Dystopias in Contemporary Literature

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Karen F. Stein (essay date winter 1991-1992)

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SOURCE: Stein, Karen F. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Scheherazade in Dystopia.” University of Toronto Quarterly 61, no. 2 (winter 1991-1992): 269-79.

[In the following essay, Stein suggests that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale can be interpreted as a cautionary but hopeful dystopian vision of women's struggle to reclaim language from the patriarchy.]

Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by a Scheherazade of the future, telling her story to save her life. But whereas the Sultan of the Arabian Nights asks for Scheherazade's stories, Atwood's handmaid is locked into silence; to tell her tale is to risk her life. Her narrative itself is a criminal act, performed in secret and lost for many years. By narrating the story of the repressive republic of Gilead, the handmaid inscribes both her victimization and her resistance. Built on a woman's desire to tell her story, the novel is a provocative inquiry into the origins and meanings of narrative. Among the issues it explores are, first, the narrator's relation to her tale: the simultaneous fear and desire to narrate one's story, and the attempt to create a self through language; second, the nature of narrative itself: the ambiguity of language, and the multiplicity of interpretation.

In the novel Atwood brilliantly juxtaposes the feminist project—the desire to ‘steal the language’ of/from patriarchy—and the postmodern critique of language. The novel emphasizes the constraint and limitation Gilead imposes, and the narrator's growing resistance. The novel begins by describing two enclosed and silent living spaces, the ‘reeducation center’ and the handmaid's small room. The narrator, Offred, speaks of herself as ‘in reduced circumstances’ (10). (In a text where puns carry a weight of meaning, the similarity of re-education and reduction in Gilead is noteworthy.) Just when the narrator's tale seems to promise larger possibilities, it is silenced. Thus the dilemma of Scheherazade is revised, revisioned.

Feminists are particularly interested in stories, because, as a marginal group in society, women have often been the objects rather than the creators of narrative: their stories have often been untold. People on the margins of societies often find they are denied access to the discourses that confer power and status. A substantial body of work focuses on the theoretical and practical implications of women's problematic relations to these discourses. Adrienne Rich writes of women's need to explore ‘how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative’ (35). Elaine Showalter describes women's writing as a ‘double-voiced discourse’ that draws from both the ‘dominant’ men's and the ‘muted’ women's ‘social, literary, and cultural heritages’ (263). According to Linda Hutcheon, both Blacks and feminists have ‘linked racial and/or gender difference to questions of discourse and of authority and power that are at the heart of the post-modernist enterprise in general and, in particular, of both black theory and feminism’ (21).

To speak, to write, is to assert one's personhood, inscribe one's subjectivity. According to Emile Benveniste, ‘the basis of subjectivity is the exercise of language’ (226). Hence, to lose language is to lose subjectivity. Not surprisingly, feminist dystopias often deal with women's loss of language. The Handmaid's Tale participates in the current theoretical debate about women's vexed relation to discourse. The narrative is both shaped and threatened by political repression, interpretation, and the fundamental instability of language itself.

Atwood's novel begins—with the handmaid's narrative—exploring silence and speech, oppression and resistance. The novel ends—with a male scholar's narrative—questioning the limits of narrative and interpretation. The subtexts of both narratives are the respective narrators' (handmaid's and scholar's) meditations...

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on storytelling and meaning. Both face the storyteller's paradox: they are eager to communicate, but anxious about the limits of communication; they find language simultaneously empowering and constraining. This article is a critic's tale that rereads and reinterprets the novel.


Atwood's novel inscribes a contemporary nightmare, the erasure of speech. Government restriction of speech and storytelling is an important theme in twentieth-century dystopian fiction, as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit Four Fifty-One. Gilead, the patriarchal, fundamentalist society in Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, has silenced women and rendered them invisible. The narrator, whose birth name we never learn, creates her subjectivity through her narrative. Although she is marginalized by her society, her use of narrative opens a space for her within the cramped quarters of Gilead.

Reading the handmaid's tale, we are drawn into complicity with her in the illegal act of narrative: our reading validates her narrative and her subjectivity. Yet, at the same time, all readings also distort and change her narrative, as we shall see. The story moves by flashback, meditation, and present-tense narration as the narrator pieces together what she remembers of her past life and knows of her present situation. Through her storytelling, she grows more politically aware and self-conscious. She resists the reduction of Gilead (her ‘reduced circumstances’) by small acts of self-assertion, by fantasies of becoming strikingly visible (she imagines stripping in front of the guards at the barriers) and by the act of narrating her tale and thereby constructing a self. Offred's storytelling violates the rules of Gilead, for handmaids are supposed to be not only speechless but invisible as well. Yet, dressed in their red robes and white wimples, they are highly visible. Colour-coded in this way, the handmaids become interchangeable, identified only by their biological function, child-bearing.

To complete their loss of individuality, the handmaids lose their names as well. Each is labelled as a possession of the Commander she serves. When a new handmaid replaces Offred's neighbour, Ofglen, she answers Offred's surprised query: ‘I am Ofglen’ (363). This casual acknowledgment of their infinite interchangeability seems to me the most chilling moment of the novel. Forbidden to acknowledge their names, their selves, they must submit to their use as objects, possessions.

As their names are erased, so is their discourse. They are denied access to writing, and restricted in their use of speech. Tokens replace money, and pictorial signs appear instead of written words on storefronts. Although the handmaids are most severely repressed, private discourse is constrained at all levels of Gileadean society, replaced by a shallow and hypocritical rhetoric. One of the controls on women's speech is the institution of the Aunts, a quasi-police institution which runs the ‘reeducation’ centres where divorced or remarried young women with viable ovaries are trained to become handmaids. The Aunts' speech consists of platitudes, admonitions, and iterations of codes of behaviour such as ‘modesty is invisibility,’ ‘pen is envy.’ The Aunts transmit the words of the patriarchal government, and they silence unwanted speech. They script the authorized speech of the handmaids, ‘testifying,’ a kind of brainwashing in which women are required to revise the narratives of their past lives: for example, blaming themselves for the rapes they suffered (92-3). In this discourse, both the Aunts and the young women must rewrite their stories to fit the political demands of Gilead.

When the handmaids are posted to their Commanders' homes, their discourse is officially limited to stock phrases and responses, as in the greeting rituals which stress passive receptivity.

‘May the Lord open.’

‘Praise be.’

‘We are given good weather.’

‘Which I receive with joy.’


To speak with each other about larger issues is forbidden. When Ofglen and Offred do speak briefly, Ofglen warns, ‘keep your head down … Don't talk when there's anyone coming’ (218).

Not only the handmaids have lost control over discourse; the women of the ruling class are also silenced. Serena Joy, the wife of Offred's Commander, was a public speaker advocating woman's place in the home. Now, Offred observes ironically, ‘she doesn't make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her’ (61).

The restrictions on women's speech are a part of the larger limitation of discourse throughout Gilead. Thinking of her Commander's life, Offred muses ‘it must be hell, to be a man, like that. … It must be very silent’ (114). The powerful elite are themselves constrained by the repression they impose on others. Political repression, fear, caution, contribute to the silence of Gilead. But emotional repression is the root of silence. When the Commander asks her what the creators of Gilead overlooked, Offred's answer is simple: ‘Love’ (284). In a puritanical, totalitarian state where love, passion, and desire are repressed, the context for private discourse is attenuated. Political rhetoric drives personal speech underground.

In a world where language is taboo for women, the narrator finds solace in her meditation, and her play with words. She ‘composes’ herself by meditating on language, punning, and playing with words such as ‘invalid,’ ‘Mayday,’ ‘habit,’ ‘lie/lay.’ She takes great pleasure in finding a message scratched into the floor of her cupboard. Although she does not know the meaning of the words (a schoolboy's Latin joke—nolite te bastardes carborundorum), they are a link to another woman who lived here before she did (69). When the Commander begins a clandestine relationship with the narrator, he lures her with a game of Scrabble. Because writing is forbidden, the game is eroticized (179-80) (whereas the obligatory sexual ritual retains no vestige of pleasure).

Through her appropriation of language, Offred constitutes herself as a subject, and makes herself visible to the reader. ‘My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech’ (86). Implicit in the storytelling impulse is the wish to communicate and thereby to connect with others, a problematic activity in Gilead. Offred commits the rebellious act of communication: ‘A story is like a letter. … I'll pretend you can hear me’ (53). In storytelling she creates a self and an other, a listener.

Offred does reach listeners in Gilead. As she questions the regime in secret phrases murmured to her counterparts, she becomes a rebel. Her rebellion apparently saves her life. Eager to gain the child Offred is supposed to produce, Serena Joy arranges a sexual encounter for her with the chauffeur, Nick. Although it is potentially dangerous for all of them, Offred continues to meet him. In the course of their affair, she possibly becomes pregnant, and she divulges her name. Revealing her name, she reveals herself to him, and becomes vulnerable. But Nick may be more than just a servant. As a possible Eye, a secret agent, he apparently has the power to rescue her.

Atwood's book creates for Offred a theft of language and possible flight from Gilead. The narrative critiques a patriarchy which denies women control of language and their bodies. If the novel ended here, we would see the triumph of the Scheherazade figure saving herself through her body/sexuality and her narrativity. But counterposed to Offred's narrative is another story which calls its utopian possibilities into question. Turning to this part of the novel, we will discover that the framing story explores the ambiguities of interpretation, and compels us to reconsider the handmaid's tale.


