THE QUEST FOR NATIONAL IDENTITY: A READING OF MODERN CANADIAN FICTION IN THE LIGHT OF MARGARET ATWOOD’S SURFACING AND THE HANDMAID’S TALE

Muhammad Moustafa Muhammad Abd-ur-Rahman

Abstract


Margaret Eleanor Atwood (1939 – ) is one of the contemporary most preeminent and multitalented living figures in Canadian Literature. Apart from being a novelist, she is an innovative poetess, a social critic, a children’s author, a short-story writer and a winner of countless literary awards and accolades, including the prestigious Booker Prize for Literature. An Anglo-Canadian, Atwood’s works provide additional insights into her scope of vision about her culture and society. The present study focuses on Atwood’s preoccupation with her inquiry of and quest for identity—both individually and collectively, that is to say, female and national identity. The study is not intended to provide a historical review of Canadian literature, nor is it meant to offer a comprehensive assessment of causes and probabilities. Rather, it presents and discusses one significant aspect in particular, namely the marginalization and victimization of Atwood’s female protagonists who made their quest for identity a necessity. A relevant aspect is Atwood’s haunting nationalistic concerns which are most evident in her works through such motifs as alienation, defeatism and victimization. Atwood strongly believes that a writer must consciously work within the literary tradition of his/ her nation. One main reason why the present study was conducted is the strong affinity that lurks in the background of the fictional world of Atwood’s novels between the status of the writer’s “self” as a female and that of Canada as a nation. Atwood seems to link a female’s quest for identity with that of Canada in a colonist-oriented world. Atwood raises the question of woman’s search for a distinct identity within a political- feminist framework. Her protagonists suffer from varying forms of victimization of masculine hegemony. The study is also structured as an in-depth analysis of Atwood’s abused women. It investigates how they succeed in subverting not only the structures of domination from within but also the myth of feminine subordination from without. To overcome their predicament of victimization and emerge as free-willed females, women resist the exploitative forces—which are patriarchal and consumerist. They try to redefine the very “ecology” of their existence which is more or less a prison-like compound, carefully constructed by the authority to strip them of their selfhood and freedom. Hence, victimiza-tion and survival are contradictory motifs within the main theme in the study. One of the twentieth century’s leading feminist writers, Atwood is convinced that the artist is a responsible citizen not just a passive victim. She delineates her characters with such a tenable drive and determination as to survive and undermine devaluation, coercion, enslavement, torture, potential death sentence, and outright genocide. Although her protagonists experience outward defeats, they gain inward victories. An attempt is made to unravel the politics adopted by Atwood’s endangered women protagonists to prove that they are different in that they refuse to be victims—whether sexual or political objects, wishing to survive. The central aim of the study is to bring into focus the way women use all that is in their power to fight for their own existence. Survival for them means that there is no dominance or submission, since all individuals are free to determine their own lives as equals. The study also contends the strategies adopted by these female protagonists in their endeavour to confront dehumanization. The study confines itself to two major novels presented in their chronological order: Surfacing (S) and The Handmaid’s Tale (HT). Both novels share the theme of self-seeking and hence self-discovery.

 

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national identity; colonialism; feminism; marginalization; victimization; collective and individual identity; submission; dehumanization; predicament; survival

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References


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