lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Start Free Trial

Cathy N. Davidson (review date February 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

SOURCE: “A Feminist ‘1984,’” in Ms., Vol. XIV, No. 8, February, 1986, pp. 24-6.

[In the following review, Davidson offers a favorable analysis of The Handmaid's Tale.]

I once watched Margaret Atwood try to pass unnoticed through a crowded conference center where she was to be a keynote speaker. Her memorable whirl of curling hair was pulled tightly back into a bun, her collar was up, her head down. The intensity with which she attempted to appear unobtrusive was a dead giveaway. Even in disguise, she looked like someone you should know.

With The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood is again conspicuously incognito. The novel marks a radical departure for the 46-year-old Canadian who has written more than 20 books that have been published in almost as many countries. Arguably her best work yet and unarguably her most controversial, The Handmaid's Tale takes place sometime in the near future, perhaps the nineties, perhaps the turn of the century. It is set in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States of America.

The Handmaid's Tale is a speculative fiction in the tradition of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, but with important differences. First, Atwood's future eerily resembles our present, and, second, unlike her predecessors, she concentrates on what happens to women, especially to one woman, Offred, in a fascist country controlled by a group strikingly similar to the Moral Majority. After a President's Day massacre in Congress and the suspension of the Constitution, a junta seizes power. The new leaders promise free elections, but soon the U.S. borders are sealed, and potential rebels mysteriously disappear into the night.

Most of the novel consists of a transcript of 30 tapes, an oral diary left by Offred and discovered by archaeologists of the 22nd century who are trying to piece together the decline and fall of a once-powerful nation. Hers is one of the only extant eyewitness accounts of Gilead, a private record of a nation's public march to fascism and self-destruction. She tells of the day when women were fired from their jobs and forbidden access to their credit cards or bank accounts. More poignantly, she recalls her attempt to flee to Canada with her family, being caught and waking up in a strange room, her husband and child gone. Not even shock treatments can erase the memory of her loss. And then daily, in a language both present and tense, she recounts the monotonous dangers of her life as a Handmaid, a woman with “viable ovaries” who has been forced to become a childbearer for Fred (from whence her name), a commander in the Gilead Regime. A latter-day Anne Frank, Offred defiantly witnesses and records what she cannot overtly protest. Speaking freely in Gilead is a capital offense. Most things are.

A gripping suspense tale, The Handmaid's Tale is an allegory of what results from a politics based on misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. What makes the novel so terrifying is that Gilead both is and is not the world we know. For example, Serena Joy, the Schlafly-like wife of the commander, is no longer the nation's most famous proponent of female subordination, but has been taken at her word. A private housewife now, she bitterly resents her loss of status. As Atwood notes, “it's a contradiction in terms for women to take a public position saying women shouldn't take public positions.”

The depth and complexity of Atwood's critique of contemporary society are stunning. She has obviously thought long and hard about these issues, and yet she admits that she resisted writing this novel. “Usually I have about three novels...

(This entire section contains 1828 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

in my head concurrently,” but “I avoided writing this one for four years. I think part of it was that I thought it was so zany. I'd never written anything set in the future before, and it's not a conventional novel. For all those reasons, I just put it off. Then I started another book last year in England, and it wasn't working properly. It kept wandering off into the subject matter of this one, and I felt that, all right, this is the book I should be writing.” The more she worked on it, the more she found it “acompelling story. I had to write this novel.”

But could it happen here? Some of it “is happening now,” she says. She is careful to distinguish her novel set in the future from futuristic fantasy. “It's not science fiction. There are no spaceships, no Martians, nothing like that.” In fact, “there is nothing in The Handmaid's Tale, with the exception maybe of one scene, that has not happened at some point in history. I was quite careful about that. I didn't invent a lot. I transposed to a different time and place, but the motifs are all historical motifs.”

A “Historical Note” affixed to the end of the novel provides more background information on the causes of the Gilead takeover. Prior to the coup, pollutants, radiation, and toxic wastes caused high rates of genetic mutation and sterility. (“There's a high concentration of PCBs in mother's milk. These things are already around. Why would it not have results?”) The AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases had spread throughout the population at large. Women's freedom to control their reproduction also contributed to a serious decline in birthrates, especially among affluent whites. The Gilead Regime reacted to this demography with social conservatism, religious Fundamentalism, and a literal enactment of Genesis 30: 1-3, an epigraph to the novel: when Rachel saw she could not bear children, she ordered Jacob to “go in unto” Bilhah, her maid, and “she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” As Atwood notes, “A new regime would never say, ‘we're socialist; we're fascist.’ They would say that they were serving God. … You can develop any set of beliefs by using the Bible.”

But even with this appeal to scripture, the regime cannot survive without some cooperation from women and, to secure this, the regime makes promises: an end to violence in the streets; no more rape, pornography, or disrespect for women. “Repressive regimes always have to offer up something in return,” Atwood says. But at what cost? In Gilead, the promises are traps. Or, at best, they are double binds, like the current debate over censorship and pornography. “Pornography is not particularly good for women. Neither is censorship. … Women are in the position of being asked to choose between two things, neither of which is good for them. Why can't they have a third thing that is good for them … some kind of reasonable social milieu in which pornography would not be much of an issue because it would not be desired by men?” I ask if she thinks that is possible. “It's possible,” she smiles, “but it's not imminent.”

Is Gilead imminent? “The United States is where it's going to happen first,” she answers. “Canada is very socially conservative. It's more radical in other ways—socialized medicine, health care, and those things. But … people are much more skeptical about sudden change. It was never a revolutionary society. The United States was. It had its revolution in 1776 and from that it got the idea that you could change reality overnight. … The United States … is humanity's testing ground. It's like a teeming bacterial culture of everything you can imagine. It's where very different ideas fight it out.” When Atwood discusses the novel, her low, steady voice goes even lower, becomes barely a murmur. It was not an easy book to write, to live with.

The author's young daughter, Jess, briefly interrupts our conversation in order to arrange with her mother for a ride to meet with a friend. It is a simple action, one performed routinely by any parent, but in the context of our conversation it is not routine at all. I think again about Offred who lives in a perpetual state of not knowing: of not knowing what happened to her mother, her husband, her child, or of what will happen to herself. “It's a lot more frightening, more intimidating not to know. Disappearance is more frightening than death.” And I recall Offred's lyrical, even rhapsodic memories of the most simple aspects of her pre-Gilead past: women's magazines from the seventies and eighties, a store that sells several flavors of ice cream, a jumble of plastic garbage bags under the sink. Even hotel rooms take on new dimensions in a world where so much is forbidden. “Hotel rooms are very indulgent places—everything is just for you. Phone up and food appears. There's soap in little wrappers, clean towels and sheets, stationery in the drawers.” The author speaks with real appreciation, like someone who has been to another place.

The Handmaid's Tale is a stark, even gruesome book, but it does not yield to despair and neither does its author. “You have to notice in the book I don't have everyone turning into a rhinoceros.” There is a massive uprising in Detroit; a civil war in the South is led by the Baptists; elsewhere Quakers and Catholics rebel. “The people who have taken over are not able to do so without resistance. And some of the groups who are resisting you might think would go along with this—but they wouldn't. … Any monolithic structure tries to get rid of any opposition, any opposition. Look at Hitler's Germany. Some of the people being very oppressed were the Jehovah's Witnesses.

“Repressive regimes never last forever,” she insists. “Look at the Puritans.” The book is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and parallels abound between the new Republic of Gilead and Colonial America. Atwood even dedicates the novel to the late historian of Puritan culture, Perry Miller, her teacher at Harvard (“It was my first real view of American society”) and to Mary Webster, her Puritan forebear who was hanged as a witch, but survived it. “She had a very tough neck.” The writer notes, proudly, that her ancestors were “kicked out of one place or another because of their beliefs.”

Their conviction has been passed on into Atwood's concerns as a writer. “Good writing takes place at intersections, at what you might call knots, at places where the society is snarled or knotted up. Something that has absolutely made up its mind one way or another is not very interesting writing. It's polemical. And I'm not saying writing shouldn't be political. It should encompass everything in life, and politics is part of life.”

Does Atwood think fiction can change lives? “I'm not that naïve,” she answers. But like all social critics, she believes in the potential for change. “Speculative fiction is a logical extension of where we are now. I think this particular genre is a walking along of a potential road, and the reader as well as the writer can then decide if that is the road they wish to go on. Whether we go that way or not is going to be up to us.”


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1959

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

(Full name Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, critic, editor, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985). For further information on Atwood's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 25, and 84.

A Canadian and feminist writer, Margaret Atwood is internationally acclaimed as an accomplished novelist, poet, short story writer, and literary commentator. Her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is highly regarded as a provocative work of feminist dystopian fiction that examines the cultural construction of female identity, language, and historical memory. Alternately chilling, satirical, and suspenseful, Atwood's cautionary tale portrays the physical and psychological oppression of women under a futuristic totalitarian regime that reduces its female subjects to mere voiceless, childbearing vessels. Presented as the eyewitness recollections of its entrapped heroine, the novel vividly displays the dehumanizing effects of ideological rhetoric, biological reductionism, and linguistic manipulation. Among Atwood's most celebrated works, The Handmaid's Tale displays the author's superior narrative abilities, her distinct poetic voice, and the chief feminist and humanitarian concerns which fascinate her.

Plot and Major Characters

Set sometime during the late twentieth century, The Handmaid's Tale relates events in the Republic of Gilead, a militaristic Christian state that has supplanted the democratic government of the United States after a violent coup d'état. The proliferation of toxic pollution and sexually transmitted diseases in the near future has caused widespread sterility and a decline of Caucasian births. The new ruling male theocracy, situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is founded on fundamentalist biblical principles and a social hierarchy designed to promote controlled procreation. The strict moral code of the regime, a reaction against the amorality and permissiveness of the former United States, is enforced by the constant surveillance of Eyes (secret agents), Angels (soldiers), and Guardians (police). Though women in Gilead are prized for their ability to reproduce, they are forbidden to work, own property, or read. A select number of women who are fertile and unmarried are recruited as Handmaids; they wear red habits with white hoods and are assigned to a Commander, a high-ranking government official, and his post-menopausal Wife. The sole function of the Handmaid is to produce children, a task that requires her to engage in ritualized, monthly copulation with the Commander in the presence of his Wife. Beneath the Handmaids in the caste system are Econowives, the spouses of lower class men who wear striped dresses. The remainder of infertile and unmarried women are divided into the following: Marthas, a servant class designated by drab green dresses; Aunts, a cattleprod-wielding corps entrusted with the indoctrination and discipline of the Handmaids; and Unwomen, a group comprised of resistant women who are sent to the embattled Colonies to clean up toxic waste. The Handmaid's Tale revolves around the first-person narrative of Offred, a thirty-three year old woman who is forced into the ranks of the Handmaids after a failed attempt to flee to Canada with her husband, Luke, and their young daughter. Earlier, Offred's mother, an ardent feminist in the old society, was condemned to the Colonies. Following a period of political re-education at the Rachael and Leah Center, a converted gymnasium where the Handmaids are detained and systematically brainwashed by the Aunts, Offred is assigned to a Commander named Fred (the name “Of-Fred” denotes her fealty to Fred) and his wife Serena Joy, a television gospel singer and leading proponent of the new female order. Offred is a replacement for Fred's former Handmaid, Janine, who has committed suicide. Offred's story describes her cloistered existence in the Commander's home, her despair over her lost identity and freedom, and the horrific realities of Gileadean society, including public executions, called “salvagings,” of homosexuals, traitors, and other undesirables whose corpses are displayed on the wall of Harvard Yard. During paired shopping excursions with Ofglen, another Handmaid, Offred learns of the underground movement called Mayday, of which Ofglen is a part. Though initially passive and hopeless, Offred is gradually emboldened by her brief exchanges with Ofglen. Offred also becomes involved in an illicit relationship with Commander Fred, who summons her to his study during the evenings to play Scrabble—a illegal activity since women are condemned to illiteracy. She is compensated with hand lotion and old copies of banned women's magazines. Fred further violates their officially sanctioned relationship by kissing Offred, dressing her in slinky clothing, and taking her out to an underground nightclub called Jezebel's where various Unwomen are assembled for the pleasure of the officers. There Offred reencounters her friend Moira, a lesbian and rebellious former Handmaid-in-training whose failed escape from the Rachael and Leah Center has landed her a role as a prostitute at the club. At home, Offred also enters into a dangerous clandestine relationship with Nick, the Commander's limousine driver, who may have links to both the secret police and underground resistance. Her late-night couplings with Nick are tacitly approved by the Commander's Wife, Serena, in an effort to facilitate a speedy pregnancy after Fred fails to inseminate Offred during their monthly sessions. While Offred is permitted to satisfy her sexual longings with Nick, Serena stands to benefit from the prestige of having a birth in her home, a ceremonious event in itself attended by the Wives and Handmaids. Offred's risky involvements become increasingly perilous and complicated. Serena eventually learns of her unauthorized meetings with Fred and, in the final scene of her narrative, an ominous black van arrives at the Commander's house. Offred is whisked away either to safety with the underground resistance, perhaps arranged by Nick, or to certain death at the hands of the Eyes. A postscript to the novel entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale” reveals that the preceding narrative derives from a transcription of some thirty audiotapes dictated by Offred after her apparent escape. The postscript purports to be an excerpt from the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” an academic conference held in the year 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit, located in northern Canada. The historians in attendance, presided over by keynote speaker Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, have gathered to debate the authenticity and significance of Offred's account, which has been recently discovered by archaeologists in Bangor, Maine.

Major Themes

The Handmaid's Tale is primarily concerned with the problems of ideological extremism, historical interpretation, and most importantly the objectification of women in modern society. As in most dystopian fiction, the future setting merely affords the author an opportunity to illustrate the magnified ill effects of familiar contemporary problems left unchecked. As such, the Republic of Gilead embodies the dangerous potential of religious fanaticism, militarism, and sexism, whereby the Bible is appropriated as a tool of subjugation, democratic freedom is replaced by brutal coercion, and women are reduced to a strictly biological role as “two-legged wombs.” The biblical foundation of Gilead evokes parallels between America's New England Puritan past and the evangelical Christianity of the contemporary Moral Majority. Biblical names and allusions permeate the text and the literal interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, in which Jacob employs his wife's handmaid as a surrogate to produce children, forms the basis of Gileadean ideology. Orchestrated public events such as Prayvaganzas and the production of computerized prayers called “soul scrolls” also serve to underscore the political and commercial subversion of religion in Gilead. The omnipresence of Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and Aunts—all agents of state sponsored repression—evoke an atmosphere of constant surveillance and social control in which biblical mandate, fascist tactics, and technology are all merged. Atwood frequently employs satire as a method of social critique: Econowives and Birthmobiles parody modern consumerism; Serena Joy serves as an ironic name for the bitter, repressed religious leader of women's passivity; and the “Historical Notes” postscript lampoons the arrogance and false objectivity of male academics. Though men also suffer under the tyrannical Gileadean order, Atwood focuses on the persecution of women and their various efforts to resist male domination, including flight (Moira), dissent (Ofglen), suicide (Janine), acceptance (Serena), and storytelling (Offred). The use of language as a mode of both manipulation and liberating affirmation is a dominant motif in the novel. For example, the recurring images of eyes, eggs, ovals, and mirrors in the text contrast positive feminine symbols of fertility, continuity, and wholeness with negative aspects of surveillance, control, and imprisonment. Likewise, the blood-red gowns of the Handmaids conjure positive associations with birth and life as well as pejorative links with suffering, shame, and female bondage to reproductive cycles. Such multiplicity of meaning is also embedded in Offred's name, which may be interpreted as off-read,off-red,offered, or afraid. Though Offred's pre-Gilead name is never explicitly mentioned, some critics have deduced from the text that it is June, a name significantly associated with Spring and rebirth. Throughout her narrative, Offred relies upon linguistic invention as an internal voice of self-expression, subjectivity, and, ultimately, survival, as her tapes suggest that women may transcend oppression by documenting and sharing their experiences. However, the “Historical Notes” postscript offers a skeptical conclusion that reveals the inadequacies of historical analysis and the persistence of male authority long after the fall of Gilead. Offred's account is ascribed the title “The Handmaid's Tale” by male historians who revel in its sexist pun on the word tale/tail and its association with Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, suggestive in this context of a medieval regression. The pompous jibes of Professor Pieixoto, his focus on Offred's credibility, and refusal to make any moral judgements about Gileadean society indicate that Offred's voice and harrowing reality are not taken seriously, and that a reinstated patriarchal establishment continues to marginalize women. The location of the conference at the University of Denay, Nunavit, forms the linguistic pun “deny none of it.” In the end, Pieixoto's closing remark to his audience—“Are there any questions?”—serves as an ironic, open-ended, final statement that places responsibility and the possibility of change in the hands of the reader.

Critical Reception

The Handmaid's Tale is widely acclaimed as a major work of feminist protest and speculative fiction. A critical and popular success, the novel was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and was also adapted into a film in 1990. Critics consistently draw attention to the depth and complexity of the novel, praising Atwood's ability to illustrate the insidious presence of sexism and anti-feminism in contemporary society. Recognized as a daring departure from her previous novels, most commentators have applauded Atwood's compelling extrapolations of modern social, political, and environmental problems in this work. The Handmaid's Tale is frequently compared to classic dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. While many critics regard Atwood's novel as a rival to these works and a breakthrough contribution to an essentially male genre, others, most notably New York Times Book Review contributor Mary McCarthy, feel Atwood's novel lacks the satiric power and imagination of these earlier novels. However, Atwood's satire has prompted other reviewers to favorably compare her work to such literary staples as Jonathan Swift: Lucy M. Freibert writes, “Instead of a modest proposal, her Swiftean serio-comic vision comprises an ironic indictment of a society that treats woman's body as a pawn and her life as an academic question.” Atwood's skillful use of postmodern narrative devices, ironic names, wordplay, and poetic language received frequent praise and is the focus of many scholarly studies of the novel. Commenting on the novel's universal significance, Stephanie Barbé Hammer writes, “the satire in The Handmaid's Tale directs its criticism towards all of us—feminists and non-feminists, women and men. It warns us of the imperceptible technology of power, of the subtle domination of women by men, and of our unconscious imprisoning of each other and ourselves by ourselves.”

Paul Gray (review date 10 February 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925

SOURCE: “Repressions of a New Day,” in Time, February 10, 1986, p. 84.

[In the following review, Gray offers qualified praise for The Handmaid's Tale.]

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood's sixth novel will remind most readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That can hardly be helped. Any new fictional account of how things might go horribly wrong risks comparisons either with George Orwell's classic or with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. To a remarkable degree, these two books have staked out the turf of contemporary antiutopias. Which punishment is it to be this time? Relentless, inescapable totalitarianism or the mindless, synthetic stupors of technology? As it turns out. Atwood's look at the future takes place under conditions that Orwell would recognize. Repression is the order of the new day in The Handmaid's Tale. But the villains in this piece are not the ones that Orwell accused, and the most prominent victim and hero is a woman.

She is also the narrator, and the events that led to her current condition must be pieced together from memories she has been conditioned to forget. The United States of America is now the Republic of Gilead, a Fundamentalist Christian theocracy that arose after “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.” The current regime is militantly opposed to the recent past, especially all traces of the moral permissiveness that arose in the U.S. during the waning decades of the 20th century. The embattled state must also try to reverse a disastrously declining birthrate, which began to slide with the growing acceptance of abortion and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the bad old days. It grew worse after the toxic effects of various ecological disasters.

Hence women like the narrator who are of childbearing age and still possess “viable ovaries” have been forcibly recruited into the ranks of Handmaids. After a period of indoctrination, they are assigned to two-year tours of duty with the important men, the Commanders of the Faithful, whose wives are barren. Handmaids are slaves to their own biological possibilities and derive their identity solely from their Commanders. The narrator's new name, Offred, really identifies her owner; she belongs for the time being to a man named Fred. She explains the duties of her station: “We are for breeding purposes: we aren't concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us.”

Yet Offred's narrative is beguiling in the extreme. Imprisoned in “a pampered life,” her own survival hanging on her ability to obey and reproduce, she surreptitiously reveals the play of intelligence and curiosity that has been forbidden to her sex. She has a keen eye for daily routines in the old Victorian house, located in what was apparently once Cambridge, Mass. She notes the costume she must wear, a Handmaid's uniform, when she is allowed to go out shopping: “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full.” The image of a scarlet nun seems appropriate to her role in this strange new society. Once a month, during the Ceremony, Offred has sex with her Commander. She lies between the legs of the Commander's wife, “my head on her stomach, her public bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me.” All three participants in this ritual are fully clothed. Offred knows that if a child is conceived and born healthy, not an Unbaby or a “shredder,” the wife will raise it. She endures these ordeals as best she can: “One detaches oneself. One describes.” And she ponders constantly the possibilities of escape.

The Handmaid's Tale will be taken in some quarters as a feminist parable or rallying cry. What is Offred, after all, if not an embodiment of woman subjugated to the power of men? In truth, Atwood's vision is considerably more complex than that. For the Republic of Gilead has come about, in part, with the help of women. Offred's memories of childhood include the time that her mother, an ardent feminist, took her to a ceremonial burning of pornographic magazines.

Later, at the indoctrination center, Offred sees her mother again, this time in a newsreel approvingly shown by the authorities: “She's in a group of other women, dressed in the same fashion; she's holding a stick, no, it's part of a banner, the handle. The camera pans up and we see the writing, in paint, on what must have been a bed sheet: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.” Now there are no sleazy districts in Gilead. A woman can walk in public without being whistled at or worse. Offred wonders what her mother, if still alive, thinks about the new Puritanism: “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.”

As a cautionary tale, Atwood's novel lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. It warns against too much: heedless sex, excessive morality, chemical and nuclear pollution. All of these may be worthwhile targets, but such a future seems more complicated than dramatic. But Offred's narrative is fascinating in a way that transcends tense and time: the record of an observant soul struggling against a harsh, mysterious world.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 173

Double Persephone (poetry) 1961

The Circle Game (poetry) 1966

The Animals in That Country (poetry) 1968

The Edible Woman (novel) 1969

The Journals of Susanna Moodie (poetry) 1970

Procedures for Underground (poetry) 1970

Power Politics (poetry) 1971

Surfacing (novel) 1972

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (criticism) 1972

You Are Happy (poetry) 1974

Lady Oracle (novel) 1976

Selected Poems, 1965-1975 (poetry) 1976

Dancing Girls and Other Stories (short stories) 1977

Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978

Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978

Life Before Man (novel) 1979

True Stories (poetry) 1981

Bodily Harm (novel) 1982

Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (criticism) 1982

Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) 1983

Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (short stories and poetry) 1983

Interlunar (poetry) 1984

The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985

Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976-1986 (poetry) 1987

Cat's Eye (novel) 1990

Wilderness Tips and Other Stories (short stories) 1991

Good Bones (short stories) 1992

The Robber Bride (novel) 1993

Morning in the Burned House (poetry) 1995

Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (juvenilia) 1995

Alias Grace (novel) 1996

Morning in the Burned House: New Poems (poetry) 1996

Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (lectures) 1996

Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 (poetry) 1998

Blind Assassin (novel) 2000

Tom O'Brien (review date 25 April 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237

SOURCE: “Siren's Wail,” in Commonweal, April 25, 1986, pp. 251-3.

[In the following review, O'Brien cites flaws in the plausibility of Atwood's dystopia as depicted in The Handmaid's Tale.]

I like Margaret Atwood very much, but her new novel, The Handmaid's Tale, less. It's an ambitious recasting of 1984, from a woman's point of view, positing a takeover of the United States by right-wing religious fanatics who establish a monotheocracy. Atwood sets this in the near future, time enough, she imagines, for a crisis in fertility caused by AIDS, new strains of syphilis, and poisoning by environmental and toxic hazards. As a result, the male oligarchy that runs Gilead turns all available women (divorcees, anyone married to a divorced man, or women who have lived with men) into second wives, handmaids, as long as they have “viable ovaries.” A police state enforces this polygamy and general policy with ruthless terror.

It's not exactly the outlandishness of this that bothers me. As Atwood notes, most of the things she depicts here have their parallel in contemporary events: in the attack on women's rights by some Protestant evangelicals and Islamic fanatics, and in the practice of government terror that she is all too familiar with as a member of Amnesty International.

Atwood even includes small topical terms like “salvagings”—the Philippine expression for state-sponsored murder—to describe Gilead's executions, and “re-education centers”—from the Cambodian and Vietnam takeovers—where “handmaids” are taught to accept the benefits of their new lot. In a historical note at the end of the book (notes from a literary conference after the fall of Gilead) one professor points out that Gilead “invented nothing.” In Atwood's view, it represents a “synthesis” or “extrapolation” of current trends, which, if unchecked, could make Gilead happen here. At this level, as dire warning, The Handmaid's Tale is valuable.

It is also well executed. Atwood, who began as a poet, has always been able to infuse the sense of the spoken voice into her novels, a power which makes the fantastic acceptable; at all times you feel as if you're in the presence of a real person. Her narrator is “Offred,” a handmaid whose name suggests possession by one of the male commanders of Gilead (one “Fred”) and also provides an Anglo-Saxon, early medieval echo. Offred remembers what life was like before the takeover, and recalls fondly her friendship with a boyfriend and their child. Alternating between lyrical memory and a laconic repressed tone, Atwood makes us feel keenly Offred's conflict and suffering.

As in all Atwood novels, humor aids survival. At times the comedy emerges only in thin strokes of mordant wit as Offred scans her drab options. But as the plot thickens, Atwood stages a few uproarious incongruities. The commander informs Offred that he wants to see her privately, something forbidden except for prescribed loveless mating sessions. She wonders what he intends, imagining something even more gothic than her imprisoned status. But all he wants is to play Scrabble, a game charged with eroticism since his wife won't talk to him and all women are forbidden to read. Soon, he starts passing Offred old copies of Vogue (what Atwood calls the “subversive literature of the future”) and taking her out to a secret club. In effect, he not only likes her, but even gets up the courage to ask for a date. As Offred comments, “it was too banal to be true.”

Nevertheless, these pleasures of The Handmaid's Tale are offset by weaknesses. Although one accepts Atwood's point about the flexibility of history, and although there is the whiff of religious war around today, it is hard to take her distopia too seriously. She imagines that Gilead occupies most of the United States, with various regions rebelling or simply encircled (the major cities). But the portrait of the national situation is skimpy, the international almost nonexistent. Moreover, there is little reference to industry. I don't mean technology: as in all futuristic fantasy, The Handmaid's Tale is filled with gadgets, especially computers (one franchise in Gilead is a street corner operation called Soul Scrolls, which provides computerized printout prayers). But Atwood skips on most business, thereby making her fantasy that much more fantastic.

This is not only Atwood's defect. It is a problem with most writers in the utopian genre who are never strong on the culture of production—probably because so few writers have real experience with what it means to shape production, design, and market commodities. Of course, business culture can include coercion, and of course it has been complicit in so many right-wing authoritarian dictatorships around the world. But it also includes vast numbers of people in this country whom it would be difficult to tame into cooperative roles in any planned economy. The texture of that culture, which surrounds us in most major urban centers in the United States, is entirely missing in The Handmaid's Tale. It is perhaps no accident that Atwood's main location is Cambridge, Massachusetts, a one-industry town.

The Handmaid's Tale marks another attempt by Atwood to expand her range. She has been eager, in her last works, to escape some of the restrictions on the realistic novel (usually concerned with the problems of young women) that she mastered so well in The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1972) and Surfacing (1976)—although in the last a quasi-stream of consciousness at the close modified the realism considerably in Life Before Man (1980), Atwood experimented even more: the novel has three narrators, one a man, and begins with a suicide, moving the focus away from realistic character study to more explosive action. In Bodily Harm (1983), Atwood went further, positioning her heroine, a journalist on vacation, in the middle of a Caribbean coup d'etat. The Handmaid's Tale fulfills this pattern of development and feeds on Atwood's strong political interests. The idea of writing a political novel and fusing rich character presentation and real action is compelling—almost a Promethean defiance of conventional vapid definitions of high art. But for me, The Handmaid's Tale just doesn't match Atwood's ambition.

Atwood is above all a moralist, albeit of a novel kind. Atwood hates villainy, to be sure, and vividly protests it. But she is also concerned about self-victimization, about the denial of self that she feels makes good people easy prey for bad. Toward the end of Surfacing, her heroine realizes that she has too long accepted bullying from others, most often in the subtle form of inculcations to humility and passivity. “This above all,” she resolves about her future life, “to refuse to be a victim.” Such wisdom is difficult to put into practice. It doesn't, for example, neatly square with a tone in traditional moral teaching, particularly Christian. But I remember reading the line and being stunned by its aptness. By a sad process of psychological elision we often equate, or are encouraged to equate, goodness and niceness. But self-depreciating, or self-destructive niceness is immoral. It demeans a part of God's creation that we must respect—if not, how can we honestly respect anything else? The choices are not victimization or villainy, Atwood suggests; goodness and strength might be near allies.

Delineating that wisdom has been Atwood's life work. The Handmaid's Tale is a nightmarish exclusion of its possibility. Perhaps that is what most makes me uncomfortable. Or perhaps Atwood has not yet found the way to apply such wisdom beyond interpersonal relations and on the broader stage of politics.

Catharine R. Stimpson (review date 31 May 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2145

SOURCE: “Atwood Woman,” in Nation, May 31, 1986, pp. 764-7.

[In the following review, Stimpson offers a positive analysis of The Handmaid's Tale.]

Politics, Margaret Atwood once said, means “who is entitled to do what to whom, with impunity; who profits by it; and who therefore eats what.” The Handmaid's Tale proves that Atwood is among the most telling political writers in the West today. Simply put, The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist dystopia. Atwood transmogrifies the Cambridge, Massachusetts, of the late twentieth century into the capital of a monotheocracy, the Republic of Gilead, a nasty piece of work. Its fundamentalist founders have pulled off a bloody coup d'état. They have replaced the Constitution with the overweening patriarchal principles of Genesis. Gilead expels Jews and blacks. It compels rigid gender roles. White women have no money, education or civil rights. However, ladies of the elite get to lord it over the household. They decide who watches what on television.

Like all dystopias, The Handmaid's Tale is about a future. However, Atwood, famously a Canadian writer, is also returning to her American past. She acknowledges that history in her dedication—to Mary Webster, a rebellious colonial American ancestor, and to Perry Miller, the professor who taught her how to read national literatures when she was a graduate student at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Webster and Miller embody the best of the American past, while the Puritans, who longed for a “theocratic Utopia,” embody the worst. Their city upon a hill provides the moral and psychological blueprints for a Gilead—for the defeat of a Mary Webster, a Perry Miller or their descendant, a Margaret Atwood.

Like many modern totalitarians, Gilead's patriarchs, the Commanders, mix the technology of computers and TV with older forms of social control. They wage war beyond their borders and impose strict order within. They flay the feet of spiritual bastards with steel cables. They hang the dead bodies of heretics and traitors, of abortionists and gays, from hooks in the outer wall of what was once Harvard Yard. Yet Gilead offers its obedient citizens some diversions. The Eyes, the secret police, carouse in Memorial Hall, where William James once lectured. Good women attend public executions and dismemberments in front of Widener Library. Commanders and affluent male foreigners have hard liquor and hardened prostitutes in their private club.

Due to disease and pollution, many of the men of Gilead are sterile, the women barren and the children mostly wretched mutants. Inevitably, Gilead is ferociously pro-natalist. Into each Commander's home a fertile “handmaid” must fall, dressed in heavy red robes, her ankle tattooed. Atwood has a gift for the astringently grotesque image and event. Commanders, wives and handmaids endure “the ceremony”: As the handmaid lies between the wife's legs, the Commander tries to impregnate her. If he succeeds, a red Birthmobile will pick up all the handmaids nine months later and deliver them to the virile Commander's house, so that they can roll about and shriek in the rites of birth.

Atwood's narrator, Offred, is such a handmaid. Before Gilead's revolution, she was an ordinary sensual woman, with a college degree, a husband, a daughter, a job in a library. The family tried in vain to escape to Canada. Her husband was shot; her child taken and given to a Commander's family. Because she is still young, Offred can “choose” re-education at the Rachel and Leah Center and take up her shaky career as a handmaid.

The name “Offred” signifies that she is the possession “of Fred,” her Commander of the moment. A market researcher and packager of ideology, Fred has been the revolution's Michael Deaver. Serena Joy, his wife, has been a songstress star of Christian broadcasting. Forced to obey both, Offred becomes involved in two dangerous affairs. One is with the Commander himself. He wants to play Scrabble kiss her on the lips, read tabooed issues of Vogue and Ms., and dress her in a prerevolutionary tart's costume. The second relationship, arranged by Serena Joy, is with Nick, a chauffeur and a member of both the secret police and the underground. However, “Offred” also means “off-red” and although Offred lacks the courage of her mother a feminist, or of Moira, her lesbian friend, she wants to resist, to take off her red clothing.

A superb storyteller, Atwood riskily interweaves the narrative threads of the protest novel, the psychological novel and the bedroom farce. Offred's tale is a scholarly reconstruction, assembled some two centuries later from tapes she dictated while living in a safe house in Bangor, Maine. History fails to record whether she ever reached freedom in Canada or England. Her stone in the graveyard of time is but half-inscribed.

Born in 1939, the formidable Atwood has now published more than twenty books: criticism, anthologies, stories, poems, six novels. Ten years ago, reviewing Marge Piercy's utopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, Atwood compared reading that novel to reading Piercy's poetry. She called the experience a turn from “an imagined world to an imagination, from a sense to a sensibility.” The same may be true of Atwood's work. Although her novels are more finely attuned to natural and visionary realms than are those of Piercy, they too are imagined worlds. They share a geography, or, to steal from Annette Kolodny, a languagescape.

The central figure in Atwood's territory is a woman. Atwood Woman is young, educated, white, middle class, invariably heterosexual. She has a job—as an illustrator, scientist, journalist. She has had her share of sexual experience. Her men are often weaker than she. She is urban, but the wilderness is usually the site of her most profound moral and psychological education. In flight from her day-to-day life, she discovers the meaning of survival, a key word in Atwood's vocabulary. She is Marian in Atwood's comedy of manners, The Edible Woman; the nameless narrator in the quest novel, Surfacing; Joan, the Gothic fraud, in that wonderful romp, Lady Oracle; Lesje and Elizabeth in the somber chamber piece, Life Before Man; Rennie in a second quest novel, set in the Caribbean rather than in Canada, Bodily Harm. Now she is Offred.

Flanking Atwood Woman are two other sorts of women, both of whom influence her. One is her contemporary, often more raucous or audacious than she. The second sort of woman is older. She is Atwood Woman's landlady, employer, aunt, mother, neighbor. Reactionary and manipulative, she strips the world of sensuality and spontaneity. Terrified of the naked, she nevertheless denudes her environment. Her ideals are decency, respectability. Acting on them, she commits moral indecency after moral indecency. She enjoys watching the wormings and turnings of another's submission. Frequently these toughies, in their hats, gloves and woolen underwear, represent provincial Anglo-Canadian society. In Bodily Harm, Rennie says sardonically of Griswold, Ontario, her hometown: “In Griswold everyone gets what they deserve. In Griswold everyone deserves the worst.”

Gilead is Griswold gone wild. The Aunts, who pump iron (but never irony) into the body politic of technological Calvinism, represent Atwood's most disdainful depiction of the petty female boss. Wearing electric cattle prods on leather belts, they control, reward and punish other women. Like certain of Brecht's characters, they are at once sinister and funny. Atwood achieves a triple effect—she makes her dystopic state even more frightening because it issues cattle prods to such ordinary figures. Yet she also manages to domesticate totalitarianism, because she shows it peopled by such ordinary figures. The state becomes even more frightening, because its monstrosity seems normally absurd, absurdly normal. Finally, Atwood reminds her reader of the political function of satire: to weaken the grip of the cruel and foolish by sending them up witless.

In one of her most original maneuvers, Atwood links the morality of the Aunts to that of radical feminists. The Aunts are repressive. Radical feminists can be repressive too. In the active syllogism of power, the premises of repression lead to conclusions of oppression.

This association of Gilead's police-women with some radical feminist sects reveals Atwood's boldness and her political vision. Since the 1960s she has exposed two patterns of domination: of men over women, and of the United States over the North American continent. Her Canada is a colony in which England has been replaced by the United States. Surfacing eloquently and adroitly mapped (another key word in Atwood's vocabulary) the ways in which those two patterns of economic, cultural and psychological abuse reinforce and double back on each other.

Atwood has explored the process through which the powerless come to resist their masters, create alternative identities and arrive at self-mastery. Survival (her brilliant analysis of Canadian literature) and Surfacing, both written in the early 1970s, are companion texts about a victim's repudiation of the victim's role. One of the most famous passages in Surfacing is the narrator's declaration: “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing.” Women's collective repudiation is feminism; a colony's is nationalism.

Atwood is careful to discriminate between freedom and psychological atomism; between self-mastery and mastery over others. Since the mid-1970s she has become increasingly skeptical of the appetite for domination. Modifying her nationalism, she is now suspicious of the patriarchal state. The colonized Canada of Surfacing has become a wimpish political actor, at once philanthropic and timorous. Fugitives from Gilead escape to the north, but the Canadian government periodically rounds them up for return to the muscular nation to the south.

