Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

by Margaret Atwood
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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

Collected here, the Massey Lectures from legendary novelist Margaret Atwood investigate the highly topical subject of debt. She doesn’t talk about high finance or managing money; instead, she goes far deeper to explore debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. By looking at how debt has informed our thinking from preliterate times to the present day, from the stories we tell of revenge and sin to the way we order social relationships, Atwood argues that the idea of what we owe may well be built into the human imagination as one of its most dynamic metaphors. Her final lecture addresses the notion of a debt to nature and the need to find new ways of interacting with the natural world before it is too late.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780887848001
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Publication date: 10/07/2008
Series: CBC Massey Lecture Series
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 887,456
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

As one of the masters of speculative fiction, Margaret Atwood challenged prevailing narratives and imagined different worlds in her books. An author whose work is both critically and commercially popular, Attwood is perhaps best known for The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the MaddAddam trilogy, as well as other novels, short stories, poetry, and literary criticism.


Toronto, Ontario

Date of Birth:

November 18, 1939

Place of Birth:

Ottawa, Ontario


B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967

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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Toronto-based author, Margaret Atwood, explores the concept of debt in her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The title itself may give the appearance that this book was written for debt management, but one must understand that this book has nothing to do with debt management. Atwood herself states that the book is about “debt as a human construct”(Atwood 2). She also states that her motives for writing the book are for her own “curiosity”(Atwood 1) as she delves deeper into the concept of debt and other subject matter which surrounds it. Atwood, throughout the course of the work, focuses on the reasons debt occurs. She uses this as a means to not only explain the concept but also unravel the mysteries behind debt. This can especially be seen in the initial chapter as she explains how humans somehow have this concept of fairness embedded into their genes since they seem to grasp this concept so early on in their childhood through play. This fairness then gives birth to that of debt since we expect some sort or repayment after something has been done to us. These childlike concepts help bridge and display even deeper concepts of debt such as that of fairness and what it is in regards to debt. To even help further explain her points she uses recurring characters such as that of Dr. Faustus or her own yuppie version of Scrooge. These characters not only serve as a purpose to explain the concepts but to further entertain the audience and make them think. By this time the audience will begin to think like Atwood as they continue to explore debt within the last two chapters. She brings back older concepts which were taught throughout the book which explore how some of this child’s play can be carried on into adulthood. She uses these means to further explain the darkside that debt has to offer where $10 could cost you an arm if you don’t keep your word. This is even more evident in the example she uses which is the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice. She reveals that debt does not only have to be generally viewed as a negative and explains that Debt can also have it’s good side. This thought is, what I believe, best displays Atwoods’ open mindedness as she continues to explore the subject and also displays how this book is not in any way biased. She displays the subject to be thoroughly researched to the best of her ability. Lastly, she displays a silver lining when it comes to debt. She begins to display her own theories on how debt can work for a common good. I believe this is what sets her apart from any writer trying to explore economic theories. She really wants good to come out of debt and believes it is vital for the world to continue to have progress. It’s these types of theories and use of her characters such as Scrooge nouveau which truly express Atwood’s creativity to the fullest. It is this creativity and expression which drive the book forward to a promising conclusion. As a reader I would have to say that I am impressed by the book despite the concepts becoming dull at times. Atwoods approaches the concept of debt from a unique perspective which delves into the reasons for debt and why were so bound by it. It is her curiosity and open mindedness which drives the book and helps us come to a satisfying resolution .I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to satisfy their philosophical and economic itch.