnerable women, linking Susannah to Grace (AG, p. 259).
The relationship between the canonical and the apocryphal (AG, p. 258) ties in with the central theme of giving a voice to the marginalized Grace. It is implied that Grace herself has something prophetic about her, echoing “the blowing of many trumpets” found in Revelation (AG, p. 326), and her biblical interpretation is both pious and naively shrewd (AG, pp. 394, 415, 533; see Miller, 2002).
Recollection and reconstruction.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, other Atwood novels use biblical intertexts to reflect on women, memory, and creative reconstructions. The dangers of regarding the past are linked to Lot’s wife in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye, and MaddAddam (Gen 19:26; CE, p. 382; AG, pp. 237, 519; M, p. 25). In Cat’s Eye the biblical Mary becomes a site for the female protagonist to reimagine her identity (CE, pp. 182–183, 345; see also Hales, 1990). Grace’s creative power is channeled into quilt making, with names drawn from biblical imagery (AG, pp. 113–114), mirroring her fusion of biblical references with her own story (AG, p. 534). The artist Elaine Risley is told to mimic the God of Genesis, using dirt and soul (Gen 2:7; CE, pp. 272–273), and similarly Amanda in Oryx and Crake likens her art project to the God of Genesis (OC, pp. 287–288).
Roz of The Robber Bride imagines a modern, cynical version of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37; RB, p. 97), who is also likened to her father (RB, p. 340) and, as a child, with shrewd innocence, questions the spirit’s power to impregnate at Pentecost like it did Mary, as well as wondering whose fault it was that Jesus died (RB, pp. 325–327). In Atwood’s early novel Surfacing, female bodies, dying, and nature are tied in with a recasting of the crucified Christ figure as a heron (S, p. 134; see Rigney, 1978, pp. 100, 101, 115; Christ, 1976).
Judgment, salvation, and suffering.
Atwood’s more straightforwardly unfavorable view of the Bible reveals the relationship between authoritative canons and the ways in which female lives are experienced as constrained or “scripted” (Wisker, 2012, p. 9). For themes of the female body, judgment, salvation, and suffering, she frequently turns to biblical examples. Regarding the body, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale reflects over “the word made flesh” (John 1:14; HT, p. 237) in the exploitation of her body with scriptural justification. The command to “be fruitful and multiply” is a staple biblical reference for Atwood (Gen 1: 28; 9:7; 35:11; AG, p. 152; HT, p. 99; EW, pp. 197, 198), representing a reductive taunt to women as reproductive machines. In The Edible Woman, women are associated with the biblical category “unclean” (Lev 15, 18; Exod 36; EW, pp. 159–160), and the theme of reproduction as the primary female function is linked to “seeds” and the sower in Matthew 13:1–9 and Luke 8:4–15 (EW, p. 46; also HT, p. 28). For salvation, female characters are frequently and patronizingly perceived as the lost lamb: “there is more joy in Heaven over the one lost lamb” (Luke 15:7 KJV; AG, p. 39; RB, p. 397; YF, p. 53).
Societal judgment is construed through the words of Revelation: in Life Before Man to judge the divorced Elizabeth and her troubled alcoholic mother (Rev 18:3, 8); in The Handmaid’s Tale, women are disparagingly labelled “Jezebels!” (HT, pp. 122, 262). The arch-nemesis of The Robber’s Bride, Zenia, is also judged as Jezebel (1 Kgs 16–22; 2 Kgs 9–10; Rev 2:20; RB, p. 248) and the Whore of Babylon (Rev 17; RB, p. 420). Marian of The Edible Woman is judged on the bus for breaking the Fourth Commandment to remember the sabbath by doing her laundry in her “impious” plaid shoes (Exod 20:8–11; EW, p. 92). The book of Job signals the suffering of women as well as a pun on “jobs” and the prohibition against women working in The Handmaid’s Tale (HT, p. 182), women and jobs in Life Before Man (Job 37:7; LBM, p. 55), and suffering injustice in Alias Grace (AG, pp. 42–43, 302–303). In Cat’s Eye the Bible is metonymically the site of an ancient “scar” (CE, p. 201).
