Atwood discusses her work, the value of the humanities
Nicole Caratas | Thursday, October 26, 2017
For author Margaret Atwood, known for novels such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” stories and story telling are a quintessential part of the human experience. Wednesday, she explained the value of a liberal arts education in the present day.
“It’s something that the human race has always done,” she said. “They’ve not always done algebra. … The most distinguishing feature of us as human beings is that we are story tellers and we’re enabled to be story tellers because we have evolved grammars with past tenses and future tenses.”
Her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” features women characters who have been barred from reading, but Atwood said that literature is important because of the stories being told.
“Story-telling is one of our primary means of communication and the humanities are about stories,” she said. “That is why it is important and why we should understand stories, understand how they work, and also be able to tell fake news from real news. … We should at least be aware. Words are powerful, stories are powerful.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has most recently been adapted into a Hulu series, but it has also adapted as a ballet, a play, an opera and will soon be a graphic novel, she said.
“Some books escape from their covers,” she said. “This is one of them. … It happens when that character or that story resonates with people in a way that something just in a book does not particularly.”
Atwood said she approves of the Hulu show, despite certain creative liberties that were taken. She served as a consultant on the show, but the team that worked on it was dedicated to updating it to the modern day while still keeping the message and spirit of the novel.
“The show runner and head writer, Bruce Miller, was determined … to be faithful to the premises of the book, and he remained faithful to them,” she said. “Also, luckily, they brought on a team — which included Elizabeth Moss as an executive producer — and a lot of women involved in it.
“It’s not just a show for them, it’s not just another show. It’s a pivotal important thing in their life, so they gave it their all — you can tell.”
Since the 2016 election, fans of Atwood have noted similarities between political beliefs in America and the fictional world of Gilead in her novel. However, Atwood said she could not have predicted this election when she published the novel in 1986, and the Hulu adaption was written before the election.
“It’s a bizarre coincidence,” she said. “The election did not change any of that. It put a different frame around it, so people saw it differently. The election had not been that way, they would have said, ‘Phew, this isn’t happening,’ but instead they’re saying, ‘Gosh some of this is happening’ so that is a different frame.”
Atwood said people are noticing these similarities because they read literature through the lens of the experiences they have.
“We read stories different according to the time we’re in,” she said. “Some people become heroes who weren’t before and other people become villains that weren’t before. So where we are has a lot to do with how we see not only history, but also fictions [and] plays.”
Atwood’s novel focuses on the oppression of women in a dystopian world. She said women’s education and empowerment is important not just because it helps women, but because it can positively affect society as a whole.
“There’s always pushback when someone wants to change the status quo because the people who have power in the status quo are afraid they’re going to lose some of it,” she said. “As soon as you give women the power to create little businesses and the education to be able to do it, not only does the economy go up, but their status within that economy also goes up.”
Atwood said students — especially women at institutions like Saint Mary’s — are well equipped to enter the workforce because companies look for liberal arts majors nowadays. She said a liberal arts education comes with enhanced lateral thinking, better communication skills, and an understanding of stories, which have been proven to help people learn better.
“In your life, equipping you for life, it does help to know what Shakespeare play you’re in at the moment.”