Summary of the Plot
An unnamed female narrator remembers being held prisoner in what was once a school gymnasium with a number of other girls, kept in check by women called “Aunts”, armed with cattle prods.
She describes her present situation: an empty room in which she’s held prisoner by a military dictatorship, Gilead, founded on theocratic principles. The house she’s in belongs to a man called “the Commander”. She’s let out only to go shopping, with a “double” called “Ofglen”, a woman just like her. They wear floor-length red dresses, white headscarves with “wings” that mean they can”t see anything except what’s directly in front of them, nor can they be seen. As she leaves the house, she passes a “Guardian”, a sort of caretaker, who winks at her: a forbidden gesture. They come across another woman dressed like them, heavily pregnant, and many others dressed the same way cooing over her. On their way home they pass the city wall, where they see the bodies of three men hanging from hooks; they’ve been executed for carrying out abortions.
In bed that night, the narrator, Offred, remembers happy times with her mother and her best friend, Moira, neither of whom she’s seen for many years.
4. Waiting Room
Offred is surprised to find the Commander standing outside her room one day. When he sees her, he nods hesitantly, and disappears. It’s illegal for him to be there; what is he trying to say?
Lying on her bed, she remembers how, on first arrival, she had tried to find out more about the woman who was in the room before her, but is refused any information.
She recalls a visit to the doctor the day before: a check-up, to see if she’s pregnant. During the procedure, the doctor offered to impregnate her. Offred is a “Handmaid”, we learn: a member of a slave class of women whose sole purpose is to bear children for her Commander and his wife, who can’t. If she fails beyond a certain time, it’s implied, she will be killed.
Offred is prepared by the household’s maids (“Marthas”) for a “Ceremony” that will take place later that night.
Waiting for the Ceremony, Offred lies on her bed and remembers being with Moira at the “Rachel and Leah Centre” – the re-education centre she described at the start of the novel. They were not permitted to talk there, but managed snatched conversations when they sat in adjacent toilet cubicles. She then returns to a traumatic memory: she’s running away with her husband, Luke, and her daughter; they are being chased. Luke is shot at, and her daughter taken away. She hasn’t seen them since.
The members of the household assemble in the living room: Offred, the Marthas, the Commander, the Commander’s Wife and Nick, the Guardian. The Commander unlocks a box, takes out a Bible, reads from it and they pray in silence. As they pray, Offred remembers Moira’s attempted escape from the Rachel and Leah Centre, and the punishment that left her feet looking like lungs.
Then the Ceremony, in the Commander’s bedroom: the Commander’s Wife lies at the head of a four poster bed; Offred lies nested in her lap. On top of her, the Commander is all but raping Offred.
During the night, Offred creeps around the house. In the living room, she sees Nick. It’s forbidden for both of them to be up at this time; it’s forbidden for them to be alone together. But Nick has a message: the Commander wants to see her, alone, in his office the following day. Again, this is strictly forbidden.
Offred lies in bed wondering what happened to Luke: is he alive or dead, imprisoned or free?
8. Birth Day
During breakfast one morning, Offred hears a siren. It is a Birthmobile: a van sent to drive all the local Handmaids to the house where one of them is in labour. They watch Janine, now Ofwarren, giving birth. It’s another grotesque ceremony: the Handmaids sit on the floor, chanting, while this Commander’s Wife sits on a stool above Janine, legs wrapped around her, as if it’s she who’s giving birth.
Offred, “tired” of telling this story, retreats again to her memories and starts to tell another one: the story of Moira’s successful escape from the Rachel and Leah Centre. (She kidnapped an Aunt, changed into her clothes, walked straight past the security guards, and hasn”t been heard of since.)
That night, Offred meets the Commander in secret. She’s terrified about what will happen, but all he wants is to play Scrabble. When she leaves he asks her to kiss him.
In her room, Offred reflects on the strange episode and, climbing into her cupboard, erupts in a fit of hysterical laughter.
10. Soul Scrolls
Offred and the Commander’s relationship intensifies. He starts giving her presents: contraband items, such as magazines from “the time before”; moisturiser for her dry skin.
Out shopping one day, Ofglen says something punishable by death: she questions the existence of God. Offred is thrilled. Ofglen reveals that she is a dissident, part of an underground resistance network called Mayday.
We learn how Gilead came into being. A group of ultra-conservative American activists stormed Congress, killed everyone, blamed it on Islamic terrorists, and founded their own state. Women lost their jobs, their money. Fundamentalist Christian women became Commanders’ Wives; fertile wom-en became Handmaids; working class women became “Econowives”; all other women (and gay men) were sent to the “Colonies,” to clear up nuc-lear waste.
Offred learns what happened to her predecessor: she also had an affair with the Commander, which was discovered. Knowing that she would be arrested, tortured, and killed as a result, she hanged herself in Offred’s room.
A Romeo and Juliet moment with Nick outside her window; they don’t speak, but exchange meaningful glances. The sexual tension is building.
The Commander’s Wife is frustrated that Offred isn’t pregnant and suggests, heretically, that it might be the Commander who’s infertile, not her. She suggests Offred sleep with Nick in secret. In return, she will show Offred a photo of her daughter. She makes good on her word.
The local women attend a “Prayvagazna” – a mass devotional event, in this case to celebrate a number of arranged marriages. There, Offred sees Janine looking thin and pale; Ofglen tells her that the baby she gave birth to was disabled – an “Unbaby” – and Janine has been reassigned. Ofglen knows that Offred has been seeing the Commander privately; she asks her to do some digging.
When they next meet, the Commander produces an old burlesque costume made of feathers and sequins. He makes her wear it and smuggles her into a debauched, elite club: a brothel. There, Offred finds Moira dressed as a Playboy Bunny. They retreat to the toilet to talk. Moira tells her about the aftermath of the escape – her attempt to get across the border to Canada on the “Underground Femaleroad” – and that Offred’s mother was sent to the Colonies as an Unwoman.
The Commander takes Offred to a room where he tries to sleep with her; she can’t do it.
At the Commander’s Wife’s behest, Offred and Nick sleep together.
Offred and Nick begin a passionate affair; she loses all interest in trying to escape or aid Mayday.
The women are called to the steps of the old university (Harvard) for an event called a “salvaging”. Three women are hanged, their crimes never revealed. Then a man is brought out. They’re told he’s a convicted rapist. What follows is a “Particicution”: an execution in which all the Handmaids can participate. They’re allowed to do anything they like to him. Ofglen beats him violently until he loses consciousness. Furious, Offred turns on her. He’s not a rapist, Ofglen replies, he’s “one of ours”, a political dissident, a member of Mayday. She knocked him out so that he doesn’t have to experience what happens afterwards.
Later that day, Offred waits for Ofglen to go shopping. When Ofglen arrives, it’s someone else. Ofglen, she discovers, hanged herself after the Salvaging. She saw the secret police, the “Eyes”, coming for her, and escaped.
When she gets home, the Commander’s Wife greets her at the door. She has found out about her and the Commander. Offred goes to her room, her fate uncertain.
Nick arrives at Offred’s door, with him two Eyes. They will take her, torture her, execute her. But Nick tells her that he works for Mayday; they’ve come to rescue her. They escort her off the premises.
Is it a feminist novel?
It’s possible to work out what The Handmaid’s Tale is about before you even get to the first chapter (and without reading the blurb or seeing the cover): there are enough clues woven into what publishers call the “front matter” for a reader (a particularly clever reader, admittedly) to get a fairly clear picture of the book.
First, look at the copyright page. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t think to, but you’d miss two significant dedications: “For Mary Webster and Perry Miller”, it says at the top. This might not seem unusual: writers are always dedicating books to loved ones. But if you happened to know a bit about early American history, then it might. Mary Webster was a Puritan settler who was hanged as a witch in the 1680s, and Perry Miller was an American intellectual historian who specialised in the early settlers, taught at Harvard and died in 1963.
When asked about the dedication, Atwood said Webster was an ancestor.
