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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Complex Interplay of Dominance, Submission and Rebellion

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Critics read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as a cautionary story of oppression against women as well as a critique of radical feminism. Some who focus on Offred, the narrator and main character, criticize her passivity in the face of rigid limitations on her individual freedom: Gayle Green in her article, "Choice of Evils," published in The Women's Review of Books insists, "Offred is no hero." Barbara Ehrenreich in her New Republic article, "Feminism's Phantoms," finds her to be "a sappy stand-in for [1984's] Winston Smith. Even her friend Moira characterizes her as "a wimp." Yet, although Offred cannot be considered a more obvious traditional hero like Moira, an examination of her more subtle rebellion against the oppressive totalitarian regime which governs her life illustrates the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.

The Republic of Gilead is a typical totalitarian society in that it promotes terror tactics while enforcing its rigid dogmas. Amin Malak in "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition," notes that Gilead "prescribes a pattern of life based on frugality, conformity, censorship, corruption, [and] fear." The novel also illuminates the intricate politics of power; leaders define acceptable roles for subordinates (in this case, the women), who are said to be unable to perform more valued functions (reasoning and governing skills). As a result, subordinates often find it difficult to believe in their own ability.

Subordinates are encouraged to develop childlike characteristics—submissiveness, docility, dependency—that are pleasing to the dominant group. This group then legitimizes the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society's guiding concepts. In Gilead's power structure women are subservient to men because they are considered not as capable as men. This system involves the marginalization of women, illustrating Simone de Beauvoir's point in The Second Sex that a man defines a woman not as autonomous but only as relative to him. He is the Subject and she is the Other. Women in Gilead must concentrate on basic survival and so avoid direct, honest reactions to this marginalization and the terror tactics of those in power. Sometimes the women disguise their actions, appearing to accommodate the demands of this oppressive system, while subtly rebelling.

Throughout the novel, Offred proves her consistent efforts not only to survive, but also to maintain her individuality. When she begins her story with a flashback to her time at the Rachel and Leah Center, she illustrates the politics of power that characterize the novel. She notes the Aunts guarding them with electric cattle prods and leather belts, restricting their movement and interaction with each other. The Handmaids-in-training seem on the surface to submit to this treatment. At night, however, under the threat of severe beatings, they struggle to maintain contact with each other through silent communications in the dark.

Offred also risks physical harm when she steals a few minutes during bathroom breaks to speak to Moira. During these breaks the two women reminisce about past lives and voice their fears and disgust over their present reality. Offred notes, "there is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There's something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling....It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with."

As Offred's thoughts turn to the teenagers who must have once populated the former gymnasium, she commits a more personal act of rebellion. The citizens of the new Republic are repeatedly warned to forget the past or to view it with contempt. Yet, throughout her narrative, Offred continually flashes back to her life before the formation of Gilead, especially with her husband Luke and their daughter. These recollections of the freedom and happiness she used to have in her friendship with Moira, in her work, and in her life with family help her to maintain crucial ties to her past life and thus to a sense of identity.

Even under the strict regulations of the Commander's home, Offred finds ways to assert her individuality as she breaks rules. In the Commander's study she heroically reads forbidden books and magazines and begins to assert her own personality in her relationship with him. One of her most courageous actions occurs when she tells the Commander that she would like to know "what's going on"—everything from what the scribbled message "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" means to specific details about the inner workings of the Republic. When she wants to talk to the Commander instead of read, she breaks two rules: asking for "dangerous" information and forming a relationship with him. Both activities are against the law and thus acts of subversion.

Sometimes she openly disagrees with him, as when he tries to justify the dogmas of the new regime: "We've given women more than we've taken away. This way they all get a man, are protected and can fulfill their biological destinies in peace." Offred insists they overlooked love, a crucial element in the male/female relationship. Her more subtle acts of rebellion include hoarding butter from her meals to rub on her face, and saving a match that she considers using to burn down the house. Often during her nights alone in her room she tries to come to terms with what has happened to her and to decide what she can do in order to survive physically and mentally.

