Dystopias in Contemporary Literature

Start Free Trial

Kathryn M. Grossman (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Grossman, Kathryn M. “Woman as Temptress: The Way to (Br)Otherhood in Science Fiction Dystopias.” Women's Studies 14, no. 2 (1987): 135-45.

[In the following essay, Grossman explores depiction of women as the “other” in several dystopian novels—including Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—noting that it is often the character of the female temptress who reveals the world as it really is.]

All fiction is metaphor. … Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

The temptress figure is one negative female stereotype that has pervaded western consciousness ever since Eden was lost to a beguiled Adam.1 But in such classic science fiction dystopias as Eugene Zamiatin's We (1924), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), the temptress enjoys a more privileged status. Instead of merely seducing the male protagonist out of his earthly paradise, she charms him into seeing it in a new manner. In other words, she does not just enchant him; she also disenchants him, for it is through her that he comes to know his world for what it really is—an inhuman monstrosity. Asimov's and Bradbury's heroes succeed in breaking from their hellish Edens to embrace a different concept of humanity. Orwell's and Zamiatin's are broken by theirs, but not before they too recognize their kinship with those who struggle against the state from without. In order to perceive more clearly the utopian vision underlying their satire of dystopia, we will examine patterns of otherness and similarity, of differentiation and identity, common to all four novels.

If the negative features of the societies depicted in these texts are already well known to many readers, the analogies between them may perhaps be less familiar. In the United State of We, for example, happy citizens go through precisely the same motions of living and working at precisely the same moment. Social harmony reigns supreme—at the expense, of course, of freedom and individuality. Even nature is excluded from this perfect civilization by the Green Wall surrounding it, the only bright spot in an otherwise totally colorless, sterile, dispassionate culture.2

Although quite different in other respects, the world of Fahrenheit 451 does share this portrait of superficial social unity and of the loneliness and insensitivity to which it gives rise. Here people develop more intense relationships with media personalities than with their own families. As a result, “Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you” (Bradbury 17). The purpose of this mass programming of its citizens into apathetic creatures who “all say the same things” (33) without thinking or feeling anything for themselves is to perpetuate a state of false equality. As Beatty, the chief burner of books, maintains: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to wedge themselves against” (62). Such pandemic delusion and indifference in the face of life, of brute reality, reflect Zamiatin's much earlier satire of communal existence.

Similarly, Asimov describes in The End of Eternity a culture that stretches unaltered through 50,000 centuries, because man has learned to travel through time to manipulate events for the greatest good of the greatest number. Such changes may eliminate some people or cripple or enslave others,...

(This entire section contains 4349 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

but individuals do not matter in the wider scheme of things. Only a chosen few are allowed to take the responsibility for the rest: “Above all, a Technician must be dispassionate. The Reality Change he initiates may affect the lives of as many as fifty billion people. … Under these conditions, an emotional make-up is a distinct handicap” (Asimov 8). Quantitative utilitarianism dominates this false utopia as it does in Bradbury and Zamiatin.

This doctrine that happiness is worth much more than freedom is unmasked in Orwell's Oceania by the very forces controlling that totalitarian state. A more complicated text than the others, Nineteen Eighty-Four includes elements from each: the mass rallies and drabness of We, the pulp entertainment and social indifference of Fahrenheit 451, the alteration of history and sexual puritanism of The End of Eternity. In this infernal nation, the socio-political order represents a perversion of the age-old idea of “an earthly paradise in which men should live together in a state of brotherhood, without laws and without brute labor” (Orwell 168). The ideal of human equality still exists—but in the form of “complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects” (170). The “three hundred million people all with the same face” (64) who live there are more than mere siblings or even fraternal or identical twins; they are each other's clones.

This collapse into utter synonymity applies outside the Party as well. Asiatic prisoners of war are endlessly paraded before their conquerors, “to be replaced by others exactly similar” (15). At the same time, people dwelling in disputed areas of the world are treated uniformly as slaves regardless of which side is winning. The proles in Oceania itself have no self-consciousness, no individual identity, and are dealt with as little more than animals. Power is asserted by the Party's ruling class through the suffering it inflicts on everyone else alike. As O'Brien tells Winston: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever” (220). Little wonder that, in this topsy-turvy utopia, war really is peace; freedom, slavery; and ignorance, strength. For here nothing or no one is different from any other.

The heroes of these novels are all successful, well-assimilated, and relatively content citizens of their societies until they encounter that significant other in female form. That each book provides a variation on the narrative convention of boy meets girl is clear enough. Montag's initial encounter with Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451, D-503's with I-330 in We, Harlan's with Noÿs in The End of Eternity, and Winston's with Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four all invoke the standard privileged moment when the hero realizes that he is in the presence of someone truly unusual: “It was not that Harlan had never seen a girl in Eternity before. … But a girl such as this! … She was all color and life and Harlan was conscious of a faint perfume about her” (Asimov 40 and 45). Although D-503 at first attempts to naturalize the “remarkable intersection of thoughts” (Zamiatin 8) between himself and I-330 through the notion of an entirely uniform culture, he too soon becomes aware of her distinction. The irrational X on her forehead, her sharp teeth, and her bright red lips contrast almost painfully with the dull, logical, pink world around them. D-503's first reaction to her—“We are all so much alike”—abruptly yields to the confusing but potentially revolutionary insight that “we were all so different from one another” (8). Julia likewise strikes Winston at the beginning as an especially disturbing and disagreeable young woman, whereas Montag immediately finds himself attracted to Clarisse's youthful verve and eccentricity: “with eyes so dark and shining and alive that he felt he had said something quite wonderful” (Bradbury 6), she at once proceeds to turn the fireman's known and accepted universe upside down by commending the virtues of a long-forgotten past.

By her colorful and uncommon vitality, then, the woman disrupts the dreary codes of conformity governing not only the hero's behavior, but even his very view of the world and of himself. From the moment that he first recognizes and values the female's mysterious otherness, he begins to differentiate himself as well from the rest of society. Since she is not like other women, he can no longer be like other men. This realization is, of necessity, an unsettling one. When he suddenly sees himself through her eyes, the image is scarcely flattering. Clarisse's face seems to Montag a magical “mirror” capable of reflecting what lies beneath the surface, his “own innermost trembling thought”: “What incredible power of identification the girl had …” (Bradbury 11). Her empathy and probing curiosity reach deep within him. The repressed self to whom she beckons eventually emerges and does battle with the self programmed by his culture. Thus Montag “felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other” (25). Under her influence, his dispassionate being splits into an erotically opposed anima and animus whose internecine struggles yet imply some future reconciliation. This separation eventually permits him to judge others in a new fashion. His buddies at the firehouse no longer appear as his colleagues but as boring “mirror images of himself” (35). He pities his wife's continuous state of catatonic insensitivity to real life and real people. It is to her that he first makes his declaration of independence: “… I kept putting [Clarisse] alongside the firemen the House last night, and I suddenly realized I didn't like them at all, and I didn't like myself at all any more. And I thought maybe it would be best if the firemen themselves were burnt” (71-72). From this process of differentiation Montag has acquired a novel and highly revolutionary view of his society.

This progression generally exemplifies the plot line of all four novels. In We, I-330 also induces a fresh self-consciousness in D-503 by invading his very being with a kiss: “I became glass-like and saw within myself. There were two selves in me” (Zamiatin 54). Even more disturbing, the person I-330 addresses as “Thou” is at least in part, if not wholly, the one with the hairy paws. As in Fahrenheit 451, Zamiatin's hero has a very disturbing experience with a mirror. Instead of the old, familiar image he expects when he looks into his glass, D-503 is startled by that other self glimpsed and prized in him by I-330: “for the first time in my life I see clearly, precisely, consciously, and with surprise, I see myself as some ‘him’! I am ‘he’” (57). The personality that begins to develop as a consequence of this encounter divorces him from the other Numbers around him and turns him into an outcast: “I, a corrupted man, a criminal, was out of place here” (80). From out of place to no place—in other words, to utopia—is perhaps the next step for him as well as for Montag.

Like Clarisse and I-330, Noÿs stages an alien invasion in The End of Eternity into the heart of her lover, the Technician Harlan: “She was not a woman, not an individual at all. She was suddenly an aspect of himself. She was, in a strange and unexpected way, a part of himself” (Asimov 57). This complete identity is once again followed by the hero's division into two beings, one of whom is Noÿs herself: “It was as though she were a portion of himself, but a portion sufficiently separate to require speech in communication rather than thought. She was a portion sufficiently separate to be able to answer unpredictably out of independent thought processes” (97). As in the case of Montag and Clarisse, the potential conflict of anima and animus yields to a state of harmonious interaction between these two essential human principles. They are not the same, but they are equal, and Harlan respects Noÿs as another self. In fact, it is her very otherness that he loves. When confronted with the possibility of changing the Reality to which she belongs and thus perhaps of modifying or eradicating her altogether, Harlan revolts. He esteems her as she is, for better or worse: “He did not simply love a girl. … He wanted this Noÿs here, the one he saw at this moment, the one of this Reality. If she had faults, he wanted those faults, too” (68). As a result, he turns “criminal” (59), hiding Noÿs in the far future where she might escape historical modifications in her own century. It is but the first step toward becoming, as he puts it, “a heroic social revolutionary, with Noÿs at his side” (113).

