Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

Margaret Atwood: Speculative Fiction and Virtue Ethics

Boulding, Lucas Alexander (2018) Margaret Atwood: Speculative Fiction and Virtue Ethics. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (KAR id:72991)

Language: English
Download this file
[thumbnail of 2032019-03-01-1437_Lucas-Alexander-Boulding_PhD-Thesis.pdf]


Margaret Atwood has long argued that her writing is an ethical project: she has described art, with implicit emphasis on narrative art forms such as the novel, as ‘the moral and ethical guardian of the community’, and sees her own creative practice as taking part in this tradition. Across the first decade of the twenty-first century, Atwood published a trilogy of novels that raise concerns about humanity’s ability to survive that century. This provokes the questions: how does the MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013) undertake this ethical guardianship? And what forms does this guardianship take? I argue that Atwood’s texts depend on the virtue of temperance, re-conceived for the twenty-first century. In doing so, I understand Atwood to be renewing her commitment to humanism, in contrast to a growing body of transhumanist and critical posthumanist readings of her work. These claims are interpreted in relation to her positioning of the text as “ustopian” speculative fiction, and her adoption of human nature as a central moral concept. The thesis begins with a theoretical introduction that examines Atwood’s genre claims, and explains how we can interpret Atwood’s ethical claims within the frame of virtue ethics — specifically the thought of Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch, Shannon Vallor, and Byron Williston. The second chapter examines the discourse of transhumanism in the novels; it elaborates the continuing importance of survival to Atwood’s writing, and explores her depiction of neohumans — genetically modified creatures created from human genetic material. The trilogy rejects the transhumanist method of survival, and I focus on the central place of narrative art in resisting such methods. The third chapter explores how genetic technologies applied to non-human animals for food production are similarly rejected by Atwood. This exploration is furthered by framing Atwood’s representation of food in other texts, specifically her children’s fiction, and connecting this to the representation of ChickieNobs, Pigoons, and vegans. The fourth chapter nuances the findings of the previous chapters by disputing the ascription of the stereotyped epithet “mad scientist” to Crake, who engineers the virus that wipes out the human race in the trilogy. Atwood’s trilogy is not antiscience, and Atwood’s complex characterisation of Crake is one of the most significant contributors to her model of the operation of temperance: Crake is the last chance for a human society that has grown abhorrently and uncontrollably vicious, and as such embodies the only alternative to embracing temperance now. The fifth chapter examines the trilogy as a commercial and technological enterprise, and traces the ethical arguments presented by the trilogy in Atwood’s life as a public figure. The emphasis on temperance is connected to Atwood’s adoption of pledges as a further means of encouraging virtue. I close the thesis by describing the continuing emphasis on these issues in Atwood’s subsequent works, specifically The Heart Goes Last (2015) and Hag-Seed (2016), indicating that these themes play a significant role in her twenty-first century fiction.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Bolaki, Stella
Thesis advisor: Ryan, Derek
Thesis advisor: Kirchin, Simon
Uncontrolled keywords: Margaret Atwood ; English literature ; near-future dystopia
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PE English philology and language
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 14 Mar 2019 10:10 UTC
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2022 15:47 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Boulding, Lucas Alexander.

Creator's ORCID:
CReDIT Contributor Roles:
  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.