Her walks with Ofglen present a more overt juxtaposition of oppression, submission, and rebellion. Every day the pair observe the consequences of rebellion as they walk through machine-gun-guarded checkpoints, where suspected terrorists have been shot, and past the prison wall, where bodies of "war criminals" hang. When Ofglen identifies herself as part of the underground and elicits Offred's help, they both risk their lives. This fact becomes painfully apparent one day as they observe the secret police attack and whisk away a man walking in front of them. Even with this reminder that her survival depends on submission, Offred continues to gain forbidden information and will soon begin a relationship that will place her in more danger.

At first glance her relationship with Nick appears to be evidence of her desire to withdraw from the harsh realities of her world. She communicates less with Ofglen and claims little interest in discovering new information for her during nights with the Commander. Yet Offred knowingly places her life in real danger each time she meets Nick in his apartment.

Her physical relationship with Nick is also an act of subversion. In Gilead her body determines her function. As Offred notes, in her service as a Handmaid her body is no longer "an implement for the accomplishment of [her] will." Aunt Lydia has urged them at the Center to renounce themselves and become "impenetrable" and therefore pure breeding machines.

Offred regains some individual power when she takes back her body and offers it to Nick, willingly. Their sexual union and growing affection for each other prove that she has allowed her self to be "penetrated" both literally and figuratively. Although she feels ashamed when she admits to herself that she no longer wants to leave the Commander's home when she suspects she is pregnant, her desire to maintain her relationship with Nick and their child is another form of rebellion.

Atwood juxtaposes the actions of other female characters with those of Offred in order to highlight her sensibility and her courage. Offred appears to be not as strong as Moira or her mother, who was a radical feminist before the new Republic> took over. She admits she feels like "a wimp" when compared to her friend Moira who continually tries to escape the confines of the Republic. Yet Moira suffers greatly for her attempts; she is beaten severely and is sent to Jezebel's, where she will have "three or four good years" before she is sent "to the boneyard."

Offred insists that she wants "gallantry from [Moira], swashbuckling heroism, single-handed combat Something I lack." Yet Offred survives, unlike the "Incorrigibles" like Moira who are given two choices: a few years as either a prostitute at Jezebel's or a worker in the Colonies cleaning up toxic waste dumps and then death. Offred's mother, another more traditional hero, was sent to the Colonies. Before the new Republic took over, she had staged demonstrations against oppressive treatment of women and rallies to "Take Back the Night" from male predators. Yet Offred has "taken back the night" in her own personal way during her nightly meetings with Nick. Offred's heroism is more subtle, but no less dangerous, and it helps keep her alive.

Atwood also juxtaposes Offred's behavior with that of the pregnant Handmaid, Janine, who "testifies" about her gang rape and subsequent abortion and, spurred on by jeering women, admits full responsibility for these actions, thus setting a "good example" for the others. Janine gives in completely to the Republic and its dogma and as a result often slips into a trance-like state and loses all sense of reality and her own identity.

Throughout The Handmaid's Tale Atwood traces her heroine's efforts to cope, endure, and survive her nightmare world. Offred's account of her life in Gilead presents a fascinating portrait of the politics of power and the strength of the individual will in its struggle to preserve a sense of self.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Perkins is an Assistant Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has written numerous critical articles for essay collections, journals, and educational publishers.

Bradbury and Atwood. Exile as Rational Decision

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Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale depict the rational decision to go into exile, to leave one's native land, that is, the pre-exile condition. These novels present horrifying views of the near future where societal pressures enforce rigid limitations on individual freedom. Their alienated characters find their circumstances repugnant. Justice and freedom are denied them, along with the possibility for enriching their lives through intellectual pursuits. These speculative novels like Orwell's 1984 are dystopian in nature, showing how precarious are today's constitutional rights and how necessary it is to preserve these liberties for future generations. They depict ordinary people, caught in circumstances that they cannot control, people who resist oppression at the risk of their lives and who choose exile because it has to be better than their present, unbearable circumstances. Voluntary exile necessitates a journey into the unknown as an alternative to the certain repression of the present.