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have you ever been hurt? Of course you have; pain is a part of life. Have you ever been hurt so badly that you feel like your pain can only be satisfied by blood? Margaret Atwood discusses this idea in Payback at the end of chapter three “Debt as plot” and throughout most of chapter four “The Shadow Side”: “It presented itself as a pleasure to him to do the very thing that would cause Mr. Tulliver the most deadly mortification, - and a pleasure of a complex kind, not made up of a crude malice, but mingling with the relish of self-approbation. To see an enemy humiliated gives a certain contentment, but this is jejune compared with the highly blent satisfaction of seeing him humiliated by your benevolent action… That is a sort of revenge which falls into the scale of virtue” (Payback, p 117). Wakem started out as, “an honest miller” (p 115), but when he loses a lawsuit against Mr. Tulliver, he loses his mill and everything he owns to Tulliver, who takes control of the mill and hires Wakem as a simple employee. Wakem is consumed by his rage till the day he dies. Atwood is, of course, quoting George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. She uses this quote to explain how debt can corrupt even the most righteous and how, “death pays all debts” (p 119). “Death pays all debts”, but some debts can be repaid before your utter demise. Atwood addresses this by referring to Charles Dickins’ A Christmas Carol. She  Summarizes the well-known story to show how there can be redemption from debt, but then throws in her own new age twist. She bring in a character called Scrooge Nouveau, who, “lives in the 21st century, […] he doesn’t have a firm, he has a corporation. In fact, he has many. He collects them – it’s a hobby of his” (p 175). So Scrooge Nouveau is basically like Dickens’ Original Scrooge, except that Scrooge Nouveau is richer. With his own golf course and private jet, the wealth of Original Scrooge can’t even compare. Atwood then goes into a lengthy story about the Ghosts of Earth Day past, present, and future, visiting Scrooge and showing him pictures of pestilence and plague, and the possibility of a beautiful future, or of a damned tomorrow. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead” (p 201), says the Spirit of Earth Day Future. We have been given gifts. The question is how we will use them: will we squander our wealth, or pay back what is due. Atwood finishes her book with Scrooge rolling out of bed, walking over to the window, and thinking to himself the iconic line, “I don’t really own anything, […] [n]ot even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe?” (p 203). Everything we have is a gift; it’s only borrowed. We are in debt to whatever made us. Do everything you can to pay back the debt you owe. Atwood tries to explain debt by using commonly known references to popular books and ancient cultures, which makes the book interesting, but then she decides to continue on elaborating and elaborating about references she has made. This results in the text becoming dull and hard to follow. She has several widely acclaimed novels such as The Edible Woman and The Blind Assassin that are fun to read and beautifully written, but this book ends up being just a conglomeration of ideas that never seem to have a complete point. Even the most educated would have trouble following the plot. It was a decent book; I’m just never going to read it again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In Payback, Atwood employs a large assortment of references to prove that debt can be much more complex than is commonly believed to be. The concept of debt is unraveled to become much more than a monetary issue, instead, it has ties into religion and the overall structure of our society. Atwood demonstrates with example of how debt is embedded in our human culture. We start demonstrating the knowledge of fairness at a young age, as Atwood describes how children are often heard screaming, “that’s not fair,” in a case where they might feel as if something was indebted to them (p13.)  This examination of debt crosses over to the perception of debt. We often see debt in a negative way, but is debt so dark that it can be considered a sin?  Atwood proceeds to study the exploitation of debt and how people use it in malicious ways. She creates a bridge between debt and sin in her next chapter by referring to the vernacular of Jesus Christ where debt and sin are synonymous (Atwood p45.) Ultimately debt effects most, if not all people in our society, but this debt does not magically appear, Atwood also examines how debt becomes entrenched in our lives. She suggests debt involves a sequence of events and is the consequence of these events. (Atwood p81.) To continue her trend of debt being a static evil, Atwood presents the darker side of debt by addressing the certain kind of debt that cannot be paid by money. This kind of debt can only be paid by blood or someone’s life referring to the play, The Merchant of Venice written by William Shakespeare (Atwood p152.) By the end of this novel, many questions were raised about exactly what Atwood was trying to prove about debt, but she eventually gets to her point. Although she effectively ties up all of her convictions about debt, at the end, she leaves the reader with a much more pivotal question.   After reading through the novel, a few concepts stood out to be the impetus that created the evil in debt. It’s the concepts of people being enslaved by their debt and how the time will always come for someone to pay their debt. To support her claims, Atwood uses terrifying details and reveals debt to be much more dangerous than we commonly believe.  The Code of Hammurabi of Mesopotamia are a collection of amendments that allows a man to sell his wife, his kids, inhabitants of his household, and even himself into slavery to pay off a debt (Atwood p56). Even though these laws were dated in 1752 B.C.E., debt slavery still exists today (Atwood p57).  Consider the entrapment that is involved with smuggling illegal immigrants from Asia to the United States. In return for their long journey over, they are forced into labor to pay off their tremendous debts to these smugglers (Atwood p57). In another situation, the operations of a brothel includes renting rooms, clothing, and selling drugs to prostitutes on a tab that could never be paid off. This type of control chains people to continuous work and essentially enslaves them to their debt (Atwood p58). The notion that someone can be enslaved by his or her debt is distressing, but the certainty of the collection of ones debt presents a more demoralizing aspect.  