The figure of the torturer now fires Atwood's anger and contempt. She spurns the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian states—both torture. The “symbolic cannibalism” of The Edible Woman has become the far more violent and bloody cannibalism of the electrode and the first. In 1981, in a lecture titled “Canadian-American Relations,” Atwood codified the politics of Bodily Harm and The Handmaid's Tale:

The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not. Terrorism of the hijacking and assassination variety is now international; so is the kind practiced by governments against their own citizens. The most important field of study at the moment is … human aggression.

The Handmaid Tale asks the question that is at the heart of morality: “How can the tortured forgive the torturer? The prisoner the jailor? The mother the kidnapper and killer of her child?”

As Atwood's politics have deepened, her ideas about language have altered. Her writing still has the energy and clarity of a swift river. It is limpid without being limp; clever without being silly; controlled without being stilted; precise without being pedantic. She is a rhetorical marvel. In 1975, praising Adrienne Rich, Atwood might have been describing her own style: “mercilessness, of a desirable kind. … Language is honed down, decoration trimmed off.” She is equally capable of showing the shore of a northern wilderness lake, its fronds and waves and rootlets, and of skewering a frivolity or booby. In Life Before Man an Atwood Woman, Elizabeth, goes to bed with William. His devotion to the environment does not redeem his dull devotion to himself. The experience is “like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese.”

Paradoxically, like Rich, Atwood also distrusts language. In part she pays an obligatory homage to the weary modern awareness of the gaps between the word and the thing; sign and meaning; culture and nature. Welcoming the death of syntax, Atwood is also paying the now equally obligatory homage to a distrustful postmodern awareness of the ability of the powerful to control discourse. The surprising end of The Handmaid's Tale is a parody of academic style. Atwood invents the partial transcript of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in June 2195. The transcript contains the major paper about the handmaid's tale, which reassures us that Gilead has fallen. However, the transcript does nothing to dispel the fear that pompous, sniggering academics will still be labeling reality in centuries to come.

Yet, Atwood's politics demand that the writer use language to say who is doing what to whom, with impunity. In “Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written,” Atwood insists that the writer see “clearly and without flinching”; that the writer bear “witness.” She must speak for the woman “on the wet cement floor” who herself is “silent and fingerless.” That woman's death must become another woman's syntax. Atwood's most recent characters accept that burden. In Bodily Harm, Rennie returns to Canada to report on the vileness she has seen on the Caribbean island to which the had fled for a holiday. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred talks into her tape recorder, to an unknown audience. Of course, her story is not true. It is, though imaginatively plausible. For Atwood, no one can ignore that plausibility with impunity.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572


Conboy, Shelia C. “Scripted, Conscripted, and Circumscribed: Body Language in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.” In Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 349-62. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Examines the use of language to convey aspects of entrapment, desire, self-identity, and the objectification of the female body in The Handmaid's Tale.

Cooper, Pamela. “Sexual Surveillance and Medical Authority in Two Versions of The Handmaid's Tale.Journal of Popular Culture 28, No. 4 (Spring 1995): 49-66.

Discusses the sinister elements of political, sexual, and medical surveillance in The Handmaid's Tale,and the ironic duplication of such themes in the novel's film version.

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. “Mothers Tomorrow and Mothers Yesterday, But Never Mothers Today: Woman on the Edge of Time and The Handmaid's Tale.” In Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities, edited by Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy, pp. 21-43. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Examines the significance of maternal loss and the ideology of reproduction, motherhood, and female identity in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Kauffman, Linda S. “Twenty-first Century Epistolarity in The Handmaid's Tale.” In Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction, pp. 221-62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Discusses the problem of female voice in contemporary literature and deconstructs elements of ideological, feminist, and postmodern discourse in The Handmaid's Tale.

Keith, W. J. “Apocalyptic Imaginations: Notes on Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage.Essays on Canadian Literature 35 (Winter 1987): 123-34.

Offers comparative analysis of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, noting their shared Canadian and postmodern perspectives.

Klarer, Mario. “Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 28, No. 4 (December 1995): 129-42.

Discusses interconnected aspects of oral and written communication in The Handmaid's Tale in terms of contemporary feminist and textual analysis.

Montelaro, Janet J. “Maternity and the Ideology of Sexual Difference in The Handmaid's Tale.LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 6, Nos. 3-4 (December 1995): 233-56.

Examines patriarchal constructions of female identity and the objectification and oppression of women in The Handmaid's Tale.

Myhal, Bob. “Boundaries, Centers, and Circles: The Postmodern Geometry of The Handmaid's Tale.LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 6, Nos. 3-4 (December 1995): 213-31.

Discusses the textual and metaphorical significance of physical, psychological, and geographic limitations in The Handmaid's Tale.

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

Examines postmodern aspects of Offred's narrative in The Handmaid's Tale and its function as a mode of feminist critique and appropriation of male discourse.

Templin, Charlotte. “Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.The Explicator 49, No. 4 (Summer 1991): 255-6.

Attempts to place the date of the setting in The Handmaid's Tale.

Van Gelder, Lindsy. “Margaret Atwood.” Ms. XV, No. 7 (January 1987): 49-50, 90.

Discusses the political themes of The Handmaid's Tale and Atwood's Canadian and feminist perspectives.

Additional coverage of Atwood's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Bestsellers, 1989:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 24, 33, 59; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; DISCovering Authors 3.0;DISCovering Authors;DISCovering Authors: British;DISCovering Authors: Canadian;DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied,Novelists,Poets;Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; Something About the Author, Vol. 50; and World Literature Criticism.

Arnold E. Davidson (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3129

SOURCE: “Future Tense: Making History in The Handmaid's Tale,” in Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, edited by Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, pp. 113-21.

[In the following essay, Davidson examines the significance of the “Historical Notes” epilogue in The Handmaid's Tale, stating, “what Atwood has written is not just a history of patriarchy but a metahistory, an analysis of how patriarchal imperatives are encoded within the various intellectual methods we bring to bear on history.”]

Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale conjoins two different projected futures. The first, distinctly dystopian, is Gilead, a fundamentally tyrannical order the author envisions for the Northeastern United States. The handmaid Offred's secret account (the women of Gilead are not even to have thoughts of their own, much less stories) gives us the measure of Gilead and particularly emphasizes—as even Offred's name attests—its use and abuse of women. This same account gives us, too, Gilead's genealogy, the story of its rapid rise in the last years of the twentieth century. Understandably alleviating her devastating assessment of her life in Gilead with memories of a different past, Offred records the traumatic transition from one order of things to a radically different order, all of which takes place within the limited span of her childbearing years.

Or perhaps Gilead embodies not such a radically different order after all. In fact, The Handmaid's Tale portrays the advent of that society as an easy slide into “final solutions” only slightly less brutal than those attempted in Nazi Germany (but solutions given a thoroughly American habitation and name) and thereby fulfills the traditional function of the dystopia. By envisioning an appalling future already implicit in the contemporary world, Atwood condemns just those present propensities that make a Gilead possible and does so on every level, even the comic. There is something humorously appropriate, for example, when the Commander's wife, formerly a spokesperson for women in the Phyllis Schlafly mode, gets exactly the life that she earlier advocated for others and does not find it good. And there is something tragically wrong when others, such as Offred, who ask for little get so much less, not even the children they are forced to bear for the state (if they are lucky enough to conceive them, since, for handmaids, the alternative to fertility is death).

Yet Offred's perturbing narration does not comprise the whole of The Handmaid's Tale. Appended to the fifteen titled sections that constitute her account and the bulk of the novel is a final part not numbered as another section nor even designated as a separate chapter. These “Historical Notes” give us both a second future (a future to Gilead) and the genealogy of Offred's account, which up to that point we have been reading. The resultant disjunction might well seem disconcerting. After an appalling story of tyranny, genocide, and gynocide in late twentieth-century America, we are, in effect, brought fast-forward to June 25, 2195, to the University of Denay in Nunavit and an International Historical Association's rather placid (if pompous) intellectual foray back into the Gilead Regime.

This unequal division of the text serves several narrative functions. On a most immediate level, the second part provides, as previously noted, the history of Offred's history and an account of how her private record has become a public document, the object of future historians’ attention. That attention, moreover, supplements Offred's story by the very act of subjecting it to academic scrutiny. Whereas Offred describes the practices of Gilead, the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies can provide some of the theory that underlies those practices. Thus, we are given the analysis of the use of the “Aunts” as especially “cost-effective” or the observation that Gilead itself was partly the product of earlier theories such as the sociobiology of Wilfred Limpkin. A retrospective symposium attests, too, that Gilead was survived and as such constitutes a distinct note of hope for the future. But that note is countered by another consideration. The historical notes, like any scholarly afterword, also serve to validate the text that they follow, and there is something ominous in that claiming of the right to have the last word.

Retrospective analysis by a Cambridge don—male, of course—is ostensibly more authoritative than a participant woman's eyewitness account. Furthermore, the supposed “objectivity” of the scholarly enterprise of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies is a chilling postscript to a story in which women (and others too: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, Quakers, Baptists) have been totally objectified, rendered into objects by the State. Is the process beginning again? And implicit in that question is a more immediate one. Do we, as scholars, contribute to the dehumanizations of society by our own critical work, especially when, as according to the distinguished professor of the novel, “our job is not to censure but to understand”? Atwood's epilogue loops back through the text that precedes it to suggest that the ways in which scholars (present as well as future) assemble the text of the past confirms the present and thereby helps to predict the future, even the horrific future endured by Offred. In short, Atwood does not let intellectuals off the hook—and the hook is a loaded metaphor in The Handmaid's Tale. How we choose to construct history partly determines the history we are likely to get.

Another version of this same problematics of history is implicit in the textual question posed by the epilogue. “The Handmaid's Tale” in its present form is not the only possible ordering of the “some thirty tapes” (we are never told exactly how many) that have been transcribed (we are never told how directly) into text. The editors, we are specifically informed, have intervened to make choices about the structure of the tale. Moreover, Professor Knotly Wade of Cambridge and Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Archives at Cambridge, have ordered thirty or so tapes into an extremely intricate structure—forty-six untitled chapters arranged in fifteen labeled sections, with the heading “Night” used seven times (and the only heading repeated). Professor Pieixoto admits that “all such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate, pending further research.” But that pro forma disclaimer does not acknowledge how much the very process of assembling a text (or writing the history of any age from its surviving traces) means creating a fiction. Where, then, is the boundary between novel and history? This textual question becomes all the more pertinent when juxtaposed against Atwood's insistence that everything in the book is “true,” has, in some form in some society, already been done (Cathy N. Davidson, “A Feminist 1984”).

In a very real sense, the future presaged by “The Handmaid's Tale” is already our history, just as the meeting of the Gileadean Symposium of 2195 could readily be incorporated into a contemporary literature or history convention. The relentlessness of history is partly what makes The Handmaid's Tale (like any successful dystopia) plausible. The plot of the novel also plays to our sense of the familiar. As Peter S. Prescott has observed, Atwood borrows the standard format of the dystopia. First, the narrator experiences hopeless despair in the face of the brutal regime, then feels some hope through discovering the possibility of resistance (the Mayday Underground and the Underground Femaleroad) and begins to perceive cracks in what seemed to be the unassailable power of Gilead (the lapses of the Commander, Fred). This political hope is strengthened by personal hope in the form of a love affair, a testament to continuing human emotion in the face of the dehumanization of the regime. Finally, there is the possibility of escape. Within the tale itself, Offred's end is uncertain, yet the very existence of the tapes suggests that, aided by Nick, she did elude the rule of Gilead.

Even the most idiosyncratic feature of this dystopia, its female narrator, is tellingly domesticated. Offred's reconstructed narration embodies the same sexual dualities that Gilead exhibits in their starkest form. She is essentially passive and in need of rescue by a man, a gender cliché underscored by Professor Pieixoto's distinction between the “quasi military” Mayday Underground as opposed to the nurturing and escapist enterprise of the Underground Femaleroad. This distinction (supported with remarkably little data, it must be emphasized) posits men aggressively striving to destroy the regime and women merely reacting to it in a compassionate capacity. This distinction is further underscored by another of the professor's little jokes, his reduction of the Underground Femaleroad to “The Underground Frailroad.” And of course, the whole title of the narration is appended by Professor Wade, “partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer” but also as an intentional pun on “the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail.” Yet it is those little jokes that give the larger game away. The grotesque transformation of women's bodies into passive receptacles for the perpetuation of the genes of the Regime's Commanders is itself grotesquely transmogrified, in the twenty-second century, into silly sexist jests. As Atwood has noted to Cathy N. Davidson in an interview, this is “what happens to history—something that's a very intense experience for the people who are living it becomes a subject of speculation, often of witticism, and rather detached analysis two hundred years later.”

The countering academic text is intended to condition future readings of the Gilead regime, just as Biblical commentaries (of any era or religion) condition readings of the Bible. Nor is that analogy gratuitous. Indeed, the Biblical fundamentalism of Gilead poses crucial questions about the interpretive use of literary texts, for that society's most appalling practices all have their scriptural justification. Chapter and verse can be cited for every atrocity, but who privileges those particular chapters and verses and decides how they should be read? And more important, how does that right to textual authority itself write the larger text of the society? The novel presents us with versions of this process in the Gileadean reading of the Bible and the professional reading of Gilead:

If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.

Again an ostensibly marginal aside situates us right in the center of the professor's own moral judging and his society's “hypocritical self-congratulation.” The conferees at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies assent to Professor Pieixoto's remarks by a round of applause.

One imagines that “The Handmaid's Tale” could provide the scholars of the twenty-second century with a crucial text from the Gilead regime. Very little remains of Gilead, for destroying information—obliterating marks of the past—was part of the many purges that marked this unstable society. We are told that, besides Offred's tapes, anthropologists have discovered “The A. B. Memoirs” in a garage in a Seattle suburb and “The Diary of P.” “excavated by accident during the erection of a new meeting house in the vicinity of what was once Syracuse, New York.” Aside from offering us a tantalizing glimpse of what life might be like in the United States in 2195—does the new meeting house recapitulate the town structure of an earlier Puritan or Quaker theocracy?—the very scantiness of the evidence underscores how much history is the product of historians. The only other guide to the era is a “diary kept in cipher” by sociobiologist Wilfred Limpkin, a political insider whose theories of natural polygamy served as the “scientific justification for some of the odder practices of the regime, just as Darwinism was used by earlier ideologies.”

If social Darwinism supports rampant laissez-faire capitalism and sociobiology justifies the theocratic totalitarianism of Gilead, then, we must ask, what ideologies are supported by the seemingly innocuous exercise in literary history indulged in by those at the Twelfth Symposium on Gilead Studies? The form of historical analysis assayed by Pieixoto is, essentially, a pre-Foucault, pre-de Beauvoir form of historical criticism, which pretends to “objectivity,” to placing texts within their historical “contexts” with little awareness that context itself is a construct. As Mary Wilson Carpenter has pointed out, Pieixoto continually trivializes the status of “The Handmaid's Tale” as document precisely because he trivializes women's role in society—in Gilead society, in his own society. In fact, much of his narration is concerned not with the text itself but with attempting to discover the identity of Fred, the Commander to whom the narrator of “The Handmaid's Tale” is assigned. “What would we not give, now,” Pieixoto laments, “for even twenty pages or so of printout from [the Commander's] private computer!”

The professor's desire for what he has not and the concomitant disregard for all that he has (if he could only read it better) is finally parodic. Other comic inversions also characterize the enterprise of these future scholars. For example, Professor Gopal Chatterjee, of the Department of Western Philosophy, University of Baroda, India, is scheduled to speak on “Krishna and Kali Elements in the State Religion in the Early Gilead Period.” Or the session on “The Handmaid's Tale” is chaired by Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, of the Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavit. And even Denay, the future nation in the north that a number of native peoples in Canada currently wish to form—a nation in which the traditional ways of the natives will replace the Western ways of their oppressors—embodies obvious contradictions. With most of the United States contaminated by radioactivity and other industrial and nuclear disasters, the far north has apparently become the seat of power in North America, and with power comes a society that mimes the very Western ways it was intended to oppose. Although the existence of a Department of Caucasian Anthropology reverses the usual hierarchies—who is studied, who studies—there still are such hierarchies and the institutions that embody them.

Maryann Crescent Moon's role as chair of the conference session on “The Handmaid's Tale” does not prove an egalitarian future. On the contrary, as soon as the keynote speaker ascends to the podium, we are shown the real distribution of textual and sexual power. The eminent Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge (another enduring hegemony despite his non-Anglo name) begins his talk with the standard speaker's ploy of breaking the ice with a joke. Yet his opening comment, ostensibly marginal to the topic at hand, effectively centers the professor's discourse, and from the very first he sounds his key note. A most dubious note it is. His joke turns upon a bad pun conjoining the “charming Arctic Char” that “we all enjoyed” last night at dinner and the current “Arctic Chair” that “we are [now] enjoying.” Lest the full racist and sexist implications of that equation go unappreciated, he also spells out the different senses of “enjoy” and thereby elicits his audience's laughter. The chairwoman/charwoman thus assumes her marginal place as mere handmaiden to Pieixoto's central text.

Pieixoto's discourse mirrors, then, the structure of the novel of which it is a part, and by that mirroring it also claims the part it would play. “The Handmaid's Tale” as text serves as handmaiden to the career-enhancing epilogue provided by the academics. Is this what history is for? To round out the vitae of historians? Or does the asserted marginalization of one text set forth itself still another text and a context in which to read it? We know—from both Offred's narration and Pieixoto's speech—that the Caucasian birthrate declined disastrously in Gilead, thanks to such factors as radioactive fallout, chemical pollution, and a backfired plan for gene warfare against the Russians. Women who could bear children were therefore vital (literally) to the survival of the regime. But prospective mothers were nevertheless the most controlled, powerless, and demeaned members of that society. In short, there is no necessary relationship between one's importance to the perpetuation of society and one's privilege within that society. Significance and status are both constructs manipulated by those in power. Just as the conference chair in 2195 is peripheral to the proceedings themselves, so is Offred merely a marginal (and ultimately disposable) tool of the patriarchy that cannot exist without her. What Atwood has written is not just a history of patriarchy but a metahistory, an analysis of how patriarchal imperatives are encoded within the various intellectual methods we bring to bear on history.

The historical notes with which The Handmaid's Tale ends provide comic relief from the grotesque text of Gilead. Yet in crucial ways the epilogue is the most pessimistic part of the book. Even with the lesson Gilead readily at hand, the intellectuals of 2195 seem to be preparing the way for Gilead again. In this projection of past, present, and future, the academic community is shown to have a role, not simply an “academic” role (passive, accommodating) but an active one in recreating the values of the past—which is, Atwood suggests, the way to create the values of the future. Professor Pieixoto's title is “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale,” and his very mode of speaking authenticates her tale by retrospectively duplicating the suppression her society inflicted upon her, by claiming the right to determine the meaning of her experience. But because his reading of her experience verges back towards Gilead again, our reading of his reading can authenticate Offred's account in a different sense than the professor intended and can also show how insidious are the horrors at the heart of his dark narrative.

The professor, too, concludes with mixed metaphors of light and dark: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.” It is a brief peroration that elicits his audience's applause and prepares the way for any discussion that might follow. Indeed, when he ends, with again a standard ploy—“Are there any questions?”—that question itself well may be rhetorical. And even if it is not, the speaker has already indicated what he thinks the questions are. His questions, however, need not be our questions, especially when we consider the matrix out of which his asking comes. His persistent assertion of gender prerogatives darkens his claimed “clearer light of [his] own day” and conjoins his world with Gilead's and ours.

Lucy M. Freibert (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4855

SOURCE: “Control and Creativity: The Politics of Risk in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,” in Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood, edited by Judith McCombs, G. K. Hall, 1988, pp. 280-91.

[In the following essay, Freibert provides an analysis of satire, Western patriarchal stereotypes, and the application of French feminist theory in The Handmaid's Tale. According to Freibert, “In satirizing, and thereby demystifying, Western phallocentrism in the worst of all possible contexts, Atwood also tests the viability of French feminist theory.”]

At the end of Lady Oracle (1976) Margaret Atwood's author/narrator declares, “I won't write any more Costume Gothics. … But maybe I'll try some science fiction.” In The Handmaid's Tale (1985) Atwood makes good that promise in what one might call “political-science fiction” but what she calls “speculative fiction.” This boldly political and darkly comic novel illustrates Atwood's grasp of the cultural, historical, philosophical, and literary facets of Western tradition, and the role of woman within that frame. Atwood demonstrates the absurdity of Western patriarchal teleology that views woman's biology as destiny and exposes the complicity of women in perpetuating that view. She also ridicules the mental gymnastics of academics, specifically those bent on establishing “the text.” Instead of a modest proposal, her Swiftean serio-comic vision comprises an ironic indictment of a society that treats woman's body as a pawn and her life as an academic question. Ultimately, Atwood, with a bow to écriture feminine, suggests that even in such a context an imaginative woman willing to improvise and take risks can beat the system and savor a measure of joy in the process.

Although more overtly political than her previous work, The Handmaid's Tale is no departure from Atwood's system. As Sherrill E. Grace has pointed out, Atwood's vision has not essentially changed, but has expanded and deepened. The political component in her poetry and prose, respectively, from The Circle Game (1966) and The Edible Woman (1969) onward, intensified in their counterparts, Power Politics (1971) and Bodily Harm (1982). In The Handmaid's Tale the context is essentially political, and, as the protagonist remarks, “Context is all.”

In a 1985 interview, several months before The Handmaid's Tale appeared, Atwood addressed the matter directly: “the political to me is a part of life. It's part of everybody's life.” “What we mean [by political],” she continued, “is how people relate to a power structure and vice versa. And this is really all we mean by it. We may mean also some idea of participating in the structure or changing it. But the first thing we mean is how is this individual in society? How do the forces of society interact with this person?” The protagonist Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, struggling against oppressive structures, embodies Atwood's definition. Moreover, Offred promises to come off a winner: “I intend to last,” she says.

Set within this political context, Atwood's novel, as the following analysis demonstrates, deconstructs Western phallocentrism and explores those aspects of French feminist theory that offer women a measure of hope.


Atwood's design alerts the-reader to the novel's satiric mode. The title, along with the biblical, Swiftean, and Sufi epigraphs and the final “Historical Notes” that frame the tale, focuses attention on form and tone.

The Chaucerian ring of the title sets up expectations of a medieval setting with lords and ladies, retainers and handmaids, a recounting of the battle of the sexes from top to bottom of a hierarchical range, a latter-day Canterbury saga. The title dictates an intimate first-person narrative yet evokes a sophisticated courtly detachment. Atwood does not disappoint these expectations but essays a bizarre satire that even Chaucer would not have dared.

The dual effect of the double-entendre in the pun on the word tale, as literary creation and anatomic part, combines humor and denigration that Atwood maintains throughout the work. Thus the pun sets up the basic conflict between the protagonist and the society that regards her as a sexual object. The resulting irony works simultaneously on multiple levels. The structural looseness allowed by the tale's literary conventions permits the narrator innumerable digressions, spanning her entire life.

Atwood projects the tale into the end of the twentieth century, when the United States has suffered a right-wing takeover that has produced the Republic of Gilead, a monolithic theocracy more oppressive even than Puritan rule. The central aim in Gilead is to increase population in a society where nuclear radiation, chemical pollution, abortion, and other sexual and surgical processes have made sterility the norm. This condition in the Republic of Gilead ironically approximates what Jeremiah prophesied for its biblical namesake. When the Israelites had worn His patience to the limit, God called forth Jeremiah and through his mouth foretold the desolation of the Promised Land. Aghast that Gilead, the most fertile area, might be included, Jeremiah cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” Silence suggests Gilead's fate.

Atwood's Gileadians design a system that recognizes divine power but relies heavily on human control. The system brooks no resistance or dissent. A military hierarchy—Commanders, Eyes, Angels, and Guardians—maintains surveillance through the use of electronic devices, a network of checkpoints, and an ubiquitous fleet of multipurpose vans, agents of both life and death. Menials not engaged in this chain of command serve as chauffeurs (often also Eyes), shopkeepers, and service personnel. Ironically, in the process of fostering new life and claiming to protect women, the officers carry out abductions, hangings, and batterings that turn the society into a fascist state hazardous to life, particularly for women.

The rigid political system blights both private and public sectors. Women find themselves relegated to one of eight categories. The blue-clad Wives of the Commanders preside over their homes and gardens, and attend public functions such as the Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and birthings. Sexual duties fall to the red-clad Handmaids, drilled in self-denial and renunciation and reduced to fertility machines. The green-clad Marthas clean and cook. The Econowives, married to upper-level menials, combine the functions of the other groups and consequently wear striped blue/red/green dresses. At the Rachel and Leah Center, the Aunts use electric cattle prods to keep the Handmaids in line. The black-clad Widows, a rapidly diminishing group, live in limbo. The gray-clad Unwomen, those who refuse to cooperate with the system, work in the Colonies, cleaning up city ghettoes, toxic dumps, and radiation spills, and watch their bodies disintegrate before their eyes. Finally, the unlabeled women hidden from public view inhabit a Bunny Club where a few hours each day they serve the pleasure of the Commanders and visiting businessmen, and the rest of the time their own.

To identify the source of this dystopia's obsession with progeny and sex, Atwood draws her first epigraph from the story of the biblical Rachel. This choice establishes the idea that long ago religio-political pressure to procreate set society on a collision course with personal autonomy, and will continue that oppression into the future. The epigraph on page 7 tells its own story:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.—Genesis 30:1-3

This is not, of course, the only biblical instance of sexual substitution. Sarah gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham and Rachel's sister Leah gave her handmaid Zelpha to Jacob. The custom of using the handmaid for progeny permeated Israelite history and custom. Legal documents dating from the fifteenth century B.C. supplement biblical records of the practice and cite the protective measures for both handmaid and offspring. Against this background Atwood's handmaid appears as the heir and counterpart of millions who have preceded her.

The Republic of Gilead, with headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has institutionalized the Handmaid's function. The young women given to the Commanders and their wives assume their owners’ names, thus Of-fred, Of-glen, Of-warren. The treatment of the individual Handmaid by both husband and wife reinforces the concept of person as property: the Commander uses Offred for his private as well as public service, ordering her to visit him in his study whenever his wife is away, and the wife Serena Joy secretly “gives” Offred to the chauffeur Nick when the Commander seems unable to get her pregnant.

The biblical epigraph not only suggests the violation of individual autonomy—the central focus of The Handmaid's Tale—it also foreshadows the female envy and male/female enmity that form the inner tension of the novel. In Atwood's tale envy is pervasive: “In this house we all envy each other something,” says Rita, one of the Marthas. The same may be said of the whole society. Serena Joy and the other Wives vie with one another for the fertile Handmaids and envy their fortunate rivals as Rachel envied Leah. The Handmaids suffer from the resentment of the Wives, the Econowives, and the Marthas. “How she must hate me,” Offred says of Serena Joy, “I am a reproach to her; and a necessity.” “The Econowives do not like us,” Offred reports, “Beneath her veil the first one scowls at us. One of the others turns aside, spits on the sidewalk.” The Marthas think the Handmaids’ task is “not that bad. It's not what you'd call hard work.” The enmity between the Commander and Serena Joy parallels Jacob's anger at Sarah. Observing the Commander's obvious affront to Serena Joy, Offred remarks, “Who knows what she said to him, over the silver-encrusted dinner table? Or didn't say.” Serena Joy's anguish lies in her inability to adapt to the wifely role she had so ardently advocated as a national TV personality. Phyllis Schlafly comes to mind.

The most humorous correspondence between the biblical account and Atwood's tale stems from the passage in which Rachel expresses the hope that Bilhah will “bear upon my knees.” In Gilead protocol for the periodic impregnation of the Handmaid requires that the Wife arrange herself at the head of her bed with legs outspread, the Handmaid lying between them with her head on the Wife's stomach. Thus positioned the two form one body as Offred receives the Commander. A comparable scene occurs at the birth of a Handmaid's child, when the Wife reclines at the head of the bed on which the Handmaid lies in labor, and during delivery sits on the upper portion of a double-decker birthing stool. In both crucial moments, the Handmaid is between the Wife's knees. The control exerted through both rituals provokes rollicking laughter, yet stifles fulfillment. As Offred comments about the impregnation ceremony, “There's something hilarious about this, but I don't dare laugh.” Neither does the reader, aware of the comic yet demeaning implications of the arrangement, paralleled in current legalistic maneuvers of medical and judicial “experts” to control women's bodies.

The religious trappings that pervade the political structure foster the idea that the primary purpose of the system is to protect women, while the actual purpose is to control them and reinforce the notion that their biology is their destiny. At lunchtime in the Rachel and Leah Center, the Handmaids listen to the Beatitudes: “Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disc, the voice was a man's.” The formulaic speech patterns imposed on the Handmaids, “Blessed be the fruit,” “May the Lord open,” “Praise be,” “Under His Eye,” “Let that be a reminder to us,” serve to perpetuate the religious nature of their role and to prevent practical conversation. The prayer sessions that precede each impregnation form high burlesque. The household assembles: Serena Joy sits in her chair with a footstool for her feet. Offred kneels beside her and the Marthas and the chauffeur Nick stand behind them. The Commander enters, unlocks the box containing the Bible, reads “the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” Although the scene is potentially explosive, no one dares to snicker, for the Angels wait to take the blasphemer to the gibbet.

The second epigraph, taken from Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, predicts the political depth Atwood plumbs. In seeking to relieve Irish poverty, Swift suggested facetiously that select young children be fattened and eaten, thereby providing succulent fare for those who could afford it, relieving parents of the need to provide for them, and alleviating the unemployment problem resulting from overpopulation.

Atwood, writing about a time of underpopulation, does not offer a satiric political proposal but rather pushes late twentieth-century ideological conflicts to what she considers their logical conclusions. “There's not a single detail in the book that does not have a corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact,” she said in an interview. Military buildup makes a coup d'etat possible. Government failure to prevent wholesale plunder of natural resources and to monitor chemical pollution produces an unsafe environment. Right-wing attempts to control sexuality clash with feminist and gay interests. Feminist campaigns against rape, child abuse, and pornography inadvertently give credence to right-wing calls for sexual control and book burnings. Atwood blames no one group, but indicts, by sheer exposure, those who espouse simplistic solutions that deny the rights and welfare of others.

The Swiftean exaggerations Atwood calls logical consequences reach a climax in the Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and similar events: “Women's Prayvaganzas are for group weddings … men's are for military victories. These are the things we are supposed to rejoice in the most, respectively.” The group weddings reward the warriors with virgin brides. Salvagings, public executions of either sex, produce the Wall hangings for what was once Harvard Yard. Included among the trophies are abortionists, priests, homosexuals, and recalcitrant Handmaids.

Although daily acquiescence implies consent to one's own and others’ oppression, the festival fever of these public events intensifies the horror of women's complicity in their subjugation. At the hangings each Handmaid must touch the rope in assent to the murders. At Particicutions the Handmaids ritually dismember any man accused of rape. The Aunts supply the rhetoric that arouses the women to savagery.

Not all the women succumb to the system gracefully. The Handmaid Moira, while yet a novice, escapes from the Rachel and Leah Center and when caught chooses posting at the brothel. Ofglen becomes a member of Mayday, an underground group that helps people escape to Canada. Her courageous attempt to assist a Guardian unjustly accused of rape (his real crime was being a member of Mayday) leads her to suicide lest she betray any of her friends. Janine, another Handmaid, retreats into the past to escape the present. The openly defiant, particularly former nuns, choose banishment to the Colonies as Unwomen. Although forced into complicity by fear during her three postings, Offred, once freed, threatens the system by telling her tale.

The third epigraph, the Sufi proverb “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones,” epitomizes Atwood's view of social control. It implies that on the most basic level of survival human beings instinctively know what to do and what to avoid; it suggests the corollary that authorities should avoid unnecessary regulation. Sufi simplicity counterpoints the outrageous legalism of Gilead's political structure and pleads for human freedom and survival. The proverbial desert evokes the sterility and isolation in which Offred must compose her being. The title and epigraphs together tense the critical antennae for the tale.


In satirizing, and thereby demystifying, Western phallocentrism in this worst of all possible contexts, Atwood also tests the viability of French feminist theory. She does not, of course, set out methodically to incorporate French feminist principles, but eclectically draws on the most useful. She sets Offred, body and voice, against the body politic and through her condemns the patriarchal tradition. What is more important in terms of écriture feminine, Atwood demonstrates through Offred that women, able to take risks and to tell stories, may transcend their conditioning, establish their identity, joyfully reclaim their bodies, find their voices, and reconstruct the social order.

Atwood portrays Offred as a bloody Mary—a contemplative, both virgin and magdalen, a “handmaid of the Lord” in New Testament terms. In her red dress, sandals, and veil with its white wimple (“wings”) that hides her face, she looks like a nun. Like a nun she sleeps in a cell-like room that has no mirror, goes out only with a companion, and converses in formulaic phrases reminiscent of the antiphonal chant of the Divine Office. By conflating the traditional images of wife and handmaid, handmaid and virgin, virgin and harlot, Atwood asserts that whatever her station woman has been and still is sexual, bloody, the producer of children, the servant, “A Sister, dipped in blood.”

Atwood rotates Offred through three psychological states: fear, despair, and boldness. Fear frequently paralyzes Offred, keeping her obedient to the rules. She fears the Aunts, Angels, Eyes, other Handmaids, Marthas, Nick, Serena Joy, and the Commander—everyone who might report her conduct and put her in jeopardy. She lives in boredom and despair, continually searching for a means of suicide, aware that every effort has been made to prevent her ending her life through external means or through those “other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.” The boldness that stimulates her creativity and risk-taking comes slowly. On an early adventure she reports: “I like this. I am doing something, on my own. The active tense. Tensed. What I would like to steal is a knife, from the kitchen, but I'm not ready for that.”

While Offred's fear, despair, and boldness evoke the reader's empathy, it is Atwood's attention to voice that creates the illusion of reality and elicits pity and fear for Offred despite the high burlesque of the tale. Offred is, indeed, a voice crying in the desert. Atwood gives her the same low-keyed voice that B. W. Powe derides as “virtually interchangeable” in all the previous novels. But that voice, approximating the limited scope of Offred's life symbolized by the blinkers on her veil, is precisely what makes The Handmaid's Tale credible. At times tentative, at others defiant, it persists to the end, giving force and direction to the tale.

Offred literally tells her story, recording it on tape instead of writing it down:

I would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it's a story I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. …

It isn't a story I'm telling.

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

The method, ancient in form but contemporary in technique, replicates the tenuousness of woman's condition. Having experienced an uncomfortable relationship with an activist mother, survived two marriages of questionable compatibility, and suffered the loss of her mother, husband, and daughter, Offred finds herself in a void: “I'll pretend you can hear me. But it's no good, because I know you can't.” Atwood creates this sense of isolation in order to emphasize that Offred's invention of her risk-filled story becomes the source of her freedom.

The only support Offred receives from other women comes from furtive nighttime sharings in the dormitory at the Center, brief exchanges with Ofglen while shopping, conversations with Moira at the Center and at the brothel, and one brief moment of verbal rapport with Serena Joy. Moira, a role model of resistance, brings Offred word about her mother. Serena Joy, an unlikely ally, procures Offred a momentary look at a picture of her lost daughter. Ofglen, shopping companion, friend, and member of Mayday, serves Offred in one sense as an ideal but also as a warning that sacrificing for others diminishes one's own life. For the most part, Offred learns that she must make decisions from moment to moment on her own, thereby building her interior strength and eventually generating her story.

At the outset Atwood draws on centuries-old conditioning that convinces woman that her body is her only means of survival. Offred muses over the possibility of negotiating an escape from the Rachel and Leah Center: “The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some trade-off, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.” The idea that she might use her body for negotiation is pure bravado, however, for later, when she learns about the Commanders’ hotel, she makes no effort to change her posting. Nevertheless, through responding to her body, she comes to realize her power with words and develops her voice.

Offred takes her first risks to satisfy bodily urgings. Once when a guard bends down to see her face, she raises her head: “I raise my head a little, to help him, and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes. … He is the one who turns away.” Another time when passing a guard, she moves her hips as she walks away—“It's like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach. … I find I'm not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.”

As she tells her tale, Offred realizes that an embodied imagination, not body alone, offers the real potential for freedom. She speaks of creating her stories as she creates herself: “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.” This self-generation frees her from the limitation of biological determinism.

Offred gets the chance to develop both aspects of her being through her association with the Commander—the head—and Nick—the heart. From the first, being with the Commander is a kind of intellectual game that activates Offred's imagination. It holds just enough risk and fear to keep her adrenaline flowing. When she begins her visits to his study, where he wants her to play Scrabble with him, allows her to read books and magazines, and shares with her the schoolboy's joke “Nolite te bastardes corborundorum,” she begins to see the value of her own way with words. When the Commander gives her a pen with which to write the quotation, she exults: “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains.” Later discussions with him lead her to analyze old concepts such as romance and love, the relation of love to sexual abuse. Atwood even allows Offred to revel in her power over the Commander. Offred manipulates him to get the hand lotion, the magazines, etc. She boasts of that power and admits enjoying it and trading on it, all the time realizing the emptiness of her gains. Even when the Commander asks her to kiss him as if she means it and when he takes her in his Whirlwind to the hotel for the night out, including sex, her mind is racing. Like the French feminist Luce Irigaray's “she,” Offred “goes off in all directions.” No risk is too great for her, even though she is shaking with fear. In the womb Offred developed an affinity with risk—her mother risked everything by conceiving her at thirty-seven.