Both novels offer a bleak possible future for the United States. Bradbury, writing in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, envisions a time when people choose to sit by the hour watching television programs and where owning books is a crime. Atwood, in the 1980s, foresees a time when, in the wake of changes begun during the Reagan Administration, women are denied even the most basic rights of working and owning property. Both novels thus present "political" stances in the widest sense of the word....

The novels by Bradbury and Atwood examine the personal response of an individual who is in conflict with the majority in his society and whose occupation is abhorrent to him.... Atwood's novel recounts the story of a protagonist caught up in the rapid transition of her society. Dehumanized, stripped of her personal name and individual identity, and referred to only by the name of the man to whose household she is assigned, Offred (or Of-Fred), a handmaid, experiences firsthand an upheaval in the social order ending in limited personal freedom. The new oligarchy uses Old Testament injunctions to justify extreme repression. Like the shock troops to which they are compared, handmaids are in the avant garde of the social reform and they undergo brutal re-education at the Rachel & Leah Re-Education Centers, after which, like soldiers, they are "posted" to a commander's household. Even more than Montag, Offred's life is determined by her social role. As a fertile woman in a nearly sterile society, her function is to produce viable offspring, and her entire life is regulated by her reproductive duties. She describes herself and her fellow handmaids as "two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices." There is nothing erotic about the handmaids, their mission is strictly biological: "We are for breeding purposes: we aren't concubines, geisha girls, courtesans." From the beginning of the narrative, [Offred] is literally a prisoner, watched at all times and even tattooed with a number: "Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It's supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resoure."

In both novels the population is strictly regulated and the conduct of individuals is highly regimented. Indeed, in these repressive circumstances, it is not surprising that the protagonists would wish to flee, especially since, by the end of the novels, they have broken laws which would bring the death penalty if they were apprehended....

Discipline is less mechanized in The Handmaid's Tale but no less ruthless. Cadres of brutal "Aunts," "Angels," "Guardians," and "Eyes" enforce order in Atwood's imaginary Gilead. Cattleprods punish uncooperative handmaids in the rehabilitation center. For particularly bad infractions, the handmaids' hands and feet are tortured: "They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn't care what they did to your feet or your hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential." Other punishments are even more severe. A woman caught reading three times merits a hand cut off. Handmaids are executed for being unchaste, attempting to kill a commander, or trying to escape. Wives die for adultery or for attempting to kill a handmaid. As in the Middle Ages, cadavers of tortured prisoners are displayed on the town wall to encourage conformity to rules. Offred describes her reaction to the cadavers hanging there:

It's the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. Or as if their heads are sacks, stuffed with some undifferentiated material, like flour or dough. It's the obvious heaviness of the heads, their vacancy, the way gravity pulls them down and there's no life anymore to hold them up. The heads are zeros.

Execution is a public event, called a "Salvaging." The local women are assembled to witness the execution by hanging of two handmaids and a wife. The authorities decide to depart from past procedure and not read the crimes of the condemned in order to prevent a rash of similar crimes. Offred comments on the unpopularity of this decision: "The crimes of others are a secret language among us. Through them we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all." The assembled women are required to assent to the punishment, even though they do not know the nature of the crime. As part of the audience, Offred makes the ceremonial gesture of compliance with the execution: "I ... then placed my hand on my heart to show my unity with the Salvagers and my consent, and my complicity in the death of this woman."

An even more frightening public ceremony is that of "Particicution," where handmaids act as executioners of an accused rapist. Death is the punishment set in Deuteronomy 22:23-29. Offred paints the scene in terms of bloodlust: "The air is bright with adrenaline, we are permitted anything and this is freedom." The women literally tear the accused apart with their bare hands. These brutal ceremonies serve to release violent emotion in a socially approved setting, since its normal expression is otherwise denied....

