- I would rather dance as a ballerina, though faultily, than as a flawless clown.
- Lady Oracle (1976)
- We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball net were still in place, though the nets were gone.
- The Handmaid's Tale (1985) first lines
- Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
- Do not let the bastards grind you down.
- The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
- There is more than one kind of freedom... Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.
- The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
- Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
- Cat's Eye (1988)
- Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
- Cat's Eye (1988)
- War is what happens when language fails.
- The Robber Bride (1993), Ch. 6
- I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.
- Alias Grace (1996)
- Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left but charred smithereens.
- The Blind Assassin (2000) first lines
Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1976)
- The weapons
that were once outside
sharpening themselves on war
are now indoors
there, in the fortress,
in glass cases;
Why is it
of the careful moulding
round the stonework archways)
that in this time, such
elaborate defences keep
things that are no longer
- "The circle game"
- Your righteous eyes, your laconic
people the streets with villains:
as you move, the air in front of you
blossoms with targets
and you leave behind you a heroic
trail of desolation:
slaughtered by the side
of the road, bird-
skulls bleaching in the sunset.
- "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
- I am the horizon
you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso
I am also what surrounds you:
scattered with your
tincans, bones, empty shells,
the litter of your invasions.
I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.
- "Backdrop addresses cowboy" (1974)
- When you hear me singing
you get the rifle down
and the flashlight, aiming for my brain,
but you always miss
and when you set out the poison
I piss on it
to warn the others.
- "Rat Song" (1974)
- I am yours. If you feed me garbage,
I will sing a song of garbage.
This is a hymn.
- In view of the fading animals
the proliferation of sewers and fears
the sea clogging, the air
we should be kind, we should
take warning, we should forgive each other
Instead we are opposite, we
touch as though attacking,
the gifts we bring
even in good faith maybe
warp in our hands to
implements, to manoeuvres
- In restaurants we argue
over which of us will pay for your funeral
though the real question is
whether or not I will make you immortal.
- "They eat out"
Selected Poems 1976-1986 (1987)
Marrying the Hangman
- Originally published in Two-Headed Poems (1978) Full text online
- She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
not fantasy, it is history.
- To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live
without mirrors is to live without the self. She is
living selflessly, she finds a hole in the stone wall and
on the other side of the wall, a voice. The voice
comes through darkness and has no face. This voice
becomes her mirror.
- In order to avoid her death, her particular death, with
wrung neck and swollen tongue, she must marry the
- She must
transform his hands so they will be willing to twist
the rope around throats that have been singled out
as hers was, throats other than hers. She must marry
the hangman or no one, but that is not so bad. Who
else is there to marry?
- You wonder about her crime. She was condemned
to death for stealing clothes from her employer, from
the wife of her employer. She wished to make herself
more beautiful. This desire in servants was not legal.
- He was not condemned to death, freedom awaited
him. What was the temptation, the one that worked?
Perhaps he wanted to live with a woman whose life
he had saved, who had seen down into the earth but
had nevertheless followed him back up to life. It was
his only chance to be a hero, to one person at least,
for if he became the hangman the others would
despise him. He was in prison for wounding another
man, on one finger of the right hand, with a sword.
This too is history.
- My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
which cannot be believed and which are true. They
are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
they have not yet happened to me, they have
happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
unbelief with horror.
- He wants only the simple things: a chair,
someone to pull off his shoes, someone to watch him
while he talks, with admiration and fear, gratitude if
possible, someone in whom to plunge himself for rest
and renewal. These things can best be had by marrying
a woman who has been condemned to death by other
men for wishing to be beautiful. There is a wide
- Everyone said he was a fool.
Everyone said she was a clever woman.
They used the word ensnare.
- The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends
that will make them feel better. History cannot be
erased, although we can soothe ourselves by
speculating about it.
- NOTES: Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.
—Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770
Morning in the Burned House (1995)
- There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
You say, I have too much white clothing.
You start to hum.
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy. It isn’t now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone’s been run over.
The century grinds on.
- "In the Secular Night"
The Loneliness of the Military Historian
- Confess: it’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
- If I roll my eyes and mutter,
if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
I do it in private and nobody sees
but the bathroom mirror.
- In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both sides and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.
- Instead of this, I tell
what I hope will pass as truth.
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The truth is seldom welcome,
especially at dinner,
though I am good at what I do.