Delight in manipulating language and sensing its power leads Offred to expand her self and perfect her tale. Failing to recognize this achievement, Mary McCarthy faults Atwood for not inventing “a language to match the changed face of common life.” Although Offred uses the oppressor's language, she uses it to her advantage and fits it to her needs. She learns to adapt stories to her physical condition. When tired, she chooses one about someone else: “I'm too tired to go on with this story. I'm too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one. This is the story of what happened to Moira.” Offred learns to reconstruct stories and to plan for the future; she examines the creative process. For her, as for Scheherazade, the tale becomes a means of survival:

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It's a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn't have said, what I should or shouldn't have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—

Let's stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can't last forever.

Offred's real breakthrough to her courageous sexual self comes not with the Commander, who soon bores her, but with Nick. When she first encounters Nick and he winks, she does not dare respond. However, when they meet in the sitting room where she has gone to steal a flower to press, she reacts readily to his embrace and kiss: “I want to reach up, taste his skin, he makes me hungry.” Her joyous reaction to her desire embodies precisely the French jouissance. As their relationship develops, with Serena Joy's blessing, it matters little whether Nick is the Tempter in the Garden or the Delivering Angel who arrives in the nick of time, for he serves to release Offred to sexual abandon and freedom to record her tale. Through her friendship with Nick she even discovers satisfaction with her life. Thus, when she might have changed this her third (and last) posting by choosing to move to the brothel, she risks staying where she can continue her affair with Nick: “I said, I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settlers’ wives thought, and women who survived wars, if they still had a man.” The risk-filled spirit of adventure permeates Offred's actions and choices, turning her into a perfectionist. She creates and recreates accounts of her meetings with Nick, each time making them more intense, more precise. To him she entrusts her real name; his using it reinforces her sense of continuity and inspires hope.

That Nick serves also as Offred's physical liberator is not surprising. He and Ofglen and Moira—honest rogues who also know how to feel for others—have influenced Offred, have given her the support she needed at various stages in her development, and have taught her by example that risk is inseparable from creativity. But this time when Offred listens to Nick's “trust me”—the traditional patriarchal ploy for co-opting women—Offred hears with an experience and knowledge that enable her to speak out, tell her tale, and perhaps precipitate the action that will bring Gilead to an end.

Although Atwood as speculator draws from the French feminists, as realist she questions their ultimate success. While Offred's tapes may have helped bring about the demise of Gilead, they do not bring about Atwood's ideal society. In the “Historical Notes,” which follow the transcription of Offred's tapes, Atwood satirizes the academics of 2195, little different from those of two centuries earlier, who argue about “the text.” Historical mystery buffs may find in the appendix delightful confirmation of their own intuitions that the Aunts Sara, Lydia, Elizabeth, and Helena were really pseudonymic adaptations for Sara Lee, Lydia E. Pinkham, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubenstein. But “serious” academics will turn bloody as they hear themselves echoed in the pedantic analysis of the scholarly Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, who attempts fruitlessly to fill in the minute details indicated by the text, particularly to identify the Commander, Serena Joy, Nick, and Offred herself. Further embarrassments will emerge at the conference chair's recounting of all the extracurricular diversions that the conferees will not want to miss and her urgings that speakers keep within the time allotted for the papers so they will not miss dinner again. Although the satire of “Historical Notes” goes easier on occupants of the ivory tower than the tale does on the socio-religious Western patriarchy, the small-mindedness of academe in dealing with reality cannot be missed.

How Atwood will top this indictment of Western society and its clash of ideologies over women's experience, one can only conjecture. Novels are not expected to change society. The Handmaid's Tale, however, will surely embarrass many in high places and could bring some response. Whatever else she has accomplished in this novel, Atwood reaches the goal set by Hélène Cixous when she wrote “a feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. … If she's a her-she, it's in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the truth with laughter.” Intent—political or literary—aside, this, at least, Atwood achieves.

Roberta Rubenstein (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4216

SOURCE: “Nature and Nurture in Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale,” in Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, edited by Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, pp. 101-12.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein examines the use of nature imagery and symbolism to portray female sexuality, reproduction, and maternity in The Handmaid's Tale.]


One might say that Margaret Atwood has always been concerned with issues of survival—first as a condition of Canadian experience and, more recently, as a condition of female experience. In her latest fiction and poetry, she connects the personal and political dimensions of victimization and survival in explicitly female and feminist terms. Moreover, in the course of her fiction the terms of survival have become increasingly problematic. In her fablelike The Handmaid's Tale, she stunningly extends, recasts, and inverts two of the most persistent clusters of theme and imagery that originate in her earlier concern with survival: nature and nurture.

As a number of her commentators have pointed out, Atwood uses the imagery of nature in her poetry and fiction in complex ways, delineating the terms of survival and growth as well as oppression and death. Concurrently, from the beginning of her fictional oeuvre in particular, nurture—I use the term here as ironic shorthand for motherhood and procreation—is viewed in problematic terms. In The Edible Woman, Marian MacAlpin's female friends dramatize extreme attitudes toward procreation as a “natural” function of female identity: Ainsley is obsessed with becoming pregnant while Clara is virtually engulfed by maternity. Marian views both women with scepticism and anxiety. A central problem for the narrator of Surfacing is the necessity to come to terms with her denied abortion; the somewhat ambiguous sign of her psychological recovery is her desire to be impregnated by her primitive lover, Joe.

Joan Foster of Lady Oracle also feels anxiety about motherhood, principally because for much of her life (as revealed in her story) she has remained psychologically merged with her destructive mother. Her childhood obesity and her adult fantasies of the sideshow “Fat Lady” are grotesque exaggerations of anxieties about maternity. In Life Before Man Elizabeth Schoenhof and Lesje Green represent complementary views of motherhood. Elizabeth has appreciative but rather remote relationships with her two daughters; Lesje, unmarried but perhaps pregnant (by Elizabeth's husband, Nate) by the end of the narrative, seeks maternity to confirm her fragile female identity. Rennie Wilford of Bodily Harm worries that the cancer in her body, which has already resulted in the loss of part of a breast, will fundamentally alter her reproductive capacity.

In The Handmaid's Tale, female anxieties associated with fertility, procreation, and maternity are projected as feminist nightmare and cultural catastrophe. Atwood demonstrates the way in which the profound and irreconcilable split between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” ideologies of reproduction in contemporary social experience corroborate female ambivalence about childbearing in patriarchy. She imagines a world in which women are explicitly defined by their potential fertility (or its absence); procreation and maternity are simultaneously idealized and dehumanized.

Atwood has recently acknowledged her increasingly explicit ideological focus, noting that there is a vital connection between the function of the novel as a “moral instrument,” the responsibility of the writer to “bear witness,” and politics. As she elaborates, “By ‘political’ I mean having to do with power: who's got it, who wants it, how it operates; in a word, who's allowed to do what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it and how” (“An End to Audience?” Second Words). In her most recent novel to date, the correspondences between “personal” and “political” find brilliant and disturbing expression. Both public and private worlds are radically altered, exaggerating the unresolved cultural and ideological controversy over the circumstances of procreation.

In the Republic of Gilead the “natural” world is utterly denatured. Pollution of the environment has resulted in adult sterility and genetic mutation and deformity of offspring; generativity itself is at risk. Hence, fertile females are made vessels for procreation; anatomy is indeed destiny. The physically confining rooms, walls, and other actual boundaries of the Republic of Gilead corroborate the condition of reproductive “confinement” to which the handmaids are subject. Maternity is both wish (handmaids are discarded after three unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy) and fear (the baby, unless deformed and declared an “Unbaby,” becomes the property of the handmaid's Commander and his wife). The surrogate mother's function ceases after a brief lactation period following delivery of a healthy child.

The handmaid Offred (the narrator), subjected to sexual exploitation masquerading as religious fervor and worship of procreation, experiences herself as utterly subordinated to the procreative function. In her former life she has regarded her body as an “instrument” under her own control—with “limits … but nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me.” In Gilead, her body, like that of her coequal “handmaids,” exists literally to be used against her: “Now the flesh rearranges itself differently. I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night. …” Under the pressure of terrifying alternatives, Offred (whose name encodes her indentured sexuality: both “offered” and the property “Of-Fred”) “resign[s her] body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject”—and object.


From the central issue of procreation to the language and imagery that form the substructure of Offred's narrative, The Handmaid's Tale demonstrates multiple inversions and violations of nature and natural. Not only is the female body used as a tool for reproduction, but bodies in general are objectified and described in terms of parts rather than as wholes. In Bodily Harm Atwood implied that the reduction of the body to a “thing” is connected to its violation; in The Handmaid's Tale torture and mutilation as well as less extreme forms of manipulation underscore the ruthless and repressive values that shape Gilead. Both men and women who are identified as political “enemies” of the state—guilty of such crimes as “gender treachery”—are sacrificed at public ceremonies called “Salvagings” (the word resonates ironically with salvage, salvation, and savaging) in which they are mutilated and hanged in public view.

Other images throughout the narrative reinforce the symbolism of disembodiment and dismemberment. When Offred tries to recall her visceral connections to the husband and daughter from whom she has been so abruptly separated, she mourns, “Nobody dies from lack of sex. It's lack of love we die from. There's nobody here I can love. … Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person. … Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied.” Most obviously, Offred and other handmaids are, to those in power in Gilead, merely parts of bodies: “two-legged wombs.” The doctor who examines them periodically for signs of pregnancy never even sees their faces; he “deals with a torso only.” The ceiling ornament in Offred's room resembles “the place in a face where the eye has been taken out”; in fact, there are Eyes—the network of informants (C-Eye-A?)—everywhere. The grappling hooks on the large Berlin Wall-like structure where criminals are hanged look like “appliances for the armless.” An image of people with “no legs” resonates with the unknown but terrible torture to which the rebel handmaid Moira is subjected and with Offred's first intimation of the changing dispensation that has culminated in the Republic of Gilead. When she and other women were fired from their jobs and summarily stripped of political and legal rights, she felt as if someone had “cut off [her] feet.” In these latter instances of literal or symbolic mutilation of female feet, the image of Chinese footbinding—another form of social control of women—comes to mind.

In Gilead, Aunt Lydia (one of the “Aunts,” who retain power in the puritanical state through their role as indoctrinators of the handmaids) speaks distastefully of women in the recent past who cultivated suntans, “oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit. …” In her former life, Offred had been aware of the self-mutilations practiced by women who, desperate to attract men, had “starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off.” She also recalls more violent crimes against the (implicitly female) body, as expressed in newspaper stories of “corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say. …” In Gilead the handmaids, as part of their “re-education” in submission, are made to watch old pornographic films from the seventies and eighties in which women appear in various attitudes of submission, brutalization, and grotesque mutilation. Extrapolating from these contemporary realities, Atwood extends into the future her critique of female brutalization articulated in Bodily Harm and in recent essays.

The imagery of mutilation and dismemberment permeates the narrator's own language. Offred struggles to “reconstruct” her fragmented selfhood and to justify the choices she has made (or which have been imposed on her) under the circumstances she describes. Her past experiences, apparently severed from the “present” time of Gileadean tyranny, are in fact linked by these very images of female brutalization. The terse words she exchanges with other handmaids, who may or may not be trustworthy confidantes, are “amputated speech.” Late in her story Offred apologizes to an unknown audience in whom she must believe for her own survival; her story is an act of self-generation that opposes the oppressive obligations of procreation. She describes her narrative as if it were herself, “a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force … this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story.”


Among the multiple inversions of normalcy in The Handmaid's Tale are frequent references to animals, plants, smells, and other objects or experiences typically associated with “nature.” In Gilead the changing seasons bring no solace; spring is “undergone.” The month of May, however, is linked with the one possibility of freedom: the password of the resistance movement, “Mayday,” with its coded message of “M'aidez.”

Flowers are among the few objects of the natural world whose symbolic associations have not been entirely corrupted. Offred frequently describes them in terms of color and variety and, late in her narrative, confesses that they are among the “good things” she has tried to put in her sordid story. More often, flowers and plants suggest the confining circumstances of sexuality and reproduction. Offred struggles to keep the image of crimson tulips (also the color of the nunlike robes worn by the handmaids) free from association with blood. The blossoms worn by Serena Joy (the ironic name of Offred's Commander's wife) are withered, like her sexuality; flowers are, Offred reminds herself, merely “the genital organs of plants.” Elsewhere she describes the reeking “stink” of “pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea. All this prodigal breeding.” Handmaids are told to think of themselves as seeds; their password to each other is “Blessed be the fruit”—yet seeds and fruit are associated with manipulated, not natural, reproduction.

The narrative is studded with such references to plant and animal life—generally primitive or lower forms—which are often juxtaposed with aspects of the human body and/or sexuality. The animals in Gilead are, for the most part, repugnant. A virtual menagerie of insects, fish, fowl, and beasts parades, figuratively, through the narrative: ant, beetle, spider, fly, worm, oyster, mollusk, rat, mouse, fish, frog, snake, pigeon, hawk, vulture, chicken, turkey, pig, sheep, horse, cat, dog, elephant. The handmaids are treated like brood livestock: tattooed with “cattle brands,” they are kept in line by women called Aunts who wield electric cattleprods.

The “livestock” of the narrative is partly of the zoo, partly of the barnyard—the latter figures recalling Orwell's satiric Animal Farm. Offred thinks of herself, in the eyes of the powers of Gilead, as a “prize pig”; another handmaid takes mincing steps like a “trained pig.” Both usages resonate ironically with the other-gendered “chauvinist pig[s]” and “fucking pigs” of Offred's mother's generation. A number of the animal images are associated with confinement: caged rats in mazes, “held birds” or birds with wings clipped or “stopped in flight,” and the predatory relationship of spider to fly. Handmaids are both sexual “bait” and “baited,” as in the sense of “fishbait” or “throwing peanuts at elephants.”

Often, the animal references suggest the debased, denatured, dismembered human body as mere flesh. Offred, walking after a rainy night on a path through the back lawn that suggests “a hair parting,” observes half-dead worms, “flexible and pink, like lips.” In the dehumanized sexual act (a mènage à trois in the service of insemination: the Commander, his Wife, and the Handmaid), the penis is disembodied: the male “tentacle, his delicate stalked slug's eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, travelling forward as if along a leaf, into [the women], avid for vision.” Elsewhere Offred imagines sexual encounters between “Angels” and their brides (insipid young men and women of Gilead who actually marry) as “furry encounters … cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.” Similarly, she imagines a balding Commander with his wife and handmaid, “fertilizing away like mad, like a rutting salmon. …”

Thus, in the perverse relations of Gilead, the distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural,” between human and nonhuman, are grotesquely inverted or reduced. In a central passage Atwood suggestively links these levels of imagery and theme, clustering the ideas of institutionalized reproduction, environmental pollution, and the inversions between animal, vermin, and human that result from these perversions of normalcy. As Offred explains,

The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Death watch. That's a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.

I can't think of myself, my body, sometimes, without seeing the skeleton: how I must appear to an electron. A cradle of life made of bones; and within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystal jagged as glass. Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobody's fault, during the earthquakes, and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch. Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals.

The chances of giving birth to a deformed infant are, the handmaids learn during their indoctrination, one in four. Yet Gileadean ideology prohibits birth control and abortion under any circumstances as “unnatural” and obliges the handmaids to submit to “natural” childbirth without medication. The pregnancy that culminates in birth during Offred's narrative is a manifestation of this revolt by nature, the blurring of categories of living forms. Before the handmaid Janine delivers, Offred speculates on whether the baby will be normal or “an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog's, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet.” In fact the baby initially seems normal, but is later discovered to be deformed and is mysteriously disposed of. Despite the obsessive focus on procreation, actual children are notably absent from Gilead. The only child described in the narrative is the young daughter from whom Offred has been painfully separated.

As part of the inversion of “natural” in the unnatural Republic of Gilead, Atwood demonstrates the assault on the senses as well as the body and the psyche. In keeping with the implicit barnyard references, Gilead stinks. The stench of rotting flesh from the corpses of executed political enemies—including doctors who practiced abortion—masks the equally humanmade but relatively less repugnant odors of “Pine and Floral” deodorizing sprays. As Offred phrases it, “people retain the taste” for these artificial scents as the expression of “purity”—embodying the false connection between cleanliness and godliness.

Conversely, uncleanliness is associated with sin and—since sex is evil in Gilead apart from procreation—sexuality. The servant Marthas express distaste toward the handmaids, objecting to their smell; the handmaids, to whom baths are permitted as a luxury rather than as a hygienic routine, are regarded as unclean not only in the literal but in the moral sense. Nuns who are forced to renounce celibacy and become reproductive objects have “an odour of witch about them, something mysterious and exotic. …” When Offred first observes Nick, her Commander's chauffeur who later becomes her lover, she wonders whether or not he supports the status quo arrangements between the sexes. As she expresses her doubts, “Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat. Misfit as odour.” Yet, instead, she thinks of “how he might smell. Not fish or decaying rat: tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling.” When Offred tries to (and tries not to) imagine what might have happened to her husband, Luke, she thinks of him “surrounded by a smell, his own, the smell of a cooped-up animal in a dirty cage.” Later the rebel handmaid Moira describes her contact with the underground resistance movement in similar terms. “‘I almost made it out. They got me up as far as Salem, then in a truck full of chickens into Maine. I almost puked from the smell.’”

The air of Gilead is stagnant, suffocating, oppressive: literally, the polluted atmosphere; symbolically, the claustrophobia and oppression experienced by its unwilling female captives. Offred describes the atmosphere of a “birthing”—a collective ceremony, attended by both handmaids and wives who coach the delivering handmaid—in language that reverberates with other images derived from animals and nature: “the smell is of our own flesh, an organic smell, sweat and a tinge of iron, from the blood on the sheet, and another smell, more animal, that's coming, it must be, from Janine: a smell of dens, of inhabited caves. … Smell of matrix.”

As the sense of smell is more typically assaulted by the unnatural, so is the sense of taste and the experience of hunger. References to the smells of food also demonstrate the perverse connection—or disconnection—between sensory stimuli and their objects. The odor of nail polish, improbably, stimulates Offred's appetite. Recalling the sexual violation termed “date rape” in her former life, she remembers that the term sounded like “some kind of dessert. Date Rapé.”

In fact, like sex in Gilead, food serves only functional, not emotional, appetites. In a parody of the Lord's Prayer, Offred makes the connection between bread and spiritual sustenance, observing, “I have enough daily bread. … The problem is getting it down without choking on it.” The yeasty aroma of baking bread, one of the few pleasant smells in Gilead, also recalls comfortable kitchens and “mothers”: both Offred's own mother and herself as a mother. Accordingly, it is a “treacherous smell” that she must resist in order not to be overwhelmed by loss. Later she provides another context for these ambiguous associations as she recalls her childhood confusion about the extermination of the Jews: “In ovens, my mother said; but there weren't any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens mean cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been.”

Late in the narrative, Offred extends this link between eating and sacrifice. She describes another “Salvaging,” the public execution of handmaids accused of treason and sacrificed before breakfast; she and the other handmaids grip a rope that reeks of tar, the other end of which is used to hang the offending women. Offred's reaction to her compulsory complicity in the horrifying event discloses the extent of her emotional numbing and deprivation. The tar odor makes her feel sick; yet at the same time,

Death makes me hungry. Maybe it's because I've been emptied; or maybe it's the body's way of seeing to it that I remain alive, continue to repeat its bedrock prayer: I am, I am. I am, still.

I want to go to bed, make love, right now.

I think of the word relish.

I could eat a horse. (Atwood's italics)

Offred's hungers are both literal and symbolic. Earlier, she had been “ravenous for news.” When her Commander, having sought her out for forbidden companionship, allows her the proscribed act of reading, she reads like a starving person finally given food—“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 pieces in the Scrabble game she plays with her Commander remind her of candies: peppermint, lime, “delicious.” In Gilead, the act of intellectual intercourse is the equivalent of sin; as Offred puns, “Quick, eat those words.”

“Nature” is also invoked in Gilead as justification for male sexual dominance and female oppression. Offred's Commander advises her that the era of romantic courtship and marriages based on love—the older dispensation—was “an anomaly, historically speaking. … All we've done is return things to Nature's norm.” This “norm,” however, leaves something to be desired for men who still prefer sex in the old manner, as conquest rather than duty. Those with power have access to a nightclub-brothel called Jezebel's. Resembling a Playboy Bunny Club, it is stocked with women in provocative costumes (primarily females “unassimilated” into other Gileadean roles) and private rooms for sexual assignations. To Offred's assumption that such things are “strictly forbidden,” the Commander rejoins, “'but everyone's human, after all. … [Y]ou can't cheat Nature. … Nature demands variety, for men. … [I]t's part of the procreational strategy. It's Nature's plan.’” Even at Jezebel's, the ubiquitous cattleprod-wielding Aunts preside, supervising the women's “rest breaks” and reinforcing the sense of sexual slavery that prevails in Gilead. The “forbidden” is accommodated, but only to serve traditional assumptions about male, not female, sexuality.

Offred's dark story of female exploitation concludes with an ambiguous event. A van arrives for her and—like an experience described by one of Kafka's characters—she has no way of knowing whether she is approaching her own “salvaging” or her salvation: whether she is being delivered into the hands of spies or rescuers. Entering the vehicle, she faces either her “end or a new beginning. … I have give myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped.” The ambiguity corroborates the earlier conflations of death and birth: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

In the narrative's ironic coda, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale,” the reader discovers that Offred's story was originally spoken onto audio tapes, presumably after her escape from the Republic of Gilead. From the distant perspective of the year 2195, at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies held in Nunavit (“None-Of-It”—presumably somewhere in the Arctic reaches of Canada), anthropologists and historians meet to debate the chronology and authenticity of events detailed in Offred's story. (One imagines Atwood wryly anticipating her commentators at the annual rites of MLA!) In this pseudo-pedantic coda, the imagery of nature that is so consistently inverted in the handmaid's own narrative is briefly parodied. The conference facilitators bear names (presumably analogous to Canadian Inuit) with associations with nature: Professors Maryann Crescent Moon and Johnny Running Dog. Program participants can avail themselves of special activities, including a fishing expedition and a Nature Walk.

From the more “objective” perspective of scholarly research, Professor Pieixoto, an archivist whose remarks comprise most of the coda, focuses less on the details of Offred's life than on the men who shaped it. Yet, as he concludes, “the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come. …”

Along with the professor's concessions to the limits of interpretation, his choice of words is particularly resonant, given the narrative that precedes his remarks. The “matrix” of Offred's experiences—with its linguistic associations with mother and matter—is the matrix out of which Atwood has written her dystopian fantasy of female oppression. If “nature” and “nurture” are the matrices out of which we come, The Handmaid's Tale, by inverting both, demonstrates the “broad outlines of the moment in history” in which we live: the inhospitable environment in which female identity must discover itself. Appropriately, the narrative ends with the interrogative, “‘Are there any questions?’”

David Ketterer (essay date July 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3648

SOURCE: “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: A Contextual Dystopia,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 16, Part 2, July, 1989, pp. 209-17.

[In the following essay, Ketterer examines the cyclical structure and historical perspective of The Handmaid's Tale. According to Ketterer, Atwood breaks from traditional dystopia conventions by juxtaposing present and post-dystopia contexts.]

Until recently Margaret Atwood's interest in SF and fantasy has found only incidental expression in her creative work. At the conclusion of Lady Oracle (1976), the narrator, a writer of “Costume Gothics,” reflects: “maybe I'll try some science fiction. The future doesn't appeal to me as much as the past, but I'm sure it's better for you.” Atwood herself has since tried some SF, most notably The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Ritz-Paris Hemingway Prize in France, shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, and won the Los Angeles Times Prize, the Governor General's Award in Canada, and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best SF work published in Britain in 1986. The Handmaid's Tale is, in fact, the best and most successful SF novel written by a Canadian. SF is only worthy of serious attention when it is about something real; and in this case, underlying the muted feminist polemic, the central theme, equally real and earlier identified by Atwood as particularly Canadian, is that of human survival. How long will we survive? That, after all, is the big question about the future.

Atwood has imagined a late-20th-century future where a woman's ability to procreate is of paramount importance since disease and pollution have led to a catastrophic decline in the birthrate. Given this situation, the patriarchal Republic of Gilead, established as the result of a coup in New England, has thwarted what might seem a likely outcome: the increasing power of women with “viable ovaries.” After passing laws denying women jobs, property, and money, all women who were not officially recognized as Wives, widows, or lower-class Econowives were sorted into four groups: (1) women with viable ovaries became “two-legged wombs,” nuns of fertility known as Handmaids; dressed in red habits and white-winged hoods, each, after a period of training, was assigned to a particular Commander and his sterile Wife; (2) post-menopausal or unmarried sterile women called Aunts, whose job it was to indoctrinate the Handmaids with the aid of cattle prods and whistles; (3) a green-dressed servant-class known as Marthas; and (4) women who could not or would not belong to either of these groups and who were not hanged as subversive “criminals” became Unwomen, who were usually given the job of clearing toxic wastes—itself a death sentence. Some women were allowed employment as prostitutes, but this alternative was not officially recognized.

Gilead is based on a new right-wing, religious fundamentalism. In this regard, Atwood's choice of dedicates for the novel is significant. One of them is Perry Miller, the father of American Puritan studies and one of Atwood's teachers at Harvard. The other, Mary Webster, represents a move from the academic to the horribly actual. In a 1980 essay, Atwood describes how Webster of Connecticut, one of her ancestors, survived her hanging after being condemned as a witch, thanks to a tough neck. Because of the law of double jeopardy, whereby a person could not be executed twice for the same crime, Webster was released (“Witches”).

The novel consists of the taped accounts and recollections of a 33-year-old Handmaid named Offred. This name—suggestive of “offered” or “afraid” or “off-red“ (a rebellious reference to her red habit) or “off-read”—is not her real one. Like all of the Handmaids, her real name has been erased in favor of the form “Of” plus the first name, possibly abbreviated, of her Commander. Her recollections, usually narrated in the seven spaced sections (out of a total of 15) all entitled “Night” (a time of relative freedom), are of an earlier era recognizably that of the 1970s and ‘80s. She recalls her feminist mother (now, we subsequently learn, an Unwoman) and the failed attempt she had made with her now “disappeared” husband Luke and their child to flee to Canada during the early stages of Gilead's totalitarian regime.

Offred's numbing account of her present reality in what is apparently the walled town of Cambridge, Massachusetts (where Harvard University is closed and the football stadium is used for executions), often takes the form of describing such Orwellian rituals as Testifying (chap. 13), communal prayers (chap. 15), the Ceremony (chap. 16). Birth Day (chap. 21), Prayvaganzas (chaps. 33 and 34), Salvaging (chap. 42), and Particicution (chap. 43). Testifying is the Gilead equivalent of what usually happens at group therapy sessions. The evening communal prayer session begins with the Commander reading appropriate bits from the Bible—most notably: “Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her,” and abbreviation of verse 3 of one of the novel's epigraphs, Genesis 30:1-3, which is surely the essential seed of The Handmaid's Tale. The Ceremony is modelled directly on the Genesis passage. A Handmaid is fucked by a Commander as she lies between the legs and holds the hands of the Commander's Wife, in Offred's case a one-time gospel singer whose real name is Pam but who called herself Serena Joy. Of particular importance is Birth Day, when one of the Handmaids gives birth with the Wife's legs once again about her, in the presence of the other Handmaids. This occurs in the seventh and central of the book's 15 sections, the section entitled “Birth Day.” Only “Birth Day” and “Salvaging” (Section XIV) are dignified as section titles. Women's Prayvaganzas accompany group weddings: “men's are for military victories.” At Salvagings, the Handmaids symbolically take part in the hanging of “criminals.” The bodies are subsequently conveyed to the main guarded gateway of the Wall and left hanging there. At Particicutions (the word is, of course, an amalgam of “participation” and “execution”) the Handmaids are encouraged, by way of catharsis, to literally tear a male offender—in the instance described, a supposed rapist—to pieces.

Many of the features of Gilead are familiar to the reader of dystopian fiction: the lack of freedom, the constant surveillance, the routine, the failed escape attempt (in this case by Offred's friend, identified by her real name, Moira), and an underground movement (in this case called Mayday). But the unique nature of the society that Atwood has created leads to other, rather more original, plot possibilities. At the center of Offred's story are the acts of betrayal she is forced to commit by the Commander, on the one hand, and on the other, by his Wife. The Commander requires a relationship with Offred outside of the Ceremony. Most of the time they play Scrabble (an illegal game since it promotes literacy); but on one occasion the Commander takes her to Jezebel's, a brothel for officers which includes Moira among its prostitutes. In the meantime, his Wife, concerned that the Commander may be sterile, sets Offred up with Nick, the chauffeur. Offred's story ends with the Wife's discovery of Offred's secret “relationship” with her husband and the consequent arrival of two men in a black van who take Offred away. Presumably she is to be “salvaged” but the possibility exists that the two men are agents of Mayday.

The success of Offred's narrative depends largely on Atwood's skilled use of indirection, irony, and understatement. Information is allowed to seep through gradually, often in a naturalistic, offhand, giveaway manner. As one would expect of a poet, Atwood's indirection frequently takes the form of imagery and symbolism. Given the subject matter, the sexual symbolism established at the very beginning of the book is surely inevitable: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it. …” As the book develops, it is the female imagery of circles and curves which predominates. Even the Wall, which might be construed as a masculine symbol, forms an imprisoning circle.

Of particular interest is the circular “hall mirror, which bulges outward like an eye under pressure,” or like the swollen belly of a pregnant woman. Likewise, in the Commander's sitting room, “over the mantel, there's an oval mirror,” the word “oval” suggesting those viable ovaries. The braided rug in Offred's room is also “oval” and the face of her mother in a photograph is “a closed oval.” Frequently stressed is Offred's sense of the hallway mirror as a typically dystopian watching eye: “There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. … I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow …” ; “I descend the stairs, a brief waif in the eye of glass that hangs on the downstairs wall,” making Offred a hanging body like those on the Wall; “In the curved hallway mirror I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke”; and lastly, “I see the two of us … in the brief glass eye of the mirror as we descend.” The secret police are called Eyes. And, like all the Handmaids, Offred's ankle bears a related “small tattoo”: “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.” Even the penis is described as a “delicate stalked slug's eye.” The circular mirror, then, comprehends and encompasses most of the novel's significant themes: viable ovaries, pregnancy, surveillance, imprisonment, hanged bodies, cyclical process (about which more later), and finally, the loss of human reality—the mirror conveys only images of reality and renders Offred as “a distorted shadow,” “a brief waif,” or “a wraith.”

The preconceptions of the reader accustomed to the typical dystopian fiction are likely to be upset by the “Historical Notes” that conclude The Handmaid's Tale. It is usually assumed that the author of a dystopia is concerned with describing the horrors of life if present trends continue, If This Goes On. The author may hope that his or her fiction will serve either as a warning, if the possibility is allowed that what seems inevitable may be averted, or, at a later stage, as a call to rebellion. The “Historical Notes” consist of “a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies … which took place at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195.” Given that the one identified member of Denay's faculty has the Indian name Crescent Moon it seems reasonable to conclude that the university's name derives from that of the Indian Déné Nation. Nunavit may be an Inuit place somewhere in the north of “what was … Canada” or, more probably, a future revised spelling of Nunavik, Greenland. Have the North American Indians and Inuit inherited the earth? What is transcribed, Professor Pieixoto's lecture, “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale,” makes it clear that the Republic of Gilead is now long past.

The immediate effect of the “Historical Notes” is to appraise the reader of the “fact” that he or she has all along been fictively situated in this post-Gilead future, a future perhaps like the present of the 1980s to the extent that from both perspectives Gilead appears to be an almost incredible societal extreme. At the same time the “Notes” strongly imply that Atwood cannot have intended The Handmaid's Tale only as the typical dire dystopian warning or call to rebellion if she envisages Gilead either passing away naturally in the fullness of time or being dramatically overthrown. Gilead does not correspond to an Orwellian “boot stamping on a human face—forever” (1984). It might, then, be asked: Is there any point in penning a dystopia if that dystopia is explicitly presented as only transitory? In order to arrive at what I believe to be the correct “yes” answer to this question, Atwood's dystopia must be distinguished from the traditional kind as a particular variant of what I shall term a “Contextual Dystopia,” by which I mean a fully Contextual Dystopia. After all, as Offred twice notes, “Context is all.” In a review, Brian Stableford shows himself to be aware of the problem when he labels The Handmaid's Tale “a Book of Lamentations” rather than a dystopia. Unlike the traditional dystopia, Atwood is concerned not just with the preceding context, the historical development—continuous or discontinuous—that led to the establishment of dystopia, but also with a succeeding discontinuous context, and historical development—unanticipated by Offred's dystopian discourse but implied without being described in the “Notes”—that led, over time or abruptly, away from dystopia.

A Contextual Dystopia in this specific sense is rare. In fact, I know of no other example. The nearest parallel is perhaps Jack London's The Iron Heel (1906), but there the socialist “eutopia” that succeeded the dystopian Oligarchy of the Iron Heel is clearly, in an immediate sense, continuous with Ernest Everhard's dystopian memoir. Everhard's desperate revolutionary activities spurred similar activities which, in the fullness of time, led to the overthrow of the Iron Heel and to a situation where a “eutopian” is able to edit and annotate the manuscript of the long-ago executed Everhard. No such historical sequence is even hinted at in Offred's account (Mayday can only help dissidents escape from Gilead). (It might be wondered whether there are examples of what is surely a theoretical possibility—namely, a Contextual Eutopia in the full sense of contextual. As with dystopias, instances of eutopias [with or without qualifying quotation marks] including the presentation of an historically continuous post-eutopian society seem more likely than those including the presentation of an historically discontinuous one.) In Atwood's case, as a result of both the essentially continuous ‘fore and the essentially discontinuous after historical contexts and the consequent acknowledgement of one particular SF sense of difference—change in the course of time—The Handmaid's Tale conveys an evenhandedness, a degree of hard-headed acceptance regarding the contextual, framed, and hence limited human condition, a horizon of acceptance, that counteracts—some might say disastrously defuses—Atwood's occasionally bitter satire and justified anger. It should be observed at this point that the traditional dystopia (and eutopia) generally assumes, and to some extent depends upon, a linear conception of time. A cyclical conception carries with it at least some degree of fatalistic acceptance that the writer of traditional dystopias (or eutopias) would consider inappropriate. Atwood's vision of historical change in The Handmaid's Tale appears to allow for both a series of pendulum swings and (as I have already intimated in relation to the hallway mirror) the effects of cyclical process; possibly the pendulum swings are subsumed by, or incorporated into, a cyclical history. It might be noted in this regard that the sequence of chapter titles mimes the cycle of night (death, freedom) and day (birth, imprisonment).

A cyclical view of history may, of course, take the form of static repetition or of a progressive or regressive spiral. Atwood does not commit herself on this matter. There is no clear sense of the kind of society (or societies) that has (or have) replaced Gilead and why. However, the world of 2195 does seem more civilized than, and generally preferable to, that of Gilead. Pieixoto's prissy academic jokes and the laughter they elicit from his audience provide evidence that sexist attitudes still persist. The place names Denay and Nunavit, read as “deny” and “none-of-it,” may suggest that Atwood is pointing, with disguised horror, to the smug blindness of a society that refuses to recognize, in what Professor Pieixoto terms “the clearer light of our own day,” the seeds of sexism that could lead to another Gilead. But Atwood here seems more intent on lightly or resignedly satirizing human foible and vanity, and the decorum of academic discourse. Just as Offred believes regarding Gilead that there can be “no shadow unless there is also light” so, in Pieixoto's world, the predominating light is not without shadow; it is simply that the proportions have been reversed. Anything approaching a fair, non-sexist society depends upon eternal vigilance. And Pieixoto, one of the co-editors of the ms. The Handmaid's Tale (the Chaucerian title was supplied by the other one), does provide some helpful information. Offred's tapes were unearthed on the site of what was Bangor, Maine. A non-Canadian reader or a Canadian reader who has forgotten the government's “Participation” program is informed that the term “Particicution” was “lifted from an exercise program popular sometime in the last third of the century” (Atwood perhaps needs a “twentieth” before the “century” here). It is hypothesized that either Frederick R. Waterford or more likely B. Frederick Judd was Offred's Commander. The scholarship of 2195 has, however, failed to come up with what is most probably Offred's real name in spite of the clue that her manuscript provides. At the end of Chapter I Offred lists the names that she and her fellow trainee Handmaids would whisper from bed to bed: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” In the course of the narrative all of these names are accounted for except for June. Presumably, then, June is Offred's real name. As it happens, the Gileadean Studies Symposium took place in June. (Are we to intuit, in terms of cyclical process, that the Spring and Summer of Gilead, like the Summer of the post-Gilead society, will inevitably give way to Fall and Winter?) Of course, Offred's list of names may be a list of protective pseudonyms. If so, Offred has deliberately chosen for herself a name that, she reminds us, signifies love: “Love, said Aunt Lydia with distaste. Don't let me catch you at it. No mooning and June-ing around here, girls.”