The book closes with a flash-forward to a post-Gileadean society. Atwood's frame for the handmaid's narrative is a panel on sociocultural interpretations of Gilead at an interdisciplinary conference (at the University of Denay, Nunavit). In this postscript, Atwood both satirizes academic pretensions and suggests a less utopian outcome for Offred's story. This device calls into question Offred's fate, and makes her story the text of a male interpretation.

Because women in Gilead were denied writing implements, Offred recorded her narrative on an audiotape which is found and transcribed by an archivist—Professor James Darcy Pieixoto—long after Gilead has been destroyed. His talk at the conference creates a new context and a new reading of Offred's tale. Michele Lacombe terms the novel a palimpsest in which Pieixoto reinscribes Offred's tale (Lacombe 5). The relationship of narration to interpretation is problematized here. In retelling Offred's tale, Professor Pieixoto both resurrects and reinterprets it, as do all readers—including the author of this article. Without the reader, the text is dead, but each new reading creates a new tale.

The scholar's project is to find out if the tapes are authentic: did Offred really exist? If so, who was she? His next question is: what happened to her after the tape ends? Most of Pieixoto's questions remain unanswered: thus the irony of his final words, ‘Are there any questions?’ He suggests alternative versions of her life after Gilead, just as Offred herself poses alternative versions of events in her life and the lives of friends. Thus, without closure, the ending of Offed's story continues to be deferred, untold.

The relationship between the handmaid's narrative and the scholar's tale raises the question of language and power in a new context. Here again, the words of a woman are subjected to interpretation by a male authority figure, an academician, a master of language. Her desires—for love, for the freedom to choose—are interpreted through the prism of his desires—for status, for knowledge, for achievement. He is long-winded and given to sexist puns. He is eager to promote his reputation and perhaps more concerned with the form of the narrative than its substance. In Gilead and in the hands of the scholar (just as in the American society of her previous life), she is reduced to her utility value (Hammer, 43). In Gilead she is a ‘walking womb,’ an incubator of children for high-ranking officials. For the scholar, she is a stepstone for professional advancement, and a possible source of information about his real interest, the male elite of Gilead. The contrasting styles of their discourses inscribe the status difference of male professor and female handmaid. Her narrative is tentative, fragmentary, sensuous, moving loosely by stream of consciousness, by revision. The scholar's narrative is logical, abstract, polished. Both, however, make frequent use of puns. Although privileged in his society, the scholar may be viewed as a voyeur, a parasite. He is to Offred as Sigmund Freud is to ‘Dora’ (the subject of his analysis of hysteria). Both men depend on the woman to provide material for interpretation; their reputations rest on their power to fix meaning and to explain the women (Bernheimer and Kahane). But just as Freud failed to resolve the problems Dora raised, so Pieixoto fails to discover who Offred was and what became of her. Further, both men use the women's texts for their own purposes, looking through the texts to satisfy their own desires.

And yet—Pieixoto reconstructs the story, which would have been lost without his intervention. Thus, the novel remains deliberately ambiguous: it first constructs, then reverses an optimistic conclusion to the tale.


Moreover, the novel questions the role of the storyteller and the limits of language itself. Offred has told her tale and inscribed her voice. But presence in discourse turns out to be problematic because language, the medium through which we experience our existence, is imperfect. In the late twentieth century, we have become acutely aware that language mediates all knowledge, all the manifestations of political, economic, and social power, and our subjective existence. Yet language is a system of conventional symbols; it can only point to, or suggest, meanings. Therefore, gaps always remain between intention and expression, the signified and the signifier.

When we reread Offred's tale in the light of the ‘Historical Notes,’ we realize that she must have written the entire tale some time after the events it narrates and not, as the present-tense narration implies, during the time the events were occurring. This fact immediately distances the narrator from her tale, and thus it renders her version suspect. Her use of present tense for recollection of the past suggests fiction, perhaps even trickery, deceit. Furthermore, her memory may not be exact: can we be sure that each event occurred exactly as she retells it? Because her tale is obviously a recreation after the fact, it is closer to fiction than to diary.

But Offred herself problematizes the narrative. Throughout her tale, she plays with and questions the limits of language and of storytelling. Even while telling her tale, she deconstructs it. This is accomplished within Offred's narrative by the use of word-play and metafictional interventions.

Her word-plays expose the multiple meanings of words and point to the impossibility of finding exact equivalents between language and experience. Words become counters in the games she plays with herself, survival games. (For examples of such word-plays, see her discussion of ‘work out’ [293-4]; of word derivations, see her discussion of ‘Mayday’ [58]).

The metafictional interventions are Offred's revisions of her story: her attempts to write, rewrite, and re-create experience. In these passages, she questions the possibility of representing experience. We have seen that for political reasons the handmaids are forced to revise the narratives of their previous lives. Under the political pressures of Gilead, they must disclaim their memories and rescript them to fit the demands of their society. But any narration is set into a particular context, hence shaped by both external as well as internal needs; a narrative is composed according to the narrator's awareness of both audience and self. Offred's revisions of her tale stem from semiotic pressures: as she retells her story, she questions the limits of narration, of memory, of language itself.

Some of her revisions are prompted by limited knowledge. Because she does not know her husband's fate, she imagines three versions (132-5). Similarly, she wishes she could complete the story of Moira according to her fantasy (325). However, the revisions of her first encounter with Nick point to the difficulties of remembering and reconstructing one's own experience: ‘All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate’ (340). In this passage, the narrator undercuts any claims to a special truth of experience. Her role becomes that of the novelist who must construct the events she describes. Thus, the boundaries between character and author, between truth and fiction, between past and present are blurred (Hutcheon, 16).

Yet, Offred's multiple versions of her story function in another way, as well. They subvert ‘the linear logic of the system which controls her … and … assign[s] her one function and one vocabulary’ (Letcher, 95). In her story she chooses more roles for herself (lover, author, speaking self) than Gilead offers her. In her word-plays and puns, she extends her vocabulary and enlarges the allowable definitions. In the revisions and reconstructions of her story, she suggests a larger realm of possibility. If there are many versions, the tale can never achieve closure. If we never learn the end of her story, all endings are possible (Letcher, 95).

Offred is both eager to tell her story and reluctant: ‘I don't want to be telling this story’ (291). Her narrative is a game, a story, an inscription of the self:

I would like to believe that this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it … If it's a story I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. … It isn't a story I'm telling. It's also a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along.


The story is one of marginality: ‘We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories’ (72). Storytelling is thus a paradoxical project. While it appears to provide some degree of control and agency for the teller, it remains suspect, even dangerous. To be fixed in words is to be vulnerable, visible, and, therefore, less free than those who live in the gaps. Paradoxically, however, if meaning is unstable the story is never completed; its meanings are always in flux, the author may lose control of the ending, or avoid ending entirely.

We have already seen that the book remains problematic on the level of plot: the narrator is both oppressed victim and resisting agent; we cannot be sure whether or not she successfully escapes from Gilead. More significantly, the novel presents Offred's narrative as a theoretical problematic as well. Is storytelling enough? Can women gain power through language alone? After all, years later, in the conclusion, it is a male scholar who excavates and interprets the handmaid's tale; his voice is the last word of the story. Offred's tale has become his possession:

We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees. … The past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come.


In the carefully crafted, allusive language of the scholar (far removed from the sensuous immediacy of Offred's narration), Pieixoto distances himself from the handmaid and recapitulates the difficulties of interpretation.


Margaret Atwood is of course a Scheherazade herself; she is the invisible teller of all the book's tales. She has juxtaposed the voices of Offred and Pieixoto. The Handmaid's Tale has been termed a palimpsest (Lacombe, 5), but I will suggest the more complex image of a series of multiply reflecting mirrors in which storytellers and interpreters continually inscribe and reinscribe the narrative.

To begin with, Offred herself tells two stories which reinscribe and comment on each other: the story of Gilead and the story of America. As many readers of the novel have pointed out, Gilead replicates American society's oppression of women. Both of Offred's tales illustrate censorship and sexual repression: Gilead builds on American foundations.

Women in both societies participate in their own repression. The Aunts, as we have seen, limit and rescript women's discourse. However, feminists from America also participated in censorship: Offred's mother joined other women to burn pornographic magazines (50-1). The novel thus establishes a continuum of repression: once people begin to burn books, the door is open for further censorship.

Offred's memories of pornography, sex shops, and frequent rapes provide a thematic link between her past and present. Despite the Aunts' doctrine of ‘freedom from’ (as opposed to America's ‘freedom to’), the women of Gilead are not free from rape or violence. Rather, rape has been institutionalized. Sexuality in Gilead is politicized; it has lost its emotional, communicative value and become a function of one's status. Yet, Offred implies that the separation of sexuality and love in Gilead is merely an exaggeration of conditions in the time before. Indeed, as Stephanie Hammer points out, Offred's position in Gilead as part of a sexual triangle replicates her previous position as Luke's mistress before he divorced his first wife (41). Further, as we have seen, Hammer suggests that Pieixoto's use of Offred's tale repeats the use men in both America and Gilead make of women to further their own purposes.

Just as the plots of Offred's two stories mirror each other, her narrative technique is built on doubling, through its puns and through the strategy of revising and postulating multiple versions. Tina Letcher discusses doubling of characters in Offred's tale as a means of deconstructing and reconstructing Offred's subjectivity.

Similarly, punning is a way of insinuating connections between apparently different words. The origin of the word ‘pun’ in the Latin root ‘pug,’ meaning ‘to strike with the fist’ (as in pugilist), supports the idea of contestation, struggle, inherent in the term. Puns are distorting mirrors of language, used here to suggest the slipperiness of meaning, the endless possibilities of language.