Whereas in Fahrenheit 451 the government acted opportunistically, taking advantage of the lack of passionate readers to outlaw books, the government in The Handmaid's Tale actively shapes lifestyles through public policy. Atwood's protagonist recalls the governmental action that declares women may no longer own property and hold jobs. Offred is fired, along with every other woman in the country. Her money can be transferred to her husband, but she no longer may control the funds accessed by her plastic card. The government deprives women of the right to work and to own property simultaneously, to prevent a mass exodus. These freedoms were not the first to be lost, however. Offred explains the progressive loss of the women's constitutional rights, perpetrated by an ominous invisible group she identifies as "they":

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. . That was when they suspended the Constitution They said it would be temporary There wasn't even any rioting in the streets People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on

Still the transition is gradual and required the complicity of the populace: "We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it." The protagonist finally decides that the conditions of the military state are untenable and unsuccessfully tries to escape to freedom with her husband and child, only to find that it is too late. When captured, she is separated from her family whom she never sees again, and is forced to take her place as a handmaid.

In both novels books represent important artifacts of the past and the act of reading becomes a heroic gesture. This is not surprising, since both authors are avid readers and have described the importance of books in their lives.... Allusions to being denied the right to read occur throughout The Handmaid's Tale. As a handmaid, Offred is forbidden to read, a hardship for a person whose former job was in a library. The only words she sees are "faith" on the petit point cushion in her room and "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" (Don't let the bastards get you down), which is scratched in tiny letters near the floor of her cupboard. During the course of the novel, Offred recalls reading and having access to books and regrets her former blasé attitude toward them. Because they are now denied to her, they become very precious, whereas once books were commonplace and taken for granted. In the middle of the novel, her Commander (the Fred of Offred) invites her to forbidden soirées in his private study. He permits her to read old women's magazines. Offred philosophically reflects on the promise that the old magazines once held:

What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love The real promise in them was immortality.

The Commander not only lets Offred read magazines but plays Scrabble with her. This is the ultimate in forbidden games in a society where women are not allowed to read: "Now it's dangerous. Now it's indecent. Now it's something he can't do with his Wife. Now it's desirable. Now he's compromised himself. It's as if he's offered me drugs."

When the Commander allows Offred to read magazines, the experience is equated to the orgiastic pleasures of eating or of sex: "On these occasions I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished; if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up in an alley somewhere." The Commander, who watches the illicit reading, is described as a sort of pervert: "While I read, the Commander sits and watches me doing it, without speaking but also without taking his eyes off me. This watching is a curiously sexual act, and I feel undressed while he does it. I wish he would turn his back, stroll around the room, read something himself. Then perhaps I could relax more, take my time. As it is, this illicit reading of mine seems a kind of performance."

These magazines somehow escaped the government's attention, although house-to-house searches and bonfires were conducted on the orders of the oligarchy in order to remove all reading material from women. The government of Gilead denied women access to the printed word as a means of controlling them. Only the vicious Aunts are allowed to read and write as a part of their role in reeducating the handmaids. The effect of this is to silence the women, or as Atwood has said elsewhere: "The aim of all suppression is to silence the voice, abolish the word, so that the only voices and words left are those of the ones in power."

In her essays Atwood speaks out against suppression of reading and writing, abhoring fascism on anyone's part. This view is paralleled in the novel where Offred remembers as a young girl attending a magazine burning with her mother, who is recalled as a quintessential feminist demonstrator of the 1970s. As the pornographic material burns, the image evoked is particularly poetic: "I threw the magazine into the flames. It rifled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women's bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes." Offred's views toward women's rights are much less activist in nature than her mother's. The mother/daughter relationship is fraught with tension and their opposing viewpoints bring into question some of the tactics of the women's movement including the bookburning. After attending a "Birthing," a particularly grotesque woman's ritual in Gilead, Offred ironically comments: "Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies." Her feminist mother probably dies a victim of the new regime, but when Gilead comes into being, there is no triumph on the part of the right-wing opponents to the woman's movement like the Commander's Wife Serena Joy. These women also find no happiness in the new society.