My trade is courage and atrocities.
I look at them and do not condemn.
I write things down the way they happened,
as near as can be remembered.
I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
Wars happen because the ones who start them
think they can win.
- Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off, and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
to God all night and meant it,
and been slaughtered anyway.
Brutality wins frequently,
and large outcomes have turned on the invention
of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
True, valour sometimes counts for something,
as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right —
though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
is decided by the winner.
Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
and burst like paper bags of guts
to save their comrades.
I can admire that.
But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes,
or the absence of them.
- In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.
Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
Sad marble angels brood like hens
over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
- I’m just as human as you.
But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.
On Writing Poetry (1995)
- It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off. This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course — being also a novelist — am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?
- I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.
- The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house — the only other reason for going there — but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sinister at the same time. I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don't want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.
- I did not know that the rules about these things were different if you were female. I did not know that "poetess" was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn't know — yet — that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me — yet — the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.
- As for my birth month, a detail of much interest to poets, obsessed as they are with symbolic systems of all kinds: I was not pleased, during my childhood, to have been born in November, as there wasn't much inspiration for birthday party motifs. February children got hearts, May ones flowers, but what was there for me? A cake surrounded by withered leaves? November was a drab, dark and wet month, lacking even snow; its only noteworthy festival was Remembrance Day. But in adult life I discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry, which tends to revolve a good deal around sex and death, with regeneration optional.
- My English teacher from 1955, run to ground by some documentary crew trying to explain my life, said that in her class I had showed no particular promise. This was true. Until the descent of the giant thumb, I showed no particular promise. I also showed no particular promise for some time afterwards, but I did not know this. A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately. If I had not been ignorant in this particular way, I would not have announced to an assortment of my high school female friends, in the cafeteria one brown-bag lunchtime, that I was going to be a writer. I said "writer," not "poet;" I did have some common sense. But my announcement was certainly a conversation-stopper. Sticks of celery were suspended in mid-crunch, peanut-butter sandwiches paused halfway between table and mouth; nobody said a word. One of those present reminded me of this incident recently — I had repressed it — and said she had been simply astounded. "Why?," I said. "Because I wanted to be a writer?" "No," she said. "Because you had the guts to say it out loud."
- The one good thing to be said about announcing yourself as a writer in the colonial Canadian fifties is that nobody told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They simply found the entire proposition ridiculous. Writers were dead and English, or else extremely elderly and American; they were not sixteen years old and Canadian. It would have been worse if I'd been a boy, though. Never mind the fact that all the really stirring poems I'd read at that time had been about slaughter, mayhem, sex and death — poetry was thought of as existing in the pastel female realm, along with embroidery and flower arranging. If I'd been male I would probably have had to roll around in the mud, in some boring skirmish over whether or not I was a sissy.
- I will pass over my flirtation with journalism as a way of making a living, an idea I dropped when I discovered that in the fifties — unlike now — female journalists always ended up writing the obituaries and the ladies' page. But how was I to make a living? There was not a roaring market in poetry, there, then. I thought of running away and being a waitress, which I later tried, but got very tired and thin; there's nothing like clearing away other people's mushed-up dinners to make you lose your appetite
- After a year or two of keeping my head down and trying to pass myself off as a normal person, I made contact with the five other people at my university who were interested in writing; and through them, and some of my teachers, I discovered that there was a whole subterranean Wonderland of Canadian writing that was going on just out of general earshot and sight
- Like all twenty-one-year-old poets, I thought I would be dead by thirty, and Sylvia Plath had not set a helpful example. For a while there, you were made to feel that, if a poet and female, you could not really be serious about it unless you'd made a least one suicide attempt. So I felt I was running out of time.
- A lot of poets published their own work then; unlike novels, poetry was short, and therefore cheap to do. We had to print each poem separately, and then disassemble it, as there were not enough a's for the whole book; the cover was done with a lino-block. We printed 250 copies, and sold them through bookstores, for 50 cents each. They now go in the rare book trade for eighteen hundred dollars a pop. Wish I'd kept some.