The Bible is thus construed as a potential site for creative impetus and a weighty heritage that continues to “script” and scar women. It symbolizes the past as cultural baggage that, similarly to Lot’s wife, is impossible to not look back on. Like Tony of The Robber Bride, who uses the Bible to press flowers from battle sites, Atwood portrays the Bible as a somewhat defunct site of signification that nonetheless survives as a fertile space for the imagination, exemplified in the novel’s nemesis, who is herself characterized through biblical figures from Revelation.
Dystopia, Environmentalism, and the Bible.
In her latest novels, the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood presents a dystopian future laden with biblical references, particularly The Year of the Flood. Here, the Bible provides a framework for the alternative environmental groups Atwood portrays. The rooftop of God’s Gardeners is called the Edencliff Garden (YF, p. 6), the creation story of Genesis is retold (YF, pp. 14, 15), and the storage places in case of crisis are called “ararats,” alluding to Mount Ararat atop which Noah arrived after the flood (Gen 8:4; YF, p. 23). There are eco-fringe groups called the “Wolf Isaiahists” (YF, p. 43) and “The Lion Isaiahists,” referring to Isaiah 11 (YF, pp. 47, 112). Biblical imagery is used to comprehend and condemn the past: “The fate of Sodom is fast approaching” (M, p. 25). The devastation of the world is likened to a new flood akin to Noah’s in Genesis 6–9 (M, p. 26; YF, p. 7), but God’s Gardeners accept the crisis in the words of Ecclesiastes, “because to everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1; YF, p. 195). The Bible is shown to be applicable to opposing parties, with Zeb and Adam’s father as a corrupt reverend who uses Matthew 16:18 to promote and justify the oil business (M, p. 112); his malevolence is emphasized by likening him to an Abraham who does go through with the sacrifice of his son (Gen 22; M, p. 125).
The trilogy presents an ecotheology (YF, pp. 15, 63, 108–110, 224, 287–288, 329, 373, 415, 508; drawing specifically upon Gen 8:21, Job 12, and Psalm 91) that forms a critique against the collapsing capitalist, consumerist society. The computer game Crake and Jimmy play, Extincathon, is a reference to Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20: “Adam named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play? ” (OC, p. 92). The hubris of humankind is critiqued in the creation of a new species, like God at Creation (OC, p. 57; see also Nischik, 2009, p. 65 on the short story “Making a Man”). Toby wonders whether Adam One harbors “a dream of restoring all the lost Species via their preserved DNA codes” as a “vision of the ultimate Ark?” (YF, p. 295). Jesus is held up as “mindful of the Birds, the Animals, and the Plants” as “clear from his remarks on Sparrows, Hens, Lambs, and Lilies”(YF, p. 234); the genius Crake is portrayed at one point as a Messiah figure, thought to be able to walk on water (Matt 14:22–33; Mark 6:45–52; John 6:16–21; OC, p. 226) and later as a burning bush (Exod 3; OC, p. 417). Serpent wisdom is promoted as in Matthew 10:16 (KJV): “Be ye therefore wise as Serpents, and harmless as Doves” (YF, p. 277).
The Bible as etiology features more implicitly as Toby teaches the Craker children to write in a manner that strongly resembles the biblical tradition (M, pp. 204, 386–387), and Jimmy also echoes Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning” (OC, p. 118). Toby wonders: “What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?” (M, p. 204). Crake references the Second Commandment against graven images (OC, pp. 419, 420). But it is also implied that in the new creation the commandments will not be necessary (OC, p. 426).