To Offred's doubled, punning narrative, Atwood adds the next layer, Pieixoto's reinscription at the University of Denay, Nunavit, a satirical version of an American university. This future is, like the America of Atwood's tale, another mirror of Gilead. The scholar speaks sympathetically and eloquently of Gilead's women, yet his puns (handmaid's tale/tail; ‘enjoy’ the Arctic Chair) suggest his reduction of women to sexual objects. Here again, puns and multiple versions point to the difficulties of fixing meaning. By setting Pieixoto's version in the post-Gilead future, Atwood implies that Offred's is a tale which—like Scheherazade's—needs to be told and retold because repression is a continuing condition of human society.

Offred's tale and Atwood's novel are cautionary tales, warning of the consequences of silencing and repressing others, of turning an other into an it (249). But at the same time that the tale describes constraint and entrapment, it also suggests an escape from limitation through the strategies of storytelling. As this study argues, Offred's storytelling enables her to create a more complex subjectivity than Gilead allows, and to become a visible presence for us.

Thus, the tale becomes one of hope as well as of caution. This is yet another of the paradoxes of the storyteller's art. The act of storytelling itself, for Scheherazade, for Offred, for Pieixoto, for Atwood (and, indeed, also for Stein) is a gesture of hope, of love, of reaching for connection with other readers and hearers. But once the storyteller makes this gesture, the story achieves an independent existence. Others will reread, reinterpret, critique it (or, worse, they will not reread, reinterpret, critique it). A diagram might look like this:

Offred < Pieixoto < Atwood < (critic <) reader

The book asks disturbing questions which are at once political and discursive. Its concluding sentence: ‘Are there any questions?’ is ironically appropriate. What is the status of a woman's narrative in a society where men often control the interpretation of texts? To what extent can any narrator/narrative escape or resist interpretation? Is discourse itself an adequate form of political action? What possibilities does narrative open, what doors does it close? In asking these questions, the novel compels us to read beyond the ending. Through its multiple narrators and theoretical self-reflexivity, it addresses serious issues for feminist, postmodern, and narrative theory.

Atwood has written an open-ended text, (play)fully conscious of the possibilities of deconstruction, reconstruction, and reinterpretation. By deliberately inserting gaps in the text, by punning and playing with words, and by suggesting multiple versions, she engages in metafictional commentary on the storytelling process—at the same time that she tells a good tale. By the time the critic/reader arrives at the text, Atwood has already told and retold the story, questioned and hedged, changed the context, deconstructed and reconstructed the narrative.

As Offred's/Atwood's stories are reread and reinterpreted, the ending is postponed, rewritten. Readers and critics join Atwood in the process she has already begun, the project of reinscribing the text. Scheherazade tells her tale(s) in spite of, or because of, the Sultans, the Commanders, and the scholars who seek to silence her or to rewrite her words.


Bernice Lott and Melita Schaum read early versions of this article and offered suggestions for revision. At a final stage of revision, I benefited from reading Tina Letcher's unpublished dissertation.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Fawcett Crest 1985

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Miami: University of Miami Press 1971

Bernheimer, Charles, and Claire Kahane, eds. In Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press 1985

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit Four Fifty-One. New York: Simon and Schuster 1967

Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Ed Philip Rieff. New York: Macmillan 1963

Hammer, Stephanie Barbe. ‘The World as It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid's Tale.Modern Language Studies 20:2 (Spring 1990), 39-49.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: W. W. Norton 1988

Hutcheon, Linda. ‘Beginning to Theorize Postmodernism.’ Textual Practice 1:1 (Spring 1987), 10-31

Lacombe, Michele. ‘The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.Wascana Review 21: 2 (Fall 1986), 3-12

Letcher, Tina. ‘In the Belly of This Story: The Role of Fantasy in Four American Women's Novels of the 1980s.’ Diss. University of Rhode Island 1991

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Fawcett Crest 1955

Rich, Adrienne. ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.’ 1971; repr Rich. On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose. New York: W. W. Norton 1979

Showalter, Elaine. ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.’ In Showalter, ed. The New Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon 1985

Lois Feuer (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Feuer, Lois. “The Calculus of Love and Nightmare: The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition.” Critique 38, no. 2 (winter 1997): 83-95.

[In the following essay, Feuer discusses ways in which Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale both partakes of and extends the dystopian genre, focusing on Atwood's questioning of certainty and truths in the novel.]

Reviewers of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale invariably hailed it as a “feminist 1984,1 and, like many handy tags, this one conceals a partial truth. A closer look, however, reveals not only the similarities between the two novels' totalitarian societies, but the ways in which Atwood's work goes beyond Orwell's, in matters of style that become matters of substance as well as in the feminist debate over “essentialism” that Atwood brings to the dystopian tradition. The novel transforms that tradition stylistically as well as thematically as Atwood, aware of her predecessors (a persistent Atwood trait: consider the parody of the Gothic in Lady Oracle, for example), both participates in and extends the dystopian genre.2

That tradition is a significant one in twentieth-century literature, replacing earlier utopian visions of paradise regained with the nightmare realization that, by the time industrial technology had made the controlled, ordered society possible, we might no longer be willing to pay the cost. The choice—between happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness—is presented by Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, by Zamiatin's Well-Doer, by Huxley's Mustapha Mond, by Orwell's O'Brien, and by Atwood's Aunt Lydia, trainer of handmaids and explicator of the regime's rationale for its oppression.3 Because Orwell's work is the best known in this series, it is to 1984 that The Handmaid's Tale has most frequently been compared.

The resemblances are many, and perhaps inescapable given the totalitarian regimes under which both protagonists live. In both, we have the distinctively modern sense of nightmare come true, the initial paralyzed powerlessness of the victim unable to act. Paradoxically, given this mood of waking nightmare, both novels use nighttime dreams and memory flashes to recapture the elusive past through which their protagonists try to retain their individual humanity. But individual humanity is, of course, undesirable in the society-as-prison; as in Kafka's emblematic penal colony, language (books for women in The Handmaid's Tale; connotative, reflective speech in 1984) is restricted and controlled as an instrument of power; in The Handmaid's Tale, Harvard itself, bastion of reasoned discourse, has become the site of torture and mutilation of the regime's enemies.

As Oceania both was and was not the postwar London of Orwell's time, Gilead both is and is not the United States we know. Serena Joy, the Commander's wife, bears an ironic resemblance to Phyllis Schlafly, taking a public position that women should not take public positions.4 This referential topicality exists because both authors envision the future by extrapolating from tendencies in the present; as Blake points out, a prophet is one who tells us that if we keep on doing x, y will be the result. Both novels envision a society in which perpetual war is used as a rationale for internal repression. The ease with which the authorities in 1984 switch the identity of the enemy makes it clear, long before Winston reads Goldstein's confirmatory analysis, that the “enemy” is a pretext; the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale makes explicit the secret agreement between the superpowers that enabled them to concentrate on subjugating their own people (388). Both are societies purged of diversity and individuality, based on sexism, racism, and elitism, in which private relationships between friends and lovers become—or become seen as—subversive acts.5

Thus Atwood gives us all the hallmarks of a totalitarian society set forth in 1984 (Hadomi 209-17) and originated by Zamiatin in We: public spectacle as means of control, the two-minute hate and Hate Week, and the Salvaging and Prayvaganza. The fear of spies and betrayal are constants: Handmaids part with the phrase “Under His Eye,” just as Oceanians knew that Big Brother was watching. Lack of privacy and constant surveillance are common features; thus the eye is a continuing image in The Handmaid's Tale, from the name of the secret police to the symbol tattooed on Offred's ankle.6 This threat of betrayal—Winston suspects Julia as Offred does Nick—has already begun to destroy Offred's relationship with her husband Luke before he is (presumably) shot while they are trying to escape to Canada (232, 236). Despite this threat, both societies have—or have rumors of—an underground resistance network; at the open-ended conclusion of Atwood's novel, it is ostensibly this network, of which Nick is a member, that enables Offred to escape to the safe house in Maine where she dictates the tapes of which the novel purports to be a transcription.

In both works, loss of identity is an ever-present threat, this submersion of the self represented by color-coded uniforms denoting the status of the wearer, whether Inner or Outer Party member or Commander, Guardian, or Handmaid. The danger is real: Offred at times becomes subsumed by her category and thinks of herself as “we” (203), and Atwood uses the motif of the double throughout the novel to represent this threat. Describing another Handmaid walking away, Offred says, “She's like my own reflection, in a mirror from which I am moving away” (59; also 25, 31, 213). The motif of the double is a continuing one in Atwood's work, easily seen, for example, in the titles of two collections of poetry, Double Persephone (1961) and Two-Headed Poems (1978);7 here it suggests the loss of individuality that is the totalitarian regime's goal.

We never know Offred's real name, not only because her identity is subsumed by her status as Handmaid (and she is therefore of-Fred, her commander), but because that name is a link to her past, her unique individual self, and her society destroys that past as effectively—though less systematically—as Winston's does. The Handmaids recite the Marxist “from each according to her ability; to each according to his needs,”8 having been told that it is from St. Paul (scriptural warrant being the basis of Gilead's social code). What Handmaid, forbidden access to books, can prove otherwise? Offred realizes that the next generation of Handmaids will be more docile because “they will have no memories” of other possibilities, their collective past having been rewritten and their individual pasts spent without alternatives (151). To forget a past of choices is to be enchained in the present, a process that Gayle Greene has described as “the amnesia imposed by women's roles” (301).9 As in 1984, memory is linked with liberation, a theme Greene finds pervasive in feminist fiction. William Steinhoff clarifies this theme in 1984: “if one is cut off from the past as Winston is in Oceania, if one's memory is not sustained by objective evidence, and if one has no recourse to history, can one still preserve from the domination of the environment any part of oneself?” (179).

The epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale presents a final ironic example of dehumanization through faulty remembering; its satire on the academic rhetorical habit of “distancing” (and thus “objectifying”) its subject shows Offred's story, two hundred years later, as fodder for pedantic discussions of the tale's historicity, missing the meaning of Offred's individual experience by committing the historians' sin of viewing the individual only as an example of the larger, more abstract, point. The Epilogue demonstrates also Atwood's consciousness of playing off Orwell. She draws the direct parallel in speaking of the point that the Epilogue exists in part to show that, in this future time, the reign of Gilead is past: “In fact, Orwell is much more optimistic than people give him credit for. He did the same thing. He has a text at the end of 1984. Most people think the book ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in the past tense, in standard English—which means that, at the time of writing the note, Newspeak is a thing of the past” (Hancock 284).

The assaults on the individuality of the protagonists reinforce in both the desperate need to make contact; Winston reaches out to Julia and, fatally, to O'Brien, as the Handmaids (again, significantly, at night) reach out between their cots in the gymnasium to touch hands and exchange names. This need to make contact with others leads Offred's predecessor to carve out the hidden schoolyard-Latin message of hope (Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: don't let the bastards grind you down). The contact itself is a window to a world outside the prison of one's loneliness; Atwood describes it as like making a peephole, a crack in the wall (28-29, 176). The regime works in a variety of ways to sever these ties; “love is not the point,” says Handmaid trainer Aunt Lydia (285), aware of the subversion inherent in private relationships. But love is indeed the point for Offred as it was for Winston. It is through Offred's affair with Nick, as through her friendships with other Handmaids, that her re-created self desires and rebels.10

As the examples indicate, the commonalities are many, and if Atwood were merely injecting a female protagonist into Orwell's dystopia, we could nod at her “modernity” and move on. But it is not merely that Offred is a female Winston Smith. For one thing, there are differences in style that amount to differences in substance, and for another, the feminism of The Handmaid's Tale is more subtle and complex than can be indicated by merely noting the change in the protagonist's gender.

We can begin to understand the differences and their thematic implications if we start with Atwood's evocation of the texture of daily life, made possible by the choices she has made in ordering her plot. As Malak has explained, the structure of the narrative, moving as it does from brief memory glimpses of Offred's past to an increasingly fuller rendering of that past, provides a contrast between the drab barrenness of her present and the rich texture of her former life.11 “These shifting reminiscences offer glimpses of a life, though not ideal, still filled with energy, creativity, humaneness and a sense of selfhood, a life that sharply contrasts with the alienation, slavery, and suffering under totalitarianism” (Malak 13). This “praise of [our] present,”12 in its untidy surfeit of choices (Aunt Lydia describes the prerevolutionary United States as a society dying of too much choice, offering security and stability in place of that too-demanding freedom)—of actions, thoughts, reading matter (even pornography), and, yes, of ice cream flavors—renders a reality more vivid, and more dear, than Orwell can provide in the gray gritty world of Oceania, because his protagonist cannot remember back beyond the grayness. Orwell made the risk-laden choice of creating a protagonist as drab as the world he inhabits;13 Atwood, creating a richer texture of both character and setting, gives us a protagonist whose memories celebrate the variegated past. Offred's clandestine game of Scrabble with her Commander evokes the sensuality of now-forbidden textures and language: “We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with the smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious” (180).

This vividly felt reality emerges also in the secondary characters, individually rendered as Orwell's are not: Offred's mother, a woman on her own, burner of pornography and marcher to take back the night, who desired a “woman's culture” much different than the one that has, ironically, come to pass; the Commander, unknowing victim of the society he has helped to create, robbed of his choices in the process of robbing others of theirs; Offred's “sceptical, irreverent, funny”14 friend Moira, glimpsed for the last time as “companion” in an illicit brothel; even the silly and untrustworthy fellow-handmaid Janine, wallowing in her confession of her former sins (93). And of course, most vividly rendered of all, Offred herself, formerly oblivious to the signs of the coming catastrophe, undramatically heroic, initially passive except in her refusal to become a victim,15 struggling to hold on to her sanity by reciting childish banalities to herself and lusting after hand lotion, emerging through her pain and loss as a multidimensional character.

It is not merely that Atwood's skill in conveying character and texture is more acute than Orwell's—though that is surely part of it—nor even that her narrative structure allows her to render a more particularized reality than his does. Even the relatively minor character Lydia, one of the Aunts whose role is to condition the handmaids to their new lives, takes on a distinctive voice: “Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen—to be seen—is to be—her voice trembled—penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls” (38). This insistence on the texture of felt life and on the fullness of minor characters is a stylistically rich rendering of a central theme. “The most revolutionary feminist fiction is so by virtue of textual practice as well as content” as Gayle Greene has recently put this point (292). Atwood's textual practice mirrors her novel's content, asserting the primacy of the individual human spirit by evoking it stylistically.

In what initially appears to be merely another in a series of remembered conversational fragments, the Commander tells Offred that “Women can't add”; “For them, one and one and one and one don't make four” (240). She thinks at first he's making the customary condescending point about women's mathematical ability: “What do they make? I said, expecting five or three”; but his point is in fact a great if unintended compliment: women can't add one and one and one and one and get four because what they always get is one and one and one and one, a sense of the irreducible value of the individual. Women cannot think abstractly, says the commander, quoting Lenin on making omelettes (273). The point, of course, is that the eggs broken to make the “omelette” are people, and whether women deserve the commander's compliment or not, Atwood's focus is on this affirmation of individual human uniqueness in the face of those who are able to destroy it because they can abstract, can will themselves not to see the individual life. Offred muses later: “What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn't equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other” (248).

Orwell, too, uses addition thematically, when O'Brien forces Winston to acknowledge that two plus two can equal five if the Party says so. Both the Commander and O'Brien use numbers as examples of logical because a priori truth, fundamental to reasoning, and the utilitarian calculus invoked by the controllers of the mass dystopian societies goes back at least as far as Zamiatin's Well-Doer, who argues that “Even at the time when he was still wild and hairy, man knew that real, algebraic love for humanity must inevitably be inhuman, and that the inevitable mark of truth is cruelty” (199).16 But O'Brien's point is that truth, even the a priori truth of mathematics, is relative and subject to the violence-enforced will of whoever is in power. Atwood's point is that the truth of human individuality and (only through this individuality) human connectedness is absolute, inviolable. Rooke relates two images to this point of the connectedness of unique individuals, the chain and the Mayday network of underground subverters of the regime (185). Offred remembers her mother, in a “throwback to domesticity,” linking safety pins in a chain (263); the Underground Femaleroad is a human chain: “each one of them was in contact with only one other one, always the next one along” (320). Rooke sees this recognition of the value of the individual—that politics and “character” go hand in hand—as “at the heart of Atwood's aesthetic and her politics. It requires the reader to position herself both within and outside of the fictive world; and it suggests that empathy and the larger perspective are not opposed” (185). By transforming style into substance, Atwood has extended the reach of the dystopian genre, so often populated in the past by one-dimensional demonstrations of the anonymity of the totalitarian state.

Abstractions about gender are a major threat to individuality, in Offred's society as in ours. The novel's characters debate the theory of “essentialism,” the notion that gender distinctions denote some fundamental and crucial differences between human beings. The Commander's essentialism is evident in his “women can't add” point, and gender abstractions are easily visible elsewhere in the novel, as when the doctor whom Offred visits offers to impregnate her and thus save her from the death accorded to unreproductive Handmaids: “‘It'd only take a minute, honey.’ What he called his wife, once; maybe still does, but really it's a generic term. We are all honey” (79). This gender abstraction is adopted by both sexes, of course: Aunt Lydia refers to all men as “them,” but Nick calls Offred by her real, individual name as evidence of his good faith in helping her escape at the end of the novel.

The absolute of the individual distinguishes The Handmaid's Tale from its apparent analogues. It is one of the few absolutes in the novel, for Atwood gives little comfort either to the religious right's desire for a return to “traditional values” and a genderized society or to feminist essentialists. Atwood reveals, in fact, a profound resemblance between these two apparently polarized views. Each sees its opponents as “the Other,” abstracting so that it may dehumanize.17 In each case this abstracting is based on essentialist notions of “feminine” and “masculine” that belie their various mixtures in the unique individual, or deny the possibilities of a life without such labels.18 This insight into the convergence of the two apparent extremes—an insight held while yet distinguishing the two sharply, refusing the facileness of a mere “extremes meet”—makes the novel's feminism more complex and more subtle than the label “feminist 1984” can convey. The Commander's critique of women's past (our present) has enough truth in it to make Offred—and us—uncomfortable: he reminds her of the “meat market” degradation of women dependent on finding men (284), and Offred remembers the unwritten “rules” of safety women followed to deal with the threat of rape (32-33). The issue here is what our present freedom costs us, weighed against the price the fundamentalist right exacts for the “protection” of women in Gilead.