- I no longer feel I'll be dead by thirty; now it's sixty. I suppose these deadlines we set for ourselves are really a way of saying we appreciate time, and want to use all of it. I'm still writing, I'm still writing poetry, I still can't explain why, and I'm still running out of time. Wordsworth was sort of right when he said, "Poets in their youth begin in gladness/ But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Except that sometimes poets skip the gladness and go straight to the despondency. Why is that? Part of it is the conditions under which poets work — giving all, receiving little in return from an age that by and large ignores them — and part of it is cultural expectation — "The lunatic, the lover and the poet," says Shakespeare, and notice which comes first. My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit. I have avoided this by being ambidextrous: I write novels too. But when I find myself writing poetry again, it always has the surprise of that first unexpected and anonymous gift.
Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For (1997)
- It must be said at the outset that the field of mental illness has always been debatable ground. Who is sane, who isn't, and who is qualified to judge? Standards have fluctuated wildly, and abuses have been numerous. In the last century, in the United States, a wife could be committed to an asylum on the say-so of her husband and two easily-paid-off doctors alone, and there are cases on record of wives who were "put away" for holding theological opinions that differed from those of the husband, or for refusing to have as much sex as he would like.
- That old standby of melodrama, the rich uncle shoved into the bin so the greedy relatives could get their hands on his estate, had a sound basis in fact. The Victorians cleaned up the straw and the chains of the old Bedlam-like institutions of the eighteenth century, but they didn't always clean up the practices. Patients were drugged, starved, drained of vast quantities of blood, beaten up, swung from ropes, immersed in cold water and whirled around in the air upside-down, all in the belief that it would improve their mental states. Ask yourself whether this is likely to have been true.
- For every age there is a popular idea about what madness is, what causes it, and how a mad person should look and behave; and it's usually these popular ideas, rather than those of medical professionals, that turn up in songs and stories and plays and books.
- For a thousand years, the Bible was almost the only book people read, if they could read at all. The stories that were officially told and portrayed were Biblical and religious stories. That other fount of Western civilization as we know it today — the Greek classics — went largely unknown until the Renaissance. For our purposes, there's a noteworthy difference between these two literatures: in the Bible people are hardly ever said to be mad as such, whereas in Greek drama they go off their rockers with alarming frequency. It was the rediscovery of the classics that stimulated the long procession of literary madpeople of the past four hundred years.
- However, there are all sorts of behaviours in the Bible that might be called mad now, but aren't designated as insanity by the text itself. People see visions — of angels going up and down ladders, of fiery chariots — and, like Moses, who hears a bush talking, and Balaam the prophet who has a conversation with his donkey, they hear voices of those who cannot be said to be present in any usual sense of the word. They also speak in tongues, as the disciples do at Pentecost. Like madness, the visions, the voices and the speaking in tongues are due to external and usually divine agencies. In a world so permeated with supernatural powers, there are no accidents, and in one so riddled with prophets — who went into a frenzy while prophesying — many more kinds of behaviour were accepted as normal, at least for a prophet or an inspired person, than would be the case now. John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins and wandering around in the wilderness denouncing his social superiors, was not thought of as a de-institutionalized street person who's gone off his medications, but as a saint. And this was the pattern for mediaeval views of aberrant behaviour — if you were acting crazy it was a divine punishment, or else you were possessed, by powers either divine or demonic — perhaps aided, in the latter case, by witches.
- What Elizabethan playwrights learned from the Greek classics was not theories of insanity, but dramatic practice — that is, madness is a dandy theatrical element. It focuses the audience's attention and increases suspense, since you never know what a mad person may get up to next; and Shakespeare himself makes use of it in many forms. In King Lear, there's a scene in which one man pretending to be mad, another who has really gone mad, and a third who has probably always been a little addled, are brought together for purposes of comparison, irony, pathos, and tour de force acting. In Hamlet, there are two variations — Hamlet himself, who assumes madness, and Ophelia, who really does go winsomely bonkers. In MacBeth, it's Lady MacBeth who snaps.
- When women let their hair down, it means either sexiness or craziness or death, the three by Victorian times having become virtually synonymous.
- We tend to think of Freud as a great innovator, but the truth is that he himself rested, like a ship on an iceberg, on a huge body of theory and knowledge which had accumulated before his time. Even the famous Unconscious had made its appearance at least seven decades earlier. As for such supposedly modern phenomena as multiple personalities, the vogue for them began in the first half of the nineteenth century; and the first case in which the perpetrator of a murder pleaded amnesia, and got off, was in the eighteen eighties.