When there is debt, there exists a time frame or a certain date in which payment must be made. This date will always come, and it can be seen through the play of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. This story involves a man known as Dr. Faustus who sells his soul to the devil for worldly goods and wealth. The tragedy comes when its time for Faustus to pay up his end of the bargain. It’s a scene where he begs for more time to be with his loved one but time is relentless in nature and just keeps ticking. (Atwood p169) It becomes more relative as to us by examining the questions provoked by Atwood in Payback. What is our debt to society? What is our debt to our earth? If there is a debt that we owe to our society, we can be certain of one thing, the time to payback these debts will eventually be at our doorsteps (Atwood p166).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Self-Destruction Margaret Atwood is a powerful writer who takes her time developing a strong and solid foundation, as she sheds light on mankind’s life-long struggle with spiritual and financial debt in her 2008 publication, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Atwood ensures that her readers are capable of grasping every idea she introduces by taking them back in time and revisiting where it all began. Atwood overloads our mind with ancient tales, and countless examples of how mankind has sabotaged himself and set out on a path of self-destruction. Atwood takes her readers back to the original sin of Adam and Eve, showcasing mankind’s inability to resist the temptations of the Devil. She makes it undeniably clear that mankind has been selling his soul to the Devil since the beginning of time for a gain of worldly goods and luxurious lifestyles, as they become totally oblivious to the eternal life of slavery that they will have to endure at the end of their natural life. Mankind’s lack of a proper justice system allowed their gain of power and wealth to vastly turn in to Greed and corruption. In man’s attempt to prevent mayhem from spreading through the towns, lawmakers were set in place to help govern and ensure fairness amongst all people. However, the laws that were created only benefited the wealthy and allowed them to take advantage of the poor. People became indebted to society and were forced to pay taxes on everything they owned. With lawmakers possessing the power to raise taxes whenever they saw fit, it became overwhelmingly impossible for people to keep up with their payments. Man resorted to pawning and selling valuable assets to get by. Atwood puts it best when she said, “The best nineteenth-century revenge is not seeing your enemies red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet” (p100). Mankind greedily set out to increase his wealth by spending the taxpayer’s dollar on technology, building machines that are capable of dominating the ocean. These man-made machines have ripped apart our ocean floors killing thousands of living creatures in the process and destroying our world’s largest food resource. Mankind’s lack of self-control and preservation for our lands natural resources have created a problem that is now beyond our control. Concluding Atwood’s extensive journey through ancient history, she informs us that, “unless people [treat] the gifts given by the natural world with respect, and [refrain] from wasteful-ness and greed, divine displeasure [will] follow, signaled by drought, disease, and famine” (p179). Atwood did a phenomenal job revealing the self-destructive life cycle that has been plaguing mankind from generation to generation, while thoroughly explaining the correlation between debt and sin. Atwood not only shows us how mankind has dug himself deeper and deeper into a hole, but she also reveals that in order for us to correct this devastating problem, “We need to calculate the real cost of how of how we’ve been living […]” (p203). We can no longer use the excuse that this problem is too large for one man to control. In my opinion, Atwood’s use of excessive ancient tales make it a little difficult to follow her at times, but she does a great job at roping you back in and bringing awareness to the crises that is taking place here on Earth. Overall it was a powerful and informative book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Perspectives of Debt In our everyday society you will most likely encounter debt somehow. Whether it be a conversation, on the radio, on tv, or even a situation of obtaining your own debt. Most people cringe when they hear anything about debt, but why? Where does debt even come from? Why does debt have such a bad image in our society? Many professionals provide research for those people interested in the subject of debt. Margaret Atwood has done her research and provides some very intriguing insight into the subject of debt in her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. This book is not going to explain how to pay off your debt and it is not going to tell you what your best option is to become wealthy. Atwood’s book evaluates the author’s own research into the topic and provides many references to help readers relate to the different ideas presented. Throughout this book, the author provides many references to literary work, real life scenarios, Greek mythology, and even personal imagination.  From Charles Dickens’s character, Ebenezer Scrooge, to Saint Nick, to the Bible and ancient legends of Gods and Goddesses, Atwood develops multiple perspectives that help the reader develop their own perspective of debt. One of the most recognizable references is Mr. Scrooge himself from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Atwood p86). The author evaluates the life story of Scrooge and helps develop the background of the character. She helps the reader understand how Scrooge relates to our everyday lives and the debt within it all. The character, Scrooge, is used throughout the book and is also compared with another literary character, Doctor Faustus, from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Both characters have many similarities, but they have different outcomes in the end. By comparing these two characters, Atwood provides an image of multiple results of debt and the different types of debt. Doctor Faustus and Ebenezer Scrooge are referenced throughout the book, but Atwood provides a much deeper analysis for Scrooge.  