Part of Atwood's contribution is to show costs at both ends of the spectrum in the essentialist debate: the “woman's culture” that Offred's mother envisioned has eventuated in the oppression she thought she was fighting in burning pornographic magazines. Atwood looks explicitly at the thesis that we are our own enemies; the fundamentalist conservatives who create Gilead by overthrowing American democracy use as a guide a CIA pamphlet on destabilizing foreign governments produced by that very democracy. In like manner, the essentialism of Offred's mother and her “woman's culture” unintentionally supports the essentialism of the fundamentalist right. As Sage puts it, “What Atwood is after here—one of the book's persistent polemical projections—is the tendency in present-day feminism towards a kind of separatist purity, a matriarchal nostalgia … [that] threatens to join forces with right-wing demands for ‘traditional values’” (307). Offred remembers telling Moira 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” (223). As Greene points out, “Atwood offers a cruel refutation of separatism when she has Moira find her separatist utopia with a vengeance at ‘Jezebel's,’ unofficially-sanctioned nightclub brothel where unassimilable females, professionals and lesbians end up—‘butch paradise,’ as Moira calls it.”19

Writing at roughly the same time as Atwood, Teresa de Lauretis makes an analogous point discursively rather than fictively. In describing the limitations for feminist theory of the concept of sexual “difference,” she says: “The first limit of ‘sexual difference(s),’ then, is that it constrains feminist critical thought within the conceptual frame of a universal sex opposition (woman as the difference from man, both universalized; or woman as difference tout court, and hence equally universalized), which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the differences of women from Woman, that is to say, the differences among women or, perhaps more exactly, the differences within women. … From that point of view, they would not be differences at all, and all women would but render different embodiments of some archetypal essence of woman, or more or less sophisticated impersonations of a metaphysical-discursive femininity” (25). Precisely this eradication of irreducibly individual women in favor of Woman20 lies at the meeting-point of essentialist feminism and the fundamentalist right in Handmaid's Tale. Thus, Atwood has critiqued “discourses concerning gender, including those produced or promoted as feminist” (2), an ongoing task de Lauretis considers vital to feminism given the persistent tendency to relapse into an excessively genderized view. In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood anticipates recent efforts to move beyond the essentialist/anti-essentialist split in feminist theory by critics such as Linda Alcoff, who look for a third way, one which will “avoid both the denial of sexual difference (nominalism) and an essentializing of sexual difference” (426). Atwood, by giving us the irony of the “woman's culture” become totalitarian nightmare, while simultaneously leaving open the possibility of a limited essentialism in the “women can't add” passage, participates in this discussion by offering evidence of the complex and ironic manner of life's category-crossing.21

The novel embodies the convergence of polarized views in the ambiguous image of blood, image of both life and death. The menstrual blood of a handmaid is her sign of failure, and, ultimately, her death-warrant, though it is also the sign of her continued fertility (95). The red gowns of the handmaids are the color of the blood of life, but they are also shrouds, and the repeated references to flowers (usually red) in the novel join this image of fertility and hope to wounds and suffering: Offred envisions her husband Luke held prisoner, “there's a scar, no, a wound, it isn't yet healed, the color of tulips, near the stem end, down the left side of his face where the flesh split recently” (133). The ambiguity of the image of blood is one noted in Atwood's poetry by Lorna Irvine: looking at the Atwood poem “Red Shirt” that celebrates women, Irvine says “Finally, menstrual blood and the blood of birth are symbols of union in this female world. In ‘Red Shirt,’ the poet and her sister, heads almost joined as they bend over their work, sew a red shirt for the poet's daughter. Taking from the color red its associations with anger, sacrifice, and death, the sisters purify it, offering it as a female birth-right to join all women to each other” (105).22The Handmaid's Tale, with its insistent refusal to resolve ambiguities, retains the polar images of red and blood that the poem “purifies.”

The narrative itself enacts the ambiguity suggested in these images. At the first level, we find in the Epilogue that the historian Pieixoto has put together the text from a set of scrambled tapes: the novel is a reconstruction.23 Within the novel itself, Atwood gives us Offred reconstructing the novel's present at some future time, in the safe house in Maine, insisting throughout on the imprecision of the reconstruction. Offred laments her inability to tell it exactly (“It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was,” 173), wishes for a less painful, less fragmented tale to tell (343-44), complains of her fading memory (250) and unreliability as a narrator (41), even gives two versions of the beginning of her affair with Nick and then says that neither of them is true (340).24

In fact, the novel is in a second sense a reconstruction of a reconstruction, a memoir of Offred's rebuilding of a self all but obliterated by the pain of her experience and the necessity of forgetting in order to survive. She must create, or recreate, herself after having been “erased” as a person. When Serena Joy briefly shows her a photograph of her lost daughter, Offred cannot bear to have been erased from her child's memory: “I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes. I am not there” (296). After this obliteration, Offred rebuilds, recapturing her individuality by recapturing her past in her solitary recitations. Sitting in her room, musing on the multiple meanings of the word “chair” (the precious and pretentious academic in the Historical Notes will reduce this word's possibilities to a sexist joke), she recovers the ambiguity of meaning that totalitarian regimes try to control. “These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself” (140). She composes—puts together, sets down—herself as the novel's fictive reconstruction composes the story of her struggle to do so. Both senses of “compose” are present earlier in the book: “I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (86).25 She composes, creates herself in opposition to those who would construct her socially, as an object, a walking womb.

Offred's reconstruction of her self can be seen as a rebirth, a renewal akin to those Catherine McLay sees in The Edible Woman and Annis Pratt notes in Surfacing: like these works or like Lady Oracle,The Handmaid's Tale gives us the descent to a nightmare underworld that is, as McLay reminds us, so central to the romance pattern. Thus situating the work within the romance tradition and within the body of Atwood's own work, we can see that the descent is darker and the rebirth more tentative than in her other novels, in part because of the open-endedness of the ending.

By remembering her painful past in order to tell her story, Offred heals herself in a vivid demonstration of Joan Didion's maxim that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Through telling her story, Offred survives by making herself real, speaking her way out of invisibility into her humanity, as the authors of the slave narratives asserted and discovered their humanity by remembering their captivity and their release in the perspective of their new freedom.26

All this is in part the now-familiar twentieth century obsession with the unreliability of language27 and narrative, part of the self-reflexivity of the novel in our time. But it also conveys a tentativeness, a hesitancy in the face of the murderousness of those who are so very sure of their righteousness (like the Puritan forebears whose “city on a hill” figures as a subtext in the novel's Boston setting; the novel is dedicated to Perry Miller and Alice Webster, the latter being an ancestor of Atwood's hanged as a witch and the former, Atwood's teacher and a prominent expositor of Puritan certainty). This distrust of certainty becomes part of the linguistic texture of the novel, as Offred ponders the multiple possibilities of language, cherishing the ambiguity that the regime is ultimately unable to control, at least in her own case. Multiple meanings reveal alternate possibilities, and Offred's willingness to risk the alternatives appears in her narrative's last lines. Unsure whether the proffered route of escape is a trap, she nonetheless makes the leap: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” Atwood suggests that the risk is worth taking, because the novel presumes Offred's successful escape to the safe-house where she tapes her narrative.

In an interview with Jan Garden Castro several years before the publication of The Handmaid's Tale, we can see that Atwood has long been concerned with the perils of absolutist certainty: “it's obvious now that everything passes through a filter. Doesn't mean it's not true in some sense. It just means that nobody can claim to have the absolute, whole, objective, total complete truth. The truth is composite, and that's cheering thought. It mitigates tendencies toward autocracy.”28

The novel thus reaffirms and transforms a central attitude in the dystopian tradition. Stylistically and thematically Atwood moves far beyond Orwell in her wariness of “passionate intensity” about one's righteousness. In the face of such menacing certainty as essentialists and the religious right exhibit, the novel suggests that the most humane response is an appropriate humility about one's own absolutes, all except that which says that our humanity is dependent upon our remembering that one plus one plus one plus one do not equal the abstract four.


  1. “A Feminist 1984” is, in fact, the title of Cathy N. Davidson's review in Ms. Arnold Davidson, 113-21, asserts that The Handmaid's Tale has the “standard form of the dystopia,” describing these characteristics on 116. See also Brian Stableford, 97-100.

  2. Atwood's awareness of her participation in this tradition is manifest in ways as obvious as her calling The Handmaid's Tale “a dystopia, a negative utopia.” See a 1985 interview cited by Lucy M. Freibert, 290n.

  3. Peter Rudy, in his Introduction to Zilboorg's translation of Zamiatin's We, briefly explores the choice between freedom and happiness as described by Dostoyevsky and Zamiatin. See Chad Walsh for the transformation of utopia to dystopia. Other significant analyses of the utopian/dystopian literary tradition include Judith Shklar and Robert C. Elliott.

  4. Cathy Davidson (24) notes the connection between Serena Joy and Phyllis Schlafly.

  5. For love as a subversive force in both novels, see Barbara Ehrenreich. 34-36, especially 34.

  6. See, for example, the images of eyes on pages 9, 29, 65, 78, and 84. David Ketterer (209-17) links the eye imagery to that of mirrors in the novel; I myself would be inclined to see the mirror imagery, which renders Offred as only a “distorted shadow,” as part of the motif of the double, the danger of losing the self in a world of enforced conformity.

  7. Sherrill Grace looks at mirror images, doubles, dualities, and polarities in Atwood's pre-Handmaid work.

  8. The quotation from “St. Paul,” attributed to Acts, should be compared with Acts 2: 44-45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

  9. The quotation refers to critiques like those of Betty Friedan and early feminist fiction such as The Bell Jar.

  10. See, on this point and many others, the fine discussion in Constance Rooke, 178.

  11. Greene finds the alternation of past and present episodes and variations of this form to be so frequent in feminist fiction “as to be practically a defining characteristic” (306-307). Though her chief Atwood example in the Signs paper is Lady Oracle, she refers specifically to The Handmaid's Tale as an example of this alternation of scenes.

  12. Lorna Sage, 307.

  13. Gerald A. Morgan sees Orwell as telling his tale “in reverse,” from Smith's point of view rather than that of the less limited O'Brien. This is, for Morgan, a “wilful or unconscious design in telling a tale as badly as it could be told, with some purpose unformed or undeclared” (81).