She was accused of witchcraft. She was hauled off to Boston – this was just before the Salem witch trials* – put on trial and exonerated. She went back to her hometown. The townspeople were not pleased with the verdict, they lynched her anyway… they strung her up more or less just like a flag and let her dangle around and when they came to cut down the body in the morning, she was still alive… She lived another fourteen years, the man doing the accusation, however, died.
It’s not the most revealing of answers. Twenty years after publishing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood published a poem about Webster called “Half-Hanged Mary” (1995), which might help us flesh out her significance.
Written from Webster’s point of view, the poem describes the night of the hanging. “I was hanged,” Webster says,
for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;
Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.
In this account the townspeople turned against Webster because of her independence (“living alone”), the appearance of her body (“blue eyes”, “sunburned skin”), the shabbiness of her clothes (“tattered skirts, few buttons”), her ownership of property (“a weedy farm in my own name”), her enterprise (“a surefire cure for warts”) and, most importantly, her sex (the “breasts” and “sweet pear hidden in my body” - note that the uterus is pear-shaped). She was demonised, attacked, tortured and nearly murdered by her community for the sin of being an independent woman who didn’t conform to the repressive expectations of appearance and behaviour that were placed on women in 17th century New England.
But what makes her remarkable, for Atwood, is her survival; the poem is, above all, a survival narrative. In her book, Scarlet Letters, the academic Lee Briscoe Thompson credits this “bizarre incident in her family history” with giving Atwood “a predisposition to see women as survivors, a consistent characteristic of her protagonists”.
From this first dedication, then, you might infer that The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about a victim of some kind of misogynistic municipal repression, whose significance is that she survives. And you’d be right: the narrator, Offred, is a prisoner in a military dictatorship whose existence is ruled by her “sweet pear” – that is, her ability to bear children. And, as we”ll see, it’s her survival that interests Atwood more than her oppression.
You might also infer that the novel will fit into the tradition of feminism which sees women as victims, historically oppressed, seeks liberation and demands equality. And you would be largely right.
It’s certainly true that in Gilead women are a kind of slave class – worse, even: “I am a national resource,” says Offred (75). For Gilead, the Handmaids are “containers, it’s only the insides of [their] bodies that are important” (107); they are “two-legged wombs” (146). And they get the blame when things go wrong: “There’s no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially… that’s the law” (70-71).
Femininity means, for Gilead, to borrow terms from the 19th century feminist Marion Reid, “self-renunciation” and “self-extinction”. “Any symptom of independent thought,” Reid wrote in A Plea for Women (1843), of women’s education in the 19th century, “is quickly repressed”; “the majority of girls are subdued into mere automatons”, trained for a “mechanical performance of duty… their own minds all the while lying barren and unfruitful”. And so it is in Gilead: “They used to have dolls,” Offred says at one point, “for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll” (26).
The novel fits snugly into the discourses of feminism. One of the most common tropes in feminist writing is the image of imprisonment. Offred is, of course, literally imprisoned in the Commander’s house. Before she got there, she and others were penned into the re-education centre by a “chain-link fence”, like cattle, and only allowed out for “walks, twice daily”, like dogs (22). More than just a prisoner, she was treated like a caged animal.
But Atwood engages with the trope on a less literal level, too. Consider this quote, for example, from one of the early and seminal feminist texts, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792):
Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison. (That is: women are imprisoned by the standards of beauty expected of them.)
The quote makes me think of the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, whom Offred often hears “pacing back and forth” in her sitting room, as an animal does in its cage (19). The sitting-room, with its twee design, its fetish for objects, its frilly conformity, is Serena Joy’s “gilt cage”, a room constructed from feminine kitsch. It’s a kind of prison for her, one built from the norms of femininity.
The image of a woman trapped in the sitting room suggests another common trope in feminist discourse. The Irish philosopher William Thompson describes women as the “movable property” of their husbands; “of all [his] fixtures the most abject is his breeding machine, the wife”. A man’s wife, in other words, is part of the furniture. Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, when the Commander enters the sitting room for the Ceremony, where the women of the household have assembled, “He looks us over as if taking inventory. One kneeling woman in red, one seated woman in blue, two in green…” as if they’re items of furniture (171).
As such, Atwood associates her throughout the novel with those instruments of femininity intended to enhance “a woman’s sceptre”: beauty products. “Her lips were thin,” Offred says, “with the small vertical lines around them you used to see in advertisements for lip cosmetics”. (24) Later:
What a stupid name. It’s like something you’d put on your hair… to straighten it. Serena Joy, it would say on the bottle, with a woman’s head in cut-paper silhouette on a pink oval background with scalloped gold edges. (55)
It’s not for nothing that the Aunts – the “crack female control agency” (320) who function, in some ways, as prison guards – are named, we discover in the Historical notes at the end, after beauty products from the “the immediate pre-Gilead period” (321).
Serena Joy may be unlikeable – monstrous, even – but hers is a portrait of feminine conformity as extreme loneliness. When she begins to cry silently during the Ceremony, “trying not to make a noise… trying to preserve her dignity”, her husband “opens his eyes, notices, frowns, ceases to notice” (101). She may “seek to adore” her “gilt cage”, but that doesn”t mean she’s happy in it.
All of which suggests that The Handmaid’s Tale is, yes, a feminist novel. It may be surprising, then, that so many people have questioned whether Margaret Atwood is a feminist, among them Karen Yossman, who asked in The New Statesman: “Is Margaret Atwood a feminist? That’s what I’m trying to work out… Obviously, you might roll your eyes, Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale?” But even if you have read The Handmaid’s Tale, as Yossman suggests, you might be unsure.
There are two self-defining “feminists” in the novel: Offred’s mother, and her close friend, Moira, both of whom exist mainly in Offred’s memories. Offred’s mother is a fierce, headstrong feminist, an attendant of “abortion riots” and “porn riots” (189). Moira – masculine, nonconformist – is an enraged, radical activist: she writes university essays about date rape and later works for a feminist printing press, putting out books about “birth control and rape and things like that” (187). They are both likeable characters, fun to be around, with admirable energy and compelling arguments.
But Atwood’s presentation of them is critical. They are second-wave feminists – feminists who, after the early 20th century battles for civil and political equality had been more or less won, sought equality in the home and in culture, fighting for sexual and family rights. “The personal is the political” became a popular slogan in the 1970s.
Offred’s mother and Moira have taken that slogan to such an extreme that they have allowed men no role in their lives.
Offred’s father, whom she never met, was “a nice guy and all”, her mother tells her, “with beautiful blue eyes”, but “there’s something missing in them, even the nice ones” (131). “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women,” she offers as an explanation for having kept him and Offred apart (130). “Just do the job, then you can bugger off” (131).
Moira, who admires Offred’s mother, has taken the rejection of men further: she presents her lesbianism as a political choice. Offred remembers criticising her for it:
I said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away, I said. You couldn’t just ignore them. (181)
As we’ll see, the accusation of Utopianism is a severe one.
In her review for the New York Times Review of Books, the novelist Mary McCarthy saw in the novel an indictment of ““excessive” feminism… the kind of doctrinaire feminism likely to produce a backlash… exemplified in the narrator’s absurd mother”. McCarthy’s language may seem a little harsh, but Atwood’s writing warrants the criticism. When Offred’s mother first appears, it is in a memory of a ritual burning of pornographic magazines to which she dragged a very young Offred. During the event, the women are “chanting… ecstatic” (48). It’s a mindless, frenzied ritual, troublingly recalled later in the novel in the descriptions of Gilead’s own ritual burning of provocative women’s clothing: at this event, women are “throwing their arms up thankfully into the air” (242). Again: it’s mindless, frenzied, and reminiscent of the Nazis’ infamous book-burnings. Which begs the question: if this is a feminist novel, why on earth would Atwood implicitly compare committed feminists to Nazis?
Atwood isn’t criticising the politics of these characters so much as their attitudes. Offred’s mother, Moira, the architects of Gilead, Nazis, are all troubling to Atwood because they are fundamentalists, and if the novel is a criticism of any one thing, it’s fundamentalism. As the academic Priscilla Morin-Ollier put it, they share the same “moral absolutist vision”. There is no room within their systems for anyone who doesn’t wholly agree with them. The logical end point of the fundamentalism of Moira and Offred’s mother, it is implied, is not so different to the logical end point of Gilead’s. “Mother,” thinks Offred at one point, “Wherever you are. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one” (137).