This last quotation is one of several occasions where Atwood uses the device of quoting direct speech without quotation marks. It is generally used to signal that a conversation is being recalled and reconstructed. What is reconstructed—and much of Offred's narrative amounts to reconstruction—may not be the entire truth. Implicit here is one more aspect of Atwood's conscious artistry. With one notable exception, that artistry was acclaimed by all the novel's reviewers. Since the one exception was the prominent writer Mary McCarthy and since her attack appears to largely stem from her generic misapprehension of the novel as a straightforward dystopia, I will conclude by attempting to rebut the various charges that she levels. Her piece in The New York Times Book Review entitled “Breeders, Wives and Unwomen” begins with the claim of “thin credibility.” Atwood's extrapolation does not ring true. McCarthy seems not to have allowed for the fact that the future Atwood describes was surely not conceived as a direct extrapolation from our present but as a pendulum swing away from present-day feminism. Given that intention, the historical steps that lead to Gilead are, I believe, plausible enough. Atwood's future is novel and not inherently incredible.

McCarthy also complains that Offred's future account is written in a language virtually indistinguishable from our own. It is certainly true that language changes with time and that many SF writers—William Gibson is a recent example—attempt to create a future argot. But while a future argot may add to the SF realism, it can also have the reverse effect and date a work very quickly. Atwood has chosen the less risky convention of allowing today's language to stand in for a future language whose subtle alterations simply cannot be predicted. Atwood is not writing genre SF and in fact some of her linguistic inventions are not as felicitous as those we have come to expect from the genre SF writer. For example, her “Birthmobile” might be criticized as a tawdry touch out of Batman. However, it is more relevant to note that Gilead (unlike the world of 2195) is placed in a very near future setting. Linguistic changes in the short term are very minor and, in fact, Atwood's “Birthmobile” is probably derived from such contemporary real-world terms as “bookmobile” or “snowmobile.” McCarthy's overall charge that Gilead is “insufficiently imagined” and that this poet's novel “lacks imagination” is, as I hope my analysis of this concretely detailed dystopia has demonstrated, simply untrue. Nor is the “writing undistinguished.” The novel's short, breathless chapters gain in power as they proceed. What might be criticized as overwordiness (“We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. … We lived in the gaps between the stories”) could be justified as perfectly suited to the mode of oral narration. The style suits the teller.

But what of the teller's character? McCarthy believes that Offred's character, like that of all the characters except the Aunts, is weak. But surely one of the prime aims of Gilead is to deprive its citizens, particularly the Handmaids, of their characters. In the circumstances it is not just special pleading to insist that shadowy characterization is appropriately inevitable. The point might also be made that McCarthy is here applying to the genre of SF a criterion more appropriate to the realistic novel. It is finally a failure to correctly identify Atwood's generic intent (insofar as that intent can be “reconstructed” from the text) that leads to McCarthy's most damning criticism. Thinking of The Handmaid's Tale as straightforwardly akin to Orwell's 1984 and as belonging to the traditional dystopian genre, McCarthy believes that Atwood's novel lacks “the destructive force of satire,” it has “no satiric bite.” But in the light of the concluding “Historical Notes” and what I have argued is the novel's generic status as a particular kind of Contextual Dystopia, possibly the first of its kind, purely destructive satire would be quite out of place. Both men and women come in for attack in The Handmaid's Tale. But Atwood's concern is not with the destruction of either sex; it is with their mutual survival. After all, as Offred observes, directly addressing her putative reader or readers, “who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours?”

Stephanie Barbé Hammer (essay date Spring 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4379

SOURCE: “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid's Tale,” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 39-49.

[In the following essay, Hammer discusses Atwood's use of satire and ironic appropriation of male literary convention to portray female domination and the dynamics of social control in The Handmaid's Tale.]

Atwood's futurist novel of 1986 is an important book for many reasons. In particular, The Handmaid's Tale plays a significant role in the evolution of women's writing in so far as it represents one of the few commercially successful and critically recognized (if not universally acclaimed) contributions by a woman writer to a literary genre dominated by men—namely, satire. Curiously however, despite its necessarily subversive status as a female invasion of male literary territory, The Handmaid's Tale possesses many formal and thematic features typical of traditional satire, as it is defined by contemporary literary theory. In fact, according to the understandings of satire put forth by accepted critics of the genre, Atwood's novel in many ways presents a satiric text-book case. The author employs a variety of themes and motifs commonly found in classical and modern satire: complex rhetorical devices such as formal disguise (a satire which masquerades as a novel which in turn masquerades as an autobiography) and irony, a static or nonprogressive plot where very little actually seems to happen, the character of a commonsense, average narrator who speaks in a seemingly straightforward manner, and the scene of a dystopic nightmare city. Furthermore, Handmaid boasts what is perhaps the most crucial element of satiric writing, namely, the clear existence of a topical political target, which here is very obviously evangelical Christian fundamentalism.

The presence of these features indicates that Handmaid is an excellent candidate for admittance to the canon of satiric literature—a state of affairs which, given the novel's subject matter, does not reassure, but rather unsettles and disturbs the female critic. After all, Atwood's narrative focuses specifically on men's domination of women by means of other women, and more generally portrays women's physical and mental imprisonment within a particularly sinister male regime. In this manner, the fact that Handmaid fits so well within a male literary canon raises potentially disturbing questions as to the true value of this novelist's achievement. In writing satire has Atwood indeed invaded a male literary bastion in order to produce a new female writing or is her writing itself penetrated by masculine assumptions as to what satire should be and do? Is The Handmaid's Tale a subversion of male writing or is this subversion itself already subverted by the regulations of an established male art form? Perhaps equally important is the question of aesthetic judgment; according to what standards should the quality of female satire be measured—should we base our assessment on traditional male conceptions of what satiric literature should be or upon an as yet undefined aesthetic of female satiric writing?

Mary McCarthy unwittingly raises these very issues in her review of the novel for the New York Times. Tellingly, she compares Handmaid unfavorably to established male works of futurist satiric literature—1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange—and she remarks that Atwood's contribution to this subgenre lacks the ironic bite and linguistic imagination of the other three works. And yet, should not female satire by definition make us redefine our traditional male notions as to what constitutes “good” satire? Barbara Ehrenreich's review for the New Republic (the most valuable essay written thus far on the novel) is more sensitive to this problem. While she readily admits to her own impatience with what is for her a “fantasy of regression” on the part of a heroine who is a “sappy stand-in for Winston Smith,” she also recognizes that the book concerns itself successfully with complex feminist issues. In this way, Ehrenreich implies that the novel's very betrayal of certain aesthetic expectations is somehow linked to its satiric purpose.

How then, we might ask, does the challenge of writing female satire connect with Handmaid's atmosphere of male domination and with the author's ultimate satiric statement?

Such queries as to the value and function of female satire appear unnecessarily complicated when we first read Atwood's novel, for we discover that, on one level at least, Handmaid's satiric thrust is straightforward and unambiguous. Atwood's condemnation of Gilead's born again theocracy is never in doubt, because Handmaid relentlessly exposes the total hypocrisy of a regime which preaches biblical virtue but where vice reigns everywhere—from the brutal executions of dissidents to the institutionalized sexual promiscuity enjoyed by the commanders. The representatives of the new way are consistently monstrous. The sadistic aunts are frustrated older women who brutalize their younger, fertile charges out of jealousy and fear. The seemingly mild-mannered commander Fred cheats on his wife with alacrity and calmly justifies the oppressive regime which he partly masterminded with the observation that in the old society men felt they were no longer needed by women; he thereby suggests that women's liberation forced American men to take this drastic action; ergo the present regime is ultimately the women's “fault.” And Atwood's most ironic portrait is certainly that of Fred's resentful and cruel wife Serena Joy. Neither serene nor joyous, this high-ranking wife is a former “total Woman” activist who is enraged and embittered by the existence which her successful advocacy now imposes upon her.

Within this demonic scheme even the victimized handmaids are forced into an existence which is no less hypocritical than that of their oppressors; in order to survive they and the narrator among them are constantly obliged to pretend to espouse a system of values which denigrates and threatens to annihilate them. In this manner, an allegedly profoundly Christian society ironically transforms every citizen into a sinner in so far as each person must become a liar and a hypocrite in order to exist within the system. This is, of course, the supreme irony of Atwood's fictional future world; this is a theocracy where not one person is devout and where such notions as faith and morality simply have no meaning.

Thus, on the level of topical satire, Handmaid's message unfolds with a cartoon-like clarity and is consequently not particularly surprising; American Christian fundamentalists are fanatical and dishonest, and therefore highly dangerous; they seek to erode the liberties which all Americans—and especially American women—cherish.

And yet, this topical satire represents only one very superficial layer of Atwood's critique in The Handmaid's Tale; simultaneously a far more complex critical process is unfolding here. This second satiric dimension lies embedded and partially concealed within Offred's own narrative procedure. Despite the heroine's apparent straightforwardness and despite her seeming fitness to give a true, woman-in-the-street report of a nightmare situation, Offred surreptitiously offers the reader a very different kind of narrative.

Significantly, the narrator reveals that she becomes Fred's mistress and that she later has secret erotic rendez-vous with Nick, the strong and silent chauffeur who is possibly an agent of the secret police. A strange kind of live triangle now develops, a bedroom farce of multiple assignations under one roof, which would be comical if Offred's life did not depend on her successful juggling of these two sexual relationships. The plot as it now unfolds is weirdly reminiscent of popular gothic romance, for in such stories the heroine, like Offred, is often made a helpless prisoner by an evil and sexually desirous male force, until she is finally liberated by the romantic hero.

Offred's predicament recalls that of a romantic heroine in other ways as well. First, she is desired by and must eventually choose between two men who, second, embody an impressive combination of male stereotypes drawn from gothic romance and romantic comedy: on one hand, Fred, the older, paternal, established authority figure who connotes at once a lord of the manor and a seasoned military campaigner; and on the other hand, Nick, the ambiguous, delinquent, dangerous and therefore more sexually attractive younger man of inferior social position. The fact that Nick is a chauffeur is replete with erotic overtones from the movies, while the lower-class upper-class connection between him and Offred also recalls D. H. Lawrence's steamy love-affair in Lady Chatterly's Lover. Finally, Offred's choice of the younger man seems romantically validated by the novel's ending, in which Nick miraculously effects her escape from imprisonment in Commander Fred's household.

From the reader's point of view these fragments of romantic fiction are ironically jarring, to say the least; the grim realities of Offred's actual existence resemble those of a concentration camp inmate, far more than those of a gothic heroine. But while we read Offred's predicament as a grisly parody of a romantic conundrum, Offred herself is far less certain as to how to interpret her relationships with Fred and Nick. Despite herself, she takes pleasure in her status as Fred's mistress, and although she recognizes the fallacy of reading romance into her affair with Nick, she is unwilling to regard him and her feelings for him in any other light:

Being with him is safety; it's a cave, where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside. This is delusion of course. This room is one of the most dangerous places I could be. If I were caught there would be no quarter, but I'm beyond caring … I dismiss these uneasy whispers, I talk too much. I tell him things I shouldn't … I make of him an idol, a cardboard cutout.

Offred's choice of metaphor is as important as it is sinister; the cave is the site of sexual pleasure for two of classical literature's tragically doomed love-affairs—that of Dido and Aeneas (where Dido fatally misunderstands Aeneas’ intentions toward her) and that of Isolde and Tristan (who have fled briefly from society in order to consummate their love). Her use of this image under these circumstances is very revealing. With her reference to the cave Offred simultaneously demonstrates her cultural literacy (as a liberal arts college graduate), her as yet unspoken awareness of the disastrous implications of her relationship with Nick (a truth which she consciously recognizes an instant later, “This is delusion …”), as well as her unconscious reliance on the romantic tropes of male literature in the ordering of her own erotic experience. Troublingly, it is the “truth” of male literary discourse which triumphs over Offred's common sense—those “uneasy whispers” which tell her that her relationship with Nick is not safety but danger. Thus, although Offred suspects that her feelings for Nick are unfounded she cannot help but choose to romanticize her predicament, to “idolize” the man into a hero of epic proportions, “a cardboard cutout.”

Offred's conscious choice in favor of a romanticism which she herself acknowledges as mistaken becomes even more disturbing when we scrutinize her behavior throughout her story. When we do so, we cannot fail to notice that she reacts to her situation with a consistent passivity. She makes no effort to escape the Handmaid's training center although her best friend Moira is planning such a prison break and she rejects the overtures of the resistance underground. Even more surprisingly, Offred refuses to take advantage of her relationship with the commander, who clearly likes her and who, strangely enough, looks to her not for erotic pleasure, but primarily for companionship and for some kind of moral reassurance:

Sometimes, after the games, he sits on the floor beside my chair, holding my hand. His head is a little below mine, so that when he looks up at me it's at a juvenile angle. It must amuse him, this fake subservience … It's difficult for me to believe that I have power over him, of any sort, but I do; although it's of an equivocal kind. … There are things he wants to prove to me, gifts he wants to bestow, services he wants to render, tenderness he wants to inspire.

Comically but chillingly Offred responds to these opportunities with a request for hand-lotion and an indifferent question about current events; as already noted, she later simply surrenders her fate to the desirable but unreliable Nick.

Admittedly, Offred justifies her choice of non-action indirectly, by showing us that any form of self-assertion against this new society must fail. Significantly, the rebellious females of Offred's world are all defeated: Ofglen commits suicide in order to protect the May Day underground; Moira's escape attempt is thwarted and she is imprisoned in the city's brothel; Offred's own mother is glimpsed in a film-documentary about the dreaded toxic-waste colonies. To survive, Offred seems to suggest, one must surrender.

But despite this evidence, the description which Offred gives us of her own life prior to the Gileadian coup casts increasing doubt upon her apparently reliable narrative point of view. We learn, for example, that she was formerly the mistress of a married man, and the novel obliquely suggests that her husband Luke may have chosen her over his first wife for the same reasons that the commander favors her over his spouse—Offred is younger, more sexually attractive, and fertile (significantly, Luke seems to have had no children by his first marriage. More disturbingly, despite her intelligence and education, Offred seems to have exercised as little control over her former life as she does over her present existence. Uninspired by politics—a disinterest which her husband actively encouraged—Offred remained on the sidelines of political questions, just as she waited for Luke to make up his mind to marry her, and she worked, not as an explainer or analyzer but as a transcriber of books to disks in a predominantly female task force—an act which curiously prefigures her own present narrative recording. She is a woman who has, for the most part, lived by watching others do.

Seen from the point of view of her past, Offred's current existence begins to look less like a nonsensical metamorphosis and more like a horrible but nightmarishly appropriate extention of her former life; one might even argue that, in a larger sense, Offred has always been a handmaid—a woman who serves others, but never herself. Once the reader makes this connection, the apparently huge contrast between the idealized good old days and the bad new days shrinks considerably. We should keep in mind that, from the very beginning of the novel, Atwood ironizes the gap which Offred establishes between her seemingly golden past and her ghoulish present; early on we witness a confrontation between these false opposites when Offred encounters some curious Japanese tourists on the street:

The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds about things like this. Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom …

Offred makes an error here which is all the more troubling because of its familiarity; she mistakes the outward appearance of freedom for the thing itself. Her misguided equation of western fashion with feminine liberation—already signalled stylistically through Atwood's description of the high-heels which emphasizes how very much this clothing imprisons rather than frees—is especially ironic given the fact that the person wearing it is not western but eastern, and is a representative of a culture notorious for its oppression of women, at least from a western point of view.

Here we arrive at the second level of Atwood's satiric message: this moment of inter-cultural confrontation suggests very clearly that both Offred and the Japanese tourist are prisoners of their societies. The only difference between them lies in the fact that Offred's culture has abolished the benevolent “western” toleration of women's hard-won but still relatively small and superficial prerogatives. But true personal freedom exists for neither woman in the world which Atwood is describing, which, by implication, reflects not a future reality but a present actuality. This is not the world as it will be, this is the world—symbolically at least—as it is.

In this manner Atwood employs her narrator-heroine to provoke two very contradictory reactions in the female reader. On one hand the very fact that Offred is not a revolutionary but an average, college-educated working mother makes her both recognizable and sympathetic to us. But at the same time Atwood turns our empathy for Offred against us, suggesting that her protagonist (and thus we too, in so far as we resemble her) acts or fails to act based on a dangerous amalgamation of gender assumptions which have governed women's behavior for centuries and which have guaranteed their oppression by men: a vicious circle of passivity and helplessness—wherein passivity perpetuates impotence which in turn justifies and excuses passivity; a dehabilitating narcissism which continually deflects the individual from her real self-interest and needs; a masochistic belief in salvation through erotic love no matter how unlikely and potentially dangerous to the individual. This last point is emphasized by the fact that we do not know whether Nick saves Offred or betrays her. Further, even he does successfully effect her escape from the Republic of Gilead, his motives remain ambiguous; does he really love her, or does he simply resemble the other men of Gileadian society in that he becomes so enraptured at the thought of fathering a child that he decides to protect the vessel carrying it? If the latter motive is indeed the case then Offred's relationship with Nick is not very different than her relationship with Fred. In both cases she is a breeder rather than a person in her own right.

But there remains yet another, more universal dimension to Atwood's satiric critique in Handmaid. One of the most striking features of this futurist novel is its lack of futuristic technological trappings—be they gismos, robots, or outlandish scientific theories, advances, or practices. This is in striking opposition to those futurist satiric novels touted by McCarthy—1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, or even Fahrenheit 451. These works all present worlds which are techno-nightmares—systems which dehumanize their citizens, forcing them to operate like machinery, rather than like individuals. Each boasts an especially demonic invention: the video-surveillance of Orwell, the quasi-poisoned test-tube babies of Huxley, the behaviorist Ludovico treatment of Burgess, and the insidiously efficient book-burning fire brigade of Bradbury. Correspondingly, these fictions propose a return to nature and to old-fashioned customs and values as a probably unattainable but certainly superior social ideal: Winston's and Julia's old-fashioned love-affair in 1984, the Shakespeare quoting Savage in Brave, the whiskey-drinking priest who affirms the centrality of free-will in Clockwork, and the hippylike book people living in pastoral harmony in Fahrenheit.

In Handmaid on the other hand, the exact opposite process seems to be at work. The Republic of Gilead strikes us, not as a techno-dystopia, but as a reactionary step backwards in time, to a kind of government and lifestyle that resembles that of the Middle Ages—based on one part biblical patriarchy, one part Islamic militantism, and one part Hindu caste system. Technology as we usually think of it—as the tools, mechanisms, machines and expertise that either make our lives easier or threaten to destroy them—seems to have been banished from this society with the exception of a few cars and a couple of computers. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this technological banishment is Gileadian society's absurdly inefficient rejection of any of the medical techniques for preventing and curing infertility—which seems to be this society's major problem.

Or is it? I cannot help but suspect that if infertility were really such a pressing concern this profoundly hypocritical society would find a way either to justify fertility technology or to at least provide it unofficially (as it does with sexual pleasure).

I would suggest that, as is typical of Atwood's satiric strategy, this apparent technological absence in Gilead, is not what it appears to be. Instead, a very different kind of technology is at work here—insidious because it is at once invisible and all pervasive—and that is, very simply, the technology of power which Michel Foucault has called discipline:

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain connected distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. … Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. … Similarly, it does not matter what motive animates him. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation; in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

This invisible, all-subjugating technology is exactly what drives Gileadian society. Significantly, we see no rulers in Atwood's fictional world, but everyone in it from Commander Fred to his domestic servants, from the doctor who inspects Offred to Offred herself is caught up in a network of surveillance and counter-surveillance. The novel constantly emphasizes the omnipresence of the scrutinizing gaze; the word “eye” is everywhere; the secret police are called “Eyes,” and the farewell greeting “under his eye” refers to the divine gaze but also testifies to the fact that everyone is indeed under the eye of someone else. Aunt Lydia gives her “girls” better advice than she knows, when she tells them to be as invisible as possible, because “to be seen is to be penetrated.” And even the apparently spontaneous, orgiastic group outlets for frustrated violence, such as the Salvagings, reveal themselves to be carefully orchestrated, closely supervised exercises in which the actors are painfully aware that they are being watched:

It's a mistake to hang back too obviously in any group like this; it stamps you as lukewarm, lacking in zeal.

The constant monitoring of behavior of everyone by everyone (with an efficiency which makes a Big Brother unnecessary) coupled with the ever-present threat of clearly defined punishments represent the components of a technology of social control which is in no way medieval but which is rather radically modern. Seen from this point of view Gilead's emphasis on child-bearing, the outlawing of reading for women, and the other bizarre rules and values which characterize this society reveal themselves to be the instruments which serve to make docile, not just women—although the bulk of these devices seem to be aimed at them, probably because they represent the most subversive threat—but a whole social body. It is total social control, the perfection of the exercise of power, that Gilead strives for; this is no theocracy, it is a world turned into a perpetual penitentiary.

Such a view of Gilead explains why for all its freakishness, the social order of The Handmaid's Tale seems weirdly familiar, and in this familiarity lies the ultimate political thrust of Atwood's satiric argument. As was the case for Offred's apparent transformation from free mother to indentured surrogate, the social metamorphosis from democratic US of A to totalitarian Gilead is an ironic one, for this disciplined society of the future is a grotesque mirror image of our own—a society that controls our behavior so efficiently and discretely that we fail to notice the degree to which we are manipulated.

With this ironic future portrait Atwood suggests that we are also Gileadians, constantly under scrutiny by the plethora of institutions with which we must have contact from the IRS audit to the university examination. And we are also the auditors and examiners who scrutinize the others.

In conclusion, I believe that The Handmaid's Tale is at once a text-book example of modern fictional satire and at the same time a clever appropriation of a predominantly male literature for feminist purposes. It subverts as it borrows from this literary canon, enabling us to admire it both as a satiric model and as a pioneering satiric effort. More importantly, the novel manifests satiric critique at its most complex; it offers itself as a satire for women and to a certain extent of them, while it simultaneously attacks both the insidious disciplinary mechanisms of contemporary society as well as our willful ignorance of them. Offred herself signals the importance of political self-recognition early on in the novel:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

And certainly, self-recognition is equally and dramatically absent from the academic conference assembled to discuss the Handmaid “document” in Atwood's parodistic “Historical Notes.” Here the plenary speaker compounds the errors of the past with his pompous, unself-critical assumption of his own culture's superiority. Fittingly, his lecture is replete with both sexist jokes and an unwillingness to confront the moral questions posed by the past:

Surely, we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadian society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause).

By means of these negative exempla, Atwood urges us to recognize the flaws of our culture and to refuse passive acceptance of them. Handmaid is, above all, a book about responsibility, at once emotional, sexual, intellectual and civic.

Seen from this perspective, the satire in The Handmaid's Tale directs its criticism towards all of us—feminists and non-feminists, women and men. It warns us of the imperceptible technology of power, of the subtle domination of women by men, and of our unconscious imprisoning of each other and ourselves by ourselves.

Susanna Finnell (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5995

SOURCE: “Unwriting the Quest: Margaret Atwood's Fiction and The Handmaid's Tale,” in Women and the Journey: The Female Travel Experience, edited by Bonnie Frederick and Susan H. McLeod, Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 199-215.

[In the following essay, Finnell examines Atwood's subversion of traditional quest themes and narrative structures in The Handmaid's Tale. “Atwood's strategy,” writes Finnell, “challenges the notion of the quest based on the conquest of identity achievable through mastery of speech, language, and subject.”]

I want to break
these bones …
… … … …
erase all maps,
crack the protecting
eggshell of your turning
singing children:
I want the circle

Margaret Atwood, The Circle Game

If they were conscious that the narrative dynamics and the erotics of reading they were expounding were specifically tied to an ideology of representation derivable only from the dynamics of male sexuality, would they not at least feel uncomfortable making general statements about “narrative,” “pleasure,” and “us”?

Susan Winnett, “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure”

Critics often recognize in Margaret Atwood someone who writes novels of female self discovery, quest novels of sorts. The quest, of course, resembles the journey, with its dynamics of beginning, middle, and end. Like a journey, a quest embraces a linear narrative trajectory that suggests a reading pleasure based on an oedipal model that presumes as the desired outcome a reaching of the end. Presenting alternative models of narrative structures and, subsequently, alternative models of reading, are problematic since writers and readers may not yet possess the critical tools necessary to become “unstrung” as Susan Winnett points out in her telling article “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure.” Winnett begins to offer insight into possible ways of becoming extricated from patterns of reading and writing that do not question the positionality of the text's subject in relation to a dominant and male-inflected ideology of reading and writing. Neither would it question the reader's positionality in relation to the desire and pleasure of meaning-making. Margaret Atwood's fiction, especially her novel The Handmaid's Tale, becomes in this essay the vehicle for exploring those issues. What happens when a writer tries an old form (the quest based on a journey motif) on a new model (the female)? What happens to the sense-making operation of the subsequent reader, who tries to come out of reading “in drag” to understand her “other” as a subject in a community of discourse?

Self-discovery in the form of the “quest or journey” is, according to Northrop Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism, one of the common structures akin to a symbol, or archetype. According to him such archetypes have “communicable power which is potentially unlimited.” He goes on to argue that these symbols are universal, although there might be “groups of people” who might have known them and then forgotten, or those who “do know and won't tell, or are not members of the human race.” Although she would never “tell” directly, Margaret Atwood takes issue with this supposedly most universal of archetypes, most directly in some of her poetry, but also in her novels, and perhaps especially, as I will argue, in The Handmaid's Tale.

Frye sees the symbolic structure of the quest at work in a three-staged movement: “the successful quest … has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey … ; the crucial struggle … ; and the exaltation of the hero … [or] the recognition of the hero, who has clearly proved himself to be a hero even if he does not survive the conflict.” A beginning, a middle, and an end, generated on a narrative trajectory that implies a getting to the end. A quester may struggle inside, outside, or on the margins of a larger structure. However, at the end of the struggle, at the end of the journey, he can be, in Frye's words “exalted,” or recognized, that is, brought back within the fold. This integration may occur at the level of mimesis, thematically, in the society mirrored in the story. It could also occur as a matter of form, as a narrative confirmation. A traditional quest then is a narrative wherein the ideals and hopes of the protagonists are finally mirrored positively in a prevailing, larger structure that in a sense has the means to control and confirm the production of the subject's making.

The quest pattern, therefore, fits the orgastic pattern of fiction as articulated by Robert Scholes when he writes:

The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act. In saying this I do not mean merely to remind the reader of the connection between all art and the erotic in human nature. … For what connects fiction—and music—with sex is the fundamental orgastist rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation.

But what if, as Winnett proposes, female pleasure differs? Can we presume that we all read as “men”? Could it be that Atwood refuses to comply with this pattern, offers different narrative poses, sequenced to trouble the arbitrarily “universal” understanding of correct form?

While critics refer to Atwood's novels, especially Surfacing and The Edible Woman, as personal quest novels, they do not examine them in light of the narrative structure that such a quest would entail. The critics ignore the fact that in all of Atwood's novels, the quest pattern does not measure up if examined against a traditional form. In each case Atwood's protagonist, although having lived through some perilous journey or crisis point, never comes back to be integrated in, or successfully adapted to, the world that she had fought. On thematic grounds alone Atwood's female selves cannot successfully be re-inscribed in its traditional notion of the place from where they break away.

Another critic, Robert Lecker, thinks that Atwood uses traditional patterns in order to expose them as sham. If she uses the romance patterns, he argues, but does not provide the usual happy ending, it is for the reason that in the quest “the mythical pattern of separation, initiation and return must itself be seen as a sham in a culture where rituals have lost their potency.” While Lecker rightly exposes the sham of the ritual, Atwood challenges more than that. Frank Davey recognizes what so many Atwood critics seem to ignore, namely “that the comic or romance patterns are themselves patriarchal second-order constructions from which, to be ‘free’ in any meaningful way, Atwood characters will have to escape.” She not only points out the meaninglessness of certain rituals, but also the impossibility of structures that, as Davey remarks, remain patriarchal and prison-like, structures within which it is perhaps not possible to validate the female experience.

Margaret Atwood herself has undertaken an overt critique of the traditional quest pattern as a narrative structure in her sequence of poems entitled “Circe/Mud Poems” from You Are Happy, tackling the most classic of quests, the Odyssey. Critic Estella Lauter demonstrates how Atwood rethinks Circe, the enchantress, and her presumed complicity in the quest plot. Atwood envisions the old structure of the myth as a story that has become a prison, where the hero and the minor characters are helpless and doomed to reenact the same roles. The quest is exposed here as a sequenced narrative structure that repeats itself over and over, each time becoming faster and jerkier, within which the roles assigned can never be changed. Things in this kind of a space run their course predictably; it is a language game that is repetitive, and improvement of the game is not possible. The only way to change it is to undo the basic form, to break the circle. Lauter concludes that “[t]he poem is not so much a rebirth journey (there is no journey) as it is an exploration of what might happen if we stopped questing and made the most of the capabilities for relationship that we have ‘Right now I mean. See for yourself.’” Atwood implies that the quest is obsolete and no longer a powerful discursive mechanism.

With The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood further rethinks the quest, this time involving the question of gender. The exploration still makes use of the elements of a quest, but shakes up the form, putting it all under question: the actual journey is unseen and presented as a lacuna, the struggle is veiled, and the official validation with its parodic twist becomes a discursive control mechanism that fails. Seen this way, the narrative thematic assumes a negative presence, and the form, standing like an ironic shadow from the past, destroys its own function. The linear journey through the text troubles assumptions of sense-making, and forces the reader to look for other readings and understanding.


Every quest begins with the desire to be somewhere else, to be someone else. That desire is present in Offred, the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale. The struggle of the quester in its most basic form plays out between two main characters: a hero, and the obstacle to the hero's success, the antagonist. Offred is caught up in a veiled struggle with the antagonist, who, mythical in proportion, does not have a face, but is the repressive Gileadean society itself. As in any quest structure, the relationship between the two is dialectical, but the reader is forced to focus on the conflict of the heroine as she struggles to come to terms with the antagonist. Our reading values are bound up with her as we move along in the text.

Offred's autobiographical rendering describes her efforts to survive and make meaning out of existence in Gilead, a repressive theocratic society in the early 1990s created following a right-wing military takeover. A female 1984, the novel speculates on practices established by a puritanical vision for society that must assure its progeny at a time when procreation has become difficult and problematic. The most precious natural resource is a viable womb; women in the reproductive years. Assigned as handmaids to the men in charge (the commanders), they assure the future of the race. Under the guise of protection for women, the regime gains complete control over women's bodies and minds.

Free speech and free movement are not allowed. Offred, in the early stages of the dictatorship, had planned a carefully orchestrated journey to flee to Canada with her husband and daughter. This was a struggle designed to win, with every step accounted for: the daughter drugged to make it easier to get through check points, the cat drowned and disposed of so as not to tip off neighbors. The escape misfired, leading to her capture and separation from her husband and daughter and her subjugation as a handmaid to a commander whose name she is given, Fred. Offred tells of another attempt to flee. Her friend Moira outwitted the overseers at the handmaid's training center. As Offred learns much later, her friend's attempt was as unsuccessful as her own. Moira, too, gets caught and reintegrated into the new social order. Since Moira is not retrainable, and therefore presents a risk, she is placed at Jezebel's, a clandestine but tolerated brothel located at the fringes of Gilead. Both these journeys, planned and willed, failed.

All movement in Gilead is carefully controlled and prescribed. There are daily rituals, journeys that take Offred along prescribed routes to accomplish her assigned shopping tasks. These are circular, within the walls of the city, always returning her to the commander's home. She is not allowed to wander, not even with her eyes, as her bonnet-like headdress protrudes like blinders on a horse. Trips are orchestrated around participatory community events that highlight Gilead's values. Handmaids and wives gather to celebrate newborn babies at communal birthings. At “salvagings” (public hangings), the handmaids symbolically participate by touching the cord. Their direct participation is required and monitored during “particicutions,” executions which involve the violent tearing apart of a man's body. Gatherings of a religious nature (“prayvaganzas”) allow the groups to affirm the common belief. Attendance is required at these events; they present a structured release for such emotions as joy, fear, and anger. Offred even participates in an “illegal” outing, when her commander takes her out for a night of illicit fun at Jezebel's. But all these minor displacements are for the handmaid orderly, precise steps not planned by her, none of them fulfill any of her desires to accomplish her own quest.

She does in the end succeed, if escaping her condition is the aim of her quest. There is a successful journey that starts precisely at the moment when she gives up thinking that she can outwit her enemy. She relinquishes her struggle after having weighed several modes of action to escape (including suicide). She decides not to choose, all options being equal, none preferable. She does not save herself, but gets saved by unknown agents. This occurs the moment when she lets go of her own motto Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (schoolboy Latin for “Don't let the bastards grind you down”). It is the rallying cry that had been scratched into the wood by the commander's previous handmaid, who did exit by committing suicide. When fatigue has overcome Offred's will, her faith in the meaning of the motto is lost: “[f]atigue … is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered.” We only see the beginning of this successful journey as she is escorted from her room. At this moment she, and the reader, do not know whether she is being led to a better or worse fate, her last words being “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

Unlike the quest, this becomes an anti-quest, being saved rather than an exercise of the fighting will. While we see the beginning of this journey, the rest happens some place where we as readers are not allowed to participate. It remains an enigma, even if the subsequent “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid's Tale at the end of Offred's autobiographical narrative attest to some proof of its having occurred. The journey that has taken place becomes a lost trace, a lacuna, a negative space. It literally took place in the blank pages that separate the autobiographical rendering of her desire to be somewhere else, to be someone else, from the historical and academic recapturing and validating of her traces 200 years later.


Reintegration of the hero into the fold is necessary to a successful quest. Ostensibly this is what the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale” set out to accomplish. In an apparent authoritative gesture the Notes play on the discursive practice of verifying and authenticating the first story. But the ritual of recognizing the hero fails.

The historians depicted in the epilogue to the tale feel it to be their task to provide proof of the narrator's identity in order to establish her status as a subject. Since Offred told her story on tape, not in writing, they must rely on them as clues. Going back to the tapes’ origin as far as they can, they find the U.S. Army issue metal footlocker in a house near the Canadian border that used to be a connecting link of the Underground Femaleroad (or as they joke, The Underground Frailroad). The play on the Underground Railroad no doubt parallels the treatment of the handmaid's oral account with that of slave narratives. Undertakings such as these highly prosecuted journeys to freedom require its participants to cover their tracks so as not to compromise themselves or others. Or else, if traces are found, as is the case with Offred's tapes, the process of historicizing effectively questions the little evidence left. Worse yet, it may have the effect of discrediting it completely.

Having found satisfactory proof that the 30 tapes from the period of the 1980s were spoken by the same female voice, the professors are still not convinced that the tale is a “true” autobiographical rendering. Pompous Professor Pieixoto, in his talk at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies held as part of the International Historical Association Convention (from whence the “Historical Notes” are derived), questions the nature of the autobiography because what they have now is not “the item in its original form.” What he refers to is his transcribed, textual version of an oral account. His discomfort about the nature of the autobiographical rendering is betrayed by his uncertainty and uneasiness on how to refer to it. “Document,” “item,” and “material” are safe and cautious words that allow him to keep his distance and his skepticism. The question of the tale's authenticity and its origin remains. The document, after all, is unauthored, so to say, as the “I” of the narrative never names herself, referring to herself only by her assigned patronymic name, Offred. Even worse, she never put the proverbial pen to paper to sign and authenticate.

Since there are no further diaries, and since no other evidence could be found to tie her to any relationship or family, the only remaining alternative is to inquire and link her to the commander to whom she had been assigned. The professors narrow down their choices to two, favoring one, in the process of which they are able to amplify the historical importance of both men, at Offred's expense. Neither historian can, however, add any evidence to her account; in fact, what the researchers are after is more substantiation of the Gileadean regime: “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 they really want is a print-out from one of the commander's computers, the equivalent of some locus of power. They do not hear, or care about, the female voice and its struggle for meaning outside the ascribed and prescribed formula of her role by the regime.

Even though the female voice has produced a moving personal account of considerable breadth and depth about her past, present, and desire for a different life, the scholars insist that not much is known about her. What counts as knowledge, according to them, is what she does not supply. The “Historical Notes” section of Atwood's work must be read with all of the ironies intended, especially the fact that the two male professors in this once and future world continue the academic practice of not reading, or misreading, or marginalizing accounts of women's experience. Accounts of such desire do not seem to fit and cannot be recognized, rewarded, and redeemed. It is fitting that this reported symposium (staged with applause, laughter, and groans) that supposedly seeks to affirm the protagonist's identity and account is in fact denying it, as the name of the place of where it is held—at the University of Denay at Nunavit—seems to indicate.

Since she cannot be named because she cannot be linked with any certainty to any male, and because the conditions under which she will “give” her name are not noticed by those at the symposium, Offred becomes a factor of uncertainty to the historian, who wishes to lift his object of research into a rationalized, historical space—lifting it, as in moving into, and as in stealing, to make possible his own narration, his own graft. The threat of the female remains though, and underlies Professor Pieixoto's misogynistic tone in delivering the paper, comprising almost the whole of the “Historical Notes.” It is especially evident in the title that he assigns to the “document,” The Handmaid's Tale, of which the professor assures us that all puns were intended, “particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word TAIL; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, …” Precisely. This tale/tail's particular bone of contention is about this quest's other absence, the pen, linked however sardonically with penis, as shall become evident, as a locus of power and origin.

