Date of Award
Master of Arts
We Come Apart: Mother-Child Relationships in Margaret Atwood's Dystopia
Margaret Atwood's vast body of work has earned both critical acclaim and mainstream success. Throughout her career, Atwood has been praised for the feminist, post-colonial, environmental, social, and political threads woven into her diverse output of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose. The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood each depict a frightening, not-too-distant future replete with horrifying possibilities. These easily imaginable future worlds stand as warnings for modern readers because through them, Atwood skillfully exposes ways in which the present world is broken. The root causes of her fictional broken and dying societies include strict patriarchy, environmental destruction, unwise application of technology, and unquestioning adherence to religion. Each of these facets could be studied extensively, but I have chosen to look at another crack in the foundation of society exposed by Atwood: the damaged relationships between mothers and their children. The problems the mother and child characters experience are certainly tied to those other issues, but I aim to explore the possibility that severed maternal bonds inevitably result in the breakdown of the larger society.
To begin, I study well-known theories on motherhood from feminist critics including Adrienne Rich, Nancy Chodorow, and Sara Ruddick. I then include examples of mother-child relationships (or the notable absences of mothers) in other Atwood novels to show that the issue comprises a continuous theme throughout her work. Although these other books differ strikingly from the three novels I focus on, they help provide a background for understanding the conflicts that arise in the dystopian works.
The three Atwood novels chosen for this study veer into the science fiction genre, though she is often quoted as preferring the term "speculative fiction" to science fiction. The worlds represented in my focus pieces are worlds in which motherhood has been redefined and mothers have been devalued. Mothers and children in all three books are separated by neglect or necessity; the role of mother no longer seems sacred, and the consequences reach far beyond individual lives. I examine maternal relationships in each book and organize the chapters chronologically by date of publication: The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Year of the Flood (2009).
Using feminist theory and textual analysis, I tie the three novels together by asserting that they can be interpreted as warnings for present-day readers. Damaged relationships between mothers and children may lead to development of dystopian societies, but my findings indicate that the damage is most likely a result of other societal problems. Atwood's work implores readers to examine relationships in the here and now so that those consequences do not occur or worsen.
Myers, Kristi, "We come apart: mother-child relationships in Margaret Atwood's dystopias" (2011). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 12006.