So is Margaret Atwood a feminist? It depends, she might answer, what you mean by “feminism”. In a lecture called, “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist dystopia?”, she attempted to define it. “Going back into history,” she said,
once upon a time, if you disagreed with the ancient Greek opinion that women were simply perambulating wombs you would have been a feminist. If you disagreed with the early Christian fathers’ point of view that women had no souls, you would have been a feminist. If you disagreed later on in the nineteenth century with the view that women ought not to be educated because it would cause their brains to enlarge at the expense of the rest of them – the more important rest of them – then you were a feminist… If you entered the twentieth century and took the position that women had the right to their own property, which was certainly denied to them under nineteenth century English law, you would have been a feminist… my point is that feminism is a general tendency rather than a set ideology.
If what you mean by “a feminist novel”, then, is propaganda for a political cause, then you’ll be disappointed. If, however, what you mean is a novel that questions orthodoxy, thinks for itself, and seeks to be on the right side of history, that’s probably what The Handmaid’s Tale is.
Flowers & Gardens
the punning is only one side of Offred’s stylistic coin. On the other side is the poetry. Much of the poetic writing in The Handmaid’s Tale is about flowers. Like puns, flowers are everywhere. They’re part of the story Gilead wants to tell about women. They speak of a kind of compliant femininity: pretty, silent, in the background, and solely for the purposes of procreation. Thus the only non-essential item in Offred’s room is a picture of flowers: “Flowers are still allowed” (17). And Serena Joy is surrounded by them. When not roaming her gilt cage, she can be found, sedentary, in her botanic one: “sometimes [she] has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace” (22). Looks like peace, but isn’t: in the words of the French feminist Hélène Cixous, “women’s lovely mouths [are] gagged with pollen”.
One day, Offred finds Serena Joy in her garden,
snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears… She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it… some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? (161)
It is an image in miniature of what Gilead does to its citizens: desexes them. Tellingly, Serena Joy here is “Saint Serena, on her knees, doing penance”.
But for Offred the garden tells a different story. “Here and there are worms,” she says when she first describes it, “evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips” (27). Uninterested in the docile, passive prettiness of flowers she hones in on these vaginal worms, complexly symbolic of life (“fertility”), sex (“pink, like lips”) and death (“half dead”).
For Offred, then, the garden becomes symbolic – what Gilead wants to write out of the picture. Thus flowers adorn her relationship with Nick, the kind of romantic, mutually-desiring relationship that Gilead wants to stamp out. “The tulips along the border,” she writes after her first subversive encounter with him, “are redder than ever, opening, no longer winecups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end?” The deepening red of the tulips, their “opening” and “thrusting” project Offred’s erotic charge back at her.
Later, when her desire is becoming unbearable, she passes Nick and the air “stinks of flowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea” (190). The stink, the pulp, the explosion of pollen in the wind, the semen-like oyster spawn… Offred’s repressed feelings are seeping into her imagery. Later, suggestive “stains on the mattress” are “like dried flower petals” (61); after all, as she reminds us, flowers are “the genital organs of plants” (91).
Offred wants to reclaim the association of women with nature, which Gilead has attempted to disinfect; she wants to tell a darker, earthier, more real story: she wants to bring the filth back to flowers. When she sees Serena Joy snipping off the seed pods, she immediately makes the scene her own, describing the changing seasons.
Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve… (161)
These are images, now, not of regimentation and control, but of free-floating flux, flowers caught, momentarily, in their twisting. The garden becomes a source of political hope.
There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: “Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently…” (161).
It’s an image of the triumph of individual sexuality over totalitarian oppression. The strict binaries of Gilead’s system, their false certainties and oppressive narratives, their narrative impositions, have yielded in Offred’s imagination to this imagery of flux and mutability. Things shift, suggest, glimmer, change form like words do when punned on.
The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches, feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. (161-162)
She can even feel the change in the world (“the grass grows underfoot”), the futurity of desire. No longer is the garden associated with Christian, male oppression; it’s an image now of pagan, female, freedom. Goddesses are possible now.
I want to pause for a moment, as Offred does, on those irises “momentarily frozen” in time, and consider the significance of freezing time in this novel.
Offred has a strange relationship with time. There are a disorienting number of time periods repres-ented in the novel, and it’s often hard to know which one she’s describing at any given point. Sometimes she seems to exist in more than one time in the same sentence. This one, for example: “We wait, the clock in the hall ticks, Serena lights another cigarette, I get into the car” (94). This is when the household has assembled in the sitting room and they’re waiting for the Commander. The car, though, is in Offred’s past; as she waits, and the clock ticks, she starts reliving her escape attempt with Luke and their daughter. In this sentence there are two present tenses.
This is regularly the case for Offred, who spends a lot of time in her memories. Sometimes it’s unintentional – “attacks of the past,” she calls them (62). It can be the smallest sense memory that draws her back in time, often to her daughter, as when she’s lying in the bath:
she’s there with me, suddenly, without warning, it must be the smell of the soap. I… breathe her in, baby powder and child’s washed flesh and shampoo, with an undertone, the faint scent of urine. (73)
At these moments, as the critic Jagna Oltarzewska has argued, Offred appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic events, Oltarzewska writes, have a kind of timelessness: they are at once outside time and continuously present, forever relived. “The trauma is thus an event that has no beginning, no ending, no before, no during and no after”; it has “a timelessness, and a ubiquity that puts it outside the range of associatively linked ex--periences, outside the range of comprehension, of recounting, and of mastery”. Experience
separates out into a sluggish, monotonous present and what is referred to as the “time before”, between them lies a “marker”, a moment out of time which is unbridgeable, indescribable and involves an irreparable sense of loss.
Offred’s “marker”, her moment out of time, is of course the disaster of her attempted escape: her daughter taken from her, her husband lost, both their fates unknown.
Often, though, her double presence is intentional: she has learned to spend time in her memories. Thus, when we first see her walking around town, she says,
I’m remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. (34)
Notice the level of detail she goes into, and the sensual enjoyment she finds in it: the sing-song rhyme, indulgent alliteration and ebullient rhythm of “cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric”. Her memories tend to be more richly sensual than her present experience; she picks up on small details and lets their fullness wash over her, savouring even the most banal objects. Sense – scent, usually – is a kind of door on to her past. When she smells nail polish on a tourist, for example:
I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the tiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in the shoe by the whole weight of the body… I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hunger. (39)
Her past seems to have more reality to her than her present, which often has a hellish, dreamlike sluggishness to it. It’s like a room she can enter at will, always there, to escape her prison.
It’s a means of resistance. As Marta Dvorak frames it, it’s a way of resisting “Gilead’s control [of] temporality and history”. Gilead, she says, has tried to create a kind of “utopian stasis and timelessness”. Gilead’s present is oppressively static, gloopy. “There’s time to spare,” Offred says. “This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for – the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound” (79). “It seems to have stopped at summer,” she says elsewhere (209). Then, watching a dandelion disintegrating in the wind: “All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze” (224). “There was no night and day; only a flickering” (149).
For Dvorak, Offred is a “time traveller who breaks out of her temporal and spatial closure. Memory allows her to “step sideways out of [her] own time” to turn stasis into movement”. Her ability to live in her memories, in other words, is another way of escaping Gilead’s control of her narratives: she is creating her own mental space, a private, imaginative world in which Gilead can’t reach her.
Those irises, then, represent her ability to snatch time, to snatch moments of beauty, joy, and to hold them so that they stretch on forever (flowers, after all, decay and die). As with her response to Gilead’s control of language, Offred wants to resist closure, and she does that, paradoxically, in her poetic embrace of the fleeting and momentary. As she says of Luke in the early days of their relationship: “He was so momentary… And yet there seemed no end to him” (61). It even becomes a way of dealing with her trauma: remembering “pull[ing] her [daughter] to the ground and roll[ing] on top of her to cover her, shield her”, just before she was taken, Offred remembers a leaf close to her eyes, “red, turned early”. She says: “I can see every bright vein. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” (85).
There’s another counter-world Offred sometimes steps into: the world of her own body. Offred is defined and determined by, and valued because of, her body. And, like everything else, Gilead wants to write its own narrative on to it. In her essay, “Margaret Atwood’s Female Bodies”, Madeline Duries explores how, in Atwood’s novels, “wider power structures are written onto female flesh”; Offred’s body is a “battlefield” between her and Gilead. As a result, it becomes alien to her, not her own. “My nakedness is strange to me already,” she says when she takes a bath (72).
But it’s all she has. And, as such, she often settles into it, mindfully, as into a landscape. To begin with, it’s an alien landscape, defined by the state’s expectations of her (fertility), and looking like the set of a science fiction movie. “I’m a cloud congealed around a central object,” she says,
the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time. (84)
It doesn’t sounds like a happy place to go. Elsewhere, she describes how “I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory” (83). For Gina Wisker, “Offred’s own body is not a place of safety – she feels that it is a swamp threatening to overwhelm her”. But what Wisker ignores is the fact that, in Offred’s fenland, only she knows “the footing”. It might be a place defined by her function within this patriarchy; it might be “treacherous ground”; but it’s still her own place, her “own territory”. No one else can go there.
Duries, along with many other critics, has noted the debt Atwood owes to Hélène Cixous in this kind of body-writing. In her seminal essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), Cixous puts forward her idea of écriture féminine (feminine writing), urging female writers to find inspiration in their own bodies: “By writing her self, woman will turn to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display.”
She “calls on women”, as Duries has it, “to reject male, rule-bound language in favour of a language connecting body with text”. She wants women to weave imaginative worlds from their bodily experience, creating a “unique empire”, over which they are “sovereign”. Is this not what Offred is doing? She is rewriting and reclaiming her body from the state. Significantly, for Offred, it takes falling in love, and entering a fulfilling sexual relationship, to fully reclaim her body: “I’m alive in my skin,” she says after consummating her desire. “Write yourself. Your body must be heard,” Cixous commands. And Offred does.
The way Offred tells her story – with its postmodern distrust of narrative forms, its overflow of wordplay, its flower poetry, its strange timelessness, and its landscape writing of the body – is an attempt to wrest some control from the oppressive, patriarchal state in which she lives: control over language, over narrative, over body, over imagination, over identity. It’s an act of resistance.
It’s not an entirely successful act: her story is presented to us, remember, by two men (Professors Pieixoto and Wade) who surround their account of the reconstruction of her text, and their retitling of it, with misogynistic jokes before dismissing her story as “crumbs” of History (323). As Howell puts it, Pieixoto abuses her “as Gilead abused her, removing her authority over her life story and renaming it in a gesture which parallels Gilead’s patriarchal oppression of women”.
But nor is it entirely unsuccessful: far from the rule-bound, regimented “masculine” story that Pieixoto and Wade want history to be, her story – herstory – is ambiguous, uncertain, and open-ended. It is, in Dvorak’s words, a “rebellion against utopian closure and uniformity”, which deliberately cultivate[s] uncertainty, blurring, ambiguity, flux – all threats to perfect regularity and normality”.
Why does Puritanism feature in the novel?
So what about the second person to whom Atwood dedicates her novel, Perry Miller, the Puritan historian? When asked about him, Atwood revealed that he had taught her at Harvard:
It’s through him that I knew what I did about seventeenth century Puritan America, a theocratic, oppressive regime not to be confused with the happy democratic fathers of America that some people are sometimes taught about in school.
You might imagine, from this, that The Handmaid’s Tale will be set during the Puritan era. You’d be wrong about that, but not wholly wrong. Gilead is Puritan America 2.0; Atwood is inventing a grim American future by reaching into its past. She imagines what would happen if the Puritans returned, and what they would be capable of doing with all the technology now available to them.
The academic Gina Wisker has documented some of the ways in which the Handmaids’ lives resemble those of Puritan women (“Handmaids of the Lord,” in the words of the noted Puritan minister and persecutor, Cotton Mather (1663-1728)). For a start, they were renamed in ways that overtly denoted their repression, names likes “Silence, Fear, Patience, Prudence, Mendwell, Comfort, Hopestill and Be Fruitfull”. Further:
The upbringing of New England women, like the retraining of the Handmaids, included a rejection of mirrors, combs and any clothes that were more than functional. Each has reading restricted to teachings of the Bible.
Likewise, the Handmaids take names that define their repression (“Offred”, or “of Fred”: belonging to Fred). Beauty products are banned: “There’s no longer any hand lotion or face cream,” Offred says, “not for us. Such things are considered vanities” (107). (They’ve been spared their gilt cage, at least.) And reading and writing are forbidden, apart from the Bible teachings that are read to them.
Imagining a Puritan inheritance in contemporary America was not difficult. The Handmaid’s Tale is a response to a political movement that was nascent in America in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw itself as “a return to traditional values” and which many saw as a reaction to second-wave feminism: The New Right. This was a groundswell of fiery campaigners who would say, for example:
Imagining a Puritan inheritance in contemporary America was not difficult. The Handmaid’s Tale is a response to a political movement that was nascent in America in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw itself as “a return to traditional values” and which many saw as a reaction to second-wave feminism: The New Right. This was a groundswell of fiery campaigners who would say, for example:
God’s word says that the man is to be the head of the home, and frankly as a woman I delight in that. I would hate to have to make the decisions for the home that he has to make. And I’m very thankful that I can lean on my husband and submit to him. (Mrs Bob Jones)
The woman who is truly spirit-filled will want to be totally submissive to her husband… This is a truly liberated woman. Submission is God’s design for women. (Beverely LaHaye)
For the New Right, as Morin-Ollier puts it, “the greatest lie of the century is the claim that women are unfairly treated and in a position of inferiority in the United States”; the New Right believes that “feminists were to blame for all the nation’s ills”.
This is the ideology of Puritan America and it’s the ideology of Gilead, most powerfully dramatised in The Handmaid’s Tale in Janine’s re-education at the Rachel and Leah centre. Traumatised after being gang-raped at the age of 14, she is forced to admit that it was her fault. “Her fault, her fault, her fault,” the other girls chant at her. “I led them on,” Janine cries, “I deserved the pain” (82). By the end of the novel, she has suffered a nervous breakdown.
Serena Joy – who is a parody of real “televangelsts” like LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker – embodies New Right ideology in the novel. In what is known as “the time before”, she hosted a Christian fundamentalist TV show. “Her speeches,” Offred remembers, “were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay at home” (55). The sanctity of the home: in The Handmaid’s Tale, the home is shown to be, in Edward Howell’s words, “a charade of sexual coercion, enslavement, and political expediency”. The ideology is bankrupt.
It is, of course, significant that Serena Joy consciously aligns herself with Puritanism; she has hung two paintings of miserable, circumscribed Puritan women in her sitting room, with “the intention of passing them off as ancestors” (89). They are portraits of immense repression: “their backs and mouths stiff, their breasts constricted, their faces pinched, their caps starched, their skin greyish-white, guarding the room with their narrowed eyes” (90). Atwood’s language is powerfully evocative here: “stiff... constricted… pinched… starched”. The horrors of Gilead don’t represent a violent break from the American tradition, she wants to suggest, but a conscious continuation of some of its worst currents.
This brings us to the next page of the book: a page of epigraphs. Like the dedications, they are rich in implication. The first comes from the Bible – Genesis, 30:1-3:
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who have withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
This is the novel’s plot in miniature. Serena Joy is Rachel, the Commander is Jacob, Offred is Bilah – an arrangement repeated in households around the country. The ceremony in which the male ruling class attempt to impregnate the slave class of fertile women (and before which they read aloud this passage) is a grotesque parody of this story: just as Bilah “bears upon [Rachel’s] knees”, so the Handmaids literally bear upon the Commanders Wives’ knees during the intercourse.
But more than simply foreshadowing the novel’s plot, this quote functions to root the grimmest aspects of Atwood’s fictional totalitarian regime in the text at the heart of Western Judeo-Christian tradition.
The institutionalised misogyny of Gilead invokes the Bible as a way of legitimising its violence: “she probably longs to slap my face,” Offred thinks of the Commander’s Wife. “They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent” (26). Like many theocratic societies, Gilead’s scriptural emphasis is more about control than faith. Accordingly, there is little concern for accuracy. One of the phrases the Handmaids are made to recite as part of their re-education is: “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs.” “It was from the Bible,” Offred says. “St. Paul again, in Acts” (127). But we know better: it’s not from the Bible, it’s Karl Marx. Or rather, it’s a bastardisation of a phrase that Karl Marx once used, often wrongly attributed to him: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” It’s an appeal for socialism, about as far away from Gilead, politically, as you can get.
Atwood shows, throughout the novel, how the word of God is misused by the state, a state which seeks to justify everything it wants by pretending it has been decreed by God, and is thus inarguable. The state seeks to stamp out any scriptural ambiguity and stamp its own authoritative and final interpretation on the text. The reference to Marx is sly; another phrase he made famous is: “religion is the opiate of the masses”.
But there’s no denying that Gilead’s misogyny really is rooted in the Bible – the book around which many societies, like America, have, historically, sought to fashion their identities. The fact is that women don’t come out of the Bible very well at all; think of Eve, directly responsible for the fall of mankind. Margaret Walters has written about how Saint Paul, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Puritan era
was regularly invoked against any woman who spoke out, or asked awkward questions about the Church’s attitude to women: “Let your women keep silence in churches, for it is not permitted to them to speak”, he instructed the Corinthians. And again, in the epistle to Timothy, “If they will learn anything let them ask their husbands at home: for it is shame for women to speak in church”.
Timothy forms the backbone of the religious ceremonies in The Handmaid’s Tale; the Commander who holds the Prayvaganza is quoting Timothy 2:11-12, for example, when he says: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (233). Saint Paul is regularly invoked in the novel, too, as when Aunt Lydia decrees: “Hair must be long or covered… Saint Paul said it’s either that or a close shave.” Again, she is referring to real scripture, Corinthians 11:6: “For if the woman be not covered let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered” (72).
With this quote, then, Atwood is signalling, as Howells puts it, that “her tale is an act of resistance to masculinist fiction conventions, including that archetypal patriarchal text, the Old Testament”.
So we’re edging towards a fuller picture of the novel. You’ve worked out that it’s going to be about a persecuted woman in a Puritan society which uses iron-law religious morality for political oppression, and is going to seek to transcend a misogyny rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition. What you don’t know, yet, is what kind of novel it’s going to be – what genre. The next epigraph helps with that.
This one’s from a text by the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), called “A Modest Proposal” (1729):
But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal.
“A Modest Proposal” is a satirical tract – its target being the use of rational argument to solve difficult human problems – that proposes a solution to the chronic poverty in Ireland in the early 18th century: that the Irish eat their children. There is hardly a fault in the logic yet the reader knows instinctively that the argument is absurd. It’s an example of what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum (literally: a reduction to absurdity), in which a philosophical approach is followed to its quite obviously absurd logical conclusion in order to reveal the flaws in the premise. In this case, it aims to show the lack of empathy and compassion in political approaches to tackling poverty. The “vain, idle visionary thoughts” he is “wearied out” with making refers to the sensible contributions Swift has already made: suggestions like raising taxes for the rich. The joke is that simple solutions to problems often get ignored because they don’t fit into prevailing discourses.
So what does this tell you about the novel you’re about to read? If you were particularly sharp, you might be able to extrapolate from it that it’s going to be a dystopian novel. Dystopian novels tend to be satirical reductios ad absurdum of the societies in which they’re written (in some ways, you could call “A Modest Proposal” dystopian). Like The Hunger Games, or 1984, they’re set typically in a near future in which worrying trends in the socio-political organisation of the author’s society have been followed to their logical conclusions – which tend to be violent, repressive, pessimistic – and are thus shown to be cause for concern.
Comparisons with 1984
Atwood has said that her model for The Handmaid’s Tale was George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, so it’s worth thinking briefly about that novel’s dystopia, Oceania. Oceania is a place of total surveillance: security cameras watch you day and night, wherever you are. They even have ways of detecting independent thought – “thoughtcrime” – which the state has sought to replace with a uniform “orthodoxy”. Emotional attachments and loving relationships have been purged: emotional energy goes into worshipping the spectral, omnipresent figurehead, Big Brother, and flinging hate at public enemy number one, Emmanuel Goldstein.
Oceania achieves its total control in two main ways. First, by repressing sexual impulses: “sexual privation induced hysteria,” the narrator explains,
which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship… There was a direct, intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?
Second, by seizing control of words. The elite of Oceania are working on a new language, Newspeak, whose purpose is to make individual communication all but impossible. By reducing language to just a few words, it means to eradicate “vagueness” and “useless shades of meaning”. “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words,” one of its inventors tells the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith.
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it… In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.
Individuality is erased: life is uniform, a matter of going through the motions. Anyone who breaks routine, however slightly, is punished. “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and… every move scrutinised.” “Nothing was your own,” says the narrator, “except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”
It should be obvious how much The Handmaid’s Tale owes to 1984; Gilead’s mechanisms of repression are much the same as Oceania’s. It has a kind of total surveillance, though its instruments are more implied than seen: “I don’t see the floodlights,” Offred says, “I just know they’re there.” Similarly, there is a secret police force – the Eyes – whose presence is implied, by means of black cars with darkened windows. It’s an “exhaustive surveillance”, in the words of Foucault, “which makes all things visible by becoming itself invisible”.
Close personal relationships are forbidden; as Lee Briscoe Thompson has it, only one relationship is sanctioned in Gilead, “that between an individual and the collectivity of the State”. Gilead has made “unnecessary communication or exchange of information” punishable, “using isolation and uncertainty to effect docility”. It has used its strict colour-coded uniforms to dissolve individual identi-ties; it’s impossible to have friends in Gilead because there’s no way of seeing anyone as an individual. The regime has, in Gina Wisker’s words, “reduced people to their functions: control, reproduction, service, and those who regulate those functions”. Language is controlled by the state. When the Handmaids greet each other, for example, they follow a Biblical script. “Blessed be the fruit,” is how Ofglen greets Offred, “the accepted greeting among us”: “‘May the Lord open,’ I answer, the accepted response” (29).
Daily life has been ritualised, “to grind out of peoples’ lives,” as Thompson puts it, “the nonconformities and the opportunities for even small choices (and therefore freedom of action or thought, and the retention of individual identity).”
The sexual impulse has of course been repressed, and sex controlled almost entirely by the state. You might even detect Gilead in embryo in 1984 when the party’s representative, O”Brien, explains its plans for the future: “Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm…”
And, as in 1984, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the state wants its citizens to internalise its ideology. “The Republic of Gilead,” says Aunt Lydia, “knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (33). “I have failed once again,” says Offred, when her period starts, “to fulfil the expectations of others, which have become my own.”
Another striking similarity is that, like Swift, both Atwood and Orwell have carved dystopian societies not out of problems they see in the real world so much as out of proposed solutions to those problems. Orwell was a socialist and Oceania is a socialist state, whose initial purpose was to overcome what Orwell thought were the problems of capitalism. Likewise, Gilead is an attempt to solve what, for Atwood, are very real problems.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, “the time before” is not a happy time for women. Misogynistic violence was rife, date rape and violent pornography the norm. Women were scared to go out alone. Offred describes the “rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: rules like, ‘don’t open your door to a stranger”, or ‘don’t stop at the side of the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble.” (34) There were terrible sexual pressures on women: “the meat market,” the Commander calls it, recalling how women “starved themselves” or “pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery” (231).
We’ve seen how both feminists and the architects of Gilead responded similarly to the proliferation of pornography – well, you can see why. When Offred goes to the magazine burning, a woman hands her a magazine, open on a page with “a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands” (47). As part of the re-education, the Aunts show the Handmaids similar material: “women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upsidedown, naked…” (128)
Gilead’s injustices are justified as solutions to these very real problems. “We’ve given [women] more than we’ve taken away,” the Commander says (231). “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia says, insightfully. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
What both Orwell and Atwood might have a problem with is actually utopianism. As Atwood understands them, utopias and dystopias have much in common. For a start, they are both planned societies, highly organised and rigorously struc-tured. Thus they necessarily involve punishment for anyone who chooses not to go along with the plans. “Everyone has to be made to fit the pattern in one way or the other,” said Atwood in her lecture on the novel. “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist dystopia?... Both utopians and dystopians have the habit of cutting off the hands and feet and even heads of those who don’t fit the scheme.” “Better,” the Commander tells Offred, “never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some” (222). Indeed, Atwood said, “whether it is a utopia or dystopia depends on the point of view of the narrator.” “[A]ll dystopia,” she went on, “begins in utopia… Most dystopias are attempts at planned societies that somehow go off the tracks. The longing for perfection has an unpleasant habit of producing tyranny.”
And Gilead certainly views itself as a utopia, envisaging, in Gina Wisker’s words, a “future state in which women are not expected to carry out a debilitating variety of roles”.
For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them… Women united for a common end! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. (171)
She has a point.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a reductio ad absurdum, then, portraying a culture in which some of the obvious solutions to violence against women have been overlooked in favour of a grand solution which, though patently absurd, doesn’t involve the inconvenience of shattering the patriarchal structures of the world it comes from. Like “A Modest Proposal”, it’s a satire about people who would rather suggest extreme cruelty (let the Irish eat their children) than go to the trouble of shifting their world view.
So what is the solution? Atwood doesn’t offer one – she is a diagnostician, not a healer – but she suggested in her lecture on the novel that rather than aiming for perfection, or utopianism, we should make the best of what we have. She ended with a quote from the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Poems of Our Climate”: “The imperfect is our paradise.”
The final epigraph, a Sufi proverb, is more mysterious than the others: “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.” The only explanation Atwood has offered is this comment she gave when asked what it meant, during her post-lecture Q&A session: “We aren’t forbidden to do things unless we have a tendency as human beings to do them.”
I think she is saying something about power. Power is Atwood’s great theme: the workings of power, the consequences of power, the desire of power, the fear of it. Power, for Atwood, is everywhere.
As she wrote in “Notes on Power Politics” (Power Politics being an early collection of poetry): “Power is our environment. We live surrounded by it: it pervades everything we are and do, invisible and soundless, like air…” For Atwood, as the critic Pilar Somecarrera has put it, “our identity is always determined by a net of relations of power”.
What is power? Throughout her career, Atwood has defined politics (the study and practice of power) as “everything that involves who gets to do what to whom”. “A lot of power,” she says, “is ascription. People have power because we think they have power, and that’s all politics is.”
Somecarrera has shown how Atwood’s conception of power resembles that of the 20th century cultural critic Michel Foucault, who preferred to think of power as a verb than a noun. As he puts it in Power/Knowledge,
Power in the substantive sense, “le pouvoir”, doesn’t exist. The idea that there is either located at – or emanating from – a given point something which is a “power” seems to be based on a misguided analysis… In reality power means relations, a more-or-less organised, hierarchical, co-ordinated cluster of relations.
Power, in other words, is in our interactions with other people; it’s what you expect of people, it’s what people expect of you.
As power is “diffused throughout social relations”, says Somacarerra, it is not real in Atwood’s world, “not really there: people give it to each other”. This is why there is no great villain in The Handmaid’s Tale: there doesn’t need to be. Men and women are “political prisoners… trapped as victor/victims in their own reflections of the world and of each other”.
The Handmaid’s Tale powerfully demonstrates how power emanates from and infuses our relationships. Almost every social interaction is a power game that replicates the power games of wider society. Look, for example, at Offred’s arrival at the Commander’s house, when Serena greets her:
She didn’t step aside to let me in, she just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. She wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push and shove, these days, over such toeholds. (23)
Or there’s the moment when she passes a pubescent Guardian at a roadblock who looks sex-starved. She seductively wiggles her hips at him: “It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone… I enjoy the power: power of a dog bone, passive but there….” (32). Everything you do, for Atwood, expresses your positioning within power structures.
But there is a way out. And this is where the Sufi proverb comes in. Power, I think Atwood is using it to say, is an attempt to repress human instinct, to remove humanity from the political subject, to dehumanise. There is no sign in the desert saying don’t eat stones because humans don’t want to, so there doesn’t need to be; power only needs to be exercised over those things that make us human beings. Power wants to erase the unfortunate reality of being human, what the writer Philip Roth would call “the human stain”.
In order for power relations to function, individuals must, at least momentarily, dehumanise one another. Offred remembers the painful realisation that she and Luke would have to kill their cat when they fled for the Canadian border:
I’ll take care of it, Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. (202)
This revelation resonates at the end of the novel when the Handmaids are forced to participate in the group execution of a political dissident. The state makes the murder possible by labelling him (falsely, it’s implied) a “rapist”. The word dehumanises him and thus the women are able to tear him to pieces; as Offred says, “He has become an it” (292).
But in the strange affair between Offred and the Commander, we begin to see how power structures break down when people enter into human relationships with one another – that is, when an it becomes a she. Through their barely sexual, certainly unromantic relationship, the Commander becomes “more than a shadow” for Offred. “And I for him. To him I’m no longer merely a usable body... To him, I am not merely empty” (172).
At the end of the novel, when Offred is rescued by Mayday, the Commander believes that she is being taken away by the secret police, to her almost certain death. And he looks on – he, the architect of this totalitarian atrocity – aghast at what’s happening to her: “He looks worried and helpless” (306). When, earlier in the novel, he tries to explain the utopian dimension of Gilead to her, he finishes by asking, “What did we overlook?” “Love,” she says, simply (231). This is not exactly love catching up with him, but something approaching it. She’s no longer a caged animal, part of the furniture: she’s become a human being.
The first thing you notice when you actually read the novel is that it is written in the first person. And when a novel is written in the first person, one question you need to ask is: who is the narrator talking to? One answer might be that she’s talking to herself. For Atwood, identity is a kind of compulsive, revisionary storytelling; “every human being,”
is always telling or retelling the story of his or her life. In that case the storyteller is you and the listener is also you. There’s a lot of rewriting that goes on throughout your life.
But Offred herself rejects Atwood’s hypothesis: “You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else” (49).
And as we discover in the Historical Notes, the text we read is not an interior monologue – it doesn’t come from inside Offred’s mind at the time of action – nor is it a diary, nor anything written down: it is a transcription of 30 cassette tapes discovered by an academic, Professor Pieixoto, who has arranged them into what he imagines to be chronological order. Offred spoke the whole story aloud, then, and recorded it. So there must have been some intended listener, beyond herself. But who? I hope an answer will emerge through an analysis of how she tells her story, and then – crucially – why.
Offred takes care, throughout her narrative, to alert the reader (or listener) to its constructedness. “This is a reconstruction,” she says. “All of it is a reconstruction” (144). As such, she acknowledges, it can only fail to represent the complex reality of her lived experience:
It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances, too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many.
Offred’s narrative consistently fails to tell it like it is. But she goes further than that, often deliberately telling it like it isn’t. When the Commander first asks her to kiss him, for example, she imagines embracing him then stabbing him: “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” It’s a vivid, dramatic moment, punctured entirely by the following sentence: “In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards” (150). Or, later: “If there were a fire in the fireplace, its light would be twinkling on the polished surfaces, glimmering warmly on flesh. I add the firelight in” (193). The conditional becomes the actual.
Offred is letting us know that her story is at least partially invented, and that this is thus only one possible version of it. To intensify that, she sometimes presents more than one possible version, as when she thinks about what might have happened to Luke after their failed escape. She says, “I believe Luke is lying face down in a thicket,” having been shot and killed; “I also believe,” she says, “that Luke is sitting up… on the edge of something, a bed or chair”, in prison. “I also believe,” on the following page, “that they didn’t catch him… that he made it, reached the bank”, escaped (115). “The things I believe can’t all be true,” she acknowledges. “But I believe in all of them” (116).
When she pictures Luke in his prison, Offred draws our attention to the process of rewriting. “He hasn’t shaved for a year,” she says, “though they cut his hair short… for lice they say.” Then: “I’ll have to revise that: if they cut the hair for lice, they’d cut the beard too” (114). By saying, “I’ll have to revise that”, rather than simply revising it, she is implying that the text is meant to change beyond its present state. The version we read is provisional, unfinished: not the first draft, nor the final form the text will rest in. In fact, it’s not only Offred who hasn’t finished. Pieixoto’s ordering of the text is, he explains, “based on some guesswork and [is] to be regarded as approximate, pending further research” (314).
Why has Atwood presented it like this? Partly it’s because she wants us to feel, as she does, a distrust of closed narrative forms. Gilead uses closed narrative forms for political control. It lays a simple, positive narrative over the infinite complexity of its grim reality and trusts that that version will be regarded as truth.
Think, for example, of the public execution at the end: three women are hanged and one man ripped to pieces by the Handmaids. And what’s the event called? It’s not an execution, it’s not a punishment: it’s a “salvaging”. The story told by that word – that the dead people have been saved from sin, rescued – overwrites what might be considered the ‘real” story: that they are murdered, like Mary Webster nearly was, because they don’t fit into the system.
This is why the Handmaids are forbidden to read or write: reading and writing means control of language, and control of language means control of narrative. And the state wants a monopoly on narrative. When, during the procreation ceremony, the Commander takes the Bible out of its locked box, Offred laments that he “has something we don’t have, he has the word” (99). And this is why, when he invites her to play Scrabble with him, she feels strangely empowered: “The feeling is voluptuous,” she says. “This is freedom” (149).
It’s also why Offred has such a mania for appreciating the surprising resonances and multiple meanings of words; a mania manifest mainly in the preponderance, in her postulating, of polysemy and paranamasia. Or, in English, her puns. They’re everywhere, puns. Some of them are bawdy – as when she describes the young Guardians she has deliberately aroused as “two men, who stand at attention, stiffly” (32). Sometimes they’re telling puns, as when she says, of the Handmaids’ dresses, “some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break” (34).
This mania always manifests itself at the most intense moments in her story: “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair,” she says on the morning of the Birthing. “It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh” (120). Or, when she is describing the coup that led to the founding of Gilead, and remembers being fired from her job:
Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet… The Book of Job. (182)
If Offred can hold on to the fact that words have multiple meanings and surprising resonances, and that they’re not always connected to one another – “None of these facts has any connection with the others,” she says about the variations of “chair” (120) – then not only can she, in the words of Marta Dvorak, “critique the institutional linguistic practices serving to promote ideology”, but she can actually resist some of that control. If she can see the many possible stories that exist inside single words, single worlds, then she doesn’t have to accept the state’s version of reality, of her. She can be multiple. “These are the litanies I use to compose myself,” she says (120).
Most critics argue that Offred tells her story in order to survive. Atwood has always been interested in survivors – those victims like Mary Webster who pull through against the odds. One of her first books, a work of literary criticism called Survival (1972), explores the subject. In it, she outlines four different ways of dealing with one’s victimhood:
Position One: To deny the fact that you are a victim… Position Two: To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim, but to explain this as an act of Fate, the Will of God, the dictates of Biology (in the case of women, for instance), the necessity decreed by History, or Economics, or the Unconscious, or any other large general powerful idea… Position Three: To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that the role is inevitable… Position Four: To be a creative non-victim.
It’s this last position that interests her. The “creative non-victim” uses her victimhood as a source of inspiration and, in doing so, transcends it. Storytelling – writing – becomes an act of survival.
The problem with this reading is that Offred is telling her story after the event, from implied safety. She has already survived before she starts speaking. So, again: why tell her story?
One answer might lie in the care she takes to reimagine the world she’s escaped from. She weaves together sensuous details she can’t possibly remember to create an immediacy, a living-through, of experience. She tells us, for example, that “through the almost-closed door I could hear the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal bowl” (20). Does she really remember this detail? Probably not; it’s probably like the crackling fire she adds in to the text, included to create atmosphere. But, in its vividness, it makes readers feel more pres-ent in her world than they otherwise would, and thus care more.
Often she goes into a great deal of detail when describing things she can’t possibly know. When she pictures Luke in his imaginary prison cell, for example, she says:
the hair is ragged, the back of his neck is nicked, that’s hardly the worst, he looks ten years older, twenty, he’s bent like an old man, his eyes are pouched, small purple veins have burst in his cheeks, there’s a scar, no a wound, it isn’t yet healed, the colour of tulips near the stem end, down the left side of his face where the flesh split recently. (114)
She’s taking care to make this imagined scene as realistic as possible (see that revision: “there’s a scar, no a wound”), but it’s pure invention.
Or, there’s the bit when she imagines a meeting between Aunt Lydia and Janine at the Rachel and Leah centre, a meeting she wasn’t present at and only heard about third-hand. It begins in the conditional tense: “Blessed be the fruit, Janine, Aunt Lydia would have said” (139). But the level of detail she goes into moves far beyond the probable, the possible, and ends up in the realm of pure invention, even of the poetic. Janine’s voice, for example, is “transparent” and a “voice of raw egg white” (139). The conditional tense disappears (“Janine looked down at the floor”) and Offred’s imagination takes over: “Aunt Lydia allowed herself one of her pauses. She fiddled with her pen” (140).
There’s something odd about that phrase, “allowed herself one of her pauses”. Why not just say, “Aunt Lydia paused”? It’s because Offred wants to suggest what might be going on in Aunt Lydia’s mind. She doesn’t just pause, the phrase implies, but she deliberately pauses (“allows herself”) in order to create a certain dramatic effect, one she has used before (“one of her pauses”). This is an example of free indirect discourse, a novelistic device in which a third person narrator (here, Offred) lets the voice and vocabulary, the language, of a character (here, Aunt Lydia) bloom into the narration in order to give an impression of interiority. Other examples in this passage: “It was true that the toilets sometimes overflowed. Unknown persons stuffed wads of toilet paper down them to make them do this very thing”; “several pieces of disintegrating fecal matter” (140). Unknown persons; fecal matter: this is not Offred’s language. It’s the prim and euphemistic language of officialdom and propriety. It’s Aunt Lydia’s.
Offred is using the tricks of the novel trade (a build-up of sensuous and evocative detail to create immediacy; free indirect discourse to create interiority) to tell her story. She is, essentially, a novelist. And so, in order to understand why she might be telling the story, we need to think about why Margaret Atwood tells her stories: what, for Atwood, is the function of the novel?
“I believe that fiction writing,” she wrote in her essay, “An End to Audience” (1980), “is the guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community… Fiction is one of the few forms left through which we may examine our society… through which we can see ourselves.” She goes on:
The writer is both an eye-witness and an I-witness, the one to whom personal experience happens, and the one who makes experience personal for others. The writer bears witness. Bearing witness is not the same as self-expression.
The writer, for Atwood, uses her personal experience to bear witness to suffering, and to communicate that suffering to others. So Offred is not just telling her story to survive: she is bearing witness, to herself and to others, in the hope that her reader will gain a degree of self-perception to effect self-correction, both individual and communal.
But this story takes place in a fictional universe, and all the suffering it describes is fictional; she is bearing witness to nothing. How does that square with the idea of fiction as “the guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community”? Why be a guardian to a non-existent community?
Well, Gilead is not so non-existent. The past – our past – continuously peeps through the gauzy veneer of its present. It does so from the very first sentence: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium” (13). Obsolete codes and marks from the time before abound, like the symbols on the gymnasium floor, the “stripes and circles” of the old basketball court; “the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets are gone” (13). Even the “music” from dances that were once held there “lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style…” (13).
Palimpsest is the most important word in these early pages. A palimpsest is literally a sheet of paper on which one or more new texts have been written on top of an older one, which is visible under the surface (this is from the time when paper was scarce and it was often necessary to reuse the same sheet). History is a palimpsest for Atwood – reality is a palimpsest. The present is the newest text, but older versions are always visible beneath if you look hard enough.
When Gilead hangs its criminals, it strings up their bodies on the city wall and covers their faces in white hoods, to try to erase their individuality. “The heads are zeros,” Offred says, blank pages on which new texts can be written. But, for Atwood, there’s no such thing as a blank page: “if you look and look” at the hoods, “you can see the outlines of the features under the white cloth” (42).
There are marks and traces of a vanished past everywhere, from the “little mark, like a dimple, in each of [Rita’s] ears, where the punctures for earrings have grown over” (58) to the initials carved into the top of Offred’s desk at the Rachel and Leah centre (once Harvard University, where Atwood studied):
M. loves G., 1972. This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations. It’s like a handprint on stone. Whoever made that was once alive. (123)
Whoever made it not only was alive, but is alive: “M.” stands for “Margaret” and “G.” for “Graeme”, Atwood’s partner Graeme Gibson. This is the old text that peeps through Gilead’s present: the real world that Margaret and Graeme and you and I inhabit.
And, in many ways, Gilead is just another rearrangement of the text of our reality. As Winston Smith thinks in 1984, with piercing insight into the function of dystopian fiction: “The best books… are those that tell you what you know.” It’s a fictional world, yes, but all of its elements are factual. As Atwood has said, “I did not use any details in this book that have not already occurred somewhere in history”. Every grotesque element of her dystopia comes either from our past or our present.
Part of the inspiration for the novel came from trips Atwood took in the 1970s and 1980s to Iran and Afghanistan; in her article for the New York Times in 2001, she recalls how putting on the chador during her visit there in 1978 influenced the outfits worn by women in The Handmaid’s Tale. Some of the academic papers that Professor Crescent Moon mentions during the conference at the end of the novel suggest other analogues: “The Warsaw Tactic: Policies of Urban Core Encirclement in the Gileadean Civil Wars” suggests that Gilead learnt much from Nazi Germany (312). “Romania,” Pieixoto then tells us, “had anticipated Gilead in the eighties by banning all forms of birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage increases to fertility” (317). Gilead’s “simultaneous polygamy”, he says, was “practised both in early Old Testament times and in the former State of Utah in the nineteenth century” (317).
The white hoods over the corpses come from Canadian history, as do the red uniforms from “the uniforms of German prisoners of war in Canadian P.O.W. camps of the Second World War era”. In the Philippines they really do call political executions “salvagings”. The resonances multiply. As Pieixoto says, “there was little that was truly original or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis” (317).
It’s our community, then, that The Handmaid’s Tale wants to be the moral guardian of. By transmuting it into fiction, Atwood wants us to reconsider the world we live in, to see it with new eyes, and re-evaluate the things that we have long since ceased to notice. She wants us to see, as Hawthorne’s narrator puts it in his great novel of early Puritan life, The Scarlet Letter (1850), “the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light”. She is warning against complacency, incuriousness.
And The Handmaid’s Tale powerfully dramatises the danger of complacency and incuriousness. In their memories of “the time before”, Offred and Luke ignore or laugh at details that, in retrospect, are troubling. When, lazily flicking through television channels, they come across Serena Joy’s programme and find it ridiculous: “We thought it was funny.” But Offred concedes, with a hint of hindsight: “really she was a little frightening. She was earnest” (56). Or, when their daughter is nearly kidnapped by a religious fundamentalist in a supermarket: “she’s just crazy, Luke said. I thought it was an isolated incident, at the time” (73). But nothing is an isolated incident.
We “lived as usual”, Offred says, in perhaps the most important passage in the book.
Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now. We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. (66)
The usual is just whatever’s happening in the present. “Ordinary,” said Aunt Lydia, “is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (43). Atwood wants us to feel that what we consider normal is, in the words of the novelist J.G. Ballard, “a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”. If we take our freedoms for granted, and ignore the oppression and fascism that always seeps in at the edges of society, we might find ourselves living in a new normal.
Early in the novel, Offred passes some Japanese tourists in the street. The tourists look like people from our world. The women wear make up, high heels. To them, the Handmaids look strange. But to Offred it is they who look strange. She describes
the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance… They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall… (38)
And so they start to look strange to us, too (“their spiked feet as if on stilts”; “the damp cavities of their mouths”). Suddenly, we think: why do we make women smear paint over their lips; why do we make them walk on stilts? We see the gilt cage.
When the journalist Nancy Gage asked Atwood if The Handmaids Tale is meant as a warning, she answered:
Let me put it this way: If you see somebody walking toward a large hole in the ground and you want them to fall into it, you don’t say anything. I don’t know whether you saw Time magazine a few weeks ago. It had on the cover “Politics, Religion and Money”. And it was about the potential presidential nomination bid that the evangelical right is making in 1988. If I were an inhabitant of this country, I would be worried about the low voting rate. That means that 25, 26, 27 percent is controlling the rest.”
The Reader and Offred
What do we make of Offred as the reader? Critics have been divided. As Lee Briscoe Thompson has written, “reviewers have reacted variously to Offred, but almost always with considerable energy”, either praising her courage or denouncing “her wimpishness”, celebrating her understatement or deploring “her monotone”. There has been a “palpable feminist desire to set Offred up as a political symbol: of woman victimized, of woman resistive, of woman triumphant”. But she can also be regarded as self-interested. Her “capitulations” to Gilead are “many”:
abuses of Janine, identification with Fred’s household, rapidly decreasing taste for freedom, defense of Fred and intermittent fondness for him, complicity in Salvagings, dependence on Moira to be the rebel spirit for them both, failure to help Mayday, and the final agonized realisation that to stay alive and out of physical pain she would betray “anyone…”
Plenty of critics, writes Thompson, have “berated her for her passivity and her infuriating inclination to forgive her oppressors”.
Some critics believe that Offred, and women like her, are, in their subservience, in some ways responsible for Gilead. Patricia Kamal writes in “A Woman’s Dystopia”:
By choosing as the central character a woman who, with or without autonomy, does not identify with victims and cares only about a man’s love, Atwood warns how a Dystopia for women could succeed.
Others just find her too boring to care about. Alan Cheuse, for example, thinks Atwood “gave us far too little action and far too much of the longeurs suffered by the interned Offred”.
But no one ever said she was supposed to be heroic. “I think she is an ordinary sort of person,” Atwood has said, “caught up in extraordinary circumstances. She proposes no solutions beyond escape… She’s somebody who wants just to live her life.”
There’s a line from Milton that recurs a couple of times in the novel, from his sonnet, “When I consider How My Light is Spent” (1673): “They also serve who only stand and wait.” One reading of this line is: those who stand around and do nothing and wait for things to improve are as responsible for tyranny as those carrying it out. It could be seen as a condemnation of Offred’s inaction. But is it true that she only stands and waits? We’ve seen that the very act of telling her story is an act of resistance. “I don’t have to tell it,” she says. “I don’t have to tell anything, to myself or to anyone else. I could just sit here, peacefully. I could withdraw. It’s possible to go so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out” (237).
And, unlike Winston Smith who, at the end of 1984, has allowed his own identity to be totally subsumed into that of the Party, she retains her identity from beginning to end; she hasn’t gone so far down and back that they could never get you out. She is, at all times, herself: “I am, I am. I am, still” (243). It’s because of that that she has a story to tell and thus that her story can act as inspiration to her readers.
Whatever you think of Offred, the one thing you can’t accuse her of when you close the book is dishonesty. She makes no attempt to tell a better story than the one we’re reading, to paint herself in a better light. “I wish this story were different,” she says just before its end.
I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
…I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
Nevertheless, it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, there you are.
So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. (279)
And, here, perhaps is the answer to question of who she’s talking to. “I believe you into being,” she says. She means you.
Cooke, Nathalie Margaret Atwood: A Biography (1998)
Dvorak, Martha Lire Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1999)
Howells, Coral Ann Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (2006)
Howells, Coral Ann Margaret Atwood (2006)
Ingersoll, Earl Margaret Atwood: Conversations (1990)
Thompson, Lee Briscoe Scarlet Letters: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1997)
Wisker, Gina Margaret Atwood An Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction (2011)
Wynne-Davies, Marion Margaret Atwood (2010)
Slettedahl Macpherson, Heidi Cambridge Introduction (2011)