- As I was writing about Grace Marks, and about her interlude in the Asylum, I came to see her in context — the context of other people's opinions, both the popular images of madness and the scientific explanations for it available at the time. A lot of what was believed and said on the subject appears like sheer lunacy to us now. But we shouldn't be too arrogant — how many of our own theories will look silly when those who follow us have come up with something better? But whatever the scientists may come up with, writers and artists will continue to portray altered mental states, simply because few aspects of our nature fascinate people so much. The so-called mad person will always represent a possible future for every member of the audience — who knows when such a malady may strike? When "mad," at least in literature, you aren't yourself; you take on another self, a self that is either not you at all, or a truer, more elemental one than the person you're used to seeing in the mirror. You're in danger of becoming, in Shakespeare's works, a mere picture or beast, and in Susanna Moodie's words, a mere machine; or else you may become an inspired prophet, a truth-sayer, a shaman, one who oversteps the boundaries of the ordinarily visible and audible, and also, and especially, the ordinarily sayable. Portraying this process is deep power for the artist, partly because it's a little too close to the process of artistic creation itself, and partly because the prospect of losing our self and being taken over by another, unfamiliar self is one of our deepest human fears.
- . . . time is compressed like the fist I close on my knee. . . . I hold inside it the clues and solutions and the power for what I must do now.
- A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there's less of you.
- Variant: A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there's less of you.
- A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.
- A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.
- A word after a word after a word is power (from "Spelling").
- An eye for an eye only leads to more blindness.
- Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
- Because I am a mother, I am capable of being shocked; as I never was when I was not one.
- Canada was built on dead beavers.
- For years I wanted to be older, and now I am.
- Gardening is not a rational act.
- I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one 'race' — the human race — and that we are all members of it.
- I've never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It's probably because they have forgotten their own.
- If a stranger taps you on the ass and says, "How's the little lady today!" you will probably cringe. But if he's an American, he's only being friendly.
- If I were going to convert to any religion I would probably choose Catholicism because it at least has female saints and the Virgin Mary.
- If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia.
- In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.
- Men are not to be told anything they might find too painful; the secret depths of human nature, the sordid physicalities, might overwhelm or damage them. For instance, men often faint at the sight of their own blood, to which they are not accustomed. For this reason you should never stand behind one in the line at the Red Cross donor clinic.
- Never pray for justice, because you might get some.
- No one knows what causes an outer landscape to become an inner one.
- Popular art is the dream of society; it does not examine itself.
- Put yourself in a different room, that's what the mind is for.
- She even had a kind of special position among men: she was an exception, she fitted none of the categories they commonly used when talking about girls; she wasn't a cock-teaser, a cold fish, an easy lay or a sneaky bitch; she was an honorary person. She had grown to share their contempt for most women.
- Sons branch out, but one woman leads to another.
- The answers you get from literature depend upon the questions you pose.
- Variant: The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.
- The basic Female body comes with the following accessories: garter belt, panti-girdle, crinoline, camisole, bustle, brassiere, stomacher, chemise, virgin zone, spike heels, nose ring, veil, kid gloves, fishnet stockings, fichu, bandeau, Merry Widow, weepers, chokers, barrettes, bangles, beads, lorgnette, feather boa, basic black, compact, Lycra stretch one-piece with modesty panel, designer peignoir, flannel nightie, lace teddy, bed, head.
- The beginning of Canadian cultural nationalism was not "Am I really that oppressed?" but "Am I really that boring?".
- The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.
- Variant: The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them; there ought to be as many for love.
- The truly fearless think of themselves as normal.
- Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. There were consequences after all but they were the consequences to things you didn't even know you'd done.
- We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.
- We thought we were running away from the grownups, and now we are the grownups.
- You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.
- Margaret Atwood's home page
- Profile from The Guardian
- The Margaret Atwood Society home page
- January 1997 Interview with Salon.com
- Unotchit Inc. official website
- Atwood invents, signs, backs up with facts
- Commentary on Unotchit from Neil Gaiman
- Commentary on Unotchit from Neal Pollack
- 1986 Audio Interview with Margaret Atwood - RealAudio (30 min 14 s)
- Guardian Books "Author Page", with profile and links to further articles.
- "Game after Supper" - "Take my Hand" - on audio MP3 (in Canadian English)