The second text in Atwood's book (the “Historical Notes”), then, in an apparent authoritative gesture, tries to establish the identity and name of the author of the first text, but fails and falters, because her voice is not recuperable in male terms as a subject. There was no meaningful position for her in Gilead, other than the one ascribed to her by the political system. Neither can she accede to a position of purpose within the ideology of history, or of the academy. It is clear that the parodic presentation of this second account plays on the discursive practice of “fixing” the first reading: it acts as a controlling fiction that seeks to appropriate the first text into an ideologically determined space. Yet the attempt to fix the meaning-making production fails because of its self-conscious presentation and the overdetermined knowledge the reader had gained traversing the linear space of both fictions. In other words, the reader knows better, and cannot settle with this ending; satisfaction must be elsewhere. The failure to produce the closure (detumescence) draws attention to itself, forces the question, and that is why the reader must begin again.


Reading becomes in this particular instance an adventure of an undoing. Having first moved through the retrospective autobiographical account of a female protagonist trapped in an authoritarian, theocratic society, the reader then arrives at the second account, a commentary on the first text entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale.” This later body of supposed academic scholarship seeks to locate the voice of the first text within a historical framework. The two texts are at odds, each undermining the other; personal, female experience as “authority” is set against male authority of historical and academic research. While both accounts are fictional, the second text may be considered a “reading” of the first. Yet its overall tone arouses the suspicion and attention of the reader. The historical attempt of restoration and closure fails to deliver the “truth” the reader had hoped for. All that seems closest to the purpose of the struggle of the protagonist is absent. Reaching the end of the book, the non-fulfilled anticipation forces a reflective third reading, one that refocuses once more on missing items: the voice that wasn't heard. In this segue, validation and confirmation are possible.

Despite the discursive failure to account for the subject, the first account still is about an economy of desire, a wishing to be somewhere else, inscribed in a movement of time and space that does not (or cannot) assert itself in any traditional combative sort of way. There is no winning; she does not emerge victoriously, expecting her due rewards. But most assuredly this voice looks for confirmation. Validation is sought, directly contracted by the “I” of the autobiographical account, who pleads with a “you,” the listener/reader as the agent who holds the power to recognize and validate. This implied “you” is asked to confirm, mediate, and locate “the value” of this quest.

The main character in The Handmaid's Tale pursues a quest in circumstances that situates her in an extreme position of powerlessness. Offred is not just barred from selective participation in her given society, but from all meaningful, self-directed participation. Since the act of writing and the ideology of individual agency and power are tightly bound together, it will be useful to examine what form individual agency and power may take in such circumstances. What sense does Offred have of her own power? With what tools, weapons, support can she hope to accomplish her quest, to find her home?

In Gilead, human drives, urges, and emotions are regulated through public manifestations. Joy, fear, and anger are supposed to replace self-generated feelings in a structured way, through publicly organized events such as birthings, hangings, salvagings, and particicution. In this way, emotions are supposed to have been purged. No one ought to want, to desire more, or to wish for a quest. Yet desire, or the pulse of the intimate body, is the fomenting fact that cannot be totally accounted for. It is the wild card that threatens to undo this society at every level. Fundamentally it is also what drives any quest.

Power for Offred is a secret thing, having to do with her own body. She is conscious of the fact that she can use her body to tease, and enjoys it like the “power of a dog bone.” She is also aware of her body as a commodity, and of its concomitant possibility of exchange or bargaining. She knows she would earn tolerance (if not respect) from the commander's wife, Serena Joy, if she could produce a baby for the household. She therefore agrees to an arranged clandestine mating with Nick, the commander's chauffeur, in exchange for a cigarette and a recent photograph of her daughter (now adopted into another commander's family). When the commander requests to see her outside of their functional relationship, she knows she is in a position to extort: “It's a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. … I'm not giving anything away: selling only.” The power that her body holds gives her some sense of self.

While her body is the equivalent of currency or exchange, it is the control over her self-spun words that seems to reassure her. The narrative voice resorts to wordplay, often to just pass the time, to fill up space, but perhaps also to constitute herself. Since women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write, Offred repeats, explores, and exploits words in her mind as if they were things to try on. This wordplay is also an activity that transforms an unbearable assigned empty space into a space of a self, a fiction of a self being projected into space, or inscribed on the “blank.” Words make substance, they become the flesh of her imagined and rationalized existence: “These are the kind of litanies I use, to compose myself.” Or as she articulates it in another instance of waiting in her room for time to pass: “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.”

These words become limits, walls, a way to fence in the self, and a way to create something to fill the unbearable empty space of herself. There is an empowering sense in the fiction of this self-composed fact. It's her way to escape: “Where should I go?” she asks, as she faces another lonely night in her room. It is her way to travel back to her past, to her lost daughter, mother, and husband, as well as into the future and possible better times. But it is a fiction, and the narrating self knows it.

The power words hold is translated in the forbidden scrabble game. The commander requests to see her secretly, but not to have uninhibited or non-prescribed sex. What he asks for instead is a game of scrabble. The squares that hold the letters of the scrabble game are magical to Offred, full of promise: “The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, … luxury.” She compares the feeling to the taste of edible things: candies, peppermint, humbugs, tartness of lime. She would like to taste the words, put them in her mouth. As she continues to play scrabble on consecutive evenings, the words associate with things of the past, bodily pleasures associated with eating: “My tongue felt thick with the effort of spelling. It was like using a language I'd once known but had nearly forgotten, a language having to do with customs that had long before passed out of the world: café au lait at an outdoor table, with a brioche, absinthe in a tall glass, or shrimp in a cornucopia of newspaper; things I'd read about once but had never seen.”

The sensuousness or fleshliness of words, their power, is even greater when she is given the first opportunity to write with a pen in the commander's library:

The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen.

The unnamed female voice, with this tongue-in-cheek reference to penis envy (and implicitly to oedipal models), knows about the use and promise of words and the stories they can make up. She knows exactly what she can do with it, and how far she can go with it. She knows she can provide the illusion, and that she can destroy the illusion, which she does as the narrator of the multiple, unreliable versions of her night with Nick, who becomes her secret lover.

When and how exactly her story gets recorded, not with a pen on paper but with a microphone and tape, we do not know. But we do know that the story is made like a pleading, offered to someone called “you.” It is intended to reach an invented “you”—her husband Luke (who is probably dead), or someone like a lover, but intended also for any reader, the historians, for example, or just “you,” the reader:

But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. DEAR YOU, I'll say. Just YOU, without a name. Attaching a name attaches YOU to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say YOU, YOU, like an old love song. YOU can mean more than one.

YOU can mean thousands.

In this relationship of her self and her presumed listener/reader she places her hope for understanding and confirmation. “You” is refused a name, just as is the narrating “I.” Perhaps her addressing the interlocutor as the “you” of a popular love song seeks a more direct communication. It counts on a relation of trust, one within which it will be possible to release the name, just as she told Nick, whom she so desperately trusted and loved, “I tell him my real name, and feel that therefore I am known.” It is not the “you” of the “world of fact,” because then “you” would be like a word, like a structure that is enclosed. She wants a receptive “you” that, like the extending “I,” exists in some other kind of understanding. A “you” that can hear, under the right circumstances. A “you” of the underworld, just like the “I.”

I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they're not here. By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.

The “chance of survival” depends somehow on the presence of this “you,” who may be able to hear this underground communication that insinuates itself into and through the language, one that is more erotic than the world of fact.

The loyalty articulated by the speaking subject must remain open to an active process. This moment ceases when her desire is consummated in her sexual relation with Nick. Desire consummated asks for more, and she goes back to Nick over and over, not just for the mating arranged by Serena Joy to produce a child, but for her own pleasure, illicitly and illegally. She did it for herself, she says, and each time the meeting is taken as if it is the last ever, each became “always a surprise, extra, a gift.” But she feels a need to apologize: “I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless.” She sees that moment as reader betrayal: “And I thought afterwards: this is a betrayal. Not the thing in itself but my own response.” While she clearly thinks this in relation to Luke, as a sort of explanation and apology to her husband, should he still be alive, this explanation also includes the reader. It's adultery, and it is co-extensive with the illusion of having control over one's textual and sexual representation.

She asks the interlocutor, her “you,” for forgiveness: “[y]ou'll have to forgive me. I'm a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I've left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it.” Clearly she invests the reader with the power to forgive: “remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.” This apology insists that even while she makes herself into a subject—a composed fact—she wishes to refuse the illusion of a stable identity, because whatever that would be would be false. It would be an instance of dominant static space, over the active, subversive relationship, and it would be betrayal, of Luke, of the reader. Nevertheless, is this not the very act that begs for understanding, integration, and confirmation? The one act that redeems the quest?

This is where the story ends. Like so many of Atwood's endings it is awkward, forced and faked, but that is again conscious strategy: “[d]on't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.” In some sense Offred's voice is guilty of representation, of truth, and that is what she apologizes for. In the interest of the plot she had to serve up her own body, to which we as reader respond and follow in an itinerary of our own pleasure. We as reader participate in the staging of her body, in this foregrounding of her mental torment. We consume her body of desire and its hoped-for fulfillment, and our pleasure in this activity is not innocent. To witness the spectacle of her body, of her secret mind, to follow her desire that cannot close, we possess as readers a certain power. The reader is in the position to understand the means—the linear space of the narration—to which she must resort to make her story, a tricky space that could be seen as static. But the reader also has the option of understanding this unfolding as an experience in space and time, as a process that subverts the logic of the static space.

The Handmaid's Tale, with its strategy of narrative techniques, sets out to break the circle of discursive closure in the traditional quest structure. Atwood's strategy challenges the notion of the quest based on the conquest of identity achievable through mastery of speech, language, and subject. Just as she consciously excludes the journey toward a new identity, she also disallows confirmation of the identity of the subject within an ideologically situated framework. Confirmation of the subject would result in the freezing of the subject as its own system, as well as in its appropriation into a larger structure or system. Margaret Atwood moves beyond this structuring appropriation. Rather than letting the text exercise the contract of confirming the subject, she places this responsibility into the hands of the reader. Unlike the historians, we can validate, confirm, and bring home (that is, understand) this journey for what it is: a ritual of different narrative erotics, of reading otherwise.

Charlotte Templin (essay date September 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4676

SOURCE: “Names and Naming Tell an Archetypal Story in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,” in Names, Vol. 41, No. 3, September, 1993, pp. 143-57.

[In the following essay, Templin examines the significance of symbolic, generic, and biblical names in The Handmaid's Tale.]

One element in the highly wrought art of Margaret Atwood, and one that deserves careful attention, is her use of names to illuminate character and present theme. Atwood herself has remarked on the special concern she has for her characters’ names:

I'm very interested in their names. By that I mean their names don't always readily spring to mind. I have to go looking for their names. I would like not to have to call them anything. But they usually have to have names. Then the question is, if they are going to have names, the names have to be appropriate. Therefore I spend a lot of time reading up on meanings of names, in books like Name Your Baby.

(“Tightrope Walking” 212).

Although Atwood does not specifically refer to The Handmaid's Tale, that novel is noteworthy for its careful use of names, which, in addition to being “appropriate,” have symbolic significance. In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood uses naming practices and name usage to create meaning. The significance and value of names and naming in the human experience is an important focus in the novel where symbolic naming and the characters’ use and awareness of names are tied to important thematic concerns, for example, the oppression of the weak by the strong, the struggle for identity, and the necessity of human communication and meaningful human relationships.

Michel Grimaud has commented on the problems of a literary onomastics that explores only the symbolism of proper names as isolated entities and fails to relate names to the structural features of the text. He calls for an onomastics that embraces the multiple dimensions of naming as a “deeply social, psychological, and linguistic act” (“Onomastics and the Study of Literature”). Grimaud stresses the need to “integrate the study of proper names within a discursive framework of actual usage, thus taking fully into account the many ways we refer to people and address them …” (“Whither Literary Onomastics?”). This essay, building upon Grimaud's comments, thus has a dual focus: an analysis of the symbolic use of names and a study of the narrator's and characters’ naming practices within the text. In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood foregrounds matters of names and naming, making them central hermeneutical concerns. While symbolic naming, including the use of generic names drawn largely from the Bible as well as highly significant personal names, is important in the novel, the characters’ use of names for each other (or their failure to do so), the use of titles and generic names, and the portrayal of naming in this future society, are equally important. The symbolism of names, naming practices, and constraints on name usage are part of a major theme in the novel—power and powerlessness.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood depicts a dystopian society called Gilead, formed in the twenty-first century when Christian fundamentalists seized power. All citizens, especially women, live under an oppressive theocratic regime whose rise to power has been facilitated by a number of related crises: a dangerously polluted natural world, a concomitant population decline caused by sterility, and rampant sexual permissiveness. The elite of the ruling hierarchy have commandeered fertile women (male infertility is denied) for use as forced concubines. Called “Handmaids,” they are robbed of their identities and even their given names. The protagonist-narrator of Atwood's story, the Handmaid Offred, was stripped of her own name, forced to bear the name of her master, Fred (thus “Of-Fred”), and made to endure his ritualized sexual attentions. Offred's narrative reveals the terror of living under a regime of brute power. A complicated network of spying deprives people of all privacy and personal freedom, and resistance to the approved ideology can result in death. The sexual behavior of all citizens is regulated by repressive rules, but these are routinely flaunted by the regime's rulers, who also enjoy the state-sanctioned use of concubines.

The names in The Handmaid's Tale are drawn from a variety of sources. Generic names used in Gilead, such as “Commander” and “Martha,” are drawn from the Bible. Atwood also utilizes names from nineteenth- and twentieth-century advertising. Characters’ given names, like the generics drawn from the Bible, have special importance in the novel, not only in aiding characterization and advancing theme, but also in creating archetypal overtones for the story. Archetypal names are appropriate in The Handmaid's Tale, since the import of characters and events is closely related to the novel's mythic quality. The novel is a fable for our time, showing us the fundamental flaws in our society and warning us about the future that we may be creating. This fable can be read in part through the names of Atwood's characters.

Gilead's rulers, who call themselves “Commanders,” have named themselves and everything else. By employing Biblical names for classes of persons in their society, the rulers of the Gileadean theocracy proclaim their godliness. The reader detects, however, that they also thereby unwittingly reveal their arrogance and hypocrisy. The Biblical echoes are the source of a pervasive irony in the novel, which repeatedly calls attention to the discrepancy between the society's claims to righteousness and its cruel abuse of human dignity. For example, in the Bible, the place known as Gilead is a fertile region known for its spices and medicinal herbs (the famous “balm of Gilead”). The Gilead of Atwood's novel is polluted and disease-ridden, a place of physical as well as moral corruption.

The names with biblical associations always have overtones of irony in the novel, but I emphasize here the function of the generic names to underline the theme of power and powerlessness. The rulers of Gilead have chosen to call themselves “Commanders,” a name which denotes power and a desire on their part to be held in awe. (They could have used the terms “leaders” or “governors,” also with biblical precedents but with quite different connotations). The title “Commander”—most often used to refer to military leaders—occurs in the King James Bible (Isaiah 55.4) and it is frequently found in the Revised Standard as well (see Gen. 21.22 and Num. 31.14).

In Gilead, Commanders rule over a rigidly hierarchical society. Men and women are divided into classes, most of which have been given names with biblical sources. “Angels” are soldiers in the wars against the regime's enemies (e.g., Baptists, Quakers); and “Guardians” stand watch, keep order, and perform other functions, such as chauffeuring. Both generics are from the Bible: angels are, of course, mentioned frequently in the King James Bible (e.g., 2 Samuel 24.17) while “Guardian” is used in the Revised Standard Bible (e.g., 2 Kings 10.1,5). (Angels act under the direct command of God in the Bible, but in Gilead they are subordinate to the Commanders).

Men occupy positions of authority; women serve and obey, and have names appropriate to their subordinate status. The classes of women include wives of Commanders; concubines (or “Handmaids”); household servants, known as “Marthas;” wives of lower-class men, called “Econowives;” and—lowest in the hierarchy—“Unwomen,” old women and unrepentant nuns who clean up contaminated waste dumps and battlefields. The last two terms, “Econowives” and “Unwomen,” have no biblical antecedents, but nonetheless exemplify the importance of naming in producing the novel's effects. The name “Econowives,” which brings to mind the term “economy car” (an all-purpose but low-cost model), is indicative of their husbands’ lack of status. The cleverness of the coinage also reminds us that advertising executives (as we learn in the epilogue) are among the rulers of this society. “Unwomen” is another striking name and suggests that women unwilling or unfit to serve men are not women—or persons—at all.

The Old Testament account of the barren Rachel, maneuvering to have a child by her maid (Gen. 30.1-4), provides a precedent for the Commanders’ use of “Handmaids” and serves as an epigraph for The Handmaid's Tale as well. The story of Rachel sending her maid Bilhah in to her husband Jacob so that he might impregnate her is cited by the Commanders as a justification for their institution of forced concubinage. Like their other appeals to biblical authority, this one is cynical. There is nothing in the biblical account to suggest that God approved of this maneuver; in fact, it led to much family dissension. Handmaids are threatened with demotion to “Unwoman” status if they do not conceive. Resented and despised by women of other classes, Handmaids are forced to wear nun-like red costumes, are not allowed to read or write, and are cut off from any meaningful human contact. The fact that they are deprived even of their given names signifies their loss of personhood. They are mere wombs with powers of locomotion.

The name “Martha” refers to Luke's account of the woman who, during a visit from Jesus, busied herself with household preparations while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his words (Luke 10.38-42). Jesus rebuked Martha, but the Commanders find it acceptable that there is an entire class of women who devote themselves to housework, performed solely in the service of men. Marthas are not allowed to leave the dwellings of their masters even to go shopping. This task is assigned to Handmaids, whose attempts to conceive and bear children might be enhanced by regular physical exercise. These arrangements suggest how completely the women of all classes exist to fulfill the needs of men.

A knowledge of the sources of other biblical names enriches our experience of Atwood's text and also, as in the examples above, enables us to apprehend an irony that points invariably to the arrogance, cruelty and hypocrisy of the Commanders. Jezebel's is the name given to the brothel maintained by the Commanders for their own use and for the entertainment of foreign businessmen. (We note the ease with which these men compromise their principles when “business” requires). Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, led the king and Israel into gross immoralities (2 Kings 9). In this case, it is the Commanders who have forced the women at Jezebel's into prostitution and who must bear all moral responsibility for what goes on there—their own adultery to be sure, but also the criminal confinement and forced copulation imposed on the unfortunate women.

Names for automobiles likewise suggest the Commanders’ penchant for power and authority. They ride in glossy and powerful cars described as “black, of course, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek.” The cars are called “Whirlwinds”—with biblical echoes of majestic and terrifying divine authority. God speaks to Job (Job 38.1) and Elijah (2 Kings 2.1) from the whirlwind, and the whirlwind is often invoked as a metaphor for immense and terrifying power (Jer. 4.13). Less important men ride in lesser cars, the “Chariot” and the “Behemoth.” The “chunky, practical Behemoth” is presumably an economy car of little distinction. The biblical behemoth is a massive animal mentioned in Job 40.15.

Atwood is equally painstaking in her choice of the personal or given names of her characters. By reading these names carefully and considering them in conjunction with the biblical names discussed above, we can construct a fable-like or archetypal tale of victimization of the weak by the powerful. The protagonist is known as Offred, a name imposed by the regime. The practice of calling her by a name that indicates which man she belongs to of course epitomizes her objectification. The name “Offred” also suggests the word “offered.” She is indeed offered, or given away, with no control over her fate. As the Handmaids are transferred from one posting to another, their “given” names change. The significance of their namelessness—their interchangeability in the eyes of their masters—is made especially clear in one incident involving the Handmaid with whom Offred is paired for daily shopping excursions. This woman, Ofglen, who has been active in the underground, suddenly disappears. (We learn that her underground activities have been discovered, and, fearing that under torture she may incriminate others, she kills herself). Offred goes to meet her at the prearranged street corner and is met by her replacement. When the frightened Offred asks, “Has Ofglen been transferred so soon?” the replacement replies, “I am Ofglen.”

Offred does have a given name, though she refers to it only once and then so obliquely that few readers notice it. She treasures her “real” name, associating it with her self-hood and individuality. She fantasizes about being called by her own name, and she says that she tells it to her lover, Nick. We know what this name is or at least can infer it. It must be June because the name June is mentioned in the list of names whispered from bed to bed in the training center early in the novel, but we hear nothing subsequently about anybody named June, although the other names—Alma, Janine, Dolores and Moira—belong to characters who figure in later episodes of the story. “June,” from the Latin for “Junius,” the name of an important Roman family, is also the most popular of the names based on the months of the year and one which suggests youth and innocence. Thus the name, and its loss, are quite appropriate, since Offred (or June) could be said to represent despoiled innocence or victimized womanhood.

Judging by their names, Offred's companions and peers are “generic” women also. Janine, a form of Jane, is the feminine form of the Hebrew “John,” meaning “God is gracious.” “Jane” is noteworthy for being one of the most common women's names through the ages. “Dolores,” from Spanish, refers to the sorrows of the Virgin. “Alma” is from Italian and means “kind” or “nourishing,” (c.f. “alma mater”). The name of Cora, the housemaid, comes from the Greek for “maiden;” Kore is a title for Persephone. The name of Rita, the cook, is a diminutive of Marguerite, a form of Margaret, which means “pearl.” The friend Offred looks to for the inspiration to keep up the fight as well as for the support of friendship is called Moira, Irish for “Mary,” the most used of all Christian names. These names give an almost allegorical dimension to the tale Atwood tells. It is women as women—innocent in themselves—who are the victims of a power-mad and brutal society, which Atwood suggests through the use of variations on the most common names for women and through such suggestive name meanings as “maiden,” “nourishing one,” “sorrowful one,” and “precious one” or “pearl.”

In The Handmaid's Tale (as in her other novels dating to The Edible Woman), Atwood has focused on the subjugation and victimization of women, but she has also shunned a philosophic essentialism that would categorize all women as natural victims and all men as evil. Some women in The Handmaid's Tale have allied themselves with the values of the Gileadean patriarchy and joined in oppressing other women, and some men oppose the evil male majority. The women who occupy positions of authority in Gilead, the “Aunts,” train the handmaids at the Rachel and Leah Center and also occupy visible leadership positions during public events such as births and executions. The Aunts—Sara, Elizabeth, Lydia, and Helena—are appropriately named for biblical women of importance. The names bring to mind Sara, the wife of Abraham; Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; and Lydia, who was Paul's first convert in Europe. Helena is the mother of Constantine and the discoverer of the true cross. But their names have other associations that undercut the biblical or Christian connections, serving instead to mock or trivialize these women. There is a suggestion in the Epilogue that the Commanders chose certain names for the Aunts because they “derived from commercial products available to women in the pre-Gilead period, and thus [were] familiar to them—the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes, frozen desserts, and even medicinal remedies.” The references are to Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, Betty Crocker foods, Sara Lee frozen desserts, and Lydia Pinkham's medicine for female complaints. The association of the “Aunts” with advertising and consumer products suggests their function of manipulating other women in the interests of the dominant powers. The names suggest the complex ways in which women have been socialized to their roles as consumers, housewives, helpers, and sex objects—partly through the efforts of other women who have gained some status by allying themselves with men in power. Not incidentally, the fact that Atwood alerts us in the Epilogue to the significance of the Aunts’ names suggests that she is consciously using names in symbolic ways.

The last powerful (or relatively powerful) woman in The Handmaid's Tale is Serena Joy, the wife of Offred's Commander. Embittered and jealous, she radiates anything but serenity and joy. She evidently chose this pretentious name herself when she was a gospel singer and Christian celebrity much like Tammy Faye Bakker, who has gained notoriety in our time. The fact that Serena is also the name of an early Christian saint provides further irony since Serena Joy is cruel, mean-spirited, and vindictive.

Names of males also relate to the struggle of oppressors and victims. There are three important males in the story: Nick, the Commander's chauffeur and later Offred's lover; Luke, her lost husband; and Fred, her Commander. We learn that Nick may be a part of the intelligence corps (the “Eyes”) and that he may also be part of the underground resistance, the Mayday movement. When Offred is in grave danger at the end of the novel, he arranges to have her “rescued” or at least taken away in a van. Although neither she nor the reader knows at that point whether she is going to safety or captivity, a certain amount of comfort is provided by his name. “Nicholas” refers to one who leads his people to victory. There seems ample evidence in the “Historical Notes” that Nick has indeed saved Offred. (For one thing she survives to tell the tale). Luke was not only the third evangelist; he is also noted as having a particular interest in the oppressed, especially women and children. Frederick—a compound from Old High German for “powerful” and “rich,” and “peace”—was a name of German emperors and Prussian kings. Atwood's Fred, active in the sect wars against Quakers, Baptists, and others, is in no way a peacemaker, but the suggestion of power certainly fits.

The concluding section, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale,” allows us to read the meaning of the novel in its names. That section consists of a transcript of a symposium on Gileadean studies held at the University of Denay, Nunavit. In this elaborate pun (deny none of it) Atwood is evidently asking us to look squarely at the discouraging “facts” of abuse of women that she presents in her story. In “Future Tense Making History in The Handmaid's Tale,” Arnold Davidson has shown the importance of a close reading of the “Historical Notes” to an interpretation of the novel. The location of the symposium in the far North (we note the Inuit-sounding name) suggests the shift of power to that area, where presumably a less polluted environment is the basis for a new locus of economic power. The names of those participating in the symposium represent broad ethnicity. Maryann Crescent Moon and Johnny Running Dog are people of importance at the conference, suggesting a new authority for native peoples. A main speaker is James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University, and other speakers include Knotly Wade, also of Cambridge, Gopal Chatterjee (another pun?) of India, and Sieglinda Van Buren of the Republic of Texas (more evidence of a shift of power). James Darcy Pieixoto's name is a combination of Anglo and non-Anglo elements, with Darcy suggesting Jane Austen's hero in Pride and Prejudice, while the surname is clearly non-Anglo. The names in the “Notes” suggest a cosmopolitanism and apparently a new egalitarianism, but, as Davidson points out, there is a great deal of evidence that the values and attitudes that made Gilead possible still prevail.

The assumptions and prejudices of the speakers at the symposium are revealed through the same old sexist jokes (puns on “tale,” for example) and, pervasively, the construction of Offred as object. There is also a depressingly familiar aura to the academic setting, which is characterized by a jostling for power and influence and, worst of all, a moral obtuseness as, in the name of intellectual detachment, Pieixoto enjoins his listeners “not to judge but to understand.” Thus, noting the contradiction between the names and the realities, we find in the “Historical Notes” not hope for a future of greater justice and equality, but rather a perpetuation of our own flawed beliefs and attitudes. Atwood has used names to show the cyclical nature of male/female oppression. History repeats itself—what happened in biblical times has been repeated many times throughout history and can be expected to recur in the future.

Names are also directly relevant to a thematic analysis of The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel belongs to the genre of dystopian fiction and, as such, is a type of roman à thèse. A dystopia (like a utopia) uses fiction to engage ideas, and thus theme is likely to be more important than character. Characters’ importance derives less from their individual natures and personal idiosyncrasies than from their roles in advancing thematic concerns. Names in ideological fiction are likely to be quite important (in Candide, for example). The fact that no family names exist in Atwood's tale contributes to its fable-like quality. Michel Grimaud is quite right in questioning whether research into the symbolic meanings of names is likely to reflect the reader's experience of a text and whether such research is central to an understanding of a given work (“Whither Literary Onomastics?”), but fiction of ideas is a somewhat special case, in which the symbolic use of names can be directly relevant to thematic concerns.

The Handmaid's Tale tells the story of powerful and self-seeking men oppressing people of good will. “Commanders” named for Prussian kings are assisted in their cruel acts by women who have gained limited power for themselves—as have the originals of the names they bear—by attaching themselves to powerful men and acting on their behalf. Those who suffer oppression are a multitude of “Janes”—of maidens or archetypical women. Some males (“Nicks” and “Lukes”), work on behalf of the oppressed and attempt to bring an end to their suffering, winning our admiration but appearing to have little success. An analysis of names in The Handmaid's Tale makes it clear how emphatically the struggle between power and powerlessness structures Atwood's novel.

However, names in The Handmaid's Tale point to meanings in other ways as well, meanings apart from their symbolic or allusive nature. The crisis of Gileadean society can be viewed as a crisis of direct address. People rarely call each other by name, often do not know how to address each other, and sometimes learn each other's names by stealth. The personal name of a Handmaid is a secret and a treasure. Names are whispered from bed to bed in the training center. After Offred leaves the center, she is isolated from everyone who knows her real name. She reveals in her narrative that she tells it only to Nick, the chauffeur, who becomes her lover.

Offred lives in a household made up of the Commander, his wife, three servants, and herself. Except for the two female servants, none of these people seems to know how to address the others, nor do they do so very often (except for Offred in her eventual intimacy with Nick). Offred refers to the Commander and his wife by title or generic name only—“The Commander has hold of my right hand, as if we're teenagers at the movies.” Offred has secret assignations with the Commander (they play Scrabble), but neither one addresses the other by any name. Serena Joy is referred to only as “the Commander's Wife” until Offred remembers her name when identifying her as a television personality of the former society. Offred then uses the name Serena in her narrative—always with ironic overtones—but never addresses Serena directly. On one occasion Serena tells Offred not to call her ma'am, but offers no suggestion as to what form of address should be used: “I didn't ask what I was supposed to call her, because I could see that she hoped I would never have to call her anything at all.” Offred is addressed as “Offred” only once in the novel—by Serena Joy, who, on that occasion, wants something from her. Calling Offred to her by name in the garden, Serena asks that she try to conceive by another man—since it is evident that her monthly copulations with the Commander have had no results. (Serena would gain prestige if the household had a baby).

Social niceties such as introductions are rare in Gilead. Offred has to infer Nick's name: “I know this man's name: Nick. I know this because I've heard Rita and Cora talking about him, and once I heard the Commander speaking to him: ‘Nick, I won't be needing the car.’” Gone too are the subtleties of nicknames and endearments. Offred is once called “Honey” by a doctor who makes a pass at her, but the experience is more frightening than anything since, on the one hand, she can be sentenced to death for sexual promiscuity, and, on the other, she is subject to reprisals by the doctor, who could, for example, report that she has cancer and thereby cause her to be immediately deported to the “colonies.” Offred is not deceived by the term of endearment. She knows it is a generic term: “We are all honey,” she says. (This episode has a contemporary ring about it, and we, may note here that one of Atwood's purposes in The Handmaid's Tale is to write about our society in the guise of writing about the future). Terms of relationship, such as “Aunt,” have been perverted. As much as Offred wishes for a “motherly figure, an older sister, someone who would understand and protect me,” there is no such person in her life.

Because (except for the Epilogue) the story is a first-person narrative told by Offred, we should consider to what extent the use of names is affected by the method of narration. Since we are always in Offred's head, is there less need for terms of direct address (or for the reporting of such address) or for a variety of nominal or periphrastic anaphora than in a novel with a third-person narration? More research into the discourse of naming as it relates to types of narration and point of view would no doubt be valuable, but I would argue that in this novel theme is what determines naming practices. Naming strategies always point to theme. When she describes people, Offred uses terms such as “Commander,” “Aunt,” and “Wife” that designate function (and hence indicate level of authority) because she consistently perceives people in terms of their power over her. Offred also relates scenes that include dialogue, however, and it is in these scenes that we see how infrequently people use each other's names and therefore how striking it is when characters are addressed by name, as when Serena uses Offred's name.

Naming is a discursive feature woven throughout Atwood's novel and contributes significantly to the novel's effect. Names in The Handmaid's Tale carry much more than the usual symbolism. Therefore research into the meaning of names in The Handmaid's Tale is more than a recondite exercise with little relevance to the major features of the text; names point to the central meanings in the story. The use of names contributes significantly to the construction of an archetypal tale of oppression and suffering, victimizer and victimized. Atwood's example suggests that literary onomastics is indeed of critical importance to the study of language and literature.

Dorota Filipczak (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6111

SOURCE: “‘Is There No Balm in Gilead?’ Biblical Intertext in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,” in Literature and Theology at Century's End, edited by Gregory Salyer and Robert Detweiler, Scholars Press, 1995, pp. 215-33.

[In the following essay, Filipczak examines the significance of the Bible as a tool of institutionalized oppression and the biblical parallels and interpretation as seen in The Handmaid's Tale.]

“Tu crois que cést l'oiseau qui est libre. Tu te trompes; cést la fleur …” says Jacques Derrida in one of his essays. Freedom is asserted in the cycle of defying and accepting one's roots. The Handmaid's Tale is haunted by the echo of cultural origins, as manifest via the insidious presence of biblical images in the text. Rooted in the English language legacy of the “Great Code,” Atwood's book attempts to destroy these roots via the demonic misrepresentation of Judaic-Christian religion. In the dystopic world conjured up in The Handmaid's Tale, the author uses the possibilities of distortion to the full, thereby pointing to the dangers lurking in the process of institutionalization of the sacred text.

The role of the Bible in the state depicted in The Handmaid's Tale is ambiguous. Locked in a special wooden box, it becomes a totem of the totalitarian system in every house. At the same time, it is “an incendiary device,” available only to the initiated; others are forbidden to read it. Offred, the main character comments on this situation in a revealing way: “who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?” The Bible is a trapped text turned into a lethal instrument because the régime makes it generate oppressive laws. Everyday life in the state is based on principles whose authors claim that they follow the biblical model. The society fosters male domination and female object status, which is sanctioned by the patriarchal history of Jacob/Israel and by Paul's First Letter to Timothy. “Let the woman learn her subjection” marks the crucial moment in the wedding ceremony. The long list of injunctions is rounded off with: “she shall be saved by child-bearing,” which points to the only acceptable vocation of women in Atwood's Gilead.

The institution of surrogate motherhood is the state's main concern because of the plummeting birth rate in the families of the èlite. The relationships within apparent triangles are to imitate the Jacob, Rachel, Bilhah arrangement, triggered off by Rachel's infertility crisis. In fact, this model is often displaced by the Sarah/Hagar conflict, when a handmaid happens to incur her mistress's displeasure. She may be sent off to the colonies, the equivalent of inhospitable wilderness with no merciful Yahvist God to watch over her plight. Handmaids who defect from their vocation rarely evade the intrusive power of the “God of seeing,” as Hagar, their predecessor, calls him. The régime of Gilead owes its omniscience to ubiquitous spies, called “Eyes,” who exercise strict control over individuals’ activities. “The Eyes of God run all over the earth” says the official slogan, which seems to parody its biblical source, possibly from 2 Chronicles: “For the eyes of the Lord run to and for throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.”

The impact of the Bible on the reality described in The Handmaid's Tale raises the question about the meaning and implications of the biblical code in Atwood's vision. Does the book tell the story of a literalizing misreading, that is to say, a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which results in disastrous ideological consequences? In the light of this approach the text that is in itself a guarantee of freedom would be used to enforce the subjection of its victims. The purpose of ideologically conditioned misreading is to break down the text into clearly interpretable, manageable fragments. Hence, the misreading would consist in suppressing the unbounded potential of the text.

Another interpretation that is generally accepted by Atwood critics might be that the author sees the Bible as the text that constitutes a closure for interpretative possibilities. Frank Davey argues that Margaret Atwood seeks to break out of the traditional pattern of quest for paradise, and pursues an “unnamed” and elusive garden, other than Eden which stemmed from the male ideology of patriarchal culture. Rosemary Sullivan and Catherine Sheldrick Ross analyze Atwood's preoccupation with shamanic rites in Surfacing, so as to suggest that her narrator achieves fusion with a primordial unity outside the Christian code which the author regards as fake and superfluous.

The answer resolving the tension between the two hypotheses can be found in a closer look at the manifestations of the biblical world in the book. The name of the state in The Handmaid's Tale, that is, Gilead, is firmly anchored in patriarchal history. Originally, it may have referred to a range of hills. Later, it was used to denote a strip of land east of the river Jordan. The territory was comprised of the plateau lined with valleys which contained prime grazing areas. The Old Testament mentions Gilead as a backdrop for quite a few important events from patriarchal history. Accordingly, the name triggers off a host of associations which are inscribed in the deep structure of Atwood's book as a powerful intertext. What I would like to do in this article is unravel the fabric of associations related to biblical Gilead, and use their meaning in the comments on Atwood's Gilead. I will try to see whether The Handmaid's Tale is a shocking caricature of biblical reality or a logical consequence of imposing the biblical world on a different kind of reality.

The author uses the term Gilead with particular emphasis in two cases. One of them is connected with Offred's training in the doctrinaire center for surrogate mothers. Among the beliefs that are inculcated in students of motherly vocation is: “Gilead … knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.” Clothed in an aphoristic character, the statement possesses a remarkable rhetorical power. Its binary structure, with the second sentence enhancing the meaning of the first one, contains the pronouncement of total ideology that is not only present in the state's mechanisms, that is, outside individual, but also inside him or her, embedded in the unconscious. There is no escape from Gilead no matter whether one is outward or inward bound, for Gilead is an integral part of the self.

The second reference to Gilead occurs in the hymn which says: “There is a balm in Gilead.” The statement is a distorted version of Jeremiah's question: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” An ostensibly slight change in phrasing is fraught with consequences. Jeremiah deplores the corruption of Jewish state which seems past the chance of being healed. According to Robert P. Carroll, balm from Gilead may have been used either to heal wounds or to conceal their festering smell. Thus, on the literal level, the prophet's question seems to urge the Jews to apply Gileadite medicine on the diseased organism of the country. The wry irony that undermines such an assumption is that not even the balm of Gilead could possibly set things right. The fabled medicine is ineffective in the face of widespread destruction. In the official hymn of Atwood's Gilead, Jeremiah's rhetorical question is turned into an unequivocal affirmative. It resounds with propaganda which eliminates any thought-provoking ambiguity. “There is a balm in Gilead” claims that the state possesses some supreme moral value that is a remedy for the corruption of the former permissive culture.

Since both references to Gilead transform the term into an indicator of ideological meaning, it might be useful to comment on the events that take place in biblical Gilead, in order to see whether they have their ideological echo in Atwood's book. The list of fragments that allude to Gilead in different books of the Bible is quite rich. However, I will base my insights on the contexts that are particularly relevant for The Handmaid's Tale.

In Genesis, Gilead becomes a symbol of transition, as a setting for Jacob's flight from Laban. Having received God's explicit order to leave the territory of his father-in-law, Jacob takes his family, slaves and flocks; he flees the household which was the place of his toil and humiliation. He breaks loose from the bonds of his previous lifestyle but some reminders of the past are smuggled into his camp by Rachel, who steals the teraphim from her father's place. In the light of the text, these household idols seem to have functioned as the guarantee of the owner's right to his inheritance. Rachel may have wanted to protect her husband's position by an additional trick. Angered at the disappearance of his family and teraphim, Laban pursues the fugitives and catches up with them in the mountainous land of Gilead. He reproaches Jacob for the flight and then rummages through the tents in search of the idols. Rachel hides them within her dress, and thus she avoids the punishment of death which was to be dealt out to the thief on Jacob's order.

The passage across Gilead marks a turning-point in Jacob's spiritual life. After the peaceful parting with Laban, Jacob embarks on the quest for the sacred. He encounters God's Angels in the place that he calls Manahaim, that is, God's camp; he fights a stranger at Penuel, which indicates that the growing intimacy with the sacred involves a risk of death. “Outside … with Laban, his life lacked such appearances almost completely.”

The undiscovered teraphim provide a link between the two stages in Jacob's life. They represent the insidious influence of the past that crept into the household imperceptibly. Jacob jettisons all the idols on the way to Bethel, the place of divine revelation. The text suppresses the fact of whether Jacob found out about Laban's teraphim later, and connived with their presence in the camp. It can be inferred that his family and servants were secretive about the idols they had. Since the closeness to God was too dangerous to run a further risk, Jacob ordered people to give up all the teraphim which were buried under the terebinth. The camp was thus cleansed of the dubious past, and people started to rely on Jacob's God.

The Gileadite state in The Handmaid's Tale is haunted by the numerous teraphim of the past. Some members of the ruling caste, that is to say, “Jacob's sons,” are notorious hoarders of things connected with the previous epoch. When Offred is about to turn up for an assignation with her commander, she wonders “what male totems” may be behind his door in the forbidden zone. The room is a typical library containing everything that has been legislated out of existence by the leaders. “What's dangerous in the hands of the multitudes … is safe enough for those whose motives are … Beyond reproach.”

Such is the explanation of this quasi-antiquarian interest. The gifts for Offred are often the objects with the status of cultural detritus, that is, fashion magazines, old cosmetics, a garish night-club costume. All these things avoided burning, and trashy as they are, they arouse Offred's excitement because they are a link with the happy past.

The fact that the Commander is so fond of the cultural teraphim constitutes a shift of emphasis in comparison with Genesis, where it is Rachel that represents a carnivalesque choice. Jacob's reputation is untainted by her theft. In fact, Rachel's deed is set within the frame of femininity that was originally associated with Eve. Irrational and weak, Rachel fits into a typical portrait of a woman who has to look up to the patriarch for care and decision. The system of Atwood's Gilead safeguards Rachel's trespasses. The intrusiveness of the intelligence service and the female collaboration against women of a lower position are meant to prevent the outbursts of carnivalesque.

The storing of teraphim can only be possible for people of a higher position. Offred cherishes memories only; she would not be able to keep anything material in her room because of strict surveillance. The Commander's wife listens to old records when she is by herself, but this is a slight trespass in comparison with the Commander's fondness for subversive literature of the past. The sons of Jacob take care to stamp out such idiosyncrasies. If Offred's Commander is to be identified with Frederick F. Waterford as mentioned by Pieixoto, his death in the purge is the death of an idol-worshipper whose unorthodox interests must be punished. The incident described by Pieixoto proves that the leaders of Gilead can be consistent in enforcing ideological tenets. The Commander meets that fate of the thief of teraphim from Jacob's order, which was not executed in Genesis.

The obvious affinities between the reality of Atwood's Gilead and some motifs in Genesis do not expose the Bible as a source of Gileadite constraints. Jacob's story in Genesis has a primarily etiological character.

It does not hold up a model of behavior for imitation. The differences in the attitude of biblical writers can obviously be seen. While the Elohist is at pains to exonerate Jacob, the Book of Hosea is very far from such attempts. The twelfth chapter of the Book of Hosea mentions the crucial events from Jacob's life, but the author's attitude towards the protagonist is marked by reserve, if not suspicion. The chapter opens with a telling verse: “And Yahve has a contention with Israel to visit it upon Jacob according to his ways, according to his deeds he shall return it to him.”

The reason for contention is the evil latent in Jacob's nature, and passed on to his sons who yielded to its power. The chapter identifies Gilead with “might” and “delusion.” According to Dwight Roger Daniels “delusion” alludes to the idolatrous worship that displaced Yahve's cult among Jacob's descendants. Some scholars are liable to detect such inclination in Jacob, whose uxorious commitment is seen as a euphemism for sexual rites. Thus, one interpretation explains Hosea's dis-pleasure with Jacob's passion as “a sideswipe at the fertility cult.” Commenting on Israel's apostasy, the Book of Hosea alludes to the fall to Baal, known as the Baal Peor event in Gilead. It took place in the city of Shittim, where Israelite men defiled themselves by idol worship, which involved sacrilegious intercourse with Moabite women. Described in the Book of Numbers, the offense became an umbrella term for Israel's idolatrous tendencies, which persisted in spite of the prophets’ admonitions.

The motif of the fertility cult appears in The Handmaid's Tale in the guise of surrogate motherhood whose ideological, pseudo-religious aspects are strongly reminiscent of Lebensborn in Nazi Germany. The pagan fertility overtones in the book are conspicuous even in the image of handmaids’ habits: “the color of blood … defines us,” says Offered, pointing to redness as the color that is to ensure fertility and continuity of life. Some aspects of Gileadite life reflect the Baal Peor rite. Intercourse ceremonies for Commanders and handmaids can be termed ritualistic because they are sanctioned by the state, and are normally preceded by a kind of religious service.

The link between Gileadite life and fertility ritual manifests itself via the ceremony of human sacrifice called Particicution. During this particular execution, handmaids dismember a man, an alleged rapist, with their bare hands. Professor Pieixoto mentions the association with the fertility rituals of an early Earth-goddess cult. The dismembering is also a surrogate for a gratifying contact with the other's body. As Robert Detweiler claims, tortures enforce intimacy with the victim's body.

The significance of fertility rites enacted in ritualistic intercourse and Particicution can be summed up by the meaning of the Baal Peor ceremony. The event at Shittim coincided with the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land. Hence, the goal of the pagan ceremony was to ensure the fertility of the newly gained land by resorting to Baal.

When Hosea dwells on the consequences of Israel's apostasy, epitomized by Baal Peor, he pronounces God's curse on the unfaithful nation: “no birth, no pregnancy, no conception. … I shall make them childless among men.” As James L. Mays puts it: “through the end of human fertility, Ephraim will face a convincing rebuttal of their devotion to Baal.” Atwood's world seems to suffer from the curse in the Book of Hosea. In spite of the state's emphasis on procreation, polygamous families are never successful through legal intercourse. Most men from the èlite are sterile, and conception can only occur due to normally punishable liaisons. The ideology holds that only women can be barren. Handmaids who want to avoid deportation to the colonies as unwomen use their doctors. Sometimes wives arrange assignations between handmaids and young men, and then watch for the happy outcome.

In the Book of Hosea, childlessness is framed in the description of the universal annihilation. “Though he be fruitful among his brethern, an east wind shall come up from the wilderness, and his springs shall become dry, and his fountain shall be dried up.” The decreation starts with the general barrenness of nature, which signifies the withdrawal of divine Grace. Prophetic visions abound in images of decreation. “I beheld the earth and, lo, it was without form, and void.” Such is the condition of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, where sterility and general shortage of food result from the changes in an environment contaminated by nuclear fall-out, the world sliding into slow decreation.

The Book of Hosea alludes to Gilead not only in the context of fertility cult and its consequences. On one occasion the place is described as “tracked with blood” because of “evil-doers.” The incident that the author alludes to is connected with a murder committed by priests on the road to Shechem. According to James L. Mays, Shechem was a cultic center associated with the Mosaic covenant. The biblical scholar assumes that after the establishment of the state cult by Jeroboam, Shechem continued to be a threatening competitor to the official shrines at Bethel and Dan, a center of dissent against the state cultic programme. Mays implies that priests of the state cult may have gone “to the length of plotting for pilgrims to Shechem to be waylaid.” Atwood's Gilead is based on the state religion whose “priests” supervise the mechanisms of terror. Their rule perpetuates a system of gratuitous violence inflicted on potential enemies. Among the groups that become the targets of Gileadite hostility are the clergy and believers of other creeds. Catholic priests are hanged for the neglect of reproductive duties. Nuns are either deported or converted to serve as handmaids. The rite of Particicution and other legalized murders that put an end to otherness mark out Gilead's way towards perfect uniformity.

As every totalitarian régime, Gilead has its own ideology that is a corrupted version of the biblical way towards a better reality. Jacob's quest for the divine closeness is amplified in the fate of his descendants, that is, Israelite tribes walking out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. Here, Gilead surfaces as a zone of transition before the achievement of the actual goal. Chapter 32 of the Book of Numbers shows the Israelites in the moment when the time of wandering in the wilderness is over, and it is only the expanse along the river Jordan that separates the tribes from the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad are quick to notice that the land east of the Jordan is fertile and good for cattle-breeding. They approach Moses and request that they should be given the territory. First Moses interprets their words as a sign of cowardice. He tells them a spy-story about their ancestors who shunned exploring the country indicated to them by God. Having thus undermined the courage of others, they incurred God's wrath, and the whole people had to roam in the wilderness for a much longer time, as a result of the divine curse. The tribes counter the implicit charge by saying that they will join others and help them to conquer the land west of the Jordan. Before they set out, they want to build strongholds for wives, children and livestock to ensure their safety while the men are away, taking part in the battle. Moses and the elders fulfill their wish and allocate Gilead to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, warning them against the breach of divine order. The curse would catch up with them in case of defection.

The preparedness for the battle voiced by the tribes of Reuben and Gad is reflected in Atwood's dystopic reality. Gilead spreads an ideology that is geared to the idea of military conquest. The state resembles a war-camp. Its heart, that is, the Red Center and homes of the èlite, are continuously guarded by armed soldiers, protected by barbed wire and searchlights. Handmaids are guardians of biological survival, and their task is, in this sense, similar to that of soldiers. The similarity is enhanced by imagery, for example, they sleep in military cots, covered with US army blankets. Part of the indoctrination in the Red Center is presented in a crude military phrasing: “you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance into dangerous territory. The greater the risk the greater the glory” says Aunt Lydia. Her words could be called a manifesto of Gileadite ideology which entails risk and personal sacrifice. They also point to the liminal quality of the state as a temporary reality which is to prepare the fully reborn civilization.

The military imagery is counterbalanced by the images of future life, for example: “women will live in harmony together.” The slogan that should sugar renunciation is: “we are working towards the goal of a little garden for each one.” This allusion to the paradisiac image ties in with the biblical urge to return to paradise. The conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelite tribes is one of the mutations of that desire. The passage in Numbers makes it quite plain that the tribes of Reuben and Gad have to walk into the territory west of the Jordan, which turns the reality of the Promised Land into an unavoidable goal. Handmaids and other citizens of Gilead are forced to contribute to the future idyll. Otherwise, they might meet the fate of the offenders from the spy-story in Numbers. The verdict of destruction passed on individuals by the régime is the equivalent of the curse with its possible consequences in Numbers. Films about the colonies or sexual abuse are shown to handmaids to prevent their defection. They perform a similar function as Moses's allusion to the punishment for disobedience. “Consider the alternatives” might be read as Aunt Lydia's rephrasing of Moses’ threat.

The possession of land was a crucial element of the Jewish longing in the times of exile or foreign supremacy. The Messianic idea in Judaic tradition was connected with the final reconquest of the Promised Land as the consummation of history. Within this trend, the day of Yahweh was not located in another aeon but it came as the culmination of God's activity in the national history. Here the land was associated with the sense of identity as well as survival. Accordingly, the prophets mention various parts of Israelite possessions that will be restored to the nation through Yahweh's intervention. The name Gilead appears in the Book of Obadiah, when future Israelite territories are enumerated. “Benjamin shall possess Gilead.” As a fabled grazing area, Gilead was often coveted and occupied by hostile nations. Thus, the statements express people's desire to enjoy the qualities of fertile land, for example, “Let them feed in … Gilead, as in the days of old.”

In prophetic writings judgment is envisaged as a final reckoning of Yahweh with the nations, to use W. Eichrodt's phrase. The Day of Yahweh is the day of his revenge on Israel's enemies. God is seen amidst the chosen ones, and through his power the tribes crush their enemies. In this context, Gilead is sometimes mentioned as a part of the Promised Land after its restoration to the Jewish nation. Deutero-Zechariah unfolds a vision of expansion in which God brings his nation to Gilead.

Atwood's Gilead may be compared to biblical Israel in the time of her apostasy when the worship of God was displaced by a fertility cult. On the other hand, it is a caricature of the biblical Messianic state. Political and military events that cause the annihilation of the previous country with its permissive culture parody the day of Yahweh. The Congress is machine-gunned, the power seized, circumstances of history radically changed. New ideology revolves round the gains and blessings of the present time contrasted with a nightmarish past. The régime stamps out different forms of sexual harassment or abuse. Partners are supplied for the nubile girls from the èlite so that they can perform their biological destinies “in peace.” The duplicity of Gilead is unmasked via a comparison of its pseudo-Messianic achievements with Jewish Messianism in its two major versions, that is, prophetic national Messianism and apocalyptic Messianism. The former presupposed the re-establishment of the Davidic Kingdom on earth after God's intervention in history; the latter went beyond the idea of fulfillment in this world and located the new Kingdom in another aeon, which would follow the perishing of history and worldly wickedness. Both, however, emphasize God's authorship in the plan. As Gershom Scholem has it: “The redemption is not the product of immanent developments. … It is rather transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its ruin because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.” The Gileadite revolution subverts the basic meaning of the Messianic idea, where it is God's action that heals past evil and founds the new kingdom. Beliefs and actions enforced by the èlite spring from the lethal drive to change human nature by means of imposed constraints. The leaders usurp the divine position, “God is a national resource,” as one of the slogans says, stressing the manipulative function of pseudo-religion.

Atwood's Gilead is permeated with the total absence of God, which exposes its Messianic claims as deceit. The Old Testament prophets see the absence of God as an expression of his wrath. In the Book of Hosea, God withdraws himself from the people who turned to Baal with request for survival in the newly gained land. James L. Mays comments on it in the following way: “He will abdicate his place as their God and their ultimate extremity shall be silent vacant emptiness above and around them.” In The Handmaid's Tale, a spiritual vacuum is represented by the image of the printing office. The place produces sheets of conventional prayers for different occasions. The members of the èlite are supposed to order such prayers, to conform to the general rule. During one of the walks, Offred and Ofglen stop in front of the office for a subversive conversation under the guise of prayer. The noise of machinery is similar to the voice of the Congregation praying. “Do you think God listens to these machines?” Ofglen asks. Offred answers “No,” risking her life. The absurd situation proves that the sacred is completely withdrawn from life in Gilead. The dehumanized temple brings to mind the images of abuse in the Israelite temple of the Lord. The Book of Jeremiah warns people not to be taken in by the staff of the Temple who stand at its gates, repeating monotonously: “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.”

There is one more Messianic element that is completely missing in The Handmaid's Tale. The Old Testament prophets who unfold visions of Messianic times usually speak about exceptional abundance in nature as a sign of Yahweh's love and care. The community whose survival was endangered by famine, drought and pestilence is now seen as enjoying the fruit of the earth in profusion. Prophetic descriptions abound in hyperboles reflecting such fullness or even an overspilling of gifts, for example, “the mountains shall drop sweet wine. …” As I have tried to prove, analyzing the images from the Book of Hosea, the barrenness of people and the decay of nature are reflected in Atwood's Gilead. Thus, there is no external sign of divine blessing in the spurious paradise.

According to Walther Eichrodt, Jewish Messianism shows a tendency to bridge the gap between the Messianic epoch and old-time paradise. Atwood's text unmasks the sinister outcomes of human urge to make the Messianic/paradisiac ideal the actual reality. The Yahwist passage about Creation seems to have been absorbed in The Handmaid's Tale in the way that exposes the ideal garden as a fake or distortion. Reality in Atwood's book mirrors the limitations of the patriarchal mentality that generated the Yahwist myth. Alluding to the generosity of Yahweh, who creates the first woman as a suitable help for man, the author presents the feminine half of Gileadite community in the role of objects that are ready for use on the horizon of male existence and provide it with biological continuum. Women are restricted by their sexual roles of wives or handmaids. Financial dependence on men stresses their property status. Women are defined by men in the same way as Eve is defined by Adam when he gives her the name “iszsza” derived from Hebrew “isz.” Handmaids’ names, such as Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren result from a similar linguistic transaction.

Offred is actually coaxed into adopting the role of Eve, who commits the sin that results in banishment. Enticed to cross the boundary between the role of a passive partner in the copulation ceremony and the role of actual mistress in the nightclub, she commits a transgression against the sexual dictates in Gilead. The Commander ushers Offred into the forbidden zone of state secrets, which is reflected in the change of their intimate relationship. The outward sign of the change is Commander's gift for Offred, that is, the nightclub costume. She slips it on, stepping into an unequivocal role. When Serena Joy finds out about this offense, she meets Offred in the doorway as if banning her re-entry into the house, in the usual role which is no longer true. Reproving Offred, she produces the night-club costume. “The purple sequins fall, slithering down over the step like snakeskin, glittering in the sunlight.” The tempter, that is the Commander, is absent in the scene of female confrontation. Imprisoned in the ideological paradise from the start and forced to accept its deceit, Offred goes into her room after the encounter with Serena. Shut off from the rest of the world as if in the prison cell, she listens for the rustle of the police van on the gravel, like a sinner who hides herself when the steps of supreme authority start reverberating in the garden. The Cherub with a flaming sword is replaced by spies who literally drive Offred out of paradise, that is, bring her the freedom which gives rise to the story.

The book subverts the claim of Michael Edwards's essay: his opinion is that each story is told out of the inner compulsion to return to the paradisiac point of departure before reality became intolerable. Contrary to his interpretation, Atwood exposes the very paradisiac drive as lethal in its ideological consequences.

At this point, the feminist critique of the male garden is revealed as the critique of the interpretative habits of the community in general. Atwood is on the run from Eden because this biblical image seems to have been generated by the urge to control and channel experience into a meaningful pattern. The Gilead that is in people's hearts can thus be seen as a set of religious stereotypes which turn reality into nightmare. The total claim of such stereotypes and their insidious presence in the unconscious, change the idyllic garden into a masked prison. The accusation implicit in the feminist critique of male garden and in Atwood's dystopia would thus point to the rejection of the Bible as the source of a most pervasive and sinister myth.

The message of The Handmaid's Tale can be compared with the ideas in Mieke Bal's texts on women in the Book of Judges. The critic sees the Bible as an accomplice in the patriarchal strategy of marginalizing and victimizing women. Bal states that Jephthah's daughter and the Levite's concubine are sacrificed to ensure the safety of the army, in the first case, and of the individual, in the other. The expendability of women in the Book of Judges has its equivalent in The Handmaid's Tale. Gilead functions by the enforced renunciation of subject status by the female half of the community. Mieke Bal's vision of the nameless and subjectless daughter of Jephthah reminds me of the daughters in Gilead. Like victims in the Book of Judges, they are repressed by the narrative. Offred often thinks of her daughter who is probably being brought up in one of the caste families, to serve as a juvenile wife and reproductor. Her photograph in a long white dress brings to mind the scene of the wedding ceremony in Gilead. During the Prayvaganza service, girls veiled in white are given away to husbands appointed by the state. The image of silent passive girls is strongly reminiscent of the filial obedience of Jephthah's daughter. In Gilead silence means obliteration, which is true for most situations involving women. Photographs from the family albums never show handmaids who may be actual mothers of the photographed children. “From the point of view of future history … we will be invisible,” Offred concludes.

The role of the Bible in generating obliteration strategies need not be seen as unequivocal. Patriarchal interpretation does not always result from the biblical texts. It may arise from the sexist assumptions of the interpreter. Here I would like to refer to a fragment of the first epistle of Paul to Timothy. The fragment concerns the role and conduct of women in church. It is quoted in the Prayvaganza scene towards the end of The Handmaid's Tale. Gloria Neufeld Redekop sets out to prove that the traditional reading of verses I Timothy 2:8-15 by church institutions is in fact a misinterpretation. She does it by analyzing the syntactic and lexical aspects of the original. Her conclusions are particularly relevant in contemporary times because some denominations still tend to see this part of the letter as a biblical answer to the pleas for female priesthood. The comparison of Atwood's context for the letter with Redekop's analysis of relevant verses leads to interesting conclusions.

The context of I Tim. 2:8-15 in The Handmaid's Tale seems to reflect the circumstances that “skewed” the exegesis of the verses according to Redekop. The Prayvaganza ceremony is based on the paradigm of the church as the patriarchal household of God patterned after the patriarchal household in society. The verse that still causes misunderstanding in exegesis is given particular prominence. The Commander reads out the passage: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Here he looks us over. “All,” he repeats.

Since the text does not specify the object of subjection, submission of women to either husbands or male leaders in the church has been assumed. To counter the patriarchal reading, Redekop argues that what is at stake is in fact submission to the true teachers of the Gospel, as distinguished from the false ones. The Prayvaganza episode in The Handmaid's Tale illustrates the situation in which the congregation have been constrained into obedience by a false teacher acting on behalf of an ideology that has distorted the text.

Atwood's vision of the Bible-centered society addresses the patriarchal abuse embedded in the biblical texts. At the same time it sees the patriarchal abuse as prevalent in response to the text that may be void of patriarchal intention, and yet it is violated into complicity with the governing interpretation. My conclusion seems to be corroborated by the closing notes in The Handmaid's Tale. The ironic commentary of Professor Pieixoto does not really bear up the ideological roots of Gileadite violence. Its detached tone glosses over suffering and death without much compassion. According to Pieixoto the Bible is just one of the sources that the Gileadite leaders reached back to. It seems that the unpredictable aspects of the “incendiary device” remain locked up safely throughout Atwood's book. The Bible that is used to perpetuate the male garden is never allowed to subvert it. The fact that the biblical texts talk to each other and sometimes deconstruct each other is not really noticeable in The Handmaid's Tale. Consequently the struggle against interpretative closure enforces the stereotype of a monolithic text destroying its victims.

Hilde Staels (essay date September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6280

SOURCE: “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance Through Narrating,” in English Studies, Vol. 76, No. 5, September, 1995, pp. 455-67.

[In the following essay, Staels examines modes of resistance and creative self-expression in the language and poetic imagery of Offred's narrative in The Handmaid's Tale.According to Staels, “In a society that censors aesthetic speech, Offred's poetic discourse reactivates the lost potential of language and the conditions for the production of meaning.”]

In the futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood presents a dystopian vision of a world in which the American neo-conservatives and the New Christian Right or New Puritans of the 1980s have seized power in a totalitarian theocratic republic named after the biblical land of Gilead. Like the New England Puritans of the seventeenth century, the rulers of Gilead establish a theocratic state in the area surrounding the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 2000. The rulers of Gilead return to the Old Testament in a reaction against abortion, sterilization, and what they consider to be dangerous kinds of freedom of the modern welfare state.

The ideal which Gilead's ‘Sons of Jacob Think Tank’ devised is an imitation of the biblical land of Jacob and Laban, where Jacob restored hope and fertility with the help of a few Handmaids. Thus the regime uses Commanders who subject Handmaids to a monthly penetration in order to solve the problem of excessive and deliberate infertility in the past. The protagonist Offred, who is the Handmaid-slave of the Commander Fred and his infertile wife Serena Joy, is supposed to enact the biblical story of Rachel and Bilhah: ‘Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her’ (Genesis, 30).

Margaret Atwood looks at the patriarchal biblical history from the perspective of its female ‘victims'. All the women in Gilead are made to play subsidiary parts, the wives of Commanders included, as well as the elderly infertile women, the Aunts, who save their skins by collaborating and who train the Handmaids in self-suppression.

Gilead's victims can find refuge only in a secret Female Underground Road that leads from New England to Canada. Atwood here alludes to the escape route or the Underground Railroad by means of which the runaway slaves of the American South used to enter British-controlled Canada where slavery had been abolished in 1841. Historically, the underground is also a hiding place in the margin of society from which subversives attempt to disrupt the power of the regime above ground.

In my discussion of The Handmaid's Tale, I am particularly interested in recurring discursive forms, in the manner in which the first-person narrator delivers the story-material, and in the composition of the narrative text. For the investigation of the personal voice of the narrator, I use Roger Fowler's notion of ‘mind-style’. Fowler was the first to introduce the concept into literary theory at the end of the 1970s. In Linguistics and the Novel, he defines mind-style as: ‘the systems of beliefs, values and categories by reference to which a person comprehends the world'. In Linguistic Criticism, he gives the following definition:

Cumulative ideational structuring depends on regular and consistent linguistic choices which build up a continuous, pervasive, representation of the world. This is the major source of point of view in fiction [ … ] Discussing this phenomenon in literary fictions, I have called it mind-style: the world view of an author, or a narrator, or a character, constituted by the ideational structure of the text. [ … ] I shall illustrate ideational structuring involving three different types of linguistic feature: vocabulary, transitivity, and certain syntactic structures.

Mind-style is a formal feature of the narrative text that serves the author's technique of indirect characterization. The study of mind-style combines stylistics and narratology, linguistics and literary theory. Mind-style analysis involves a scrutiny of consistent linguistic choices with which the narrator puts ideas or experience into words. I shall give special consideration to lexical forms and syntactic patterns, but also to the metaphors that convey the first-person narrator's conscious and unconscious mental operations.

I shall focus on two types of discourse used by the narrative voice, the discursive law of the theocracy and the narrator's personal, aesthetic discourse with which she counters the authoritarian speech of Gilead. For the description and interpretation of these types of discourse, I rely on some concepts used by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva. In her theory of literary discourse, Kristeva distinguishes between a codified or dominant discourse and another discourse that transgresses the boundaries of dominant sign systems: ‘The poetic word, polyvalent and multi-determined, adheres to a logic exceeding that of codified discourse and fully comes into being only in the margins of recognized culture. Bakhtin was the first to study this logic, and he looked for its roots in carnival'. According to Kristeva, poetic discourse escapes the linguistic, psychic and social prohibitions of systematizing discourse. In poetic language, heterogeneity manifests itself, for instance, in non-calculable musical effects. Kristeva emphasizes that poetic discourse renovates language: it breaks through governing laws and ideologies and generates new meanings. It embodies a process between sense and non-sense, or that which does not yet signify, a rupturing of ‘normal’ communication rules or grammatical rules through rhythm. It is my contention that poetic language has a similar function in The Handmaid's Tale, as well as in Atwood's other novels.

The discussion of the narrator's mind-style is followed by an investigation of verbal forms used by the Cambridge dons in the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale, entitled ‘Historical Notes'. I am particularly interested in the historians’ ironic repetition of Gileadean discourse. I would like to demonstrate that a critical evaluation of the scholarly discourse underlies the design of the text. The mind-style of the historians is judged or evaluated by the ‘implied author'. Roger Fowler, among others, defines the implied author as follows: ‘the design of a text situates the writer, and thus his reader, in a certain location relative to his represented content—the structure of the text contributes to the definition of its author'.


In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred retrospectively witnesses her personal victimization as a Handmaid in Gilead's theocracy. The totalitarian regime forces the inhabitants to submit to the power of one (moral) law, one true religion, one language code. Gilead's Newspeak makes all other modes of thought impossible. The new regime legitimizes its own meaning system and demands an unconditional allegiance to it. Where meaning is singular and final, ambiguity of meaning and variety of experience are excluded. People are indoctrinated into so-called traditional values that are expressed in terms of universal truths, maxims or slogans. In a society that functionalizes language to the extreme, the potential polysemy of discourse is replaced by absolutely homogeneous, univocal signs.

Though modernity is judged to have been a threatening force, the rulers highly esteem the values of logocentrism and materialism that typify the capitalist spirit. Everything is coded, measured and regulated to an economic value. All human qualities are instrumentalized, and reduced to quantitative values of exchange. In other words, the new rulers equate the value of something and someone solely with validity, usefulness, functionality, economic profit.

Everything and everyone is substantified. People's identity is supposed to coalesce with the coded concepts and the predicated state by which they are defined. Handmaids are supposed to merely think of themselves ‘as seeds', as objects with a procreative function that should save the world from the threat of sterility, as ‘two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices'. The ‘deadly’ regime paradoxically aims at creating new life.

The governing discourse of the absolutist state is an artificial, so-called Biblical speech. In the theocracy, a metaphysics of truth reigns that conveys the full presence of meaning in what is said to be the Word of God. The rulers have the power over the use and abuse of language whereas lesser human beings are granted the freedom neither to see nor to speak personally, in their own name. Handmaids, who must neither see, nor be seen as individuals, are therefore freed from self-reflection and self-affirmation. Freedom from too much knowledge and from choice are said to be the privilege of the meek. Mirrors are practically absent, because freedom from self-reflection saves one from the traditional search for identity. The ideal is freedom from the constitution of an identity and from the struggle for self-definition. It is part of Gilead's double-think to disguise as privilege people's mindless, wordless condition.

Handmaids are allowed to see only the flat surfaces of the present, i.e. a wall of rules and regulations. The eyes of Handmaids are not allowed to move beyond the prescribed edges. Gilead excludes all agency functions of the colonized individuals: ‘The active, is it a tense?', Offred wonders. Whereas Offred remembers the 1980s as the time when one could freely communicate and ‘squander’ words, Gilead excludes all exchange of personal speech. In a society where social interaction is excessively mechanized and people are reduced to passive recipients of the law, the constitution of subjectivity through interaction between human beings has become obsolete.

As there is no room for a shifting of boundaries, any aesthetic, creative use of language is necessarily outlawed. A bureaucratic rationality that is completely dehumanized censors all dangerous personal, irrational and emotional elements that escape calculation. The ideal is the absolutely unified individual, whose inner life is gradually stultified and in the end totally and finally conditioned by Gilead's law. Thus Offred is supposed to be a soulless object: ‘My self is a thing [ … ] a made thing, not something born', she says. She feels she is no-body in particular, a depersonalized ‘it'. Gileadean logic mutes the flesh and numbs the blood. It mortifies the site of unconscious, ‘irrational’ feelings and desires; the site of heterogeneous elements. Offred says: ‘That is how I feel: white, flat, thin. I feel transparent’ or ‘I too am disembodied'.

The indoctrination sessions supervised by Aunts aim at excluding nostalgia for the past or a yearning for the future. Memories of the past, together with personal desires, are supposed to fade away. Whatever unconscious irrational or emotional forces may remain, in the form of aggression and frustration against the regime, they are drained off, or are guided into collective ritual events. Rituals, ceremonies or clock time dominate in the theocracy to keep the oppressed away from social disruption.

In Gilead, hands and feet are pronounced non-essential tools: ‘Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential': ‘I feel as if somebody cut off my feet', says Offred. With gloved, folded hands and encased feet, the Handmaid's body signals its dismembered condition. In the theocracy, the heart is supposed to be no more than a mechanical clock that counts time. The metaphor of cancelled hearts, hands and feet connotes uprootedness, or a soulless existence.

Ironically, the biblical land of ‘healing balm’ (Jeremiah, 8: 22), appears in the new context as a waste land, a desolate area, whose inhabitants are spiritually and emotionally deadened. It is an ‘unreal’ place that resembles an infernal circle, a labyrinth without exit, the trails are dead-ends. Natural colours are ‘a sickly yellow', white, grey, dim or fading. With nature put to sleep, the womb of the earth is a tomb, or a place where absolute stillness reigns. The lifeless heart or centre of Gilead is a metaphor for the numbed hearts or souls of its inhabitants. The air communicates the reign of violent suppression, inertia, boredom, total stagnation, infertility. In this context, the instrumentalized wombs of Handmaids mainly produce stillbirths.


Offred's place of narration is an Underground Female Road that is associated with images of ‘the dark realm within', ‘some other place', a ‘cellar', an ‘attic hiding place', an ‘obscure matrix'. Metaphorically, the underground is the space in the margin of law and order from which the creative artist ideally expresses her own voice. The dark subterranean realm from which Offred witnesses events of the past is penetrated by light. The image of light associates the tale with the imaginative activity of the mind. ‘I step up, into the darkness within: or else the light', says the retrospective narrator, who remembers the moment before she found a refuge in the ‘Underground Female Road'.

By bringing into prominence a Handmaid's personal, aesthetic discourse spoken in the margin of a fundamentalist regime, the eye-witness account is both a report of and a challenge of the meaning system established by the rulers of the theocracy. Offred's tale is the personal expression of insights that move beyond the historical facts of Gilead, beyond the frontiers of Gilead's meaning system and, finally, beyond the identity of Handmaid-slave that the colonizing power imposed on her.

From the point of view of Gilead, personal discourse is disallowed, because it is considered too dangerous. However, among the colonized individuals, the total suppression of personal desire and personal speech causes an irrepressible yearning for gratification. In the margin of society, Offred articulates her muted insights and sacrificed feelings, and she evokes absent objects and meanings. Her individual speech produces a profusion of words and desires that are not allowed. Offred crosses the boundaries of accepted meaning by giving voice to an alternative perspective and an alternative discourse that continuously cut through the rigid logocentric texture of the superstructure.

By giving expression to her inner feelings and bodily sensations from her situation on the periphery of society, Offred breaks through the discursive Law of the theocracy. Gilead censors the threatening force of creative self-expression. Yet Offred defies the strict rules of authoritative discourse by giving life to a silenced discourse. She revives the capacity for individual spiritual and emotional life. In the margin, she speaks in her own name, the name that she was supposed to forget once and for all: ‘I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried'. In Gilead, Offred used to silently repeat her hidden name (June) to maintain her existence: ‘I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me'. By recalling her former name, June regenerates her creative energy. She is the grammatical subject and narrative agent of the tale, whereas Gilead reduced her position to that of (grammatical) object and patient.

In Gilead, where Offred is forced to lead a paralysed existence, she suffers from an almost uncontrollable physical desire to take in the smell of organic life—of earth, flowers and warm wet grass—that silently breaks through the hardened surface. She desires to feel alive and become united with the buried voice or life-cycle of the earth, in defiance of the power which the regime exercises over her. The narrator-witness reconstructs the will of the protagonist to survive, to liberate herself from the trap of ‘here and now'.

The protagonist yearns spiritually and emotionally for a crossing of spatio-temporal boundaries. Offred wants to absorb the smell of objects that bring back to mind the context of the past. The connection with these memories, though it is a painful recollection, is necessary to her survival. She longs to move down, into and through the linear subdivisions on the surface of the petrified city. She desires to give expression to repressed corporeal and affective processes by opening up her hands and feel the blood flow again through the cancelled hands, feet and heart. She gives voice to a want, to a personal desire for touch and for being touched. Against the reign of economic exchange value between commercially valid objects, she posits a desire to create a contiguous, free-flowing relationship with the elements and with other human beings. Remembering what she felt while standing close to the Commander's servant Nick, she says: ‘Whether it is or not we are touching, two shapes of leather. I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, it becomes a skin'.

The loving gestures contradict the reign of folded, gloved, coldly artificial hands. Offred wishes to regenerate subjectivity and undo frozen dichotomies in the object world. She wishes to resuscitate the life of the soul or the heart. She relates spatially and semantically polarized animate and inanimate objects in both/and relationships. From her own world of desire and in her own voice, everything becomes animated: ‘Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they'd be warm and yielding. It's amazing what denial can do'.