Despite the fact that the social order is founded on biblical references, women are not allowed to read the Bible: "The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn't steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him [the commander], but we cannot read." Even the familiar reading passages read by the commander hold their attraction for those hungering for the written word: "He's like a man toying with a steak, behind a restaurant window, pretending not to see the eyes watching him from hungry darkness not three feet from his elbow. We lean towards him a little, iron filings to his magnet. He has something we don't have, he has the word. How we squandered it, once." Tapes of biblical readings are an integral part of the reeducation in the Rachel and Leah Centers. The quotations, however, have been changed to further the goals of the oligarchy. Offred notices transformations in the Beatitudes: "Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when." Her ironic comments underscore her frustration with the prohibition against reading and her resistance to indoctrination.

Just as the Beatitudes are rewritten, Marx's comments about the distribution of property are attributed to the Bible in order to justify the distribution of the precious and scarce handmaids in Gilead: "Not every Commander has a Handmaid: some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts."

The author's ironic use of religious terms becomes comic when she creates the franchise "Soul Scrolls," where prayers are continually spewed out on printout machines called "Holy Rollers" and paid for by pious citizens. Like the flavors in an ice cream store, there are five different prayers: "for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin." The state religion distortedly caricatures fundamentalist beliefs, including having a former television gospel singer as the Commander's Wife.

Each novel ends with the protagonist's escape and the beginning of his exile from repression. There is some ambiguity, however, since the alternative order is not elaborated on. In the last lines of her tale [Offred] describes her feelings as she steps into the Black Maria which has come for her: "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." The postscript "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale" provides information that the heroine survives to record her story on cassette tapes. She is rescued by the Mayday organization of the Underground Femaleroad. Her ultimate fate is unknown to the scholars of 2195 who, in an academic conference, comment on the handmaid's story as a historical document from the past.

The appeal of these two highly acclaimed novels stems from the main characters' difficult situations in a repressive future United States. The plausible explanations given by both Bradbury and Atwood for the ghastly turn taken by American society in the futures they portray serves as a vivid reminder that freedom must be vigilantly guarded in order to be maintained. Apathy and fear create unlivable societies from which only a few courageous souls dare escape. "Ordinary," says one of the cruel Aunts of The Handmaid's Tale, "is what you are used to." The main characters never are able to accept the "ordinariness" of the repression which surrounds them. They are among the few who are willing to risk the difficult path of exile.

Source: Diane S Wood, "Bradbury and Atwood. Exile as Rational Decision," in The Literature of Emigration and Exile, edited by James Whitlark and Wendall Aycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1992, pp. 131-42.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition

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One of [The Handmaid's Tale's] successful aspects concerns the skillful portrayal of a state that in theory claims to be founded on Christian principles, yet in practice miserably lacks spirituality and benevolence. The state in Gilead prescribes a pattern of life based on frugality, conformity, censorship, corruption, fear, and terror—in short, the usual terms of existence enforced by totalitarian states, instance of which can be found in such dystopian works as Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, and OrWell's 1984.

What distinguishes Atwood's novel from those dystopian classics is its obvious feminist focus. Gilead is openly misogynistic, in both its theocracy and practice. The state reduces the handmaids to the slavery status of being mere "breeders." ... The handmaid's situation lucidly illustrates Simone de Beauvoir's assertion in The Second Sex [Knopf, 1971] about man defining woman not as an autonomous being but as simply what he decrees to be relative to him: "For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not with reference to her; she is the incidental, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other." This view of man's marginalization of woman corroborates Foucault's earlier observation about the power-sex correlative; since man holds the sanctified reigns of power in society, he rules, assigns roles, and decrees after social, religious, and cosmic concepts convenient to his interests and desires.

