Thursday, November 07, 2019

Margaret Atwood is a Linguist

On Tuesday I reread The Handmaid's Tale. Yesterday and today, I have been reading the sequel: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's newest novel. I loved it very much. I would summarize the two books thus: The Handmaid's Tale is about being powerless. The Testaments is all about power. But I'm not going to discuss these ideas; rather, some ideas about Atwood's uses of language.

In rethinking The Handmaid's Tale, I explored the idea that Atwood uses language in innovative and very poetic ways. This quality is even more sparkling in the new book, as well as another of the author's great skills: observing how individuals use language, each in their own way.

When I say that Atwood is a linguist, I mean she has a wonderful power to hear the way people talk and how they use words. Specifically, the characters' use of language is magnificently differentiated, and these language choices are perfect for the speaker. She portrays adolescents convincingly -- and in a very amusing way -- through their ways of speaking. And in The Testaments, she particularly portrays one older woman who has a mordant or sardonic witty way of answering people who might be opposing her. This use of language as part of character development is something I also loved in several of Atwood's earlier books, especially The Robber Bride.

The Testaments is a very new book, and lots of my readers are planning to read it soon, so I'm not going to have any spoilers. I hope you read it and it makes you happy. Instead of quoting from the new book, I'm going to quote a poem from the book The Animals in That Country, which was published in 1968. It cost $1.95, just to let you see how long ago that was.

Here are a few lines from the poem "Progressive insanities of a pioneer" --

He stood, a point
on a sheet of green paper
proclaiming himself the centre,
with no walls, no borders
anywhere; the sky no height
above him, totally un-
and shouted:
Let me out!
He dug the soil in rows,
The ground replied with aphorisms:
a tree sprout, a nameless
weed, words
he couldn't understand.
refused to name themselves; refused
to let him name them.
the green
vision, the unnamed
whale invaded.
                                          -- Margaret Atwood, The Animals in That Country, pp. 36-39

Some of Margaret Atwood's poetry books that I bought years ago.

  • For my thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale, see my post from Wednesday, "Margaret Atwood is a Poet" at maefood dot blogspot dot com. 
  • This post is the work of Mae Sander; © 2019 for maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you read this elsewhere, it's been pirated.

1 comment:

Sherry's Pickings said...

i don't think i can face reading the new one Mae. The handmaid's tale left me with the horrors as it all seems so possible, and similar stuff happens to women in various countries - i.e. the powerlessness, abuse etc. scary stuff!