The union of Winston and Julia, though it outwardly never achieves such dramatic proportions, must be judged as potentially explosive as those of our other couples. They do meet after the male protagonist's sense of himself as an “I” distinct from the mass identity of his comrades has already been nurtured by the forbidden diary he keeps. Nonetheless, it is Julia who first evokes in him that overwhelming sense of empathy that Clarisse releases in Montag. When Julia falls down near him, Winston reacts doubly: “In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him; in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone. Already he had instinctively started forward to help her. In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body” (Orwell 88-89). In a way, this ability to feel as another counters the false metaphorical system of the Party, which seeks to eliminate all differences—and therefore all meaning. Antonyms, as well as synonyms, are deleted from Newspeak, just as it has become impossible to know anything about other times or places: “cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down” (164). To join Julia through affection and desire is to reestablish that lost sense of otherhood, of then and there, from which can proceed the only real apprehension of here and now. Coupling represents a “political act” (105), a “rebellion” (59) against the state, because it points to that genuine union of opposites which constitutes the utopian ideal. Winston's dedication of his journal—“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, where men are different from one another and do not live alone …” (26-27)—celebrates the same metaphorical moment that he will soon find with Julia, that moment of magic when individual identities are mingled but not destroyed.3

In each novel, therefore, the woman performs a dual role. She both provides the perspective from which society can be viewed satirically and galvanizes the hero into revolt in the name of true utopia. The initial form of this revolt is retreat into what D-503 calls his “own world” (Zamiatin 97). This world is primarily that of private thoughts and emotions, but it manifests itself tangibly as well. Harlan and Noÿs seek asylum in the distant future; Montag begins to read the books he has feloniously sequestered behind a grill in his house; D-503 and I-330 adopt the Ancient House, and thus the variety and imagination of the past, as their own; and Winston and Julia find a place of their own, first in the Golden Country, then in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop.

These sanctuaries, not unlike Winston's beloved glass paperweight with the piece of coral at its center, appear as refuges outside or beyond time where the criminal hero can escape his own oppressive culture.4 Such withdrawal to a kind of inner, private utopia does not preclude a more political dimension, however. The outlaw not only comes to see that his society is criminal; at the woman's instigation, he also embarks on a romantic quest for a new world, a new concept of civil utopia. D-503, for example, begins by denigrating the religious self-searching of past generations: “Their god gave them nothing but eternal, torturing seeking; our god gives us absolute truth—that is, he has rid us of any kind of doubt” (Zamiatin 43). He ends, though, by rejecting this obsession with certainty and espousing his ancestors' ceaseless striving toward larger questions and broader, more comprehensive answers. Inflicted with the illness of imagination, he attempts to share I-330's vision of an unpredictable world where “things will be new, improbable, unforeseen” (137). It is a world ever to be made, and remade. As she tells him, “Man is like a novel; up to the last page one does not know what the end will be. It would not be worth reading otherwise” (151).

When he follows her beyond the Green Wall, D-503 discovers an amazing variety of other human beings who greet him as a long-lost sibling. Their affection restores his sense of wholeness: “I ceased to be the usual item; I became unity …” (146). It also destroys his understanding of “who they are and who we are” (151), since these “brothers” obviously are part of us. I-330 defines them as “The half we have lost. H2 and O3 two halves, but in order to get water … those two halves must be united” (152). To achieve this true United State, one that embraces the very multiplicity of humankind, D-503 assists in a plot to sabotage the maiden flight of his rocketship. Although the plot—and his liaison with I-330—comes to naught, he does succeed momentarily in breaking with convention to protect other worlds from the “happiness” his own would so autocratically export.

Temporary triumph is also the lot of the characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The essentially parental authority of Big Brother is repudiated, along with the Well-Doer's in We, in favor of a more fraternal order. Through Julia, Winston realizes that the Party does not represent him at all, just the interests of its ruling members. “I'm good at spotting people who don't belong,” she declares. “As soon as I saw you I knew you were against them” (Orwell 102). The enemy lies within Oceania, not outside. At the same time, the woman he once believed his mortal foe becomes inextricably linked to that “legendary Brotherhood” (60) that he longs to locate and join. It is no accident that the love note she thrusts into his hands when he comes generously to her rescue is at first mistaken for a political message: “Perhaps the Brotherhood existed after all! Perhaps the girl was part of it!” (90).

Winston's search for a different form of parity than that reigning in Oceania leads him to find deep affinities with a wide range of people. This union with others transcends all boundaries of class or country. During his first rendezvous with Julia at a mass meeting, Winston suddenly apprehends the subjectivity, and hence the latent we-ness, of a foreign captive: “With hands locked together, invisible among the press of bodies, they stared steadily in front of them, and instead of the eyes of the girl, the eyes of the aged prisoner gazed mournfully at Winston out of nests of hair” (97). From the lovers' union spring sensitivity to and kinship with what is human everywhere. Winston's leap of empathetic imagination uncovers what the Brotherhood preaches, namely that the foreign enemies of Oceania are in fact “creatures similar to himself” (162).

This realization, along with his increasing respect for the integrity and humanity of the proles, results one day in an apocalyptic vision of the ultimate identity of all mankind: “It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same … people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. … The future belonged to the proles” (181).5 Revolution will establish an entirely different social order, one governed by true equality, and therefore sanity. Currently, all meaning has collapsed insanely in the utter homogeneity of Oceania's language and customs. The future will restore sense by restoring the contrasts of otherhood. Although vastly dissimilar from the world Winston knows, it will be less alien because it will no longer be grounded in the alienation of man from himself, from woman, and from his sisters and brothers in humankind.

These failed visions of utopia in We and Nineteen Eighty-Four reemerge victorious in Fahrenheit 451 and The End of Eternity. After Clarisse's death, Montag learns to value the notion of texture, of differentiation, of quality from the old professor Faber. Their relationship, like that of all contraries, promises to be a most fertile one: “He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, … there would be neither fire nor water, but wine. Out of two separate and opposite things, a third” (Bradbury 112).6 Revolting against the sterility of his present culture, Montag murders Beatty and flees to the wilderness beyond his city. Here he finds real fellowship among the hobos who, having learned all the great books by heart, await the resurrection of civilization sometime in the future. If D-503's discovery of universal confraternity on the other side of the Green Wall is doomed by his ambivalent attitude toward imagination, Montag produces a whole-hearted commitment to that better world he may never live to see.

The fate of Noÿs and Harlan is much the same. Having overthrown the “mass father image” (Asimov 47) of those who act criminally to destroy individual lives “for humanity's good” (88), they take flight into their own version of a better world—the past. For the twentieth century has in Asimov's view, not yet lost its love of adventure. It still allows the natural evolution later eliminated by Harlan's cohorts in their efforts to “[breed] out the unusual” (167). Genuine change, rather than artificial interference with reality, will give rise to genuine happiness: “There are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety. … That is the Basic State of mankind” (187). By embracing plurality, Harlan is able to smash the false future world from which he comes and to set the stage for humanity's ultimate quest—into the unknown realms of outer space. In the words of Noÿs, “This is Earth. Not the eternal and only home of mankind, but only a starting point of an infinite adventure” (191).

The woman's influence in all four texts is thus crucial to the development of the hero's social and political consciousness. Because of her, he rejects the conventional mentality of his nation to espouse an even broader peer group, humankind as a whole. Equality no longer means sameness, but resemblance through diversity. Faceless comrades are abandoned for the siblings discovered beneath alien others. The mathematical notion of equivalence yields to a vision of metaphorical parity. In this way, the outlaw hero appears as the ideal citizen of a world that does not yet exist. And the creator of this new world, its prime mover, is the alluring female who shows man the beauty and goodness of the unknown. Like her, the future is truly other, and in that lies its great attraction. The face of that alternative future is, in fact, also that of a benevolent femme fatale.7


  1. A version of this paper was delivered at the first Convegno Internazionale di Studi sulle Utopie and has appeared in the conference proceedings: Guiseppa Saccaro Del Buffa and Arthur O. Lewis, eds., Utopie Per Gli Anni Ottanta (Rome: Gangemi editore, 1986).

  2. I discuss at length the relationship between Zamiatin's science fiction dystopia and the French Terror as treated by Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859) and Victor Hugo (Ninety-three, 1874) in “Satire and Utopian Vision in Hugo, Dickens, and Zamiatin.”

  3. Thus, as Gorman Beauchamp points out: “Whatever encourages individualism, ‘I-ness,’ is the enemy, for it separates the one from the many, man from the God-like State. Prime among such estranging emotions is sexuality: in the new Edens, as in the old, the serpent that seduces man into disobedience is sexual, Adam's love for Eve” (288). At the same time, the preceding study of the process of individualization in our four dystopian texts suggests that the specific danger of human sexuality to totalitarianism resides in its power to furnish simultaneously a sense of union and of differentiation. The sameness that everywhere characterizes the State is not rejected but retained, albeit on another level entirely. Utopia too is a place where “we” must hold some identity in common. This identity evolves for each hero from that of the clone/synonym to that of (br)otherhood/metaphor through the mediation of the invading alien/antonym, woman.

  4. For a detailed analysis of the “utopias” in Nineteen Eighty-Four see my article on “‘Through a Glass Darkly’: Utopian Imagery in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  5. It is noteworthy that the word “proles,” while obviously referring to the working class, also means “offspring” in Latin. This reference reinforces Orwell's vision of Oceania as a paternalistic state where the “children” are ruled by a falsely benevolent and fraternal Big Brother.

  6. The Hegelian/Marxist overtones here are startling. As in the three other novels, Bradbury appears to espouse a renewed vision of the dialectical process, one where original identities are in some way enhanced by their conjunction rather than just merged into a neutral third entity. Synthesis, like metaphor, must somehow incorporate the vigor of the antithetical relationship it resolves and transcends.

  7. The normative function of utopias and dystopias, which allow us to judge our own world from a new perspective, also applies to science fiction as a whole: “the apparent realism, or representionality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us ‘images’ of the future … but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present …” (Jameson 151). In other words, science fiction provides the means for apprehending the present as history (153), while the utopian ideal gives a rule whereby that history might be justly evaluated.


Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1955).

Gorman Beauchamp, “Of Man's Last Disobedience: Zamiatin's We and Orwell's 1984,Comparative Literature Studies 10 (1973), 285-301.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine, 1953).

Kathryn M. Grossman, “Satire and Utopian Vision in Hugo, Dickens, and Zamiatin,” FGE 37.3 (1985), 177-88.

Kathryn M. Grossman, “‘Through a Glass Darkly’: Utopian Imagery in Nineteen Eighty-Four,Utopian Studies 1, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1987).

Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science-Fiction Studies 27 (1982), 147-58.

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

Eugene Zamiatin, We, Trans. Gregory Zilboorg (New York: Dutton, 1924).

Peter Fitting (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Fitting, Peter. “The Turn from Utopia in Recent Feminist Fiction.” In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, pp. 141-58. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Fitting discusses the role of women in several dystopian novels written by women, arguing that the works offer a response to the earlier utopian tradition in which the place of women in society was often limited and marginalized.]

I'm the type of person that puts women on a pedestal. But in my opinion, which I base on the Bible, I believe God's perspective is that women should not be in certain occupations. I'm not saying she's going to hell because she chose to be an umpire. She has free will, just as you and I do. If God is unhappy with her, some day she will have to talk to God about it.

Houston Astro pitcher Bob Knepper, on the possibility of Pam Postema becoming the first female umpire in major-league baseball, Toronto Globe & Mail, 16 March, 1988

This paper was prompted by a letter to a Toronto newspaper complaining about the pessimism of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Not only did that letter sum up my own first reactions to the novel, but it has led me to think about recent feminist science fiction and what appears to be a retreat from the utopianism of the 1970s.1 The four works I have chosen to discuss as indicative of this retreat are: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985); Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue (1984); Zoe Fairbairns's Benefits (1979); and Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985).

Like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Sally Gearhart's 1978 utopian novel, The Wanderground, portrayed a backlash against the growing strength of women and gays. But in Gearhart's book, the backlash prompted “the revolt of the Earth herself”: outside the city men suddenly became impotent, while machines and mechanical devices no longer functioned. Although the men established a patriarchal police state in the cities, the core of The Wanderground was the evocation of a utopian world of the women outside the cities. In other utopian novels of the 1970s, the increasing repression of women leads to the flight of some women to a wasteland where they found their own society (in Charnas's utopian fantasy Motherlines) or even to open warfare and the victory of the women who set up a utopian society (in Joanna Russ's The Female Man). Insofar as they emphasized the changed lives and experiences of their characters, and because they described alternate societies which would make new patterns of behavior and interpersonal relations possible, the utopian novels of the 1970s provided the reader with an experience, however limited, of what a better world, beyond sexual hierarchy and domination, might look and feel like. However, with a few exceptions (including Le Guin's Always Coming Home), this utopian moment seems to have ended. More recent fictions no longer give us images of a radically different future, in which the values and ideals of feminism have been extended to much of the planet, but rather offer depressing images of a brutal reestablishment of capitalist patriarchy.

Both utopias and dystopias have a performative function; they are intended ideally to push the reader to action. In the following discussion, I shall describe these works in terms of the plausibility of the futures evoked and in terms of their effectiveness: in dystopian novels, in terms of their ability to warn the reader and to push her or him to act on that knowledge; and, in utopian works, in terms of their effectiveness in evoking a world in which I would like to live. Such criteria are not completely subjective: they include references to the internal consistency of the work; to the relationship between the new society and the present; to the narrative strategies used to solicit the reader's involvement beyond the ending of the text; and to the question of the transition, of how the other society came about. Of course, my taking these novels in such a literal or political way is the opposite of how we are taught to read, but utopia and dystopia by their very nature remind us of their connections with the real, and it seems foolish and obtuse to ignore the deliberate engagement of these works with contemporary issues.2

The shift from utopia to dystopia can be seen in Zoe Fairbairns's 1979 Benefits, set in the near future in the context of Britain's worsening economic plight. All social welfare programs are suspended except for the equivalent of Canada's “baby-bonus,” a “benefit” paid directly to the mother, but only to mothers who do not work outside the home. However, rather than leading to a strengthening of the family and its traditional values, the benefit has two related effects which lead the government to conclude that it is a failure: on the one hand, lower-income families “breed” as a way of increasing their income; while many women are able, thanks to the benefit, to live without men, outside the patriarchal system and its embodiment in the nuclear family.

The government then announces that the benefit will be withdrawn from “unfit” mothers, namely those who do not live according to traditional family norms. But as Britain's economy continues to worsen, European planners help to implement even more drastic “social planning” experiments: the widespread—usually forced—placing of “contraceptive pellets” in women; and, when women find ways to remove the pellets, the government puts a contraceptive in the water supply. Women deemed “suitable” for motherhood are to apply at a government “Women's Centre” for an antidote, but the antidote reacts with the contraceptive to produce massive deformities and render British women “unsuitable as vehicles for the carrying of unborn children” (196).

This is not, however, the end of the novel. Although there is a possibility that it may be generations until British women again are able to bear children, if they ever can, a younger and more militant generation of women argues for a renewed commitment to the goal of creating a society which finally will be “a fit place to bring [babies].” Benefits certainly is not a utopia; but it does not end in complete despair either. It demonstrates an increasing bitterness toward the continuing exploitation of women and toward government attempts to control their fertility: “Our women are going to be the first to find a style of life that isn't defined by men having power over us because we have children” (215).

While I cannot adequately review here the various manifestations of the state's attempts to regulate sexuality and fertility, it is increasingly apparent that the struggle of women to gain control over their own bodies and their own fertility is perceived as a critical threat by the Christian right.3 These issues are central to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. There, in a near future in which people have become increasingly alarmed by a declining birthrate, the Christian right stages a violent takeover and establishes a theocratic “Republic of Gilead” throughout much of the United States. This renewed regulation of women's bodies—“for breeding purposes”—marks the triumph of the Moral Majority and its “family protection” agenda. The “traditional” values of the nuclear family are forcibly reestablished, while divorce, birth control, homosexuality, and other manifestations of the “permissiveness” and “moral decay” which characterized the 1960s and 1970s are brutally repressed. The novel shows how, under the pretense of giving women what they want, some of the goals of today's women's movement are coopted during the early stages of the takeover. For the leaders of the coup claim to be taking women at their word and to have instituted a society which will protect and provide for them.

One of the principal factors which leads to the coup is “plummeting Caucasian birth rates” (316) (primarily a result of increasing environmental pollution); and surrogate motherhood, as illustrated in the “Baby M” case, has become a key issue. Fertile young women (but not the daughters of the ruling class) are used—with the proper scriptural references (Genesis 30)—as surrogate mothers (“handmaids”) when the wives of high officials of the new regime are unable to conceive.

The novel is Offred's tale of several months as a “handmaid.” By juxtaposing the restrictions of life in Gilead with her recollections of her life before (in our own present), the tale presents a frightening portrait of a religious state where people's daily lives are closely monitored and regulated. Offred lives in fear that she will fail to become pregnant and will be sent to the “colonies” (“portable populations used as expendable toxic cleanup squads” [321]), or that her secret meetings with the commander will be discovered. Meanwhile the commander's wife, as a way of ending the humiliation of her own situation, arranges for Offred to try and get pregnant by Nick, the chauffeur. Offred's story ends with her fear and uncertainty: has she fallen into the hands of the secret police, or has she been rescued, as Nick tells her, when a police van arrives to take her away? This uncertainty is resolved in an afterword which contains the “proceedings” of a symposium sponsored by a historical society devoted to Gilead studies, a meeting which takes place centuries after the events depicted in the novel. Offred's “tale” was in fact an oral text, which was recorded on audiocassettes and has just been discovered and transcribed. The status and authenticity of this tale is discussed by the historians, but the afterword tells the reader that she has escaped.

Suzette Elgin's science-fiction novel Native Tongue is set in the more distant future of the twenty-third century, although its starting point too is the contemporary attacks on women's efforts to obtain social and political equality. Here the reaction leads to the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, and enactment of a new amendment (ratified in 1991), according to which “all citizens of the United States of the female gender shall be deemed legally minors.” In the future of the novel, the Earth has contacted and now trades with extraterrestrial races—a development which has led to the rise of a small elite group of translators, called “linguists,” who, because of their discipline in teaching their children to master languages from infancy, have established a monopoly on handling negotiations between the Earth and its alien trading partners.

Within this futuristic context, the novel describes life within a linguist family. The women do an exaggerated version of today's women's double duty; even though they are legally minors and hence completely subject to their fathers and husbands, they are also skilled translators with busy professional lives. Because the linguists are anxious to preserve their monopoly, the politics of reproduction are significant. The linguist women are compelled to marry young (by the age of sixteen), allowing “the husband to space his children three years apart and still see that the woman bears eight infants before the age of forty” (146). What distinguishes this novel from the dystopian future of The Handmaid's Tale, at least in the eyes of some of its feminist readers, is that, despite this repressive situation, the women-linguists have developed, in the privacy of their “Barren Houses” (where the postmenopausal linguist women live communally), a unique women's language. Analogous to the cultural feminist rituals of Gearhart's Wanderground, Làadan is shaped by and empowers women's specific perceptions of the world. In changing the way that women look at and construct reality, the women hope that this new language will lead to a change in the reality itself.

Of the three novels discussed, Native Tongue most strains the reader's credulity, not in its introduction of science-fiction elements (trade with alien races and the difficulties of interspecies communication) but, at least for this reader, in its very portrayal of the ordinary details of everyday life. Even if the reader accepts that the linguists are able to maintain a monopoly on negotiations because they are the only ones able to learn alien languages, and even if the reader accepts the widespread hostility and even disgust that the U.S. populace shows for the linguists, a major question remains which is constantly raised in the novel and which is constantly avoided: what do they do with their money? They are feared and hated partially because it is assumed that they live so much better than the rest of society. Yet each time an outsider comes into extended contact with them (e.g., Michaela), she is shocked to discover that this is not true. The linguists live like monks, modestly, working long hours. The most brutal example of their monastic lives—and of their treatment of their wives and daughters—occurs when Nazareth must take a bus and go alone to the hospital for surgery to have her cancerous breast and uterus removed. The novel is so concerned with setting up a situation in which the women can develop a new language in the very heart of a repressive patriarchy that it fails to make that situation very convincing. We are shown a powerful, elite family of linguists who jealously control all negotiations with other races but who are not interested in power or money and who seem to lack any motivation.

Another of the basic premises of Native Tongue, published in 1984, is that in 1991—a mere seven years later—an amendment to the U.S. Constitution will pass which makes women legally minors. This is preposterous. The disappointing failure of the long-drawn-out struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, was not only an expression of irrational fears about the consequences of fully legalizing the equality of women (which the Evangelical Right has done its best to inflame), but also an indication of the difficulties involved in actually amending the U.S. Constitution. I cannot believe that it would be any easier for a minority of bigots and fundamentalists to draft and pass such an overwhelming denial of women's basic rights in such a short space of time while remaining within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. This inconsistency undermines my ability to take the novel seriously. Such a misreading of the contemporary political situation makes me skeptical about the alternatives it offers. There is, in contrast, a similarly abrupt suppression of women's rights in the near future of The Handmaid's Tale, but it is brought about through a military takeover. Resistance to this military-religious coup is violently suppressed, while the continuing suppression of fundamental rights can be maintained only through the imposition of a Orwellian police state. But in Elgin's novel, everyone meekly submits to the constitutional suppression of the rights of half the population. One may not believe in the possibility of a religious takeover as in Atwood's novel, but it is a far more feasible scenario than that of a legal suspension of women's rights early in the next decade.

The question of Native Tongue's plausibility brings us to the most crucial theme in the novel—the transformative power of language. Certainly, one of the important and overlooked ways that patriarchal ideology transmits and reproduces itself is through language, and Elgin rightly calls attention to the relevance of combatting sexism through critiques of and changes in the patriarchal concepts and modes of thought embedded in current language practices. Language shapes and conditions our construction and understanding of social reality, and this social construction of reality extends to the construction of gender as well. However, even if we could change our language or, as in the novel, invent a new language, it does not follow that this would, by itself, change the world or even the ways that we understand social reality. This is magical rather than scientific linguistics, far removed from the theories of Benjamin Whorf; Làadan seems closer to the “Martian” of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), which grants marvelous powers to those privileged few who master it, than to the linguistic speculation in Samuel Delany's Babel 17 (1966). While the women living together in the Barren Houses do experience reality in specific ways, the majority of their experiences remain shaped by the power relationships in which they are inscribed and exploited. They are still legally minors, bound to their husbands, fathers, and families; their reproductive functions, to take the issue central to The Handmaid's Tale and Benefits, are completely under the control of the male members of this patriarchal household. Rather than providing a way of transforming the world, this new language will condition the women to accept their inferior and exploited state. Allowed to live separately, even with their own language, they will still be little more than slaves, and it should be noted that in the more than one hundred years which pass between the invention of Làadan and the end of the sequel to Native Tongue (The Judas Rose [1987]), Elgin's women are still little more than slaves. Reality will not be changed by this new language; it will become an instrument of self-deception, bleeding off the rebellious energies of a group of exploited women. The strategies proposed in the novel in answer to this massive denial of rights lie not in the political sphere, but in a linguistic conspiracy which, like the alleged 1960s plot to lace the nation's drinking water with LSD, would change people's consciousnesses before they even realized it.

Nothing shows the futility of this strategy better than chapter 23 of The Judas Rose, which deals with the ways that the linguist women have devised to avoid becoming sexually aroused—because, in this sexually repressed future, a woman's pleasure has been reduced to the satisfaction she must feel at her husband's satisfaction, so she can only be dissatisfied and frustrated in sexual relations with men.

“Oh, the times tables are useful [Nazareth tells Belle-Sharon], and verb conjugations have their place, but the very best way I know to avoid going so far into arousal that you suffer is to say the alphabet backward. It takes an extraordinary amount of concentration!” The old woman had chuckled and added that if the time came when the alphabet in reverse had been so well learned that it lost its efficiency as a distractor, you simply turned to the alphabet of the Alien language you were interpreter for, and so on down the list. “But don't get too distracted, now,” she had warned. “There is a moment when your attention must be on your husband.”


With the exception of the times tables, these various techniques are all linguistically oriented, and, indeed, this scene is one of the rare examples in either novel of language actually being used to affect reality! It illustrates my objection, since these various uses of language do not in fact change reality; they simply allow the user to withdraw from reality even as she yields up her body to exploitation.

The legitimacy of criticizing Native Tongue in terms of its attempt to reach beyond the text is first asserted in its own mode of address. Written and published as science fiction, this novel's serious intentions can be seen in the “Editor's Note” at the beginning about the availability of information about the women's language invented in the novel: “We are informed that an early grammar and dictionary of Làadan are available to those interested. For further information, write to Làadan, Route 4, Box 192-E, Huntsville AR 72740, and be sure to enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope” (4).

Another similarity between The Handmaid's Tale and Native Tongue makes one question their effectiveness as cautionary tales or strategies for political struggle. Through the narrative devices which frame the narrative in Native Tongue and which close The Handmaid's Tale, the reader learns that the dystopian society presented in the body of the novel has come to an end and has been replaced by another, more desirable society. Atwood's bleak vision is tempered, as we have seen, by Offred's eventual escape. But the reader is not sure that she has escaped until after the novel ends, from the “transcript of the proceeding of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” (held more than a century later), which is meant to reassure the reader that Gilead will not survive and that North American society will return to something resembling the present. Similarly, Native Tongue is introduced by an “Editor's Note” explaining that the book is a manuscript which survives from the twenty-third century. It has been published after “ten years, and the efforts of hundreds of persons”; it is “a joint publication of … The Historical Society of Earth; Womantalk, Earth Section; The Metaguild of Lay Linguists, Earth Section; The Làadan Group.” The implication is that Làadan has survived and flourished, and that the situation of women in the future is much improved. Moreover, while we know little of the future in which Womantalk flourishes, there are indications in the transcript of the Gileadean symposium—specifically the sexist banter of the male keynote speaker—which suggest a future little different from our present.

In both novels, this framing device seems designed to counter the pessimistic impression that the central narrative leaves. In each case, the plot is set in the context of a frightening and disheartening reaction against the contemporary struggle of women for equality, and in each case that narrative concludes with only the slightest glimmerings of hope: that the new language can be spread, or that Offred has been rescued. Unlike the collective dream of the linguist women in Native Tongue, even if Offred is safe, this says little about the prospects for other women in Gilead—at best it is an individual escape explaining nothing about the fall of Gilead. The portrayal of the decline in the rights and status of women is evidently meant to warn the reader and mobilize her to an active defense of those rights. But the additional knowledge provided by the frame—that this society has come to an end—tells the reader not to worry.

Although not everyone may agree with my readings of these three dystopian novels, these futuristic visions surely illustrate reactions to the sociopolitical events of the past two decades. Written in three relatively different literary contexts and three different countries, they mark an end to the feminist utopianism of the 1970s. One novel, however, constitutes a significant exception to the general pessimism—Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home. But, in an entirely different way, this novel too demonstrates a retreat from an earlier feminist utopianism.

For those familiar with Le Guin's work, Always Coming Home is a return to her roots. Le Guin's origins were “anthropological”; her parents were anthropologists, and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote Ishi: The Last Stone Age Man (1961), which played an important part in the utopian “rediscovery” of North American indigenous cultures in the 1960s. In many ways Always Coming Home strongly resembles Ishi. The Le Guin novel, furthermore, represents a return to the anthropological sensibilities and organization of her The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the narrative is juxtaposed with occasional (6 of 14) chapters presenting background information, including Gethenian myths and customs. In contrast, narrative in Always Coming Home is relegated to the background—the three “Stone Telling” sections total just over 100 pages of a 525-page book—while the attempt to evoke another culture is foregrounded. Although the reader enters the book through a story (part I of “Stone Telling”), narrative is soon supplemented by bits and pieces of Kesh culture. These include poems, legends, autobiographies, drawings, music, maps, jokes, plays, a glossary, and even some recipes, as well as a cassette of Kesh music and poetry. Neither a blueprint nor a narrative, Always Coming Home is a nonlinear collection of information, in the manner of a kit, which it is up to the reader to put together.

Although they make up only one-fifth of the book, the three parts of Stone Telling's story (7-42, 173-201, 340-86) may be read as a novel embedded in the larger text. That novel tells of a journey which parallels that of Shevek in The Dispossessed (he also left his utopian society for a dystopian one and then returned home). As a young girl, North Owl (“Stone Telling,” who, when she returns, becomes “Woman Coming Home”) is fascinated by her absent father and by the romanticism of his all-male company of warriors from outside the valley. It is not really a surprise when she decides to leave the community to follow her father back to his religious, patriarchal, war-oriented society. There women are rigidly confined to their quarters and restricted in their activities—a situation similar to the ones depicted in The Handmaid's Tale and Native Tongue. A few years later, married and with a child of her own, North Owl takes advantage of the Condor state's collapse under the pressure of its own military and expansionist mistakes, to flee and return home, where, after some time, she writes her story.

North Owl's initial dissatisfaction with her own society may be taken as a warning to the reader that he or she may find problems with the utopia (including boredom), while societies which seem to offer more romantic and exciting possibilities may in fact be dystopic. North Owl's trajectory—departure/return—is also a symbolic reenactment of the choice that each member of that utopian society must make to accept, and to work to maintain, the Kesh society. Utopias do not exist simply for us to wander into and then live “happily ever after,” the novel tells us; they must be built and renewed and constantly chosen again and again.

In their construction of the reader, recent fictions have modified the strategies of the traditional utopian novel. Although More's Utopia, for instance, has been described in terms of its dramatic structure, its basic form is that of a philosophical dialogue. Indeed, this rational mode of addressing or constructing the reader as an intelligent person, open to reasoned arguments, was the dominant form of utopian writing well into the nineteenth century. The enormous success of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards (1888) pointed up a key alteration in the techniques of persuasion, for there had been a change in the intended audience—to the wider public of the newly-formed middle classes in the U.S.—as well as a shift from philosophical dialogue to utopian romance. Readers no longer were addressed simply as listeners, but, through the dynamics of the novel, they became involved in an experience which went beyond the discovery and apprehension of a better society. Now the description of the ideal society formed the background to a sequence of unfolding events, however rudimentary, which could be followed through the eyes of a central character and assessed in terms of her or his own changing attitudes and feelings. Thus the “novelization” of utopia involved a significant transformation: from the positioning of the reader as the addressee in a philosophical dialogue who is persuaded through reasoned presentation, to a process of identification with a fictional character, in which the reader is implicated on emotional and experiential levels as well as on an intellectual one. Le Guin takes this evolution one step further in Always Coming Home, returning to an earlier intellectual appeal—it is up to the reader to put together and assess the different elements. At the same time, as in the utopias of the 1970s, the focus is much more on the quality and texture of daily life in the new society, and the author attempts to give us an existential or impressionistic contact with that world rather than a logical exposition of its advantages.

I am not sure that Le Guin's tactics work. Hers is clearly an innovative and interesting strategy, one in line with the recent questioning of traditional utopian assumptions. Like those of The Dispossessed, the intentions of this book—the implied reasons for wanting to describe a “people which might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California” (xi)—are clearly utopian: in the lovely valley, the Kesh live and work close to the natural world in a way that is both culturally rich and obviously satisfying. Moreover, in typical utopian fashion, the happy pastoral society of the Kesh is contrasted with a patriarchal, militaristic Condor People who can be seen as a figure of our own world and its increasing flirtation with destruction. This is a modest, restrained utopia where a few people live in an idyllic pastoral future, one in which—and this is an important reservation—the contradictions and conflicts of our world have not been negotiated or resolved so much as simply whisked away. Instead of showing the difficulties, disagreements, and hardships involved in building a new society, Always Coming Home focuses on the pleasures and joys of daily life. Moreover, this small community seems cut off from the rest of the world. Although there are occasional glimpses of advanced technology (the planetary computer net), that technology is hidden, while most of the Kesh live in a nostalgic return to an almost pretechnological world.

That the reader may be able to understand “how the change came about” is easier to accept in The Handmaid's Tale and in Benefits than in Le Guin's book. Moreover, readers, apparently misunderstanding the book, continue to irritate Le Guin by telling her that they assume that the world of the Kesh has arisen after a nuclear war. The few references to a transition in Always Coming Home do leave open the possibility that this is somehow a postholocaust world: despite Le Guin's violent denials, little explanation is offered in the book of how today's global tensions were resolved or how the population was reduced.4 Because Le Guin's utopia is unclear about how this wonderful new Northern California came to be or what happened to the rest of the world, it makes it difficult for me to give myself over fully to the fantasy of living there. While this may be quibbling, the earlier 1970s utopias I referred to—particularly those of Piercy and Russ, the utopias in which I would most like to live—not only depicted the entire planet and not just a peaceful valley, but also addressed the issue of how we got from here to there.

It is relatively easy to relate the decline in utopian writing to larger social and political events and to see the dystopian novels I have described as ominous signs of what may lie ahead. My concern is not only with the accuracy of such visions, however, but also with their impact: what effect do these more pessimistic works have on readers, particularly when compared to the earlier visions of a future structured by feminist principles and ideals? More bluntly, what fictional strategy serves the building of a new society best? The evocation of images of a better future, along with indications of how we get there? Or, at a time of increasing threat, does it make more sense to try to warn people that the battle is far from won?

The argument that we need such cautionary tales harks back to an older critique of utopianism. The move away from utopian writing and toward more “realistic” visions of the future could be seen as a way of maintaining our vigilance. According to this view, the building of a better society does not require images of that better world, but the energy, anger, and strategies to change this one. Utopian visions perhaps too quickly skip to the alternative and too quickly forget the intermediate fight, particularly now that so many of our recent gains are under attack. Nevertheless, I think that the utopian novels of the 1970s were successful. Not only because I and many others might choose to live in worlds in process, like those described by Piercy and Russ, but also because they have helped carry the vision of an alternative to a new and larger audience. I have been critical, at times extremely so, of these four more dystopian works, and I am disappointed and worried by the decline in utopian writing. Yet I recognize that all four of the novels I have discussed were written from perspectives which I would consider close to my own. I share the impulse which fuels them: the fear of a future in which the modest social gains of the 1960s and 1970s have been rolled back, Pat Robertson has been elected president, or Elliot Abrams and Oliver North have engineered a coup to protect “traditional American values.” At the same time, despite my reservations, I share the longing expressed in Elgin's vision of a language which is no longer determined by nor productive of the deforming and exploitive reality of capitalist patriarchy, but one which enables and reflects a transformed reality—indeed, a society like the one Le Guin shows us in the valley of the Kesh.

Dreams are not enough, however. Atwood, Elgin, and Fairbairns all show us the dangers of complacency or relaxed vigilance. The purpose of this paper has been to describe and defend the political dimension of these novels and to counteract reading strategies which obscure or deny the “literal” meanings of such crucial works. While there is much to love and enjoy in this privileged corner of our own world, the utopian impulse at the heart of all science fiction, the awareness of the fundamental insufficiencies of the present, and the longing for a more just and humane world should not be denied.


  1. The classics include: Suzy McKee Charnas, Motherlines (1979); Sally Gearhart, The Wanderground (1978); Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1975); Marge Piercy, Woman on The Edge of Time (1976); and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975). For a discussion of this revival, see my “‘So We All Became Mothers,’” and its sequel, “For Men Only.”

    This is an expanded and revised version of an article, “The Decline of the Feminist Utopian Novel,” written for Borderlines [Toronto] 7/8 (Spring/Summer 1987): 17-19; earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy held at the University of California at Riverside (Apr. 1987) and at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Utopia Studies Association at Media, Penn. (Oct. 1987).

  2. The “main concern” of Peter Ruppert's recent study, Reader in a Strange Land, is “with the pragmatic or functional aspects of utopian literature: how these works engage us and position us as readers attending to their arguments and messages, how they may activate and liberate us in this process or how they may leave us passive and complacent” (5).

  3. In the initial judgment in the Baby M case, the court ruled against the natural claim of motherhood in favor of a contractual agreement, a ruling which some feared might open the floodgates to commercial babyfarming, through the creation of a subclass of poor women who would become hatcheries for the rich. However, in Feb. 1988, Chief Justice Robert Wilentz of the New Jersey Supreme Court found “the payment of money to a surrogate mother illegal, perhaps criminal and potentially degrading to women.” As Phyllis Chesler pointed out after the ruling, “This judgment says that women can't be owned or rented, babies can't be sold, and birth mothers and babies have a right to each other.” Wilentz and Chesler are cited by Michele Landsberg in her column in the Toronto Globe & Mail, Feb. 6 1988.

  4. This was, for instance, the first question asked of Le Guin at a reading in Toronto in 1985. In her review of Le Guin's novel in In These Times [Chicago] (12-18 Feb. 1986), Kathryn Vangen mentions a similar incident in a reading in Seattle. “Yet, one wonders [Vangen writes], how do we get from here to there? How do we reduce the world's population significantly (without, heaven forbid, nuclear war)? How do we readjust our thinking about the use of technology? … As spellbinding and mesmerizing as Always Coming Home may be, it provides but one brief, fantastic escape from now” (18).

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

———. Interview, New York Times, 17 Feb. 1986.

Barr, Marlene S., ed. Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Bowling Green, Oh.: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1981.

Bray, Mary Kay. “The Naming of Things: Men and Women, Language and Reality in Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue.Extrapolation, 27: 2 (Summer 1986): 49-61.

Elgin, Suzette Haden. Native Tongue. NYC: Daw Books, 1984.

———. The Judas Rose. NYC: Daw Books, 1987.

Fairbairns, Zoe. Benefits. London: Virago, 1979.

Fitting, Peter. “‘So We All Became Mothers’: New Roles for Men in Recent Utopian Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 12 (1985): 156-83.

———. “Positioning and Closure: On the Reading-Effect of Contemporary Utopian Fiction.” Utopian Studies I, edited by Gorman Beauchamp, Kenneth Roemer, and Nicholas Smith, pp. 23-36. New York: University Press of America, 1987.

———. “For Men Only: A Guide to Reading Single-Sex Worlds.” Women's Studies 14 (1987): 101-17.

Greene, Gayle. “Choice of Evils.” Women's Review of Books 3: 10 (July 1986).

Le Guin, Ursula K. Always Coming Home. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Rohrlich, Ruby, and Elaine Hoffman Baruch, eds. Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers. New York: Schocken, 1984.

Ruppert, Peter. Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Elizabeth Mahoney (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Mahoney, Elizabeth. “Writing So to Speak: The Feminist Dystopia.” In Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham, pp. 29-40. London: Longman, 1996.

[In the following essay, Mahoney examines how women challenge male authority and inherited gender stereotypes in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Vlady Kociancich's The Last Days of William Shakespeare.]

Why … not add a supplement to history? calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety?

Virginia Woolf1

We must always keep open a supplementary space for the articulation of cultural knowledges that are adjacent and adjunct but not necessarily accumulative, teleological, or dialectical.

Homi K. Bhabha2

A ‘supplementary space’ where ‘women might figure’: the space delineated in an ironic fashion by Woolf and positively by Bhabha aptly describes the feminist dystopia, the future fiction set in a ‘bad place’ for women. In this chapter I will argue that the dystopia offers a potentially radical fictional space in which women can unravel and re-imagine existing power relations. My interest here is in one particular sphere of authority—that gained through control of narrative and articulation—but the formal tension contained by the genre (at a distance from the socio-political real, but always in relation to it) ensures that the dystopia is always concerned with the workings of power at different historical moments. When women subvert the generic tradition in feminist ‘bad place’ narratives, these networks of power can be seen through ‘a different lens’, as Christa Wolf puts it, one which has gender as its focus.3

Two recent feminist dystopias—Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Vlady Kociancich's The Last Days of William Shakespeare (1990)—self-consciously foreground relations of gender and power in inherited, established types of discourse, and speculate on ways in which women might begin to challenge such authority. The Handmaid's Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a right-wing religious regime, occupying the former United States. Women are divided into three groups according to their reproductive potential and class position: wives, econowives and handmaids who act as surrogates for barren women. The Last Days of William Shakespeare depicts a ‘Campaign for Cultural Reconstruction’ in a South American state, focusing in particular on the fanaticism of the politicians who impose a ban on all non-indigenous cultural production. Each novel includes two competing, gendered narratives (narrative authority coded as masculine, silence as feminine) which clash in a power struggle within the fictional space: a masculine spoken or written discourse (the Historical Notes section of The Handmaid's Tale and the chapters of Kociancich's text which focus on the prize-winning author, Santiago Bonday) and a feminine, autobiographical text (Offred's story and Renata's letters and diary). Although these cover the same ground and are linked to the same plots, different narratives emerge from these antithetical spaces; this difference is crucially connected to power. While the dominant masculine text is the site of plot detail, history and tradition, the women's narratives occupy a much more tenuous, marginal place. As well as describing the cultural place occupied by the dystopia (as a conventionally popular, non-realist form), I want to suggest that the term ‘supplement’ can also be used productively in a reading of Offred and Renata's texts; they write in a supplementary representational place from which binary oppositions (such as masculine and feminine, articulation and silence) can be confused and destabilised:

The supplement is one of these ‘undecidables’. In French, as in English, it means both an addition and a substitute. It is something added, extra, superfluous, above and beyond what is already fully present; it is also a replacement for what is absent, missing, lacking, thus required for completion or wholeness.4

Derrida argues that it is the in-between status of the supplement—something ‘added’ and ‘what is absent’—that makes it threatening: ‘Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence-absence. That is the danger.’5 Thus the power relations between any discourse and its supplements are not fixed but fluid (‘slidings’), and this is because the supplement occupies a position beyond interpretation or containment. My reading of these two dystopias will focus on the ‘slidings’ of power within the texts and, in particular, the site of this battle: narrative authority and control. The struggle which we witness in these texts has, of course, a symbolic value: Offred and Renata's attempts to construct their narratives represent in microcosm feminist projects to uncover neglected women writers and to voice a different perspective from that articulated by the literary and historical canon. Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text (1973) offers a strikingly suggestive theoretical and metaphorical parallel to the power struggles represented in these narratives, as it develops gender-specific components (plaisir and its supplement jouissance) in an erotics of reading. I want to begin by looking at the representatives of control and authority in each text, aligning them with Barthes's notion of plaisir or ‘pleasure’, before moving on to examine the narrative supplements: the women's writing which threatens existing textual order and brings jouissance or ‘bliss’ into the narrative. I conclude with an examination of the clash between these two orders and the uneasy resolution offered by each.

The male protagonists of these dystopias occupy central positions within literary and historical establishments:

… the tall elegant figure, the attentive gray eyes, the pipe held in his hand like a small intellectual torch; the prize-winning writer, Santiago Bonday, or ‘The Master’ as he is known.6

Keynote Speaker: Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director, Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Archives, Cambridge University, England.7

The ‘Master’ and the ‘Professor’ are at one with tradition and culture, part of the academic or literary mainstream: ‘prize-winning’, ‘Director’, ‘Keynote Speaker’. Pieixoto works with archive material at Cambridge and has ‘Darcy’ as his second name, while Bonday invents himself in the text as the sensitive artist with his ‘tall elegant figure’, ‘attentive gray eyes’ and pipe. Each of these details aligns them both with Barthes's description of the reader/text of plaisir, and situates them absolutely within dominant discourses:

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.8

Such texts reaffirm some archaic order; they reinforce values and systems of dominance rather than challenging them. In this definition of the text of pleasure we begin to see that this ‘pleasure’ includes power: these texts ‘fill’, ‘grant euphoria’ and ‘come from culture’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this power is gender-specific: throughout The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes describes a male reader taking ‘his pleasure’ (P [The Pleasure of the Text] 3); both the spectator and the pleasure are delineated as specifically masculine. The trope of ‘voyeur’ is introduced to describe the reading subject of criticism or commentary, and a voracious reader who skips passages of a text is compared to:

… a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer's striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

(P 11)

Although Barthes replaces the usual ‘I’ or ‘he’ of his text with ‘we’, so that ‘we resemble’ this spectator (and become implicated in the violation of the ‘tease’), ‘we’ tear off the dancer's clothes (or perhaps ‘unknot’ from dénouement, which is presumably what ‘we’ are hastening towards), this ‘spectator’ is unquestionably male; the female dancer is also in the same order, trapped and objectified in ritual. Thus within The Pleasure of the Text, the woman is contained by an ‘order’ of sexual and textual exploitation, and it is this same order that is in place—then contested—in Atwood and Kociancich's texts.

Both Pieixoto and Bonday knowingly occupy a position of mastery and their texts are constructed to perform this mastery—of history and literature, but also of the feminine subjects (or objects) of their narratives. This is clearest in Professor Pieixoto's academic paper entitled ‘Problems of Authentication …’ within the Historical Notes coda to The Handmaid's Tale. Like the voracious reader of plaisir who ‘speeds up the dancer's striptease’, Pieixoto's text moves obsessively towards a dénouement, a denuding of the handmaid's text. The ‘pleasure’ of this text is inextricably linked with interpretation, and this act of historical interpretation is an attempt to keep the handmaid and her narrative in ‘the same order’ of supplementarity or subservience. Pieixoto is concerned only with definition, rationalisation, finding and demonstrating ‘proof’ or truth, essentially epistemic questions. Much of his paper is taken up with trying to establish the handmaid's identity so that ‘we might be well on the way to an explanation of how this document—let me call it that for the sake of brevity—came into being’ (HMT [The Handmaid's Tale] 315). Pieixoto's performance is driven by a desire for closure, to ‘arrange’ (314), ‘to make some decision’ (314), to ‘understand’ (315), to ‘deduce’ (323) or ‘decipher’ (324) the handmaid's tale. His irritation at the text's resistance to this process of interpretation, both in terms of what is said and the way in which it is spoken, is clear: ‘we had to go over it several times, owing to the difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, and archaisms’ (HMT 314, emphasis added).

This division also structures Bonday's narrative in The Last Days of William Shakespeare:

I do not answer him as Santiago Bonday, the writer, but as Santiago Bonday, the man.

After a lifetime dedicated to art for art's sake, I feel it unnecessary to justify a body of work translated into more than fifteen languages, which, over the past decades has won every major national literary prize and even the congratulations … of our country's Presidents. However, I wish to correct your critic's crude interpretation.

(LD [The Last Days of William Shakespeare] 95)

In this rare example of first person narration which, as in Pieixoto's paper, appears only within a context of formulaic, clichéd language (epitomised by ‘art for art's sake’), ‘I’ is used to signify the writer's claims to intellectual superiority. As with the sudden change of pronoun in Barthes's text, we should be immediately suspicious; the textual effect is not what we might expect: the use of ‘I’ actually serves to depersonalise and distance Bonday's discourse further. The ‘I’ here is a universal subject, which can transcend all cultural and historical specifics, ‘translating’ into any language—and one which can unquestioningly assert itself as both the ‘writer’ and the ‘man’. Bonday's main, hyperbolic sentence aligns his ‘body of work’ with both the literary (‘every major national literary prize’) and political establishment (‘our country's Presidents’), and it is this alliance with dominant discourses which empowers him to state, ‘I wish to correct …’. Bonday writes in confidence; it is a formal, rhetorical, polished text (thus the use of ‘I’ is to produce a specific rhetorical, textual effect, marking this text as that of a man of letters).

His status as literary ‘master’ is performative and self-conscious:

As happened for a few minutes every day, the contents of his workroom injected Bonday with a dose of literary adrenalin. The armchairs upholstered in soft fragrant leather; the exquisitely bound books that lined the walls; the table piled with the Greek and Latin classics for easy, though always postponed, reference. In his office there was his electric typewriter, half a ream of A4 paper, notebooks full of jottings …

(LD, 7)

Bonday masquerades as artist, surrounding himself with signs of artistry and success. He spends much of his time maintaining what he considers to be an appropriate public image, carrying with him (rather than reading) Dante in winter and Shakespeare in summer: ‘Both fitted his image as a man of letters, but above all they helped him to believe in his passion for the classics … He didn't often actually read the book’ (LD 65). However, he is bored by his own success and the ease with which he writes, and this is confirmed by the details of his workroom: the ‘few minutes’ of enthusiasm each day, the full notebooks, the half-used ream of paper. We rarely see Bonday write anything at all, and it increasingly seems as if his work emerges effortlessly, almost slides from literary tradition itself, rather than from ‘The Master’. The attention to sensual and surface detail here reinforces this feeling; the upholstery, binding, lining, books used as accessories foreground material and domestic possessions, rather than the introspection and reflection we might expect and which we come to associate with Renata, the struggling woman writer in Kociancich's text.

Yet this effortlessness is a sign of authority, and in both texts the control of language and utterance is mirrored structurally in the division of the novels: it is in Bonday and Pieixoto's narratives that we find the ‘controlling’ elements of plot and time foregrounded. For example, in the Historical Notes we get most of our detailed information about the Gileadean regime, and through this Offred's tale is placed in an historical and cultural context. Bonday's narrative details the ‘Campaign of Cultural Reconstruction’—both the escalation of power and his involvement in it—in a thinly-disguised future Argentina. This political fanaticism is only obliquely referred to in Renata's diary and letters. It is important that both of these dominant discourses—the ‘Master's’ and the ‘Professor's’—are shown to have survived the ‘bad place’: Pieixoto's paper is a commentary on the historical past of Gilead, and Bonday returns from exile after the Campaign has been defeated.

However, it is clear from the titles The Last Days of William Shakespeare and ‘Problems of Authentication’ that the power of Bonday and Pieixoto's discourses is challenged by Renata and Offred's antithetical narratives; the masculine texts are threatened with extinction by the supplements. I want to move now to these voices which threaten to dislocate existing textual power relations, or in Barthes's terms from the realm of pleasure which is delineated as masculine, to that of ‘bliss’ or jouissance, which is implicitly feminine. This involves a shift of attention from that which ‘grants euphoria’ to ‘the absolutely new’ (P 40); from the voyeur/spectator tearing his way towards control of discourse to that which disrupts ‘the order’ through a relocation; to the women who speak from a different place:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

(HMT 62)

… this dry husk of a world that closes in and chokes you before you find your real voice. Here we don't mature, we just grow old in darkness and silence … It's the flow of a river not its origins that interests me, so I'll never find the fountainhead.

(LD 96-7)

In these excerpts from Offred and Renata's texts it is immediately clear that we are outside ‘master’ narratives. Here, a supplementary perspective and voice is articulated and an idiolect, the language of the individual subject, replaces the language of the establishment or institution. This ‘tiny writing’ occupies a tenuous place; it is only ‘scratched’ skin-deep, almost tattooed ‘with a pin’ in the darkest corner. The tools for writing, a pin or fingernail, are the antithesis of Bonday's ‘exquisite’ and ‘fragrant’ study and his typewriter; the women are writing primitively. Despite being hidden in darkness, the feminine voice is under threat before it has spoken from a ‘dry’ world which ‘closes in and chokes’ the beginnings of its ‘flow’. For the woman whose ‘tiny writing’ Offred discovers it is already too late: she hanged, choked and silenced herself. In her text, which translates as ‘don't let the bastards grind you down’, she has, however, managed to appropriate and subvert dominant and oppressive language. Because of where it is written or how it is spoken, the message becomes potentially radicalising. Renata and Offred's texts are written and spoken in the shadows, through ‘darkness and silence’ and it is their origins in this darkest corner which marks them as texts of ‘bliss’.

Barthes associates jouissance more with creative or writing processes, than with the activity of reading which is aligned with pleasure (we can note here that Bonday and Pieixoto write little or nothing, while Renata and Offred are constantly concerned with issues of narration and pulling their texts together from the dark corners). Barthes also seems to designate ‘edges’ and ‘shadows’ as feminine:

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow … but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text … The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject.

(P 32)

That this ‘shadow’ should be both fecund and fragmented in discourse (‘a bit of representation’) signals it as a space in which a feminine spectre, ‘a bit of subject’, can be located. If we consider for a moment the places in which the feminine texts are written, this link becomes even clearer. The Historical Notes suggest that Offred's tapes may have been recorded in attics or cellars of ‘safe houses’; the message in Latin is found closeted in the wardrobe; and some of Renata's letters and diaries are written from the ‘red office’. Atwood and Kociancich's protagonists both produce fragmented texts: Offred's account is divided into the speculative ‘Night’ sections and other chapters dealing with the daily, lived reality of life in Gilead; Renata's narrative is composed of letters to a writer in exile, Emilio Rauch, and private (and again, more speculative) diary entries. While these divisions are not fixed—and indeed they begin to dissolve as the texts progress—the narrating subjects emerging from these texts are fragmented. Each narrative posits a feminised idiolect being constructed in the margins, away from the mainstream. The women's narratives are constructed in a safe place, a supplementary cultural space; for Renata this is in the form of letters that will never be sent—‘I write you letters which aren't real letters’ (LD 71)—and for Offred, the ‘supplement’ is rendered possible by the freedoms of anonymity and the random, spoken word in her autobiographical tape-recordings.

One of the most striking ways in which these feminine texts declare their otherness is by exposing the very moments of their construction:

I'm all beginnings. Here I am, docile and lazy, into the first lines of a blank notebook … I've nothing to say. Perhaps there's no such thing as a writer's destiny and it's all just a pathetic exploration of loneliness, a search for an escape route out of all the confusion and silence.

… Good grief, I've actually started the diary. But nothing I do comes out right. This doesn't read like a page in a diary.

(LD 5, 6)

It isn't story I'm telling.

It's also a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along.

… 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.

(HMT 49, 76)

We see Renata and Offred at the moments of composition, moments which are screened in the Professor's and Master's narratives: at the ‘beginnings’, ‘blank’, with ‘nothing to say’, exploring, searching through confusion (‘It isn't a story … It's also a story …’), in composition. It is not only the texts but the subject which is in crisis; the self is seen as other: ‘I'm all beginnings’, ‘I compose myself’, ‘I call up my memories and see myself’ (LD 52). Subjectivity is ‘composed’ in language, in the text, moving from ‘confusion and silence’ to a narrative identity. Offred's statement that she composes herself ‘as one composes a speech’ suggests that these compositions are not only synchronous, but the same process; ‘language, or the signs of language, or subjectivity itself are put into process’.9

The self-reflexive quality of Offred and Renata's narratives foregrounds both the act of narration itself—‘I've actually started the diary’, ‘a story I'm telling’—and the unease experienced in this position. This unease manifests itself in subjects and texts which are contradictory and unstable; Offred uses the space of her text to wonder whether or not she is ‘telling’ a story. Renata's narrative also posits a problematic relationship between speaker and text and subjectivity. From the beginning of her text she details obstacles to her writing and, unlike Bonday, has no image of herself as a writer. As the oppression escalates in the novel, her hold on textuality and subjectivity becomes increasingly precarious: ‘I can't find the words to express myself’ (LD 160), becomes ‘I slowly drift further and further away from myself’ (LD 205). She even describes the emptiness of her life in a textual analogy: ‘It's like a novel without a plot, a short story without a story’ (LD 11). Thus writing and narrating in these texts are inextricably bound up with being; rather than using the centripetal discourse of Pieixoto (interpretation) or Bonday (plot), Renata and Offred attempt to move through or beyond the text to subjectivity.

Thus far we have seen how the feminine discourses distance themselves from those described as dominant; they eschew traditions not recognised as their own and attempt to speak or write another. However, it is particularly through their resistance to closure and to the interpretative filter of ‘plaisir’ that these narratives present their greatest threat:

… you'll repeat your name, in nights to come, in your dream of another struggle, alive and writing in the sun, Renata, tomorrow. …

(LD 230)

Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped.

And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light.

(HMT 307)

The most obvious manifestation of this resistance is the way in which the women's texts end. Indeed, both refuse to end, referring speculatively to the post-narrative; Offred and Renata ‘step up’ and out of the narrative, to the unknown, to ‘strangers’, a dream, ‘tomorrow …’. The openness of these final sentences, epitomised by the classic antitheses in Offred's text and the obscurity of meaning at the end, coupled with the possibility that this is in fact ‘a new beginning’, radicalise the women's narratives. These endings can be compared to Pieixoto's and Bonday's texts, which end, respectively, with ‘Any Questions?’ and ‘The Master’ back at the top of the literary establishment, literally back where we started. Renata and Offred's narratives resist any dénouement, and thus they are not allowed to have the final word (they are not ‘the end’ of either novel); as we shall see in a moment, the dominant discourse asserts itself and attempts to fill in, to speak/write the ending.

However, it is not only the endings which work against closure; the women's texts as a whole are non-linear, at once self-conscious of narrativity and at the same time denying and disrupting narrative. As we have seen, they refuse to give the reader an ending; we, with Offred, ‘have no way of knowing’, not just at the end but throughout the text. These discourses foreground reconstruction, layering, ‘flashback’, spoken or written by an anonymous narrator: ‘It didn't happen that way either. I'm not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction …’ (HMT 275). Narrative works here as ‘a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface’ (HMT 153); this reminds us of the handmaid carving out her Braille-like message on the smooth wood of the wardrobe, and emphasises the arbitrary narrative identity of these texts: indistinct, indefinable ‘shapes’. Spatial metaphors predominate in both texts; Renata is drawn to labyrinthine spaces such as the National Theatre: ‘There's so much mystery in its empty rooms, in the spaces opening out onto nothing. I admit it: I love these long random walks, these inexplicable voids’ (LD 37, emphasis added). It is within such textual and subjective spaces that they arrange the ‘shapes’ that constitute their narratives. Offred's most speculative narration comes in the series of chapters simply entitled ‘Night’ in which she seems freed from the constraints of chronology, place and narrative order: ‘But night is my time out. Where should I go?’ (HMT 47).

The non-linearity of these narratives is further emphasised by the surfacing of memory:

All I have left now is my memory … In the memories that keep me poised on the edge of the abyss, until they open the door, I seem such a stranger.

(LD 221)

Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before, playing baseball, in jeans and sneakers, riding their bicycles? Reading books, all by themselves?

… after that they won't. They'll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they'll always have been silent.

(HMT 231)

Renata makes explicit the role memory plays in stabilising a dangerously precarious subjectivity, keeping her from ‘the abyss’—the confusion and silence which threatened her early texts. Offred too recognises that memory may prevent women from being pushed back to the ‘edges’, losing their idiolect, being ‘silent’ in groups. Memory is linked with both textual and political resistance for women; indeed Offred's entire narrative is marked by memory, and her fragile hold on subjectivity is under threat from what she calls ‘attacks of the past’ (HMT 62):

… a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

(HMT 13)

This excerpt, from the opening paragraph of the novel, shows Offred's text starting from memory and is also suggestive of the textual identity of the women's narratives in the novels. The notion of palimpsest, a text whose original inscription has been replaced, making space for a second writing and another meaning, is crucial not only for Renata and Offred, but also for Atwood and Kociancich who are engaged in acts of genre subversion.10 The feminist dystopia, a ‘style upon style’, transforms the ‘bad place’ to a space for a feminine and transforming narrative, previously ‘unheard’, ‘forlorn’, an ‘undercurrent’. Like memory in the texts, such supplementary writing (Offred, Atwood, Renata, and Kociancich) occupies a tenuous textual position, remaining fragile, a ‘wail’, ‘powder’, ‘snow’, ‘tissue paper’. Yet within this fragility lies a power: through genre subversion, new textual identities emerge which allow women to move towards self-representation.

I want to look finally at the clash of the dominant discourse and the feminine idiolect, at the moments at which plaisir and jouissance come into conflict. Two moments in particular are of interest here: the first is when the feminine text disrupts the text of pleasure to such an extent that ‘a state of loss’ (P 14) is engendered; the second sees the restoration of the dominant discourse.

Bonday had imagined that writing this letter would be one of the few pleasant moments he would enjoy at this time, but now he was having real difficulty finishing it.

(LD 187)

Increasingly, in The Last Days of William Shakespeare, it is Renata's text which becomes central, moving from the shadows to assume control of the whole narrative. Plot, which had been found only in Bonday's text, relocates to hers, his sentences begin to fragment, breaking down into series of dots, which we might associate rather with Renata early in the novel. Bonday is also suffering from sexual impotence and thus in both senses his ‘small intellectual torch’, which first aligned him with the text of pleasure, has been replaced by that ‘dissolve’ which bliss brings. He has recurrent nightmares, linked to his impotence; the divide between unconscious and conscious is that which dissolves. When he looks at himself in the mirror he sees not only a grotesque image, but, importantly, sees himself as other:

The man in the mirror made him feel indignant, ashamed. ‘I drank a whole bottle, what an animal.’ Fixed by the frame of gilt garlands, he observed himself with horror and fascination. ‘A sick, slobbering wolf.’

(LD 101)

This perception of self-as-other is something we associate very much with Renata in the early part of the novel, and this contrasts sharply with Bonday's seamless performance as the prize-winning author. Crucial points in his breakdown include his first sighting and subsequent infatuation with Renata, and his conversations with a child who later dies, leaving Bonday in a ‘daytime nightmare’ (LD 173). Both are outside dominant discourse; both, from the margins or ‘edges’, prevent ‘The Master’ from writing and eventually push him into exile—literal and metaphoric—from discourse and from himself.

The ‘state of loss’ in The Handmaid's Tale emerges as Pieixoto realises he will not be able to complete the desired interpretative process on the feminine text:

… many gaps remain. Some of them could have been filled by our anonymous author, had she had a different turn of mind. She could have told us much about the workings of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy. What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of printout from Waterford's private computer!

(HMT 322)

His irritation is made clear by the ‘had she had …’ clauses, established earlier on by a sentence which begins, ‘She does not see fit …’ (318). It is also obvious that the historian would be happier with a text of pleasure, a masculine narrative, from a ‘spy’, ‘reporter’ or, better still, the Commander—all discourses of pleasure, which would fill those ‘gaps’. Offred's discourse itself is of no value, as it cannot, despite their reconstruction and arrangement, offer the editors detail or fact; it cannot be pinned down. The moment at which jouissance surfaces, however, comes when Pieixoto names her text as other, as beyond his interpretation:

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; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of out own day.

(HMT 324, emphasis added)

The denotation of ‘matrix’ as linguistic register here, which is presumably what Pieixoto intends, is immediately replaced by the connotations of matrix as womb, as maternal space. This has already been set up in Offred's own narrative, at the ‘Birth Day’ ceremony: ‘Smell of matrix’ (HMT 133). He is unable to interpret the text of bliss, citing the matrix as that which prevents closure, that which disrupts and opens up the gaps. The maternal associations continue with ‘out of which they come’ and ‘imbued’, implying saturation, moistening, fluidity.

Plot and interpretation break down when faced with the non-linearity and ‘obscurity’ of the matrix. Pleasure is replaced by bliss and the masters of discourse are displaced by new voices, and yet, at the end of these novels, who is speaking? In both cases, the women have been silenced once more and it is the historian and the prize-winning author who have the final word. Bonday, rather interestingly, ends with, ‘Ah yes, for all their faults, one must recognize they've left their mark’ (LD 233), signalling that the feminine voice has been suppressed, but that it has ‘marked’ discourse. This restoration has come about through a second clash of bliss and pleasure (alternative and dominant, feminine and masculine), only this time pleasure has asserted itself though the violence alluded to earlier, in Barthes's trope of the spectator/voyeur at the striptease:

Without shouting, or struggling, without even any fear, I let him undress me and rape me. I keep my eyes wide open.

(LD 230)

We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer …

(HMT 324)

Renata is finally silenced through specifically masculine violence: if a woman's voice cannot be silenced, plaisir brutally re-asserts itself. Renata's final journal entry retells the quest for dénouement from the other side, from the victim's rather than the voyeur's gaze. Pieixoto's allusion to Eurydice provides a paradigm for the textual violence, which is of particular concern here; Eurydice was killed by Orpheus looking back at her, just as the handmaid's tale has been edited, rearranged, named and interpreted by the historian looking back. The rape and murder of Renata in the ‘red office’ and the textual suffocation of ‘Offred’ show the same desperate masculine discourse, re-asserting dominance through the only means it has left. These are, then, the ‘last days’ of such discourse and the ‘problems of authentication’ will not simply go away.

For the moment, however, the dominant discourse is able to assimilate Renata and Offred's texts to silence the disruptive narrative, that ‘something without a shape or name’ (HMT 13). Barthes's distinction between pleasure and bliss seems to suggest that this might be the case, bliss as a transitory, ecstatic moment, pleasure as order which must reassert itself: ‘it is a veritable époché, a stoppage which congeals all recognized values’ (P 65). Yet these ‘recognized values’ are called into question within the space of the fictions, and Pieixoto and Bonday—the spokesmen for such discourses—can never quite escape the shadow of the supplementary narratives: Pieixoto admits defeat in his interpretative quest and Bonday retreats into exile. Although at the end of the dystopias we are left with their presence and speech, both of these have been destabilised; the power and authority associated with the words of the professor and the prize-winning author have been challenged and marked by other voices: ‘… speech, silence, absence and presence operate contrapuntally so that the traces of absence and silence are always latent in speech and presence’.11 These ‘traces’ are foregrounded in each novel by a textual shock, a moment of horror within the reading of the text which makes clear the entrapment of the women's words: in The Last Days of William Shakespeare we realise that none of the letters Renata compulsively writes are ever sent (‘the letters never sent, intact, fresh, dead’, 221); in The Handmaid's Tale there is the shock of realising that Offred's narrative is a reconstruction, edited and arranged by Pieixoto. Thus Atwood and Kociancich do not show us a battle won; their texts include women's voices which remain only ‘adjacent and adjunct’, but the textual identity of the dystopia is irrevocably altered. The non-real fictional place is opened up to include other ‘cultural knowledges’ and the possibility of future feminine fictions. The woman's supplementary narrative occupies a crucial position: ‘[it] exists as a shifting, intermediary state, caught between its representations of its own appropriation and its enactment of an “otherness” it can only adumbrate, a “fiction” of what it might become’.12 The feminist dystopia offers a supplementary place for the multiplying of textual identities, making space for an alternative feminine idiolect and subjectivity to be inscribed in the ‘opened’ text:

All I can hear now is the sound of my own heart, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening.

(HMT 156)


  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Harmondsworth, Penguin 1945 edition, p. 39.

  2. Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, London, Routledge 1990, p. 313. Chapter title ‘Dissemination: Time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation’.

  3. Christa Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, London, Virago 1984, p. 271.

  4. Joan Scott, ‘Women's history’, in Peter Burke (ed.) New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Cambridge, Polity Press 1991, pp. 49-50. Scott uses the ‘contradictory logic’ of the supplement to analyse the discourses of women's history.

  5. Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato's pharmacy’, in Peggy Kamuf (ed.) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf 1991, p. 134.

  6. Vlady Kociancich, The Last Days of William Shakespeare, London, Heinemann 1990, p. 2. All further page references will be cited parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviation LD.

  7. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, London, Virago 1987, p. 311. All further page references will be cited parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviation HMT.

  8. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1990, p. 14. All further page references will be cited parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviation P.

  9. Julia Kristeva, ‘A question of subjectivity—an interview’, Women's Review 12, pp. 19-21. Reproduced in Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh (eds) Modern Literary Theory, A Reader, London, Edward Arnold 1989, p. 129.

  10. Atwood is engaged in a very specific act of genre subversion. The Handmaid's Tale subverts the Orwellian dystopia in a number of explicit ways (for example, the use of an historical ‘Appendix’), but is also littered with clues to and signs of the re-writing: for example, the hotel bedroom at the brothel is Room 101 and Atwood's novel (whichever edition is consulted) begins on page thirteen, just as the clocks are striking thirteen as an ominous note at the very beginning of Nineteen Eighty-Four. For a discussion of the genre subversion, see Amin Malak, ‘Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition’, Canadian Literature Spring 1987, pp. 9-16.

  11. Dympna Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf 1989, p. 74.

  12. Bette London, The Appropriated Voice: Narrative Authority in Conrad, Forster and Woolf, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press 1990, p. 133. London is describing the possibilities which French feminist theory offers for theorising the feminine voice.

Further Reading

There has been little critical consideration of women's experimentation with the dystopia, even within recent work on feminist genre fiction. However, each of the texts listed below includes some discussion of the feminist ‘bad place’.

Barkowski, Frances, Feminist Utopias, London, University of Nebraska Press 1991.

Barr, Marlene, Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory, Westport, Greenwood Press 1987.

Lefanu, Sarah, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, London, Women's Press 1988, chapter 7.

Mahoney, Elisabeth, ‘Writing so to speak: the feminist dystopia’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow, 1995.

Russell, Elizabeth, ‘The loss of the feminine principle in Charlotte Haldane's Man's World and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night’, in Lucie Armitt (ed.) Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction, London, Routledge 1991, pp. 15-28.

Wolmark, Jenny, Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf 1993.


Criticism: Dystopian Views In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985)


Further Reading