However, not all the female characters in Atwood's novel are sympathetic, nor all the male ones demonic. The Aunts, a vicious elite of collaborators who conduct torture lectures, are among the church-state's staunchest supporters; these renegades turn into zealous converts, appropriating male values at the expense of their feminine instincts. One of them, Aunt Lydia, functions, ironically, as the spokesperson of antifeminism; she urges the handmaids to renounce themselves and become non-persons: "Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen—to be seen—is to be—her voice trembled—penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls." On the other hand, Nick, the Commander's chauffeur, is involved with the underground network, of men and women, that amis at rescuing women and conducting sabotage. Besides, Atwood's heroine constantly yearns for her former marriage life with Luke, presently presumed dead. Accordingly, while Atwood poignantly condemns the misogynous mentality that can cause a heavy toll of human suffering, she refrains from convicting a gender in its entirety as the perpetrator of the nightmare that is Gilead. Indeed, we witness very few of the male characters acting with stark cruelty; the narrative reports most of the violent acts after the fact, sparing the reader gory scenes. Even the Commander appears more pathetic than sinister, baffled than manipulative, almost, at times, a Fool.

Some may interpret Atwood's position here as a non-feminist stance, approving of women's status-quo. In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, [March 21, 1986] Lorna Sage describes The Handmaid's Tale as Atwood's "revisionist look at her more visionary self," and as "a novel in praise of the present, for which, perhaps, you have to have the perspective of dystopia." It is really difficult to conceive Atwood's praising the present, because, like Orwell who in 1984 extrapolated specific ominous events and tendencies in twentieth-century politics, she tries to caution against right-wing fundamentalism, rigid dogmas, and misogynous theosophies that may be currently gaining a deceptive popularity. The novel's mimetic impulse then aims at wresting an imperfect present from a horror-ridden future: it appeals for vigilance, and an appreciation of the mature values of tolerance, compassion, and, above all, for women's unique identity.

The novel's thematics operate by positing polarized extremes: a decadent present, which Aunt Lydia cynically describes as "a society dying ... of too much choice," and a totalitarian future that prohibits choice. Naturally, while rejecting the indulgent decadence and chaos of an anarchic society, the reader condemns the Gilead regime for its intolerant, prescriptive set of values that projects a tunnel vision on reality and eliminates human volition: "There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it." As illustrated by the fears and agonies that Offred endures, when human beings are not free to aspire toward whatever they wish, when choices become so severely constrained that, to quote from Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, "only the necessary is necessary," life turns into a painfully prolonged prison term. Interestingly, the victimization process does not involve Offred and the handmaids alone, but extends to the oppressors as well. Everyone ruled by the Gilead regime suffers the deprivation of having no choice, except what the church-state decrees; even the Commander is compelled to perform his sexual assignment with Offred as a matter of obligation: "This is no recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty."

Since the inhabitants of Gilead lead the precarious existence befitting victims, most try in varied ways to cope, endure, and survive. This situation of being a victim and trying to survive dramatizes Atwood's major thesis in her critical work Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, [Anansi, 1973] in which she suggests that Canada, metaphorically still a colony or an oppressed minority, is "a collective victim," and that "the central symbol for Canada ... is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance." Atwood, furthermore, enumerates what she labels "basic victim positions," whereby a victim may choose any of four possible options, one of which is to acknowledge being a victim but refuse "to accept the assumption that the role is inevitable." This position fully explains Offred's role as the protagonist-narrator of The Handmaid's Tale. Offred's progress as a maturing consciousness is indexed by an evolving awareness of herself as a victimized woman, and then a gradual development toward initiating risky but assertive schemes that break the slavery syndrome. Her double-crossing the Commander and his Wife, her choice to hazard a sexual affair with Nick, and her association with the underground network, all point to the shift from being a helpless victim to being a sly, subversive survivor. This impulse to survive, together with the occasional flashes of warmth and concern among the handmaids, transmits reassuring signs of hope and humanity in an otherwise chilling and depressing tale.