With her outstretched bare open hands, Offred communicates with the hidden organic, biological rhythm of nature that resurrects concealed corporeal and affective processes. She revives the exchange with ex-centric space in opposition to the sheer exchange between consumer objects in the centralized regime. Adverbials ‘in', ‘into', ‘across', ‘out', ‘up’ and ‘through’ point to the crossing of limits. The desire for warmth, fluidity, light and life ruptures the reign of cold, dead abstraction and violence.

The absolutist regime wants to abolish the past. Yet Offred re-enacts the past in the present. Her memory of the past brings back to life the excluded pole in Gilead, such as the existence of love and humanity. Offred's act of retracing the lost connection with her roots in the process of life is a desire to escape from the trap of paralysis and defeatism. It is an act of survival that saves her from despair and that resurrects the missing part of herself. ‘I want to be with someone', says Offred, who desires to be ‘someone’ who calls ‘someone’ into existence where subjectivity is pronounced obsolete. By activating her silenced inner body, she asserts her will to be visible.

The singularity of Offred's speech frees words from Gilead's communicative constraints of language, from denotative speech and from the sign as merely an element of commercial transaction. The narrator's poetic discourse resists the reduction of reality to coded concepts and of individuals to reified objects. In a society that censors aesthetic speech, Offred's poetic discourse reactivates the lost potential of language and the conditions for the production of meaning. She revitalizes an otherwise extinct language and inner life, deadened by the supremacy of codes. She resists Gilead's transparent, quantifiable products of meaning by creating heterogeneity.

Traces of unconscious processes are visible in the narrator's free flow of similes. She describes the posture of the Handmaid Ofglen as follows: ‘Without a word she swivels, as if she's voice-activated, as if she's on little oiled wheels, as if she's on top of a music box. I resent this grace of hers. I resent her meek head, bowed as if into a heavy wind'. Consider also Offred's description of the dead bodies of ‘subversives’ that hang on the wall surrounding Gilead: ‘The three bodies hang there, even with the white sacks over their heads looking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in a meatshop window; like birds with their wings clipped, like flightless birds, wrecked angels'. Whereas the theocracy wants the gap between the word and its meaning to be filled, and the relationship paralysed, Offred compulsively opens up the gap by using an exuberant flow of similes.

Offred creates a contiguity between spatio-temporally and semantically discontinuous objects by an abundant use of metonymical speech and synaesthesia, as in: ‘my hands; they fill with flowers of light'; ‘Time as white sound'; ‘a thin sound like the hum of an insect; then nearing, opening out, like a flower of sound opening, into a trumpet'. Compare also: ‘Aunt Lydia pressed her hand over her mouth of a dead rodent’ and ‘[Janine's] transparent voice, her voice of raw egg white'. The rhythmic features of her mind-style appear not only in semantic, but also in phonetic associations, as in: ‘Sun comes through the fanlight, falling in colors across the floor: red and blue, purple. I step into it briefly, stretch out my hands; they fill with flowers of light'.

Offred sets against the impersonal, denotative scrabble game that she is made to play with the Commander, a personal connotative discourse that ideally unites the word and the flesh, that attempts to bridge the gap between language and feelings: ‘I feel like the word shatter'; ‘the [bullet] hole [ … ] the one flash, of darkness or pain, dull I hope, like the word thud, only the one and then silence'.

Offred connects the concrete and the abstract; remembered objects, impressions and sensations of the past (censored events) and events in the present; the visible (the ‘true’ and ‘real’) and the invisible (declared ‘unreal’ and ‘irrational’): conscious and unconscious events. She awakens a sense of things that she has never experienced before. The narrator opens tunnels inside herself that lead towards the unrecorded. As a protagonist, the danger of silently creating relations that are based on fantasy fills her with both pleasure and pain: ‘In a minute the wreath will start to color and I will begin seeing things [ … ] things at the sides of your eyes: purple animals, in the bushes beside the road, the vague outlines of men, which would disappear when you looked at them straight'.

Whereas Aunt Lydia warns the handmaids against the word Love: ‘Don't let me catch you at it. No mooning and June-ing around here, girls', June offers an alternative to the mechanized petrification by calling back to mind the power of ancient fertility (moon) goddesses. Offred remembers there once were primitive matriarchal societies that conceived of a goddess as the main element in the formation of the universe. The power of the Great Goddess, the Virgin-Mother who is renewed every month as moon-goddess, or once a year as earth-goddess, fills her with hope for renewal of life. The gift of creative life force which the Goddess offers counteracts the reduction of fertility to a functionalized procreative act. Thus Offred awakens an ancestral memory, a traditional world of culture and value. The Great Goddess is a recurring metaphor in Atwood's novels. She is the origin of life that can be reached only through death. The ancestral mother or Nature Goddess manifests herself in the novels as both a tomb and a womb. Through re-established contact with the Goddess, the protagonist retrieves the willpower to receive and to give new life.

Offred wants to make the ‘unreal,’ the ‘irrational’ and invisible happen, and make real fantasies of restored contact with the Great Goddess and creative energy. We read ‘in the obscured sky a moon does float, newly, a wishing moon, a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink’ and ‘at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire'. Above ground, the air communicates a smell that emerges from the womb of the earth, from the dark matrix that hides the power of the (moon) Goddess of fecundity. Sensations of warmth and life force (water) fill the air, because they know no boundaries: ‘It's started to rain, a drizzle, and the gravid smell of earth and grass fills the air'.

Offred, who creates an outpouring of words, the rhythm of which is a symptom of her oppressed inner life, notices how, in a similar vein, suppressed but inviolable natural space symptomatically disrupts the logocentric superstructure. From Offred's point of view, the garden of the Commander's wife Serena Joy communicates the invincible power of buried life energy. Offred says: ‘There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently’ (p. 153). She associates breaks in the social structure with symptoms of silent rebellion of the oppressed.

The narrator recurrently uses the image of an egg, an object that seems to be no more than white and granular on the outside. The egg is an image for the barren surface of Gilead and for the condition of the protagonist's outer body, both of which are ‘defined by the sunlight’ or by the logocentrism of the rulers. Yet the egg glows red from the inside. Underground, a red, hot pulsing process of life is hidden. Red is the colour of organic, free-flowing blood that reveals the existence of life energy: ‘the life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside', Offred says.

Against the prescribed mono-tone voice, the narrator creates a personal, multivocal tale: ‘this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story'. A range of feelings and responses calls into existence a vulnerable, breathing subject. The voice shifts from hatred to resentment, despair, outrage, mockery, from nostalgia for the past to compassion for fellow-victims. Sometimes, Offred gives voice to hope and belief in new life: ‘It's this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message': ‘Out there or inside my head, it's an equal darkness. Or light'. Spiritual and emotional revival resides in hope for change and belief in love and vitality that will defeat the reign of stasis: ‘hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening'. Offred moves back through layers of history, opens the wounds and retraces the loss. Pain is still possible because of memory, and memory is what the narrator tries to keep alive. The destruction of memory, which Gilead aims at, involves a numbing of the site of personal desire and creative energy.

Offred's tale moves, emotionally, as well as rhythmically, in contrast with the deathly stillness that reigns above ground. In The Handmaid's Tale, the most striking traces of what Kristeva calls the ‘semiotic’ are rhythm and sound in poetic discourse. The rhythm of the text is symptomatic of traumatic events, and of excluded experiences. The Handmaid's Tale transforms or shifts the boundaries of the conventional dystopic genre. This defamiliarization of the traditional dystopia is an effect of the narrator's inner journey that results in the subject's creation of an alternative word and world to the everyday object world. Though the personal voice and perception (mind-style) of a female protagonist are at the centre of the tale, the language spoken from within the margin is not necessarily ‘a woman's language', but the discourse of a socially marginalized individual.


On the twenty-fifth of June in the year 2195, academics organize a Symposium about the history of Gilead at the University of Denay, Nunavit. The names ‘Denay’ and ‘Nunavit’ allude to the first Canadians, the native Eskimos and Indians, victims of a politics of colonization. The Indians prefer to be called ‘Dene’ and the Eskimos ‘Inuit'. Both words mean ‘the people'. ‘Nunavut', the Northwest Territories (between Alaska and Greenland) is land claimed by the Eskimos in Canada. Yet Atwood alludes to the Canadian government which even today opposes the demands for autonomy. It also allows the territory of the Innu, who are a nomadic people, to be invaded by military exercises with airplanes that threaten animals and human beings by flying at low level (100 ft. only). The words ‘Denay’ and ‘Nunavit’ may also be Atwood's pun on ‘deny none of it', which both applies to the victimization of the native Eskimos and Indians and to the colonization of the inhabitants of Gilead.

At the Symposium, two Cambridge dons, Professor Wade and Professor Pieixoto, are proud of having discovered some thirty fragments of a tale which they have subsequently transcribed. They have entitled the anonymous narrative The Handmaid's Tale. Offred's tale turns out to be an oral account and taped narrative that was excavated after having remained buried for about a century.

A spoken text is transcribed, which implies that the tonal voice is deleted (a voice that adds meaning to discourse) and the discourse further hardened. The hardening further removes the meaning of the speaker from the meaning of her discourse. Even though in the taped text Offred insists that neither the truth nor the exact context of her experience can be retraced, let alone pinpointed, the historians attempt to reconstruct the reality about Gilead. Whereas the tale claims neither to be a factual document, nor simply a report and eye-witness account, the historians nevertheless try to figure out what really happened. The joint paper of the scientists, ‘Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale', indicates they are in search of closed interpretations. The narrator, however, repeatedly emphasizes that her tale is a reconstruction, an invention which necessarily involves the loss of the original story. At times, Offred explicitly states that she attempts to remember stories that went on inside her head while she was living above ground. The tale can never be an authentic account of lived experience or a mimetic representation of reality.

Offred asserts that the act of telling covers up the horror of reality, because lived experience is unnameable and irretrievable. Yet positivism pushes to the margins of experience what it cannot explain and control: the irrational and emotional elements that emerge from an ‘obscure matrix'. The self-satisfied Pieixoto and Wade trivialize the expressions of pain to ‘a whiff of emotion'. They exclude from their horizon of perception the act of telling as a re-articulation of reality, as an effort to give expression to inner sensations, or hope and faith in change. They aim at a reconstruction of the historical facts of a patriarchal history. They express more concern for the historical author of the tale and for the position assigned to her above ground, rather than for the unique narrating voice of ‘someone’ who speaks from within the periphery, and who draws strength from her marginalized position.

Proud of their own ‘Enlightened days', the academics announce the return to, or the continuation of, a supreme rationalism that typifies Gilead. The connection between the mind-style of the narrator and the context is utterly misunderstood by the academics in their own context. They fail to consider the narrator as generator of meaning in their search for ‘objective’ truth. By endowing the non-measurable aspects of the narrative with a sheer decorative value, the academics merely create another subjectivity in relation to the same history. By ignoring the narrator's attempt to witness to the unspeakable horror, the academics also negate the work of art as a moral instrument. June, who wants her own voice to be heard and her inner life to be visible, is muted once again. In her relationship to the future listeners, the story-teller has failed to be rehabilitated as ‘someone’ who speaks to ‘someone', for the male researchers turn a deaf ear to her personal voice. Offred fails to achieve her wished-for creative interaction between the ‘I’ who speaks and the ‘you’ who responds, as in: ‘By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you. I believe you're there. I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell therefore you are'. In the academic world, ‘June’ means nothing more than the month during which the Symposium takes place.

The mind-style with which the academics approach Offred's narrative is characterized by sheer logical reasoning. The scholars attempt to track down clues, proof, evidence that should lead to definitive knowledge about the original identity of the narrator; of the Commander (Waterford?); the place of narration; the original meaning of the tale and the whole context of Gilead. They are interested in as many measurable facts as possible. They are concerned with deciphering the tale precisely ‘in the clearer light of our own day'. This statement recalls the supremacy of ‘the defining sunlight’ or logocentrism in Gilead that fixes the position of everyone and everything. It is no accident then that the Commander Fred calls himself ‘a sort of scientist'. The academics investigate the tale so as to establish its stable meaning and to pinpoint cause and effect relationships: ‘Supposing, then, the tapes to be genuine [ … ] If we could establish an identity for the narrator [ … ] to identify the inhabitants [ … ] to trace and locate the descendants [ … ] this trail led nowhere [ … ] we pursued a second line of attack'; ‘whatever the causes, the effects were noticeable [ … ] her original name [ … ] Offred gives no clue'.

‘Many gaps remain', says Pieixoto, who would love to see the gaps between the words and lived experience filled and the narrative ended. He would like to undo the ambiguities and indeterminacies and establish an original, transparent meaning instead. He ignores the narrator who emphasizes the necessity to maintain the gaps between the words and reality, and to be well aware of the existence of unrecorded experience.

The desire of the scholars for univocal, transparent meaning ironically mirrors the authoritative word of Gilead. The logocentric, categorizing mental structures or speech types are analogous to the logocentrism that underlies the tyranny of the Gilead regime. The desire for a metaphysics of truth is equivalent to Gilead's dogmatism and its illusions of stable, given meaning. The academic scientists similarly exclude polyvalence and ambiguity in favour of essential meaning.

In the manner of Gilead, the scientists push into the margin the subject's creative individual utterances, the connotative speech of the (female) subject. They (consciously) overlook the narrator's self-expression and self-affirmation, the rhythmic pulsations, intuitions, the creative power that underlies her poetic speech. Even though the researchers compare Offred to Eurydice, the Creation-death goddess whose voice emerges from a far distance, Eurydice escapes as soon as they try to ‘grasp’ her, that is, understand and control her by looking at her from their own rational perspective. Her voice remains enigmatic and returns to the womb of the earth, where it lies buried. The personal voice is lost to those who do not wish to acknowledge its existence, or who fear to listen. They simply neglect the tale as a work of art, namely Offred's restructuring of the order of language and her re-visioning of reality. As a result, the historical listener radically fails to coincide with the implied, ideal listener.

The scholars ignore Offred's conscious effort to call the lost, loved ones back into existence. They do not try to comprehend the articulation of her inner world as a deliberate attempt at survival. Instead, they approach the text in a utilitarian way. From their perspective, more historical data and exhaustive material facts about Gilead would have made the tale a commercially interesting exchange object. Because the document does not provide the complete picture of Gilead, and has too many ‘obscure’ passages, it fails as a commodity. The restitution of the whole context and of the meaning of the theocratic model would have been more valuable than the evanescent personal utterances, the woman's expression of hidden feelings and desires that is a wasted effort in economic terms: ‘What would we not give, now, for twenty pages or so of printout from Waterford's private computer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has deigned to vouchsafe us'.

The nightmare that underlies the Symposium has to do with the negation of Offred's tale as a timeless account, for the scholars trivialize the horror of which she speaks by simply regarding it as a moment in history, rather than comprehending it as a warning against the reification of a mental construct that may return at any time in history, in any form. Furthermore, the academics marginalize the narrator's personal mind-style, especially the pain, the hope and the belief in new life, the alternative world and word. Consequently, the novel affirms the survival of darkness, though the age is said to be enlightened. Darkness survives as well in the refusal of male intellectuals, of those who establish a literary canon, to acknowledge the value of a woman's perspective on patriarchal history.

I hope to have shown that mind-style analysis throws an interesting light on the complex psychological and ideological stance of Atwood's protagonists. In addition, readers of Atwood's novels need to pay careful attention to the ironic mirroring of discursive forms, as it is a typical formal feature of her novelistic practice. In her fiction, Atwood uses this technique to critically evaluate or judge a particular perception of reality. The evaluation underlies the compositional structure of the narrative text. It is up to the reader to disclose the design of the text as the hidden signifier.

Some readers apparently fail to do so. In her review of The Handmaid's Tale, the American author Mary McCarthy attacks Atwood for her failure to create a ‘true’ dystopia: ‘the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. [ … ] This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare'.

I consider such criticism to be unjust, for the literal application of biblical texts, the anachronistic use of scriptural phrases, and other such devices that aim at making other modes of thought impossible, are functionally analogous to Orwell's Newspeak. Moreover, not only is it highly questionable that Newspeak is a necessary ingredient of the dystopic genre, but McCarthy's criticism of Atwood's novel also seems to stem from the reviewer's neglect of the context or ex-centric spatial position from which the tale is narrated. It is my contention that by ‘designing’ the text in such a manner, Atwood precisely aims at shifting the boundaries of the conventional dystopic genre.

Debrah Raschke (essay date December 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5448

SOURCE: “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: False Borders and Subtle Subversions,” in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, Vol. 6, Nos. 3-4, December, 1995, pp. 257-68.

[In the following essay, Raschke examines the function of language as a tool of oppression and the objectification of opposing strategies of deconstruction and multiple interpretation in The Handmaid's Tale.]

Don't ask for the true story;
why do you need it?

Margaret Atwood, True Stories

A disturbing futuristic tale of an ultra-right take over, where women are forced to bear children, where written and physical communication are severely circumscribed, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is, in part, a warning. Cities under siege, nuclear fallout, seepage of chemical toxins, an austere class system, political and social unrest, and the subsequent fundamentalist take over of “The Sons of Jacob Think Tanks” mirror too closely current American problems. Creating a nostalgia for pre-Gilead in which the narrator wistfully remembers the simple things of earlier times, Atwood's tale, in romanticizing the past (which resembles our present), masks the more pressing problem of Gilead as our present, not our future. But there is more to this text than de-evolution into some fundamentalist arcadia. Atwood's text is also about language and how language systems formulate how we think. The Handmaid's Tale, at least ostensibly, gives us three such systems. The first is the Gilead system, a fixed system dominated by empirical realism, rigid binary oppositions, and implacable boundaries. The second system of representation (the narrator's) threatens to disrupt Gilead's patriarchal power by a slippery poststructuralist refusal of fixity and truth. The third, the academic rhetoric of the closing “Historical Notes,” poses as an open, liberated discourse, but, in effect, in its insidious insistence on univocal representation, is a repetition of Gilead. Thus, the narrator's method of representation functions not only as a challenge to Gilead, but to the Academy as well.

Using language as a tool of oppression, Gilead imposes what Derrida identifies as a “metaphysics of presence,” which equates truth with the stable meaning of the sign. On her shopping jaunt, Offred observes that things and places “are known by their signs alone,” as if “even the names of shops were too much temptation.” So, things are shown only in pictures, as if the “sign” is an unambiguous reality. Egg signifies egg. Bee signifies honey. Cow signifies milk. It is an insidious system. “Egg” usually calls to mind something one has for breakfast. Of course, egg could signify a bird's egg, an odd intellectual, or a woman's ovum, but these are not items readily purchased at the market. Thus, the initial placard “egg” sets a precedent in which the “sign” seems to correspond unequivocally with the reality. The picture of a bee in the Gilead system means “honey.” Although a bee could signify beeswax or bee pollen, “honey” is the most likely choice. Nevertheless, a slippage has occurred here. One does not buy a bee as one buys an egg. The most specious item displayed in the Gilead market, however, is the picture of the cow, which in Gilead's system means milk. But why just milk? Why not hamburger, steak, or even leather? By the time one gets to “cow,” one has been lured into believing that the sign is the reality. The one-to-one correspondence of the sign (sign as both placard and linguistic sign) effaces alternative conceptions as deviant and wrong. Like the realist landscape paintings of the late nineteenth century whose pastoral charm masked the sordid poverty that accompanied rural life, Gilead suppresses alternative meanings. The representation, in effect, becomes the reality. It is a disingenuous empiricism, which, as Catherine Belsey maintains, insists that “words stand either for things or for experiences, and that these inhere timelessly in the phenomenal world or in the continuity of essential human nature.”

Typical of totalitarian systems whose aim is to control, the rigidity of the sign in Gilead does not stop at the simple suppression of the multiple possibilities of “cow.” The pictorial representation of the food markets (egg = egg, bee = honey, cow = milk), in effect, lays the groundwork for the univocal political and sexual rhetoric that makes the Gilead regime possible: the “Angels,” the Gilead soldiers fighting the bloody coup have one meaning—God's defenders; the “Guardians,” the Gilead police who hunt out deviants in order to hang them, signify only protection. Just as Nazi ideology and rhetoric proposed that genocide was healing a sick state ([Barbara] Eckstein), “salvaging” (hanging) means ridding society of its harmful enemies. It all works together in creating Gilead's story, which can mean only one thing—Gilead's version of the story.

Gilead's tyranny could not exist, in effect, without such rigidity. As Luce Irigaray maintains, “an ideal of truth is in fact necessary to under-lie and legitimize the metaphors, the figures used to represent the role of woman, without voice, without presence.” This rigid signification, for example, furthers Gilead's power by naming the coerced sex ceremony, not rape, but a sacred opportunity. Differing very little from our own legal system that still finds ways of defining rape as something other than rape and subsequently condoning it, the Gilead system permits forced sexual relations by calling this act another name.

Similarly, Gilead's official ban on pornography belies a still-existent pornographic behavior. Instead of breasts, Gilead sees wombs. Objectifying women as serving only one function, fragmenting the Handmaids’ whole being into wombs, and controlling their every move, Gilead enacts a kind of pornographic behavior without the pictures. This fragmentation of a woman's body (whether it be breasts or wombs) enacts what Jessica Benjamin calls the “fantasy of rational violence,” in which the main fantasy is control. Pornography, according to Benjamin, encourages a posture in which the male objectifies, instrumentalizes, and calculates his relation to the woman “in order to deny his dependency”; the sexual desire here is some idealized fantasy of the sexual relation in which the man never loses control.

Offred knows this well, for she sees little difference between her relations with the Commander and her examination by the doctor who also attempts to seduce her With a slight variation of phrasing, she says of both the Commander and the doctor at different points: “He deals with a torso only.” The doctor fumbles around inside Offred, while one sheet covers her body and a second sheet, suspended from the ceiling, falls at her neck, metaphorically decapitating her. The Commander similarly fumbles around inside Offred's torso, while his wife keeps Offred's head grasped between her knees, also metaphorically decapitating her. The two activities are almost indistinguishable. Both acts are detached, mechanical, dealing with one body part, as pornography does when the camera zooms in on one angle, or, at its worst, when it displays fragmentation or mutilation. A means of experiencing sexuality without relinquishing control, both the doctor and the Commander experience sexual titillation without any risk, producing a dynamic of domination where one person's boundaries are continually violated while the other's remain intact. As Offred knows, the sex ceremony has little to do with sexual passion, plenty to do with violation, and everything to do with control. Gilead may officially ban rape and pornography, but the behaviors associated with both thrive under the guise of another name which cannot be questioned.

Implacable class boundaries, not just a stratification of class, are also a means of sexual control. With the exception of the Econowives (who evidently do not matter because they are poor), each class, marked by symbolic dress, serves only one function: body vessels, mothers, domestic servants, and bearers of morality. Gilead, neatly dividing the mother from the whore, attempts to create in each of the classes of women a fixed identity that will elicit no surprises—no monster in the house. Boundaries cannot be crossed between classes or between functions. Laws are laws. Women are much more controllable when they live within their appropriate boxes. As Offred knows, boundaries are crucial. After having received a proposal from a doctor who offers to help her become pregnant (since the Commander might be sterile), Offred becomes decidedly anxious: “My hands are shaking. Why am I frightened? I've crossed no boundaries.”

And if the woman refuses the identity ascribed, she becomes a nonperson, a nothing. As a Handmaid, Offred's function is to reproduce; that is her definition in life. If she fails, she is “a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it, an oven … minus the bun.” She is a babymaker, procreator, womb vessel, Failing this, she is nothing in the eyes of the Gilead system, a hole in their political and sexual discourse, a Nonwoman. The Handmaids’ names, formed by a preposition and its object, mark them not only as claimed property, but as nonsubjects. Through the exclusive use of the preposition and its object, the “I” and the connecting verb in this syntactical construction become eliminated entirely. By saying “Of Fred” instead of “I am of Fred,” the subject (of the sentence) is effaced, thus diminishing the chances of a Handmaid constructing herself as an “I” (as a subject or a self). Total erasure. Metaphorically, the Handmaids, unable to tell their own stories, are “blank pages,” untold stories—women's histories, cultures, and writings that have been edited out of the dominant culture or reformulated to fit the masculine mode. Such is the fate, as well, of Offred's own tale when Professor Pieixoto takes it over in the “Historical Notes.”

The “Historical Notes,” which concludes The Handmaid's Tale, presents an academic conference, “The Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” on the now defunct Gilead. At first, this outwardly liberal gathering seems to counter the repressive rhetoric of the Gilead regime. The Symposium serves as an ostensible censure to Gilead. Defining Gilead's treatment of women as particularly draconian, it sees itself as its far more enlightened successor, having, after all, admitted women to its activities not only as listeners but also as participants. Nevertheless, this intellectual community is not as progressive as it initially seems and is a spoof on our own supposedly liberal academies. The “Historical Notes” begins by identifying the conference proceedings as a “partial transcript” and by identifying the conference: “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, June 25, 2195.” This long-winded title, which is accompanied by the listing of a panel chair and a keynote speaker, may be amusing in its mimicry of academic conferences, but its insistence on a univocal culture that erases the Other is not so amusing. This gathered academic community sees itself above politics and power plays, purports to be a sacred space where fair and liberated tolerance of difference flourishes. As Arnold Davidson notes, the Academy purports to be progressive in its attitudes toward women, but it objectifies Offred's tale, submitting it and the women who are present to demeaning sexual innuendos. As Davidson further suggests, Professor Pieixoto duplicates “the suppression” Gilead inflicted on Offred by “claiming the right to define her experience” and by making the “Arctic Chair” a mere “handmaiden” to his text. What he does not note is that the Academy, more than just “preparing the way for Gilead again,” in fact, already is Gilead in the way that it manipulates language. Even though writing is no longer forbidden, the Academy's system of representation is as repressive as the regime it condemns and its processes of seduction into the repressive system a direct mirror to the ones implemented by Gilead. It is no coincidence, I imagine, that Professor Pieixoto deems the Gilead synthesis of political strategies as “genius” and the naming of the gestapo Aunts with familiar names of cosmetic lines and frozen desserts as a “brilliant stroke.”

Just as Gilead touts freedom (Aunt Lydia's infamous speeches on the glories of “freedom from”) as one of the key privileges of its regime, the Academy, with a professed openness to diverse ways of seeing the world, seductively touts commitment to difference and to diverse cultures. Note the last names of the conference participants—Running Dog, Crescent Moon, Pieixoto, Chatterjee—a seeming triumph for cultural difference (native Indian, Asian, Indian). India, moreover, is the conference's agenda for the next day, and Professor Pieixoto's publications indicate he is also an expert on Iran. Still, if Offred's narrative teaches anything, it is to be suspicious of equating the sign with the reality. The names of these academics initially seem ethnically diverse, but look at the first names of the first three participants: “Maryann,” “James,” and “Johnny.” Have these academics merely appropriated the names of the Other in order to claim a diversity that does not really exist, to more effectively name the Other's identity and culture? This post-Gilead academic community, moreover, is just as guilty as Gilead in its renaming and in its refashioning of what passes as truth. Professor Pieixoto, in his highly ironic talk, “The Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale,” reformulates Offred's story so that it becomes his own Professor Pieixoto misses the point. He turns Offred's story into a narrative of what happened, a pursuit for linearity and certainty. Pieixoto, enacting what Lacan defines as the masculine interpretative mode, demands closure, linearity, and finality Blaming the victim, Pieixoto wishes Offred had left more details: “She could have told us much about the workings of the Gilead empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy.” He wants a different character (a detective). He wants a different story (one with a linear plot) and then proceeds to create that story. Even the title, “The Handmaid's Tale,” is not Offred's title, but Professor Wade's. Professor Wade, who appends the title onto the unnamed narrative, imposes his frame on Offred's story, thus changing not only how one thinks about the contents of the “document,” but how one judges its implications for both audience and genre.

Pieixoto's appropriation of Offred's narrative becomes even more ironic when placed within the context of the dedications to Mary Webster—an ancestor of Atwood's and an accused witch who did not properly hang (the rope slipped)—and to Perry Miller—a noted literary historian who wrote on the Puritans and other early nineteenth—century matters ([Harriet F.] Bergmann). Offred's tale is, in effect, sandwiched between a dedication that pairs an unknown woman accused of being a witch whose story has not appeared in the history books with a well-known literary historian and the “Historical Notes” in which Professor Pieixoto obliterates Offred's narrative.

Such a framing clearly calls attention to which stories are told and which are silenced. Pieixoto's appropriation, which accentuates how stories become changed to accommodate male desire, changes Offred's story (which is primarily a story about Offred) to a story about men (Nick, the Commander, other men in positions of authority). The woman's story becomes a blankness, the missing text, the story of much of women's writing and history. Just as the Handmaids’ stories are silenced in Gilead, their stories are silenced here at the Gilead Symposium, as well. The woman chairing Pieixoto's panel, objectified as the “Arctic Chair” is but a token authority (like the Gilead Aunts who further women's silencing and objectification). Objectified and silenced into passivity by Professor Pieixoto's joke, Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, by chairing a panel that erases Offred's story, also furthers women's silencing. This is particularly ironic given the name and place of the university she represents, University of Denay, Nunavit (the much-noted Deny-None-of-it); in fact, by her silence she denies all of it.

Pieixoto does admit that the “past is a great darkness,” that the voices may be misinterpreted, but such an admission belies the voice of authority that ultimately marks his talk. He points out that the names (Nick, Luke, Janine, Moira) were probably pseudonyms, that the whole narrative itself may be a farce, suggesting possible forgery for sensational purposes. He admits to trails that lead nowhere, and other indecipherable identities. He tells us that Offred's story was recorded on tapes prefaced by popular songs (sometimes the wrong ones) that were found in a heap (in no particular order) with no numberings so that he and Professor Wade had “to arrange the blocks of speech in the order in which they appeared to go.”

Yet as his narrative progresses, his analysis becomes more and more certain. He concludes (without any substantive evidence) that the names “Offred” and “Fred” were authentic, even though most of the other names were false. He accepts unequivocally the truth of the Limpkin journal, while casting aspersions on Offred's details as a “somewhat malicious invention by our author.” In speculating about Nick's motivations for engineering Offred's escape, Pieixoto attests unequivocally to Nick's being in “jeopardy” and Offred's “certain” interrogation. He continues, claiming without reservation, that Nick's motives for helping Offred lay in his desire for fatherhood. “What male of the Gilead period,” he poses,” could resist the possibility of fatherhood, so redolent of status, so highly prized?” He metamorphoses, in other words, a narrative of ambiguity into a narrative of certainty that seemingly mirrors his own desires.

Professor Pieixoto's proof, moreover, that Professor Wade's title “The Handmaid's Tale” is a double punning on the homonym “tale/tail” and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is based on the claim that Pieixoto “knows” Professor Wade “informally,” that he has some privileged claim to Professor Wade's psyche. In other words, Professor Pieixoto is “sure” that his assumption (interpretation) is true because he knows Professor Wade personally: a classic non sequitur that Professor Pieixoto turns into truth. Once again ambiguity has been suppressed for certainty: from multiple interpretations to one authentic interpretation (note the title of Professor Pieixoto's talk), from the multiple sign to the fixed sign, from the egg to the cow. Like the market signs in Gilead, which insidiously demand a fixed correspondence of the sign, Professor Pieixoto's talk, although initially conceding to multiple interpretations of Offred's tale, ends with him, point by point, solidifying his own interpretation, with his claiming authoritative certitude on a narrative extracted from unnamed and unnumbered tapes. And like the Gilead system, which insidiously moves to a one-to-one correspondence (egg equals egg is reasonable enough, but cow equals milk and Guardians equalling protection are not), Professor Pieixoto's rhetoric begins with a reasonable position (the ambiguity surrounding the tapes) and ends with an unreasonable one (certitude about the tapes). Thus, what made Gilead's oppressive regime possible—fixed meanings, a sly maneuvering into a suppression of alterity, and the objectifying and silencing of women and women's stories—are also the marks of this academic conference.

A joke on literary critics, as well as those in the social sciences who assume their data collection and objective analysis produce some finality of truth, The Handmaid's Tale is a rather scathing indictment of Academe. To assume unequivocal truth in a text such as this seems ludicrous. Yet this is what Professor Pieixoto eventually does. To purport to let the Other speak, but then insidiously impose a single interpretation that silences the Other is one of the most effective means of control.

Professor Pieixoto and Professor Wade, though, are ironically the butt of their own joke. In alluding to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, they, as storytellers (creators of history/fiction) become juxtaposed to the dubious storytellers of Chaucer's crew whose stories reflect, as much as anything, not what happened, but what they desire to happen: The Wife of Bath would like to be young and beautiful, the Pardoner would like more money, and the Franklin would like to be an aristocrat. Professor Pieixoto wants not what happened but what he desired to happen: “What male of the Gilead period,” he poses,” could resist the possibility of fatherhood, so redolent of status, so highly prized?”

If the tactics of Gilead (and by juxtaposition, Academe) are to be resisted, they must be resisted, as Offred suggests, by engaging in a countervailing system that undermines the fixity of the word. Although the “love story” that unfolds between Nick and Offred may, as Davidson suggests, counter Gilead's “dehumanization,” I see Offred's use of language as the more powerful challenge to Gilead. Far from being “essentially passive and in need of rescue by a man,” as Davidson (and many others) maintain, Offred actively subverts the Gilead system by using a slippery poststructuralist refusal of fixity and truth to defy Gilead's intractable constructions. She thereby creates a different story. Entertaining herself with thoughts that do not depend upon a linear structure, Offred ponders the meaning of the word “chair.” She muses that it can be a leader of a meeting, a mode of execution, the first syllable in the word charity, and the French word for flesh, none of which have “any connection with the others.” She shifts the meaning of the Lord's Prayer to accommodate her own needs: “My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within. I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will do as well as anything.” She tells three versions of what happened to Luke. One version portrays him as dead, another as prisoner, and a third as escaping his captors. She tells two versions of her night with Nick, neither of which she claims are “what happened.” Her narratives about Nick, Luke, and herself, like all narratives, are “reconstructions,” hence liable to slippage, which means Gilead narratives too are liable to slippage.

In redefining the word “egg,” Offred takes control of an image that demeans her. An egg for Offred first evokes a “barren landscape” and an image of herself as a barren Handmaid without a child. Yet this barren landscape, Offred muses, is also “the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion.” And the “egg,” as the food she eats in the morning, is an “intense pleasure.” It is also “perfect” like God: “I think that this is what God must look like: an egg,” she says. So, by juxtaposition, she, too, becomes, in spite of her barrenness, like God; she rewrites the story and definition, refusing to internalize the negative label. Finally, the white egg, served in a white blue-striped eggcup, whose shape looks a bit like a woman's torso alludes to Serena Joy, the Commander's wife: a fragile, white, barren egg all dressed up in blue. As Offred slices “the top off the egg with the spoon” and eats “the contents,” she is, in effect, eating her enemy. Words, pictures, stories slip—there is no one name, no one truth. A fixed representation, as Offred knows, is a fraud, a phallic fantasy, as are the laws, the boundaries, the Gilead/cultural classifications of women. As Teresa Ebert notes: Representations are “not mental or physical reflections of ‘natural’ and ‘real’ referents, but ideological constructs through which ideology misrepresents its own actuality as a signifying system that refers only to its own significations.”

For Offred, playing with such slippage is not just an alternative system of representation or a way to fill her time, but a means of subversion and a technique for survival. Her “dialogic word play” resists the “official speech” of Gilead; instead of imaging herself as a pearl as Aunt Lydia enjoins, Offred sees “oyster spit” ([Brooks J.] Bouson). Re-envisioning herself as something other than “a boat with no cargo,” a “usable body,” or a barren egg, Offred also refashions those who oppress her. Serena Joy becomes something she eats and the Commander becomes divested of his seemingly impervious power. In describing the Commander, Offred first oscillates between the austerity of inviolable law—a guard wearing a black uniform evoking gestapo-like sensibility—and a friendly powerless, guardian of museums. Her second portrait loosens his authority; he's merely a midwestern bank president whose age is beginning to show in his stooping posture. Her last portrait, depicting him as someone who might pose for a vodka ad, robs him of his authority altogether. This vision exposes him as a fake (although perhaps an attractive fake), as someone conveying an image for propaganda purposes. The effect is subversion. First, the progression of portraits, in moving from an image of control to one of fakery, divests the Commander of his power and perhaps makes the forthcoming ceremony a little less repulsive. Secondly, his authority connected with patriarchal law makes patriarchal law tenuous. If law is constituted through language (as it must be), and language is slippery, the law too must be slippery—a chimerical unity that serves well those in power. Thirdly, in presenting three portraits of the Commander, Offred undermines the notion of the autonomous and unified self that is always in control. Such a posturing suggests that underneath the veneer of any authority figure are other selves that threaten to disrupt the mask. Fourthly, Offred through her observations, treats the Commander as women are treated in Gilead. She observes his uniform, his hair, his moustache, his chin; in other words, she fragments him, observes his parts, does to him what is traditionally done to women.

Offred's way of reading and interpreting stands in direct contrast to the Gilead mode of representation, which is fixed, incontrovertible—a fantasy that masks the “alterity of signifieds” in order to maintain an image of control and power. Offred, in contrast, reads metonymically, focusing on the slippage and the gaps, thus exposing the weaknesses in the Gilead regime. The power of ideological critique lies in the ability to “seek the disjunctures and opposing relations created within a single ideology by its own contradictions” (Ebert). By engaging in this process, Offred refuses to internalize the Gilead ideology as the truth about herself (as many recent critiques have divested Freud's notion of women as lacking, narcissistic, and shameful by locating the disjunctures in his theories). I would argue further that this refusal to internalize the negative gives both Offred and Moira the courage to challenge the system.