  14. The phrase about Moira is Sage's.

  15. This refusal of victim status and the theme of victimization are persistent threads in Atwood's work, from the beginning of the last chapter of Surfacing—“This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing”—to the assertion of this theme in Canadian literature in Survival. (Surfacing and Survival were both published in Toronto in 1972.)

  16. Steinhoff notes some possible sources for Orwell's use of the 2 + 2 equation as representing objective reality; he cites G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (18) and shows that the use of the formula goes back a long way in Orwell's career. He notes as well its presence in Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (173). Orwell himself, in a letter to H. J. Willmett on May 18, 1944, uses the example for Hitler, who “can't say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics, they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuehrer wished it” (cited in Irving Howe, ed., Orwell's 1984: Text, Sources, Criticism, 2nd Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982, 279-80).

  17. Malak quotes Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex to this effect on p. 12. Ehrenreich, Sage, and Stimpson all make the point about the convergence of radical feminism and the religious right in their reviews of the novel.

  18. Carolyn Heilbrun's Toward A Recognition of Androgyny is now the classic text, but see also her Reinventing Womanhood and Writing a Woman's Life.

  19. Gayle Greene, “Choice of Evils,” 14-15.

  20. Barbara Hill Rigney (11) quotes Atwood as wanting to “take the capital W off Woman.”

  21. de Lauretis (1989) says “It is one of the projects of this paper to shift the focus of the debate from ‘feminist essentialism,’ as a category by which to classify feminists or feminisms, to the historical specificity, the essential difference of feminist theory itself” (6). I am indebted to Critique's reader for sharpening my focus on this point.

  22. Here as elsewhere, we are made aware of the thematic continuity between Atwood's poetry and her fiction; this continuity is apparent as well in the motif of the double, discussed above.

  23. On this point see Linda S. Kauffman, 226.

  24. Offred's insistence on her story's unreliability has many literary antecedents, of course, but it evokes most powerfully Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister. Nabokov's narrator also gives alternative versions of remembered events—both novels are, in part, about memory—as his protagonist, initially apparently paralyzed into inaction against a totalitarian regime, like Offred struggles with the unbearable remembrance of a lost child. What Bonnie St. Andrews says of the narrator of Surfacing, that she “becomes reliable. She becomes responsible for, quite simply, her true life's story” (106) could be said of Offred.

  25. Harriet F. Bergmann (847-54) explicates the linguistic themes of the novel ably.

  26. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes this point about slave narratives in “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes,” in his Loose Canons (New York: Oxford UP, 1992). Freibert notes the analogy to the slave narratives as well as other points of deliberately intended comparison, such as the Underground Railroad, with its safe houses and eventual escapes to Canada (286).

  27. Catherine R. Stimpson, in her review of the novel, describes this distrust of language: “In part, she pays an obligatory homage to the weary modern awareness of gaps between the word and the thing; sign and meaning; culture and nature. Welcoming the death of syntax, Atwood is also paying the now equally obligatory homage to a distrustful postmodern awareness of the ability of the powerful to control discourse.” On the reflexivity of the modern novel, see Robert Alter.

  28. Reingard Nischik also sees anti-absolutism as a focal point of the novel.

This essay, though drafted earlier, was substantially revised during my tenure as a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, and I am grateful for the support and opportunity provided by the ACLS.

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Irvine, Lorna. “One Woman Leads to Another: The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Arnold E. and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: Anansi, 1981.

Kaufmann, Linda S. Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Ketterer, David. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: A Contextual Dystopia.” Science Fiction Studies (July 16, 1989) 2: 209-17.

Green, Gayle. “Choice of Evils.” Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 44. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale, 1987.

———. “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 No. 2 (Winter 1991): 290-321.

Malak, Amin. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition.” Canadian Literature 112 (Spring 1987): 9-16.

McLay, Catherine. “The Dark Voyage: The Edible Woman as Romance.” The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism. Arnold E. and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: Anansi, 1981.

Morgan, Gerald A. “False Freedom and Orwell's Faust-Book Nineteen Eighty-Four.George Orwell: A Reassessment. Ed. Peter Buitenhuis and Ira B. Nadel. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Nischik, Reingard. “Back to the Future: Margaret Atwood's Anti-Utopian Vision in The Handmaid's Tale.English—American Studien (March 1987) 1: 139-148.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Harcourt, 1984.

Pratt, Annis. “Surfacing and the Rebirth Journey.” The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism. Arnold E. and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: Anansi, 1981.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. London: Macmillan Education, 1987.

Rooke, Constance. “Interpreting The Handmaid's Tale.Fear of the Open Heart: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Writing. Toronto: Coach House, 1989.

Sage, Lorna. “Projections from a Messy Present.” Times Literary Supplement (March 21, 1986): 307.

St. Andrews, Bonnie. Forbidden Fruit: On the Relationship Between Women and Knowledge in Doris Lessing, Selma Lagerlof, Kate Chopin, and Margaret Atwood. Troy, NY: Whiteston, 1986.

Shklar, Judith. After Utopia. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Stableford, Brian. “Is There No Balm in Gilead? The Woeful Prophecies of The Handmaid's Tale.Foundation No. 39 (Spring 1987): 97-100.

Steinhoff, William. George Orwell and the Origins of 1984. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1975.

Stimpson, Catherine R. “Atwood Woman.” Nation 242 (May 31, 1986): 764-67.

Walsh, Chad. From Utopia to Nightmare. New York: Harper, 1962.

Zamiatin, Eugene. We. 1924. rev. ed. Trans. Gregory Zilboorg. New York: Dutton, 1959.

Jocelyn Harris (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Harris, Jocelyn. “The Handmaid's Tale as a Re-Visioning of 1984.” In Transformations of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society, edited by George Slusser, Paul Alkon, Roger Gaillard, and Danièle Chatelain, pp. 267-79. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Harris examines parallels between Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, asserting that Atwood's novel is a critique of George Orwell's treatment of women in his works.]

By publishing The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, Margaret Atwood openly invited comparison between her own dystopian novel and George Orwell's 1984. She herself draws the parallel when in an interview of 1986 she compares her epilogue to his:

In fact, Orwell is much more optimistic than people give him credit for. He did the same thing. He has a text at the end of 1984. Most people think the book ends when Winston comes to love Big Brother. But it doesn't. It ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in the past tense, in standard English—which means that, at the time of writing the note, Newspeak is a thing of the past.1

Indeed, if his Winston Smith had imagined “little knots of resistance … leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off,” the Handmaid's tapes similarly survive.2 As Atwood remarks in the same interview, “I'm an optimist. I like to show that the Third Reich, the Fourth Reich, the Fifth Reich did not last forever.” By means of a recorded voice she creates the same miracle as in Shakespeare's sonnet 65, where black marks on white paper still express love: she allows the dead to speak. And although Atwood says that “writers frequently conceal things. They … don't want them known, or they think of them as trade secrets they don't want to give away,” I shall argue that she wants us to notice whenever she imitates and diverges from Orwell. Her invitation has vital theoretical implications for this author's use of allusion, and more generally for the way that books are made.

First, the similarities. Gilead, the world of The Handmaid's Tale, is recognizably Orwellian in both structure and minute detail. In both novels, a totalitarian society is divided by hierarchy; at a time of rations and austerity, only the privileged in Atwood receive real food, as in Orwell (278), and the separate orders are marked by distinctive clothing as they were in 1984, indeed as they are distinguished traditionally in utopian fiction as far back as More's use of the sumptuary laws in his Utopia. The Commander's shoes, shiny like black beetles, especially recall Orwell's definition of tyranny as the boot stepping on the human face, for ever.3

Both societies are controlled by secret police, Atwood's Eyes, and soldiers, Atwood's Angels. Spying, betrayal, arbitrary arrest and torture are all commonplace. Winston is betrayed by Charrington and O'Brien, whom he trusted; the Handmaid and her family are also betrayed, and the worst is knowing “that some other human being has wished you that much evil” (30). If Orwell's Julia is doubled over by a fist in the solar plexus and carried out like a sack (350), a man in The Handmaid's Tale is doubled over by something sharp and brutal done to him, and is carried away like a sack of mail (27). Winston and Julia are tortured; Atwood's Moira suffers the bastinado (15), and the younger nuns, who do not let go so easily, are more broken than the rest of the women (34). Deliberate incitements to blood lust hold these societies together: Orwell's Two Minutes Hate (165) and his Hate Week (157) serve the same purpose of arousal as Atwood's Wall hung with the corpses of enemies of the state. Her Prayvaganza and Salvagings, or public hangings, recall Orwell's hangings which children clamor to attend and Syme enjoys (176, 199). During the hangings the Handmaids must hold a rope coated with pitch so that their defilement is truly collective (42); Winston finds it impossible not to join in raging at Goldstein (168). Atwood's Particicution, in which helping to tear a man to death makes the Handmaid as hungry as a horse (44), arouses the participants to the same sort of bestiality as in Orwell (313). Imaginary enemies and reports of war reinforce this tribal blood lust—Jews and other nation states in Orwell, Quakers, Baptists, feminists, homosexuals, and abortionists in Atwood. The sadism that Orwell argues to be characteristic of totalitarianism hideously spreads, so that even Winston would throw acid in a child's face (305). In totalitarian Gilead, violence is always a threat or an open presence, and the thought of it arouses even the Handmaid, numbed as she is. She longs to stab the Commander, to “put my arms around him and slip the lever from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands” (23).

Sexual repression assists social control. O'Brien boasts in 1984, “We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman.” Children are taken away at birth “as one takes eggs from a hen,” he says. So too the Handmaid's daughter is torn away from her. In a society where sex is “an annual formality” for procreation only (389), Winston and Julia's love affairs necessarily becomes “a political act” (265). The Handmaid's affair with Nick is equally subversive.

Orwell famously simplifies the language in 1984 to Newspeak and Doublethink, to words stripped of all politically undesirable associations. As he writes in the Appendix, “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” It was designed “not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” Parts of speech are interchangeable, and negatives are formed simply by adding the prefix “un-.” Thus rejects from society are “unpersons” in Orwell, and Atwood talks similarly of “Unwomen” and “Unbabies,” the imperfect ones, the “shredders.” Orwell's B vocabulary imposes desirable mental attitudes for political purposes, and obliterates value words such as free, honor, justice and morality. So does the official language of Gilead.

Atwood believes, as Frank Davey puts it, that all the troubles of the world are in a sense linguistic: the female Wordhoarder in her futuristic story, “The Festival of Missed Crass,” speaks for her as a “custodian of language and culture, a protector and renewer of meanings.”4 In her futuristic novel, Atwood demonstrates the disaster that results from the burning of books, the closing of libraries, the ban on reading and writing, and the reduction of conversation to brief, ritualized phrases of subservience. “Under his Eye,” say the Handmaids, like Winston knowing that Big Brother is watching him. In this pre-literate world, shop signs replace words, often to comic effect. The “Loaves and Fishes” has nothing in it, let alone enough to feed a multitude (27), and the Handmaid asks whether it would count to read the cushion with “FAITH” stitched upon it (10). If Orwell had devised such euphemisms as “Ministry of Love” for a place of torture, “colonies” for places where homeless children are sent, and “Reclamation Centres” for labor camps (298), Atwood also uses “Colonies” for places of death rather than new life, and “Salvaging” for hanging. Of course, both authors remember Nazi Germany, while “Salvaging” is a piece of Doublespeak actually invented in the Philippines, as her epilogue makes clear. In Orwell, class threatens individual identity; in Atwood personal names are similarly replaced by those of function. Wives, Econowives and Handmaids are defined simply by their relationship to men. A woman who is simply Offred, of the Commander, is indeed the non-essential, sexual Other described by Simone de Beauvoir, the object to his absolute subject.5

Along with language, both societies suppress memory, and in consequence history, truth, and choice. Winston knows that all history is a palimpsest, to be scraped clean and re-inscribed (190); O'Brien says, “You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you … You will be annihilated in the past as well as in the future. You will never have existed” (378). Former leaders disappear along with their photograph in Orwell; a film of Offred's feminist mother is blacked out with crayon in Atwood (20). “Orthodoxy,” says Syme, “means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (202). Offred drifts as if anesthetized in an eternal present, fed and bathed like a child, like a doll, infantized. She even speaks in the present tense, and her sentences are often incomplete, or unfold in the linear, flat, affectless mode of the comma splice. But when she says of Luke, “he was, the loved. One. Is, I say Is, is, two letters, you stupid shit, can't you manage to remember it, even a short word like that?” (35), she fights to keep meaning alive, and hope.

Memory proves irrepressible in both books. Winston remembers his mother, lost in the great purge, and an affair in an unspoiled forest in a Golden Age (181-82); Offred also remembers her mother, sent to a deadly Colony for being a feminist, and looks back to a time of happiness with Luke and their daughter. Her way of recollection recalls Locke's phrase for associationism, “the hooks and eyes of memory.” It hurts here to remember: as Atwood wrote in a poem elsewhere,

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye.(6)

The Handmaid's associative, involuntary memory is triggered in a very Proustian way through the senses, “a reminder, like a kick,” from such banal objects as a blue and white striped tea-towel (8), or the chocolate fragments on an ice cream (27). Then flood in choice, pun, variety—in short, the free play of the signifier—and with them comprehensive memory, history, truth, understanding, and at last, freedom.

“It's strange, now,” [muses the Handmaid], “to think about having a 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. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.”

“The Book of Job” (28)

Thus she works her way like a lexicographer from meaning to meaning, from the financial dependence of women to memories of newspapers to the recognition that she is persecuted and afflicted by arbitrary powers, like Job. She has named the truth.

Thus, acts of reading, remembering, and writing defy a totalitarian regime. If Winston writes “voluptuously” on the thick creamy paper of his diary (171), the Handmaid uses the same lavish word to describe her feelings when she plays Scrabble:

We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.


Words arouse her: she imagines “the Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint” (28). Holding a pen is an especially sensuous experience. It is “alive, almost, I can feel its power.” When in a pleasant pun she says, “Pen Is Envy … I envy the Commander his pen” (29), she takes issue with Freud, whose therapy worked also through association and word-play. What women want, she says, is not a penis but a pen, the power to write. Only thus can they speak to posterity, survive and tell their truths. “A word after a word / after a word is power,” Atwood wrote in a poem.7

Words promise communication, and trust. If “faint scribbles on lavatory walls” (171) encourage Winston to hope for an underground resistance, “Aunt Lydia sucks” scratched on the cubicle is “like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion” (34). Offred is comforted too by the dog-Latin inscribed by one of her predecessors, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (p. 156), don't let the bastards grind you down. Ofglen and Offred dare to let their eyes meet, to question the value of the Soul Scrolls, and in this breathtaking moment of “subversion, sedition, blasphemy, heresy, all rolled into one”, they trust each other (27), and Offred learns that there is an underground. She will escape.

Winston and Offred rebel, then, by means of sexuality, memory, writing, trust, and dreams of escape: Winston devises numerous ways to break out (287); the Handmaid imagines multiple possibilities for Luke, her mother, her daughter, and herself. Even tiny details confirm the deliberate kinship between the two books, for instance the long yellow teeth of the rat which finally breaks Winston become Aunt Lydia's, while the humiliations, punishments, and petty rebellions of Orwell's public-school life are renewed in Atwood's re-education centers, which have been set up in girls' schools.

But the differences are vital too. Atwood sets her dystopia not in Orwell's socialist Britain but in the capitalist USA, at the very heart of scientific enquiry and liberal humanist education, Harvard University. Here the Puritans rebelled against British imperialism, but they also memorably oppressed. Puritan fundamentalism rules a state devastated by ecological disaster, the bitter fruit of scientific progress. The Harvard Wall, hung with corpses, reminds us of the Berlin Wall which Kennedy of Harvard visited so pointedly as a free man, for in Gilead no one is free.

Not the new invention of television, as in Orwell, but the even newer one of electronic money management has brought this dystopia about. Women have been rendered powerless simply by the withdrawal of their credit at banks. Virginia Woolf had argued in Three Guineas that the powerlessness of women derived from denial of access to education, writing, and therefore money, and she drew an explicit comparison between the exclusion of women and the exclusion of Jews, between nineteenth-century feminists fighting patriarchy and the twentieth-century need to fight Fascism. The fear that forbids freedom in a private house is connected with the public fear of the dictator, she wrote, for “the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.”8 Nor was the idea new with her. In reply to Sir Robert Filmer's justification of the divine right of kings on the analogy of husband and wife, in his Patriarcha (1680), John Locke had argued in the first of his Two Treatises of Government (1689-90) that men were entitled to rebel against unjust tyranny. And if the organization of state and family was the same, it was logical to conclude that a woman could resist her domestic king if he proved tyrannical. Locke in fact says that there were two curses laid upon women, pain in childbirth and obedience to their husbands. Having urged women to avoid pain in childbirth if they could, he stopped just short of recommending they disobey their husbands by recollecting the force of custom. But others saw where his train of thought was leading, and the idea of the family as a domestic monarchy was made much of by Restoration dramatists, women writers of the eighteenth century, and most powerfully Samuel Richardson, in Pamela and Clarissa.9

In his time Orwell also knew that private and public words were linked, that men could be “little Stalins, little Hitlers” to other men, as Crick puts it (122), but he did not extend this important insight to men's hierarchy over women. Atwood seems to agree with Woolf that gender, not class, is the source of tyranny, and thus casts her vote against Orwell in the debate identified by Adrienne Rich, as to “whether an oppressive economic class system is responsible for the oppressive nature of male/female relations, or whether, in fact patriarchy—the domination of males—is the original model of oppression on which all are based.”10

The source of women's oppression is misogyny, and Atwood criticizes Winston's hatred of women by her differences. He thinks his wife Katherine has “the most stupid, vulgar, empty mind that he had ever encountered,” and complains that in the sexual act she “would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and after a while, horrible” (213-14). Atwood comments on this “frigid little ceremony” (270) when she elaborates it into her own grotesque, ritualized “Ceremony.” As the Commander couples mechanically with the Handmaid, Atwood, unlike Orwell, makes us feel for the woman who passively lies there. And where Julia's instant responsiveness is a male fantasy come true (264-65)—Winston is excited by Julia's “improvement” by cosmetics, her womanly longing for a frock, for silk stockings and high heeled shoes (279)—the Handmaid's tawdry dress, “absurdly high heels” and smeared makeup serve only to mark the pathetic dreams of the Commander (300). Winston may think himself intellectually superior to Julia, but from Orwell's hints that she swears, and laughs during the Two Minutes Hate (289), Atwood would develop Moira, the bravest, the most boisterous of all the Handmaids.

Winston dreams avidly of rape and murder (169);11 the Handmaid is haunted by her memories of snuff movies and pornography, because she knows how they threaten her. And if Winston thinks women are sexual objects, stupid, and only rebellious from the waist down (291), Offred's persistent imaging of the separation of the heads from bodies as hateful, for instance, when the hanging sheet at the doctor's “intersects” her (11), shows Atwood thinking perhaps of Descartes. Her female protagonist is not a sex object, but a thinking subject, whose head and body are one. But Atwood's most defiant answer to the misogyny of 1984 is to make a woman the center of narrative consciousness. Where Orwell spoke as an author, authoritatively, using the omniscient voice, this heroine speaks directly to us. Like Chaucer, whom Atwood's title deliberately invokes, she allows her character to speak for herself.

And where Winston was betrayed by the Brotherhood, Nick and Offred's “sisters” befriend her and help her along the Underground Female-road. Winston and Julia thought only of themselves, at the end: “the proper thing was to kill yourself before they got you” (244); but Offred's predecessor wrote a message of encouragement before she hanged herself, and Ofglen dies in order that Offred may live. “She saw the van coming for her. It was better,” says the new, replacement Ofglen (44). Orwell believed that mutual trust was the sole foundation for democracy, but his hope was not fulfilled in 1984. “May Day,” say members of the Resistance to one another in The Handmaid's Tale,M'aidez.” And they do.

The most striking difference from 1984 in that The Handmaid's Tale is set not thirty-five years ahead but in the immediate future. The meat hooks, the dunces' caps, the punitive amputations, the death-camps, the Salvagings, have happened, are happening, in Italy, China, Iran, Germany, the Philippines, all about us (Bosnia and Rwanda were yet to come, in 1984). As an active supporter of Amnesty International, Margaret Atwood knows that well. She wrote in “The Arrest of the Stockbroker,”

Reading the papers, you've seen it all:
the device for tearing out fingernails,
the motors, the accessories,
what can be done with the common pin.
Not to mention the wives and children.(12)

In fact, The Handmaid's Tale begins where 1984 leaves off. Instead of charting the destruction of a rebel, it shows a victim learning to survive. For as Atwood wrote in her book about Canadian literature, Survival, “if you are determined to be a victim, that's exactly what you will be.”13 Canadians, she says, are victims in the face of a hostile wilderness and an overbearing neighbor, powerless, amputating themselves in order to survive (33). They are Rapunzels trapped in towers, their fists in their mouths, when they should be Dianas and Venuses making jail-breaks from underground (210, 246).

To express this idea, Atwood picks up Orwell's image of a woman singing a song of love (which he in his turn may have found in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway), coarsened like an over-ripe turnip by years of child-bearing, but beautiful (347). Alongside a tightly-woven complex of images concerning amputation, mutilation and silencing she sets another, when from Orwell's turnip-woman she evolves a subtext of hope, an imagery of eggs and bulbs and new birth into chalice-shaped, blood-red tulips. Even the torn-apart man resembles a misshapen tuber (43)—one recalls the bulbs locked up in Mr. Pumblechook's drawers in Great Expectations, awaiting their liberation day. The female Underground lives; the fertility myths prove true. Offred, who may be pregnant, will escape to Canada, just as Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin sprang across the river with her child, and was helped to safety on the other side.

The Handmaid is indeed a Rapunzel in a tower, veiled, self-silenced, long-haired like Alice in a world of distorting fish-eye mirrors. But in this version of the tale Nick has no rose, no lute (30), and she herself will break out. She is an Everywoman, the collective heroine who, says Atwood in Survival, makes a halting but authentic breakthrough even when almost hopelessly trapped (245). She does so with the help of Nick; dark, secretive, sensual Nick, Old Nick, the agent of subversion rising up from underground. He is Orwell's irrepressible spirit of Man, who says to civilizations founded on fear and hatred and cruelty, “Something will defeat you. Life will defeat you,” as Winston manages to say (391-92). Both authors seem to believe that novelists disseminate critical thought and values more powerfully than teachers in formal institutions of learning, for if Orwell had meant to sound a warning by discrediting both totalitarian-minded and time-serving intellectuals, as Crick puts it (127-28), Atwood's epilogue shows that trahison de clercs in action. Here academics meeting in conference betray Offred by their obsession with form not content, their misogyny, their tolerance of evil in the name of objectivity, their triviality and their concern for their own prestige and pleasure. They are, most painfully, us.

So what is Atwood doing in The Handmaid's Tale? 1984 provided her with raw materials, simply. As Northrop Frye has argued in The Anatomy of Criticism, books are inevitably made out of other books.14 Orwell himself had worked from (among others) Swift. In the A-vocabulary of Newspeak for instance, words are ridiculously made to stand for one thing only as in the third voyage of Gulliver's Travels.15 Atwood selects an epigraph from Swift's Modest Proposal for The Handmaid's Tale as if to acknowledge their common debt. Like Swift, she exaggerates and satirizes to show that our world, taken to logical conclusions, would prove insane. The mantle of Swift's saeva indignatio passes to Orwell, and Atwood calls on both their authorities to enlarge the weight of hers. If Gérard Genette writes of Proust's “palimpsest,” in which “several figures and several meanings are merged and tangled together, all present together at all times, and which can only be deciphered together, in their inextricable totality,”16 Orwell's book is still visible in Atwood's palimpsest. To enhance the conviction of her own already powerful book, she makes us remember 1984.

Walter Jackson Bate's burden of the past, Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's assertion that Freudian anxiety lies especially heavily on women writers: none of these theories applies readily to Atwood. Nor is “intertextuality” accurate in telling what she does. Orwell is not simply a source, an influence, a passive and inevitable invasion of her brain and text. Not genre, not convention, not the Zeitgeist wrote this book, but Atwood. The author lives. Her active and uninhibited appropriation of a predecessor's text might be described as Renaissance inventio, or the eighteenth century's “imitation,” in the sense of friendly rivalry with the past and an invitation to compare. As Howard Weinbrot explains it, recognition of the poem imitated is necessary for the reader's pleasure, or to point out new poetic directions. In his Dictionary of 1755, Johnson called imitation “a method of translating looser than paraphrase, in which modern examples and illustrations are used for ancient, or domestick, for foreign,”17 rather as Dryden has said that the translator endeavors “to write, as he supposes, that Authour would have done, had he liv'd in our Age and in our Country.”18 In The Handmaid's Tale of 1984, Atwood “translated” Orwell's 1984 by recreating it in a modern context, and making it new for our time.

The Handmaid's Tale is more than a translation though; it is a metatext, a text that comments on another text. Atwood critiques Orwell for locating the origins of totalitarianism in class and among men only, and accuses him of underestimating the evil of misogyny. Mary McCarthy though Atwood's novel tamely imitative of Orwell, and could not believe that the far right was so powerful, or so destructive to women. But it is.19The Handmaid's Tale is a re-vision, to use Adrienne Rich's word, the deliberate re-reading of old text through the lens of gender; it is taking back the power to name that Adam hugged to himself in Eden; it acknowledges the harm that patriarchy does:

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves … it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped us as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name—and therefore live—afresh.


Rich envisions utopia as woman-centered, based on women's values, and Atwood too has spoken as an essentialist feminist. She wrote once, for instance,

He said, foot, boot, order, city, fist, road, time, knife. She said, water, willow, rope hair, earth belly, cave, meat, shroud, open, blood.20

But in The Handmaid's Tale she seems to re-vision Rich in her turn, for while Moira languishes in butch heaven at Jezebel's the brothel, Nick acts to rescue Offred, the Commander is to be pitied, and the fisherman sacrifices himself for Moira.

Rich thought that only women could save the world; Atwood said in a recent interview that it's time to make friends with men again.21 The matter is urgent, for as she wrote in an address for Amnesty International, we already live in a state of war “between those who would like the future to be, in the words of George Orwell, a boot grinding forever into a human face, and those who would like it to be a state of something we still dream of as freedom.”22 In such a world, in such a dystopia, all hands are needed on deck.


  1. Geoff Hancock, “Tightrope Walking over Niagara Falls,” Canadian Writers at Work (Oxford University Press, 1987), repr. in Margaret Atwood: Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Princeton, New Jersey: Ontario Review Press, 1990), 191-220.

  2. 1984, ed. Bernard Crick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 291. All references will be to this edition.

  3. Page 390. All references are to the Fawcett Crest paperback ed. (New York, [1985] 1987).

  4. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984), 169.

  5. Amin Malak makes this point, in “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition”, Canadian Literature 112, Spring 1987, 9-16.

  6. Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976), 141.

  7. “Spelling,” in True Stories (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981), 64.

  8. Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1983), 102-03, 142.

  9. See my Samuel Richardson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

  10. On Lies, Secrets and Silences. Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979).

  11. Crick says in a note that Orwell means to show the interconnection of sadism, masochism, success worship, power worship, nationalism and totalitarianism (434).

  12. Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), 73.

  13. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi, 1973), 82.

  14. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957).

  15. Crick's introduction makes a number of more general points about the Swift connection. Orwell wrote an essay on Swift in 1946.

  16. Figures of Literary Discourse, trans. Alan Sheridan, with an introduction by Marie-Rose Logan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 226.

  17. See Weinbrot's The Formal Strain: Studies in Augustan Imitation and Satire (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1969) 14-15.

  18. The Poems of John Dryden, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), I. 184.

  19. New York Times Book Review (9 February 1986) I, 35. For an implicit answer to McCarthy, see Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Crown Publishers, 1991).

  20. “Marrying the Hangman,” Selected Poems II, 23.

  21. Video, Once in August, National Film Board of Canada (1984).

  22. “Amnesty International: An Address” [1981], Margaret Atwood: Selected Critical Prose, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982, 1984), 396.


Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Feminist Readings Of Dystopias