What makes Atwood's book such a moving tale is its clever technique in presenting the heroine initially as a voice, almost like a sleepwalker conceiving disjointed perceptions of its surroundings, as well as flashing reminiscences about a bygone life. As the scenes gather more details, the heroine's voice is steadily and imperceptively, yet convincingly, transfigured into a full-roundedness that parallels her maturing comprehension of what is happening around her. Thus the victim, manipulated and coerced, is metamorphosed into a determined conniver who daringly violates the perverted canons of Gilead. Moreover, Atwood skillfully manipulates the time sequence between the heroine's past (pre-Gilead life) and the present; those shifting reminiscences offer glimpses of a life, though not ideal, still filled with energy, creativity, humaneness, and a sense of selfhood, a life that sharply contrasts with the alienation, slavery, and suffering under totalitarianism. By the end of the novel, the reader is effectively and conclusively shown how the misogynous regime functions on the basis of power, not choice; coercion, not volition; fear, not desire. In other words, Atwood administers in doses the assaulting shocks to our sensibilities of a grim dystopian nightmare; initially, the narrative voice, distant and almost diffidently void of any emotions, emphasizes those aspects of frugality and solemnity imposed by the state, then progressively tyranny and corruption begin to unfold piecemeal. As the novel concludes, as the horror reaches a climax, the narrative voice assumes a fully engaged emotional tone that cleverly keeps us in suspense about the heroine's fate. This method of measured, well-punctuated revelations about Gilead connects symbolically with the novel's central meaning: misogynous dogmas, no matter how seemingly innocuous and trustworthy they may appear at their initial conception, are bound, when allowed access to power, to reveal their ruthlessly tyrannical nature.

Regardless of the novel's dystopian essence, it nevertheless avoids being solemn; on the contrary, it sustains an ironic texture throughout. We do not find too many frightening images that may compare with Oceana's torture chambers; the few graphic horror scenes are crisply and snappily presented, sparing us a blood-curdling impact. (Some may criticize this restraint as undermining the novel's integrity and emotional validity.) As in all dystopias, Atwood's aim is to encourage the reader to adopt a rational stance that avoids total "suspension of disbelief." This rational stance dislocates full emotional involvement in order to create a Brechtian type of alienation that, in turn, generates an ironic charge. This rational stance too should not be total, because Atwood does want us to care sympathetically about her heroine's fate; hence the emotional distance between reader and character must allow for closeness, but up to a point. Furthermore, Atwood is equally keen on preserving the ironic flair intact. No wonder then that she concludes The Handmaid's Tale with a climactic moment of irony: she exposes, in a hilarious epilogue, the absurdity and futility of certain academic writings that engage in dull, clinically sceptic analysis of irrelevancies and inanities, yet miss the vital issues.... The entire "Historical Notes" at the end of the novel represents a satire on critics who spin out theories about literary or historical texts without genuinely recognizing or experiencing the pathos expressed in them: they circumvent issues, classify data, construct clever hypotheses garbed in ritualistic, fashionable jargon, but no spirited illumination ever comes out of their endeavours. Atwood soberly demonstrates that when a critic or scholar (and by extension a reader) avoids, under the guise of scholarly objectivity, taking a moral or political stand about an issue of crucial magnitude such as totalitarianism, he or she will necessarily become an apologist for evil; more significantly, the applause the speaker receives gives us a further compelling glimpse into a distant future that still harbours strong misogynous tendencies.

While the major dystopian features can clearly be located in The Handmaid's Tale, the novel offers two distinct additional features: feminism and irony. Dramatizing the interrelationship between power and sex, the book's feminism, despite condemning male misogynous mentality, upholds and cherishes a man-woman axis; here, feminism functions inclusively rather than exclusively, poignantly rather than stridently, humanely rather than cynically. The novel's ironic tone, on the other hand, betokens a confident narrative strategy that aims at treating a depressing material gently and gradually, yet firmly, openly, and conclusively, thus skilfully succeeding in securing the reader's sympathy and interest. The novel shows Atwood's strengths both as an engaging story-teller and a creator of a sympathetic heroine, and as an articulate crafts-woman of a theme that is both current and controversial. As the novel signifies a landmark in the maturing process of Atwood's creative career, her self-assured depiction of the grim dystopian world gives an energetic and meaningful impetus to the genre....

Source: Amin Malak, "Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid' s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition," in Canadian Literature, No. 112, Spring, 1987, pp. 9-16.

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Critical Overview


The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood