Margaret Atwood's Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics


430 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-87805-639-4
DDC 818'.5409





Reviewed by Beverly Rasporich

Beverly Rasporich is an associate professor at the University of Calgary
and the author of Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of
Alice Munro.


This study of the fairy-tale intertexts of Margaret Atwood’s literary
and visual art, and the foregrounding of the subject of sexual politics
through them, has the potential to be a truly innovative and
illuminating work. The author is well versed in the study of folklore,
its sources, and its methodology. Examples of Atwood’s visual art are
included here for the first time as part of a holistic artistic canon,
offering valuable insights into the artist’s literary imagery and ways
of envisioning. Indeed, the study is inclusive, touching upon Atwood’s
major prose works, poetry, visual art, and criticism. Atwood herself has
acknowledged her literary debt to fairy tales, so that the explication
of the importance of such fairy-tale narratives as the Rapunzel
“syndrome,” the Grimm Brothers’ “The Girl Without Hands,” and
“The Robber Bridegroom” as intertexts in Atwood’s art rings true.

Unfortunately, however, and perhaps inevitably, the author has been
done in by her own expertise in folklore studies. Traditional folklore
methodology has focused on classification systems and the indexing of
motifs, a categorical sensibility derived from the 19th century. In her
attention to the details of motifs and their variations, the author is a
scrupulous scholar but often loses the forest for the trees. The general
reading of the fairy-tale intertexts in Atwood’s art and the
explication of the broad themes of sexual politics are in constant
danger of being overwhelmed by minutiae, and the parenthetical
documentation within the text. The latter makes the book difficult to
read. Nonetheless, the working premise of this book—that “Atwood’s
fiction and poetry texts are indeed feminist metanarratives, and, in
reference to fairy tales, often feminist ‘metafairy tales,’
sometimes anti-fairy tales”—is brilliant, as is the recognition of
such features of Atwood’s work as a preoccupation with cannibalism.
The text is clearly a thorough, if overly dense, academic study of the
relationship between folklore and contemporary literature that one hopes
will serve to inspire others to more general and more vividly presented


Wilson, Sharon R., “Margaret Atwood's Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024,