Several reviews of The Year of the Flood remarked on the abundance of scriptural references as “dreary” and “dull” (Wisker, 2012, p. 179). Underscoring Atwood’s consistent use of the Bible as a staid marker of the insipidly familiar, this point ignores the significance of the Bible as continuously present and creatively regenerative (OC, p. 235) for understanding the past and creating a new future and a new “Bible.”
A Glass Darkly.
While biblical references are noted in Atwood scholarship, they have rarely been commented upon extensively. The Bible operates as both norm and normative cultural inheritance. But for Atwood it also offers a persistent possibility for resistance and play, providing a site for the “high seriousness and witty ironic vision” that Coral Ann Howells sees as the “hallmark of Atwood’s literary production” (2006, p. 1). Its ubiquity provides a common reference point that can be endlessly recycled; its obscurity provides a “glass darkly” from which new text-visions can be revealed.
[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]
Works of Atwood
- Alias Grace. London: Virago, 1997. [AG]
- Bodily Harm. London: Vintage, 1996. [BH]
- Cat’s Eye. London: Virago, 1990. [CE]
- The Edible Woman. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969. [EW]
- The Handmaid’s Tale. London: Vintage, 1996  [HT]
- Life Before Man. London: Vintage, 1996. [LBM]
- MaddAddam. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. [M]
- Oryx and Crake. London: Virago, 2003. [OC]
- The Robber Bride. London: Virago, 1994. [RB]
- Surfacing. London: Virago, 1979. [S]
- The Year of the Flood. London: Virago, 2009. [YF]
- Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
- Christ, Carol P. “Margaret Atwood: The Surfacing of Women’s Spiritual Quest and Vision.” Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, no. 2 (Winter 1976): 316–330.
- Davidson, Arnold E., and Cathy N. Davidson, eds. The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.
- Grace, Sherrill. Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood. Montreal: Véhicule, 1980.
- Grace, Sherrill, and Lorraine Weir. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983.
- Hales, Leslie-Ann. “Sorcery to Spirituality in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.” The Month: Review of Christian Thought and World Affairs, no. 23 (September/October 1990): 382–387.
- Howells, Coral Ann. “Transgressing Genre: A Generic Approach to Margaret Atwood’s Novels.” In Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact, edited by Reingard M. Nischik, pp. 39–56. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.
- Howells, Coral Ann. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, edited by Coral Ann Howells. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Larson, Janet L. “Margaret Atwood and the Future of Prophecy.” Religion & Literature 21, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 27–617.
- Miller, Ryan Edward. “The Gospel According to Grace: Gnostic Heresy as a Narrative Strategy in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.” Literature and Theology 16, no. 2 (2002): 172–187.
- Nicholson, Colin, ed. Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity: New Critical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1994.
- Nischik, Reingard M., ed. Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 2009.
- Rigney, Barbara Hill. Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel: Studies in Bronte, Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
- Sandler, Linda, ed. “Margaret Atwood: A Symposium.” Malahat Review 41 (January 1977).
- Staels, Hilde. Margaret Atwood’s Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse. Tübingen, Germany: Francke Verlag, 1995.
- Wilson, Sharon Rose. Margaret Atwood’s Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993.
- Wilson, Sharon Rose. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Edited by R. M. Nischik. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.
- Wilson, Sharon Rose, ed. Textual Assassinations: Recent Poetry and Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.
- Wilson, Sharon Rose, ed. Myths and Fairy Tales in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: From Atwood to Morrison. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- Wisker, Gina. Margaret Atwood: An Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
- Detweiler, Robert, and William G. Doty, eds. The Daemonic Imagination: Biblical Text and Secular Story. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
- Kaler, Anne K. “ ‘A Sister, Dipped in Blood’: Satiric Inversion of the Formation Techniques of Women Religious in Margaret Atwood’s Novel The Handmaid’s Tale.” Christianity and Literature 38, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 43–62.
- Norris, Pamela. The Story of Eve. London: Picador, 1998.
Hannah M. Strømmen