During the explanation of Scrooge, the author eventually dissects the multiple personalities of the character. Each personality is given its own title and made into new characters. The first personality is named “Scrooge Original”, the second is “Scrooge Lite”, and the third is a personality developed by Atwood named “Scrooge Nouveau” (Atwood p173-4). Payback is filled with references to Scrooge, so by taking each personality by itself, the reader gets a much deeper understanding of the overall character and different scenarios that are used throughout the book. Because Scrooge is so recognizable, it makes it very easy to develop a personal perspective within these different personalities. Scrooge Original is the stingy old man that is present in the beginning of the story. He is the character that nobody wants to be, nor does anybody want to be around. Scrooge Lite is the character at the end of the story that is given a second chance. He is given the opportunity to “redeem” himself. Scrooge Nouveau is the twenty-first century version of Ebenezer and is opposite to Scrooge Original. This new character spends his money, but not on others, he spends it all on himself. The development and analysis of Scrooge Nouveau is provided to help bring a more relatable character into the setting. By doing this, Atwood helps the reader grasp the reference of Scrooge throughout the book. All of the different ideas that are provided by Atwood can be wrapped into the story of Scrooge and that is why it is easy to reference the character throughout the book.  The development of all of the author’s references can be difficult to readers if they are not knowledgeable on the different subjects. To completely understand this book, it may take some research by the reader. Atwood never states a solid answer to where debt comes from, what it is, or how to get out of it, but she provides many different perspectives, and challenges the reader to develop their own perspective. Payback has an open conclusion, lets the reader evaluate what they have read and provides a good starting point for anybody interested in researching the overall subject of debt. This book makes the reader think and analyze many different things with the overall goal of developing a new perspective of debt. “Maybe it’s time for us to think about it differently” (Atwood p203). 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Debt Shall Have Its Dominion It's not only money - our thoughts and actions are also weighed in the balance, as Margaret Atwood's erudite account shows. With this short, lively and exceedingly timely book, Margaret Atwood has written what might be described as an intellectual history of debt. There are no Alvin Hall-style tips for getting out of financial difficulty, and those looking for insights into the causes of our current economic predicament will be disappointed. Atwood's focus, instead, is on debt as a “human nature”(Atwood p.11) - or, to put it another way, debt as an idea. Not surprisingly, given her day job as a novelist, she peppers her argument with copious examples from literature, dipping into texts ranging from Aeschylus's The Eumenides to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The end result is not so much a single argument as a compendium of mini-essays on the various ways that debt has been thought about through the ages. Debt is certainly a good subject for a survey of this sort. For one thing, it's a topic that rarely gets tackled by anyone other than economists and personal finance gurus, so the territory is wide open. For another, the concept of debt is, when you think about it, amazingly broad in its reach. Understood at the most basic level, a debt has nothing to do with money; it is simply something that is owed. And all sorts of things can be owed, both material and non-material. We can be indebted to someone for their love and friendship, or we can be indebted to them for the cup of sugar they brought round the other day. Equally, we can incur debts for wrongdoing. If I hurt my friend then it is reasonable for him to expect me to make up for that hurt. If I don't then he may consider it his right to do me an injury in return. This is the principle of revenge, to which Atwood devotes several pages. Almost every human interaction carries with it a metaphorical balance sheet, an implied burden of obligation and reward. Debt, understood this way, is inseparable from the business of life. Moreover, the concept of debt underpins many of society's most important belief systems, most obviously the law, morality and religion. Our notions of justice and punishment are predicated on the idea that those who break the law owe society a debt, which they must make good either with a monetary payment - a fine - or by means of some other penalty, such as a prison sentence. Morality, too, is at root a system of debt, although this time the entity you owe payment to - the creditor - is not society but God. The Christian narrative can likewise be viewed through the prism of debt, with God figuring as a kind of benign banker. He has given us something of incalculable value - life - and, if we play by His rules and make our moral repayments on time, we'll be allowed to hold on to it forever. By the same token, the Devil can be seen as a malevolent creditor, tempting us with material benefits of wealth, sex, power in exchange for our long-term spiritual health. It is no surprise that in literature the Devil is often portrayed as a lawyer or accountant, totting up the debts or, in the Faust legend, souls owed to him in a ledger. In Payback, Atwood touches on all these themes and many more besides. The book began life as a lecture series, which perhaps explains its ultra-chatty style. Atwood clearly isn't bothered about coming across as a know-it-all, and the knowledge she displays is formidable. She appears to have read the whole of Western literature and to be an authority on ancient languages. At one point she even makes a foray into animal anthropology, citing a study of capuchin monkeys which, she claims, demonstrates that a rudimentary grasp of debt exists in primates. Still, Atwood's enthusiasm for her subject and lively style go a long way toward making up for these flaws. She can be a brilliant phrase-maker, and has a gift for summing up an idea with a single vivid image. She points out the fundamental ridiculousness of the self-help idea of “owing it to yourself”(Atwood p.153), since it casts you as your 'own creditor and debtor rolled into one'. Elsewhere, she memorably describes Hell as being “like an infernal maxed-out credit card that multiplies the charges endlessly”(Atwood p.109). And the topic itself is so endlessly interesting that it is hard not to be carried along. Although Atwood doesn't make a big show of the fact, many of her discussions are highly relevant to current events. She probes the relationship between debt and evil, for example, with a brilliant account of the various Devil-as-creditor characters in literature. The most famous is, of course, Mephistopheles, and Atwood, with her usual erudition, describes not just the Marlowe and Goethe versions of the Faust myth but also a less celebrated 19th-century retelling by Washington Irving. What emerges is how malleable the legend is, how easily it can be re-cast according to the values of any era - including our own. It wouldn't require too much of a leap, for example, to see the modern-day sub-prime creditor as yet another Mephistopheles, tempting us with gaudy fantasies of earthly riches. Unlike his predecessors, though, this Mephistopheles wouldn't be interested in your soul: he'd be after your house. Atwood's discussion of the connection between evil and debt leads, in turn, to another pertinent question - that of blame. Who, she asks, bears most of the blame for debt: the lender or the debtor? As she points out, in different times and in different places the balance has shifted. The idea that being in debt is sinful has deep roots in Christianity - as indicated by the existence of debtors' prisons. But Atwood points out that moneylender have most often been made scapegoats for financial turmoil, and it is by no means only the Jews who have suffered in this respect. This is something that we should bear in mind before we become too pious in our condemnation of City bankers. Atwood rounds things off by moving from finance into more wishy-washy territory. She ends the book with a modern-day retelling of Scrooge, which concludes with a banal vision of ecological redemption. It is by no means the highlight of the book but that doesn't mean its message has no value. At a time when so many of us are mired in debts of the financial variety it is worth remembering that it is the other, non-financial debts that we owe - to the planet, and to each other - that may prove most important.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Debts, Debits, and Debtors Payback is a book about debt. No-it is not another Idiot’s Guide to getting rid of your financial debt. It is more of a reference book describing debt as a concept in relation to finances, morality, and life in general. Atwood cleverly disguises her title so that your first thoughts are revenge, when in fact, she barely goes into the concept, choosing instead to focus on debt. It postulates and hypothesizes, it questions and answers. It delves into the past, while remaining in the present, defining and dissecting payback’s counterpart- debt. In Payback, Atwood details the history of debt as  we know it- from the ancient gods, to Deuteronomy, she describes how debt is characterized and its relation to fairness and justice. In her book, Atwood states that “Without memory, there is no debt. Put another way: without story, there is no debt. A story is a string of actions occurring over time- one damn thing after another... and debt happens as a result of actions occurring over time.” Atwood then goes on to reference some well known story characters all directly connected to this concept- Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as Madame Defarge, Washington Irving’s Tom Walker, and Thackeray’s Rawdon Crawley to name a few. She briefly introduces each character to us- her readership- and then has a tendency to quote long passages from the story or play being referenced. In doing so, Atwood answers those questions that plague her at the start of the section. Atwood then goes on to describe the dark side of debt or “the shadow side”. In this chapter she discusses the unwanted job of the money lenders who were often chased out of their homes, so that records could be burned in order to absolve some sinner of his debt. Or in Atwood’s eloquent words: “Whenever you have an out-group to whom an in-group owes a lot of money, “Kill the Creditors” remains an available though morally repugnant way of canceling your debts.” She discusses the primarily Jewish trade of moneylending a few centuries back, and after describing their persecution says “You’ll notice I got through  this part without mentioning the Nazis. The point being that I didn’t have to. For they have not been alone.” Alone in what? Alone in their antisemitism, and fierce determination to rid the planet of all things Jewish.  She also delves into the ancient Greek saying “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small” describing its meaning and then returns to good ole’ Mr. Scrooge to tell the end of her tale. Margaret Atwood is witty, informative, and at times a bit of a rambler. In my opinion,se rambles a bit too much, often times going on a tangent that just seems to bring  on another tangent making the book a bit hard to follow if you’re looking to actually read about debt and payback. But she tells an excellent story and clearly wants to appeal to a broad audience based on the variety of references that can be found in Payback. I would recommend Payback to a person who is well read and looking to expand their horizons a bit. Just bear this in mind- Payback is no bathroom book. It will require your undivided attention- and perhaps that of your favorite search engine- for several hours.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago