Political climates have played major roles in several of Margaret Atwood’s novels, particularly in Life Before Man (1979) and Bodily Harm (1982). In these novels, the sense of social upheaval provides not merely a social context for her protagonists, but it also mirrors their emotional conflict. What does society, so restless and discontent, need to become harmonious? Are revolutions or separatist movements genuine solutions to social problems? Individuals seem to have a greater range of possibilities for happiness: money, clothes, jobs, travel, sex. As any reader of Atwood’s novels knows, these “remedies” are as shallow as those who promote them. Indeed, the twentieth century way of life, awash in banal hucksterism reducing people to products and solving complicated problems during thirty-minute television talk shows, seems perilously close to extinction. Just keeping afloat in a swill of pollution, exploitation, waste, racism, and sexism is problematical. Proposed “solutions” to these problems abound, a return to fundamentalist religion being one. The Handmaid’s Tale gives its readers just such a political climate, and the results are both fascinating and chilling.
Late twentieth century America, saturated with pollution, pornography, sexual license, and a virulent strain of venereal disease, has erupted. Emerging from the fray is the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy even more conservative than that of the Puritans, where women are denied independence, education, even their own names—at least in the case of the Handmaids, who assume the names of their Commanders prefixed by the possessive preposition “of” (Offred is “of” added to “Fred,” her Commander). In Gilead, women are reduced to mere functions—Wives, Daughters, Marthas (housemaids), Econowives, and Handmaids—and used as rewards for loyal service by men to the Republic. Dissident women are declared Unwomen and either shipped off to forced labor camps or publicly executed. Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, is among the first group of Handmaids, fertile women assigned to high-ranking childless government officials and their wives to bear them a child. Haunted by memories of her former freedom, tortured because she does not know what has happened to her husband and daughter, and scornful of her moral cowardice, Offred struggles with her version of the truth.
The action of this novel is rather restricted, for Offred’s movements are limited to grocery shopping and attending Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and the rare Birthing. Her time is running out. At thirty-three, Offred has one more chance either to produce a child for her Commander or be killed. Thus, when Fred invites her to play an illicit game of Scrabble (books are forbidden in Gilead, and women are not allowed to read), Offred recognizes more than simply a change in her dull routine; she sees the beginning of an opportunity. Soon she finds herself caught among the desires of her Commander; those of his wife, Serena Joy, who wants a child; and her own need for human affection. She agrees to Serena Joy’s arranged meeting with Nick, a fellow servant who is Offred’s surest chance of becoming pregnant. Nick, however, arranges for an unexpected rescue.
Offred uses flat, almost emotionless prose to define and describe her existence. Weaving between past and an apparent present (which is later learned to be another past), Offred gives a picture of a terrifyingly real possibility. Her restrained prose seems at first to be extremely accurate and detached, as if she acts merely as an observer, one who declines to participate in her life at all. The fact is that Offred remains numb from all that has happened to her. Besides, she has learned not to trust anyone, least of all herself, a self she believes to be shallow and weak. Still, she is a grim survivor, planning to keep herself alive whatever the cost. As she goes forward with her narrative, however, Offred indicates gradual changes in her attitude, the need to take risks. Able to judge and in possession of an acerbic wit, Offred seizes opportunities when she can.
Not that she has many. Gilead is an almost perfect patriarchy, in which a few elderly men design rules for everyone else to follow. Ostensibly using the Bible as a guide and justification, the Commanders have structured a “safe” and orderly society, a society where they enjoy privileges denied to everyone else, where status is achieved by ideological rightness, where movements are constantly checked, and where anyone might be a spy. There is no longer any abortion or pollution, practically no rape, no apparent social discord, no lawyers, and no freedom of expression, movement, or religion.
This novel is not merely about a repressive patriarchy; it also explores the conflicts within women, their uncertainty between traditional values and liberation, their attitudes about behavior, their distrust of one another, and, most of all, their distrust of themselves. Offred is a prime example. Accepting the circumstances of her time, she thinks her mother’s militant feminism archaic and her friend Moira’s boldness merely entertaining. Because Offred thinks that her rights do not need defending, she thinks others’ struggles are insignificant. Deprived of the very rights her mother and Moira defended, Offred recognizes their true value.
Offred’s relation with the Aunts explores yet another relationship among women, for the Aunts in Gilead are one of the patriarchy’s primary means of controlling women. As enforcers, they are granted some prominence and authority (but not guns) to become apostles of a woman’s true purpose: bearing children. Needless to say, the Aunts ignore the contradiction between their relative freedom and the bondage they enforce when they preach submission and piety, assuring women that the protection they have is worth the cost of freedom.
Certainly, women are protected, not only by Angels and Guardians but also by apparel. Costumes identify role, with Wives in blue, Aunts in brown, Daughters in virginal white, Marthas in green, and Handmaids in red (still scarlet even in a new society that claims to revere their function). Color identifies rank and role; even as it separates women, it paradoxically makes them uniform. Offred frequently comments on her shapeless garment, comparing her protective red sack to the freedom of jeans and sundresses. She often alludes to her “wings,” a wimple depriving her of peripheral vision, thus preventing her from seeing what goes on around her. The wimple further obscures her physical identity.
Identity is something to which Offred gave little thought in the past. She has been a stranger to herself and society, accepting the usual as if it has always existed. Deprivation, however, creates new hungers in her: curiosity about what goes on in the world, a subversive need for power, a longing for feeling, a willingness to dare. In many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about loss and what it creates. Gilead, in fact, has been created partially in response to loss. Offred’s Commander explains that for men “there was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. . . . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel.” Offred finds little comfort in his assurance that feeling has returned.
Feeling, as Offred knows, can be mercurial, often unstable. Perhaps this is why her characterization of other figures in the novel seems distant. While Offred observes gestures, facial responses, and voice tone, she can only guess at intent. Messages seem to be implicit in simple language, and she attempts to decode all kinds of linguistic communication, beginning with the Latin inscription that she discovers scratched in her wardrobe: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” When she is given a translation of this message, however, which becomes her motto, she discovers that it is corrupt. Language is subject to all sorts of twists. Even though Offred is desperate for communication, she intentionally obscures her own messages. All this struggle to understand reflects a familiar theme in Atwood’s work, the inability to understand truly another person, another situation. Atwood further supports this through the very nature of Offred’s narrative.
An extremely self-conscious narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale constantly calls attention to itself. One plausible reason, readers later learn, is that Offred has recorded her experiences. Atwood, though, wants to emphasize the shifting face of reality by having Offred acknowledge the impossibility of telling the truth, by contradicting what she has said, by mixing hope with experience, by distrusting herself, by stating repeatedly, “This is a reconstruction.” She goes on to confirm, “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.” While Offred’s struggle to be honest makes her a reliable narrator, she constantly reminds readers of her limits.
Another interesting facet of this narrative is its place in time. Offred tells her story in the present, except when she refers to her life before becoming a Handmaid. Whatever experience she endures—from the Ceremony to a Salvaging—she gives her audience an intense sense of the present. Ironically, readers learn that not only is she telling her story after the events but also that her narrative has been reconstructed and presented to an audience at a still greater temporal remove. This latter audience, participants at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies held in 2195, is concerned with authenticating Offred’s story, in finding a truth that her message resists. Thorough research, however, fails to provide firm answers, and the entire narrative remains equivocal.
All of this is, needless to say, intentional. Atwood’s fiction is rich precisely because of its ambiguity. The author does provide direction in prefatory quotations. The first, a passage from the Book of Genesis, recounts Rachel’s reasons for giving her maid Bilhah to bear Jacob’s child. More revealing, perhaps, is Atwood’s quotation from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Like Swift’s satire, Atwood’s skates on the surface of reality, often snagging on familiar actions (such as bombing family-planning clinics), and only slightly exaggerating some attitudes, particularly those commonly held about women. Old issues concerning a woman’s place, the value of her work, her real role in society are the heart of this novel. Atwood’s sustained irony skewers not only attitudes but also the costumes they often assume. Her description of a dilapidated Playboy bunny costume, for example, is hilarious. This may lead to the novel’s only weakness, if it is in fact a weakness.
Atwood has satirized popular culture so often in the past that readers familiar with her work will have no trouble recognizing her ironic references. Some novice readers of Atwood, however, will doubtless miss the author’s understated digs at passing social trends. Still, this novel is so rich that even a morsel yields a pungent taste.
The Handmaid’s Tale, in the guise of speculative fiction, is a deadly serious novel. Again, Atwood challenges her readers to look carefully at the world around them, to weigh the messages that besiege them, to interpret carefully the implications of action, and not to yield individuality. Offred certainly discovers that while submission may create the temporary illusion of safety, no one is safe. Ultimately human beings must risk life or lose what is most valuable to their experience.