Offred also insists on the importance of knowing what is in a name: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” But it is doubtful that the names Offred supplies are the “real names.” If this is so, if the names too are a “reconstruction,” then perhaps they serve as a palimpsest that supplies a means of resistance. “Alma” begins the list of names at the end of the first chapter, names that are lip-read in the night in defiance of the Aunts. An important key to the text, “Alma,” a rather uncommon name, recalls Spenser's Alma of The Faerie Queene, a guiding soul whose castle is designed to resemble the body and whose allegorical representation reveals the importance of keeping body and soul in harmony. The Handmaid's Tale begins in the house of the body, in the gymnasium where women are trained to see themselves only as bodies. As the first listed name within the narrator's story, the name “Alma” ironically introduces Gilead as a distorted society that fragments body and soul, which, at least in a Spenserian context, is a formula for disaster.

The other names whispered in the night also bear double meanings. “Janine,” as name and character, suggests that nothing is entirely black or white, yes or no. Janine, who can never make up her mind, possesses a name that is a combination of yes and no (phonetically) in German (Ja/nine), as well as a derivative of the mythological Janus, the two-faced god. “Dolores,” deriving from the French “douleur” meaning pain, can be read as sadness or melanchoha, but it can also be read as the English Do/lores or tell stories. “Moira,” the third Fate in classical mythology, who forecasts inevitable death, also suggests “self” through the first syllable “moi” meaning “me” in French, which aptly fits the character Moira who is the most stridently rebellious both in her character and her sexual preference.

Several things are at work here. First, the names Offred gives are not fixed; they have more than one meaning, as does Offred's name: “Of Fred,” the accepted meaning of Offred's name, suggests her status as object. There are, however, alternative meanings as Lancombe and others have noted: “Off Red” suggests her deviance from the red that defines the Handmaid's identity; “off-read” suggests the misreadings produced by the Commander and the academics of the “Historical Notes” ([Michele] Lancombe); and “offered” suggests the function of the Handmaids (and of women, in general—offered as body vessels and blank pages). Secondly, names like Dolores and Moira bear allusions to women as melancholic and as killers of men, two tenacious representations of women. These names, however, also bear the means for escaping the negative representations: tell stories, assert the self, just as “Off Red,” which, in signifying not truly red or not quite a Handmaid, provides a means for reinterpreting the other two negative terms (Of Fred and Offered). It is the story of the barren egg that becomes an image of God. Finally, the name “June,” which, by following the month of May, suggests something will follow May or May-Day. The only name not mentioned again in the body of the text, it is most likely the narrator's chosen name, which implies, even if only mildly, her survival.

The closure, however, is open, yet to be constructed, a challenge to fixed narratives that have locked female characters into old representations and old plots. The text refuses to do to the reader what Gilead does to its women—and that is turn them into passive objects. Offred's story gives the reader a subject position, allows the reader to choose an ending. It is a gesture toward fluidity, a different way of constructing a story, and thereby a reworking of how we see the world.

Thus, what Offred provides the reader is the means to challenge metaphorical Gileads. She provides a resistance to reductive images through a deconstructive method that is decidedly different from a theoretical model which, in its “hermeneutics of secrecy,” depends “upon the construct of a recoverable text that authentically represents its author.” Offred's method is, granted, a precarious venture. Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale shares with deconstruction both its theoretical advantages and its vulnerabilities. One could argue that Atwood's text ends in an odd, if not contradictory, space. How can a text both suggest that multiple meanings are propitious and also unequivocally indict the erasure of women that occurs in Offred's narrative and the “Historical Notes”? But this is precisely the position that Atwood's text takes. Offred, in contemplating one of her impending meetings with the Commander and her situation in general, posits.

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It's a reconstruction, now in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn't have said, what I should or shouldn't have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—

And she continues to say, that when she does get out, if she is ever “able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too.” It is the reality of reconstruction, moreover, that allows Offred to challenge the towering authoritative figure of the Commander, metamorphosing him into a museum guard, a greying midwestern bank president, and a powerless model for a vodka ad. It is the reality of reconstruction that allows her to resist the negative representations imposed on her.

Atwood's text also makes clear its position on Gilead's and the Gilead Symposium's erasure of women. The temptation here might be to claim that if it is all just a reconstruction, then the text's position on women is meaningless. Such binary characterization mirrors well the current plight of deconstruction, whose opponents, as Barbara Johnson maintains in her recent book, The Wake of Deconstruction, have reduced its strategies to “caricature.” As Johnson suggests, just because “more than one interpretation is possible” does not mean “everything is equally meaningless”; making “value judgments open to debate” does not mean that “value judgments cannot be made.” Johnson suggests that there seems to be a disturbing sense among some critics of deconstruction that “thinking, reading, and interpreting are only worth undertaking if we know in advance that we will come to rest in absolute, timeless, universal truth.” And coming to rest in an absolute and univocal conclusion about his version of Offred's story is precisely what Professor Pieixoto does. The Handmaid's Tale offers not just an alternative to Offred as blank vessel. It provides tactical strategies to resist a way of thinking which, in silencing alternative meanings, permits this image to be fixed and univocal in the first place. A cow does not just signify milk. As Professor Pieixoto concludes his talk, he asks, “Are there any questions?” What follows is silence.

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8716

SOURCE: “Science Fiction in the Feminine: The Handmaid's Tale,” in Margaret Atwood, St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 126-47.

[In the following essay, Howells discusses the presentation of female self-identity, memory, sensual experience, and Offred's resistance to patriarchal authority in The Handmaid's Tale.]

My room, then. There has to be some space, finally, that I claim as mine, even in this time.

The Handmaid's Tale

These words spoken by Atwood's Handmaid, deprived of her own name and citizenship and known simply by the patronymic ‘Offred', might be taken as emblematic of a woman's survival narrative told within the confines of a patriarchal system represented by the distopia known as Gilead. Restricted to private domestic spaces and relegated to the margins of a political structure which denies her existence as an individual, nevertheless Offred asserts her right to tell her story. By doing so, she reclaims her own private spaces of memory and desire and manages to rehabilitate the traditionally ‘feminine’ space assigned to women in Gilead. Atwood's narrative focuses on possibilities for constructing a form of discourse in which to accommodate women's representations of their own gendered identity while still acknowledging ‘the power of the (male ‘universal’) space in which they cannot avoid, to some extent, operating'. Like Bodily Harm, this is another eye-witness account by another ‘ignorant, peripherally involved woman', this time interpolated within the grand patriarchal narratives of the Bible and of history, just as Offred's Tale is enclosed within an elaborate structure of prefatory materials and concluding Historical Notes. However, her treasonable act of speaking out in a society where women are forbidden to read or write or to speak freely effects a significant shift from ‘history’ to ‘herstory'. Offred's Tale claims a space, a large autobiographical space, within the novel and so relegates the grand narratives to the margins as mere framework for her story which is the main focus of interest. Storytelling is this woman's only possible gesture of resistance to imprisonment in silence, just as it becomes the primary means for her psychological survival. In process of reconstructing herself as an individual, Offred becomes the most important historian of Gilead.

The Handmaid's Tale is Atwood's most popular novel, which is perhaps surprising given its bleak futuristic scenario. It has won many prizes and it has been made into a film directed by Volker Schlondorff and starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. A great deal of critical attention has been paid to it as distopian science fiction and as a novel of feminist protest. Certainly Atwood's abiding social and political concerns are evident here in her scrutiny of structures of oppression within public and private life as well as her concerns with the environment, and her nationalist engagement with Canadian-American relations. Yet the novel exceeds definitions of political correctness and has provoked much unease in its critique of second wave North American feminism. It is not exactly science fiction, ‘if by that you mean Martians, teleportation, or life on Venus. Nor is it a sort of travelogue of the future. It's the story of one woman under this regime, told in a very personal way, and part of the challenge for me was the creation of her voice and viewpoint.’ A critical reading which focuses attention on the female narrator's position, on her language, and on the structural features of her narrative might allow us to see how The Handmaid's Tale eludes classification, just as Offred's storytelling allows her to escape the prescriptive definitions of Gilead.

Nevertheless, the political dimensions of the distopian model need to be considered in order to gauge the purpose of the fiction, bearing in mind Atwood's definition of what ‘politics’ means: ‘What we mean is how people relate to a power structure and vice versa’ [in Margaret Atwood: Conversations, edited by Earl E. Ingersoll, 1992]. Set in a futuristic United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century after a military coup has wiped out the President and the Congress, Gilead is a totalitarian regime run on patriarchal lines derived from the Old Testament and seventeenth-century American Puritanism plus a strong infusion of the American New Right ideology of the 1980s. Individual freedom of choice has been outlawed and everyone has been drafted into the service of the state, classified according to prescribed roles: Commanders, Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Eyes, down to Guardians and Econowives. There is strict censorship and border control, as Offred reminds us in her recurrent nightmare memory of her failed escape to Canada with her husband and daughter, which has resulted in her being conscripted as a Gileadean Handmaid. The novel is an exposure of power politics at their most basic: ‘Who can do what to whom.’ Women are worst off because they are valued only as child-breeders in a society threatened with extinction where, because of pollution, AIDS and natural disasters, the national birthrate has fallen to a catastrophically low level. This essentialist definition of women as ‘two-legged wombs’ works entirely in the interests of a patriarchal elite, denying women any freedom of sexual choice or of lifestyle. Atwood's feminist concerns are plain here but so too are her concerns for basic human rights. Most men are oppressed in this society: there are male bodies hanging every day on the Wall, while homosexuals, Roman Catholic priests and Quakers of both sexes are regularly executed, and male sexual activity is severely restricted as well. A more comprehensive reading of the novel would suggest that it is closer to the new feminist scholarship which has moved beyond exclusively female concerns to a recognition of the complexities of social gender construction. Offred's tale challenges essentialist definitions whether patriarchal or feminist, showing how state sexual regulation not only criminalises male violence against women and suppresses women's sexuality but how it also militates against basic human desires for intimacy and love. As Offred reminds her Commander, Gilead's policies of social engineering have left out one crucial factor:

Love, I said.

Love? said the Commander. What kind of love?

Falling in love, I said.

The novel represents Atwood's version of ‘What If’ in the most powerful democracy in the world. She describes her distopian project precisely in an unpublished essay:

It's set in the near future, in a United States which is in the hands of a power-hungry elite who have used their own brand of ‘Bible-based’ religion as an excuse for the suppression of the majority of the population. It's about what happens at the intersection of several trends, all of which are with us today: the rise of right-wing fundamentalism as a political force, the decline in the Caucasian birth rate in North America and northern Europe, and the rise in infertility and birth-defect rates, due, some say, to increased chemical-pollutant and radiation levels, as well as to sexually-transmitted diseases.

As Atwood has declared repeatedly, both in interviews and in the novel itself, ‘there's nothing in it that we as a species have not done, aren't doing now, or don't have the technological capability to do', ‘there was little that was truly original or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis’ (The Handmaid's Tale). When she began thinking about the novel in the early 1980s she kept a clippings file (now in the Atwood Papers, University of Toronto Library) of items from newspapers and magazines which fed directly into her writing. These show her wide-ranging historical and humanitarian interests, where pamphlets from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace sit beside reports of atrocities in Latin America, Iran and the Philippines, together with items of information on new reproductive technologies, surrogate motherhood, and forms of institutionalised birth control from Nazi Germany to Ceausescu's Romania. It is to be noted that Gilead has a specifically American location, for Offred lives in the heartland of Gilead in a city that was formerly Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Harvard Campus (where Atwood was herself a student) has become the site for the Rachel and Leah Women's Re-education Centre, the setting for public rituals like Prayvaganzas and Particicutions, and Gilead's Secret Service headquarters. When asked why she had not set her novel in Canada, Atwood replied:

The States are more extreme in everything … Canadians don't swing much to the left or the right, they stay safely in the middle … It's also true that everyone watches the States to see what the country is doing and might be doing ten or fifteen years from now. (Conversations)

When we consider that the American ‘New Right', as it was called in the 1980s (it is now called the ‘Extreme Right', being no longer new), is one of Atwood's prime satiric targets, the location takes on a particular significance. The clippings file contains a lot of material on the New Right with its warnings about the ‘Birth Dearth', its antifeminism, its anti-homosexuality, its racism and its strong religious underpinnings in the Bible Belt. Perhaps by coincidence one of the best known New Right studies is the collection of seminar papers The New Right at Harvard, edited by Howard Phillips which includes papers on family issues, abortion and pornography. These refer to the desirability of building a coalition, ‘a small dedicated corps’ to ‘resist the Liberal democracy’ with its ‘libertarian positions', so that the militaristic rhetoric of Gilead could already be heard at Harvard three years before The Handmaid's Tale was published. It is possible to read the novel as an oblique form of Canada-US dialogue where a Canadian writer warns Americans about their possible future.

If this is a political fable with nationalist implications, then Canadians are implicated in other ways as well. The Handmaid's Tale opens out not only into the future (and there are two futuristic scenarios here, one set in America and one in Canada) but also into the space of Canadian prehistory, for ‘those nagging Puritans really are my ancestors … The mind-set of Gilead is really close to that of the seventeenth-century Puritans’ (Conversations). Atwood's interest in Puritan New England is signalled from the start in her dedication of the novel to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster was her own favourite ancestor, who was hanged as a witch in New England in 1683 but who survived her hanging and went free. Recounting this anecdote in a talk on ‘Witches’ at Harvard in 1980, Atwood commented, ‘If there's one thing I hope I've inherited from her, it's her neck … One needs a neck like that if one is determined to be a writer, especially a woman writer.’ Professor Perry Miller who was Atwood's Director of American Studies at Harvard has written two very influential books, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953). Much of the rhetoric and many of the cultural practices of Gilead are to be found in Miller's histories, such as the Founding Fathers’ references to women as ‘handmaids of the Lord’ or Cotton Mather's description of a dissenting woman as ‘an American Jezebel'. Gilead also employs many of the Puritan practices associated with childbirth, like the Birthing Stool and the provision of refreshments at a birth which were known as ‘groaning beer’ and ‘groaning cakes'. While paying tribute to Miller's scholarship, Atwood shifts the emphasis to reinvent those discordant women's voices which ran counter to patriarchal Puritan voices in a fiction which is presented as historical reconstruction of a future already inscribed in the policies of the New Right. It is at this point that Atwood's fable shimmers with the possibility of a nationalist reading, for behind the threat of totalitarianism lurks an insistent preoccupation with Canada's relations to the United States. A scenario from Canadian prehistory is used to predict the bleak possibility of an Americanised future, where the space to be claimed for a beleaguered Canadianness is delineated within a dissenting Handmaid's tale.

Not only does Atwood satirise the New Right and its Puritan inheritance, but she also takes a critical look at North American feminism since the 1960s. As a feminist with a deep distrust of ideological hardlines, she refuses to simplify the gender debate or to swallow slogans whole, for slogans always run the risk of being taken over as instruments of oppression, like the late 1970s feminist phrase ‘a women's culture’ which Gilead has appropriated for its own purposes. It is significant that Gilead is a society ‘in transition’ where all the women are survivors of the time before, and their voices represent a range of feminine and feminist positions dating back to the Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s. Offred's mother belongs to that early activist group with its campaigns for women's sexual freedom, their abortion rallies, and their ‘Take Back the Night’ marches. Thanks to the feminist movement in the United States women gained an enormously widened range of life choices when equal rights and legalised abortion were endorsed by Congress in the early 1970s, despite the opposition of Pro-Life campaigners and fundamentalist Christians. These voices are represented by the Commanders’ Wives and the terrible Aunts. Among the Handmaids (who were women of childbearing age who must have grown up in the 1980s and early 1990s) positions are equally varied, ranging from the classic female victim figure of Janine (later Ofwarren), to radical feminists like Moira the lesbian separatist, to Offred herself who highlights the paradoxes and dilemmas of contemporary feminism. Offred, aged 33 at the time she tells her story, must have been born in the early 1970s, a date which would fit with her mother's feminist activities and the film about the Nazi's mistress which she sees at the age of eight; she would have been at university with Moira in the late 1980s. Just as there are many different kinds of women, so there is no simple gender division between masculine and feminine qualities: if men are capable of violence then so are women—even the Handmaids themselves at the Particicution—and Aunt Lydia with her coyly feminine manner is probably the most sadistic character in the novel. The Handmaid's Tale may be a critique of feminism but it is a double-edged one which rejects binary oppositions, just as Offred's double vision allows her to evaluate both Gilead and her own lost late twentieth-century America: that was not entirely good, but Gilead is undoubtedly worse. Atwood insists that women have never marched under a single banner: ‘As for Woman, Capital W, we got stuck with that for centuries. Eternal woman. But really, Woman is the sum total of women. It doesn't exist apart from that, except as an abstracted idea’ (Conversations). It is Offred, the witty heterosexual woman who cares about men, about mother-daughter relationships and about her female friends, whose storytelling voice survives long after Gilead has been relegated to past history.

Offred's narrative forms the bulk of the novel, refiguring the space which she can claim as her own within a very restrictive social system. In Gilead woman's place is in the home, though for a Handmaid the home is never her own but that of her Commanders and their Wives. The Handmaid's Tale is inner-space fiction, or perhaps space-time fiction, for it deals with the continuities of memory and those persistent traces of social history which survive to undermine the authority of even the most repressive regime. Though trapped within a system where there would seem to be no room for individual freedom, Offred claims her own private space by her refusals; she refuses to forget the past, she refuses to believe in the absolute authority of Gilead, just as she refuses to give up hope:

Deliver us from evil.

Then there's Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now. But I'll try it anyway. In Hope, as they say on the gravestones …

Oh God. It's no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living?

Crucially Offred refuses to be silenced, as in unpropitious circumstances she speaks out with the voice of late twentieth-century feminist individualism resisting the cultural identity imposed on her. She manages to lay claim to a surprising number of things which the system forbids: ‘my own time', ‘my room', ‘my own territory', and even ‘my name'. She guards her lost name as the secret sign of her own identity and as guarantee of her hopes for a different future:

I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried … the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.

Incidentally, this name is one of the secrets which Offred keeps from the reader though she does trust her lover Nick with it, and at the end the name does seem to act as guarantee of a future beyond Gilead. One Canadian critic argues that Offred's real name is hidden in the text, there to be deduced from the one missing name in the whispered list of Handmaids’ names at the end of the first chapter: ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June'.

Offred's assertion about the ‘space I claim as mine’ directly addresses questions about the feminine subject's position within a rigidly patriarchal system and a woman's possible strategies of resistance. Appropriating her temporary room in the Commander's house as her own, Offred transforms it from prison cell into a point of stability from which she can escape at will into the spaces of memory and desire:

I lie, then, inside the room … and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

But the night is my time out. Where should I go?

Somewhere good.

There is a surprising amount of mobility in the narrative as Offred moves out and away into her private imaginative spaces. Her story induces a kind of double vision in the reader as well, for she is always facing both ways as she shifts between her present life and her past or sometimes looks longingly towards the future.

In the face of state repression and domestic tyranny Offred manages to tell her wittily dissident tale about private lives, not only her own story but the stories of other women as well. Appropriating their remembered turns of phrase in her telling, Offred's voice doubles and multiplies to become the voices of ‘women’ rather than the voice of a single narrator. There is the story of Moira the rebel who spectacularly defies the power of the Aunts and escapes from the rehabilitation centre, only to reappear in the brothel scene at Jezebel's where she satirises male sexual fantasies by looking totally ridiculous as a Bunny Girl with a floppy ear and a draggly tail. There is also the story of Offred's unnamed predecessor at the Commander's house, who scratched a secret message in the wardrobe before hanging herself from the light fitting in the room Offred now occupies:

Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you could tie a rope to.

Offred comes to regard that absent woman as her own dark double. She also tells the stories of older women like her mother, the old-fashioned Women's Libber, condemned by the Gileadean regime as an Unwoman and sent to the Colonies to die but who refuses to stay dead. Instead she reappears to Offred and to Moira, preserved on film at the rehabilitation centre, and haunts her daughter's memory. Through time Offred gradually learns to appreciate the heroism of her mother who in life had been such a source of embarrassment, just as she begins to understand the dimensions of her own loss: ‘I've mourned for her already. But I will do it again, and again'. By contrast, there is the story of the Commander's Wife whom Offred remembers from the time before as ‘Serena Joy’ a popular gospel television show personality but who now finds herself trapped within that New Right ideology which she had helped to promote: ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word'. Sitting in her beautiful enclosed garden in her blue gown, Serena appears to Offred like an ageing parody of the Virgin Mary, childless, arthritic and snipping vengefully at her flowers. All these women are casualties of the system though perhaps the saddest figure of all is Janine, a female victim in both her lives. Gang-raped in the time before Gilead, she becomes the Handmaid Ofwarren who produces the required baby, only to see it condemned to death as a ‘shredder'. When Offred sees Janine for the last time after the Particicution she has become a madwoman, a ‘woman in free fall’ drifting around grasping a clump of the murdered man's blood-stained blond hair. Combined with fragments of gossip overheard from the Wives and the Marthas, Offred's story presents a mosaic of alternative female worlds which undermine Gilead's patriarchal myth of women's submissiveness and silence.

Offred describes her narrative as ‘this limping and mutilated story', referring both to its structure and to the violent social conditions out of which it is told:

I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story. I'm sorry it's in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

Composed of isolated scenic units with gaps and blanks in between where ‘episodes separate themselves from the flow of time in which they're embedded’ (Conversations), the fragmented narrative also represents the mental processes of someone in Offred's isolated situation as her mind jumps between vividly realised present details and flashbacks to the past. Indeed, these are the characteristics of any story reconstructed from memory. As Offred asks herself, why does she need to tell this story? At the time, she tells it in her head in order to survive by seeing beyond the present moment where she does not wish to be and also because she needs to believe there is still someone outside Gilead who is listening to her: ‘Because I'm telling you this story, I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are'. As an ironic revision of Descartes's famous sentence in his Discourse on Method (1637), ‘I think, therefore I am', Offred's comment shifts the emphasis away from the isolated thinking subject to the speaking subject whose storytelling becomes a substitute for dialogue. In fact Offred's story is a double reconstruction, as we discover at the end when she tells it again in a second retrospective version, like a letter addressed to ‘Dear You … You can mean thousands'. It takes a long time for her letter to be delivered, though as one critic has pointed out, the cassette tapes on which her message is recorded are found in a metal foot locker ‘sealed with tape of the kind once used on packages to be sent by post’ and Offred's is one of the missed messages which finally reaches its destination. Though the male historians in Cambridge, England, get it first and rename it ‘in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer', it finally comes to us the readers when Professor Pieixoto delivers his paper to the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies. The reader's own position in time is ambiguous, for we are reading in a fictive future which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to our present society.

Offred's story is incomplete and her account of life in Gilead is overlaid by Professor Pieixoto's academic reconstruction at the end, yet it is her voice coming through the transcribed tapes which gives the narrative its interest and continuity. This is history written in the feminine gender:

I wish this story were different … I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one's life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.

Maybe it is about those things, in a sense; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way.

Offred's insistence on her preference for traditionally feminine subject matter would seem to suggest that equally traditional equation between ‘woman/nature’ as opposed to ‘man/culture’ and given the literary tradition out of which Atwood comes, we may wonder if Offred's tale is another version of Canadian women's wilderness writing. The answer of course is not simple; Offred is actually very far from the wilderness, being situated in a city and living in a house with a walled garden in a neat tree-lined street. Her husband and daughter have been lost to her in the bush of the borderland territory between Gilead and Canada, so that any wilderness that exists for her would be merely within the inner realm of imaginative possibility. Yet there is, as we have seen with Surfacing and Survival and Wilderness Tips, a distinctive linguistic system relating to wilderness experience, with its signifiers of the unexplored natural world and the quest for freedom with its accompanying emotional and physical revitalisation. It is within this territory of imagination and metaphor that Offred claims the space to write about her body, her memories and her womanly desires, and so manages to elude the confines of Gilead. Her tale is as profoundly subversive as Hélène Cixous's French feminist text of the mid 1970s, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa', with which it has much in common as a project to inscribe the complex dimensions of female being. Atwood's novel enacts in practice what Cixous's essay proposes as theory, for Offred is Cixous's woman ‘confined to the narrow room’ and ‘given a deadly brainwashing’ but who becomes the ‘I-woman, escapee’ ‘breaking out of the snare of silence’ to ‘write herself'. (The vocabulary here is entirely taken from ‘Medusa'.) Offred's situation might be read as a literal translation of Cixous's highly metaphorical text, except that Atwood is sceptical of any Utopian vision of woman's glorious liberation from the shackles of patriarchy. Offred is not a revolutionary; she refuses to join the Mayday resistance movement in Gilead and she does not want to adopt Moira's separatist feminist space, though she admires her friend's recklessness and swashbuckling heroism. Her own position is much closer to the traditionally feminine role of woman as social mediator, for though she resists the brutal imposition of male power in Gilead she also remembers the delights of heterosexual love and yearns to fall in love again. Her story is about love with a strong traditional female romance component and Offred does the very traditional thing of becoming pregnant through her lovemaking with Nick though not through state-regulated sex with the Commander. It is symptomatic of Offred's non-confrontational role that through she finally defeats the Commander's assurance of male superiority, she herself is not in a commanding position at the end (unlike the film version where she murders the Commander and escapes). Led out of his house as a prisoner and feeling guilty at having let down the household, she has no idea whether she is going to her death or towards a new life of freedom when she steps up into the Black Van. Offred never makes Cixous's ‘shattering entry into history'; on the contrary, she never finishes her story and her voice is almost drowned out by the voice of a male historian.

However, Offred's story is a ‘reconstruction’ in more senses than one, for not only is it her narrative of memory but it is also the means by which she manages to rehabilitate herself as an individual in Gilead. Though she begins her tale as a nameless woman traumatised by loss and speaking in whispers, Offred refuses to believe that she is nothing but a Handmaid, ‘a two-legged womb': ‘I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight'. She insists on chronicling her subjective life from within her own skin, offering her own personal history of physical sensations and the impact of emotion on her body, together with those imaginative transformations through which body space opens out into fantasy landscape. According to Cixous's prescription, ‘By writing herself [or in Offred's case “speaking herself”] woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display’ (‘Medusa’). This is for Offred the uncanny shape of the red-robed Handmaid. Indeed, it is from within this role that Offred finds her strength to resist, for just as Gilead is obsessed with the female body and its reproductive system so this is where Offred turns her attention, though in terms significantly different from patriarchal prescriptions and closer to feminist polemics: ‘Write yourself. Your body must be heard … This emancipation of the marvellous text of her self which she must urgently learn to speak’ (ibid.).

The language through which Offred writes her body has significant affinities with Cixous's, for the female body is the ‘dark continent’ which both claim as their own. Cixous asserts that ‘the dark continent is neither dark nor unexplorable', and Offred answers that challenge, using similar images of immense bodily territories, volcanic upheavals and the Medusa's own subversive laughter. There are, however, some interesting cultural differences, one of them being Atwood's use of wilderness imagery. On the evening of the monthly Ceremony of sexual intercourse with the Commander (a time when her body would seem least of all to be her own) Offred becomes the explorer of her own dark inner space:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumours of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about. Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will … single, solid, one with me.

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

With her minute attention to physical details, Offred chronicles her bodily awareness and her shifts of perspective under the influence of cultural doctrines which have effected a change in her imaginative conceptualisation of her self. No longer a ‘solid object, one with me', her body has become a ‘cloud’ surrounding the dark inner space of her womb, whose dimensions expand till it becomes Cixous's ‘immense astral space’ or Atwood's cosmic wilderness, ‘huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red, rather than black'. Her intense meditation offers a kind of imaginative transcendence though without Cixous's promise of erotic pleasure, for Offred knows that she is nothing more in Gilead than a breeding machine serving the state. Though it is not rape (‘Nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for’), intercourse with the Commander ‘has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me'. What Offred experiences is a sense of dissolution within her body as every month its only issue is menstrual blood: ‘To feel that empty again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time'. This is the hidden female space where time is kept by the body: ‘I tell time by the moon. Lunar, not solar', though ‘marking time’ also reminds Offred that time is running out and she will be sent to the Colonies if she does not soon produce a child. Offred's condition is one of compromised resistance, where she regrets not becoming pregnant as the system requires of her (‘Give me children, else I die’), while at the same time she resists Gilead's imposition of patriarchal control over her. In her mind her body remains unconquered territory which will be forever beyond the Commander's reach, despite the monthly Ceremony:

Intent on his inner journey, that place he is hurrying towards, which recedes as in a dream at the same speed with which he approaches it.

Offred's body is capable too of seismic upheavals in what is her most ebullient gesture of resistance to the Commander, her secret outburst of laughter after their first forbidden game of Scrabble. The game provides her with the welcome opportunity to play with words, and her image of the Scrabble counters as candies which she would like to put into her mouth makes a beautifully literal equivalent for Cixous's metaphor of women's seizing language ‘to make it hers, containing it, taking it into her mouth’ (‘Medusa’). That game and the Commander's forlorn request for her to kiss him as if she meant it is followed by Offred's paroxysm, her own Medusa laughter:

Then I hear something, inside my body. I've broken, something has cracked, that must be it. Noise is coming up, coming out, of the broken place, in my face … If I let the noise get out into the air it will be laughter, too loud, too much of it.

In order to laugh, Offred goes into the one hidden place in her room, the cupboard scrawled with her nameless predecessor's secret message, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’. As she asks later: ‘How could I have believed I was alone in here? There were always two of us’. There in the cupboard with its spectral witness to female solidarity, Offred laughs her defiance:

My ribs hurt with holding back, I shake, I heave, seismic, volcanic, I'll burst. Red all over the cupboard, mirth rhymes with birth, oh to die of laughter.

From such private inner spaces Offred's narrative of feeling opens out into the spaces of desire as her irrepressible energy impels her towards life rather than death. Though still enclosed within domestic spaces and decorums, Offred revels in the summer sunshine of the Commander's Wife's garden, a space which is of course not her own but which she appropriates imaginatively. She always refers to it as ‘our’ garden. This garden is not a wilderness, though it is a place of organic natural forces which establishes a correspondence with Offred's remembered past life: ‘I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth'. Now she turns to the garden as a welcome release from her loveless isolation:

I wish this story were different … I've tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?

One of the most lyrical passages in the novel is her celebration of the garden in full bloom, a place of fertility and sensuous delights combined with the subtly sexual suggestiveness of the bleeding hearts ‘so female in shape’ and the phallic irises so cool on their tall stalks:

There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently.

The garden provides a sublimated image of Offred's own repressed desires, but more than that it becomes suddenly and overwhelmingly the space of romantic fantasy, a ‘Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon’, where traditional images of femininity breathe through Offred's prose as the garden itself ‘breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.’ In this eroticised feminine space conjured by Offred in her state of heightened sensitivity everything signifies romance, temptation and desire:

The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers, Rendezvous it says, terraces: the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they'd be warm and yielding. It's amazing what denial can do.

In this passage Offred is aware of herself as both female and feminine, an element of ‘nature’ in her bodily responses and an element of ‘culture’ as her riot of feelings is filtered through her literary imagination. No wilderness place, this is both a real garden and a place of myth where ‘goddesses are possible', a pagan fantasy landscape metamorphosed into Offred's rhapsody of the flesh. Of course it is characteristic that she should see round her fantasy even while revelling in it, wryly recognising that such excess is at least in part a sublimation of her sexual frustrations where longing generates its own scenarios. Yet it is the very intensity of her desire which allows Offred for a moment to transcend her human limits and to enter into the life of the pulsating organic world around her:

Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I'm a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.

Offred has become that speaking subject whom Cixous describes in her ‘écriture feminine’:

I am spacious, singing flesh, on which is grafted no one knows which I, more or less human, but alive because of transformation. Write! And your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood, rising … with sonorous, perfumed ingredients, a lively combination of flying colors, leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea we feed. (‘Medusa’)

Cixous's text here runs in harmony with Offred's where images of desire deriving from the human body and the natural world constitute a ‘feminine’ alternative language which resists Gilead's polluted technological nightmare and its compromised ‘biblico-capitalist rhetoric’ (‘Medusa’).

Offred's text is truly self-seeking as she tries to win back ‘her womanly being, her goods and her pleasures’ (‘Medusa’) which have been stolen from her. Even within the restrictive circumstances of Gilead Offred yearns to fall in love again, and she does—not with the Commander whose image is irretrievably tainted with patriarchal authority—but with his chauffeur Nick. Their love story follows the pattern of traditional female romance with its strong undercurrent of sexual magnetism which leads the heroine into dangerous forbidden territory and finally results in her rescue by the hero. There are, however, significant differences from the traditional script, for falling in love flouts all the rules of sexual conduct in puritanical Gilead and Offred knows that she and Nick would be shot if they were discovered in bed together. Their love story is fraught with so many difficulties that Offred has trouble in telling it at all, yet it runs as secret subtext beneath the deprivations of her daily life as a Handmaid. Offred's response to Nick is overpoweringly sexual, for the first time his boot touches her shoe when they are sitting decorously in the Commander's Wife's sitting room, ironically enough on the first night of the monthly Ceremony, she says, ‘I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, it becomes a skin'. Though Offred moves her foot away, the sudden sensation of coming to life again under Nick's touch is the first signal of the strong physical attraction between them. We are reminded of Atwood's poem, ‘Nothing like love to put blood in the language’ as Offred attempts to tell the story of her reawakening sexuality and the burgeoning of her romantic fantasies. It is a fragmented narrative filled with obstacles and marked by brief illicit encounters where urgent desire is figured as mutual irrational hunger for the other:

I want to reach up, taste his skin. He makes me hungry. His fingers move, feeling my arm under the nightgown sleeve, as if his hand won't listen to reason. It's so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy. Luke [addressing the ghost of her lost husband] you'd know, you'd understand. It's you here, in another body.


Offred is too honest to substitute one man for another even in her fantasy; after all, that would be to repeat Gilead's own methods. (‘Each one remains unique. There is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged one for the other’) Yet there is a complex process of doubling and substitution going on here between her lost husband Luke, the Commander and Nick, in parallel to the doublings between Wives and Handmaids, or in this particular case between Offred and Serena Joy, who together set up the liaison with Nick: ‘I see the two of us, a blue shape, a red shape in the brief glass eye of the mirror as we descend. Myself, my obverse'. A similar process of doubling happens in Offred's account of her first sexual encounter with Nick, which she tells in two different versions before admitting that neither of them is true. The first version is a minimalist wordless encounter, while the second version follows the script of a tough-talking Hollywood movie of the 1950s. Yet both these fictitious versions are undermined by Offred's sudden outbursts of overpowering sexual joy (Version 1):

His mouth is on me, his hands, I can't wait and he's moving, already, love, it's been so long, I'm alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.

This vibrantly charged ‘écriture feminine’ stands in contrast to the second version, which is starker and more elemental (Version 2):

There wasn't any thunder though, I added that in. To cover up the sounds, which I am ashamed of making.

Offred's assertions, denials and revisions suggest erotically charged experience which can only be gestured towards in language but which can never be accurately written down, for love happens in the gaps between words: ‘All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate'.

Despite the difficulties, Offred tries to write her loving desire in her confessional narrative towards the end, when we realise that her relation with Nick has been going on beneath the text for quite a long time:

I went back to Nick. Time after time, on my own, without Serena knowing. It wasn't called for, there was no excuse. I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely.

Her clear-eyed account offers fascinating glimpses into a woman's sexual feelings which are occluded in love stories told from a male perspective. There is no feminine coyness here, for now it is Offred who is the reckless seeker knocking on the door of Nick's bedroom with ‘a beggar's knock', yet there is a kind of diffidence and vulnerability within her daring. She always dreads rejection and so is perpetually overwhelmed with gratitude as everything brims to excess:

We make love each time as if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more … And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.

What Offred emphasises (and the reason why she says ‘I did it for myself entirely’) is the transforming power of sexual desire, as under Nick's touch and gaze she feels released into the ‘marvellous text of herself':

He seems indifferent to most of what I have to say, alive only to the possibilities of my body, though he watches me while I'm speaking. He watches my face.

Though neither of them says the word ‘love’ Offred represents herself in very traditional terms as a woman in love, ‘daydreaming, smiling at nothing, touching my face lightly'. At the same time, she and Nick have crossed over into wilderness territory of passion and instinct as the imagery suggests, finding there a place of security where like primitive cave-dwellers they cling together in their shared private space—though Offred also knows that this is nothing more than the state of mind of two people in love:

Being here with him is safety, it's a cave, where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside. This is a delusion, of course. This room is one of the most dangerous places I could be.

Her account is written in the double-voiced discourse so characteristic of women, partaking both of ‘nature’ (as Offred according to the female biological rhythm becomes pregnant through her lovemaking with Nick) and of ‘culture’ (as she sees herself like a Canadian settler's wife, making a life for herself in the wilderness with the man she loves: ‘The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him’).

However, this is a love story which is cut short and lacks the conventional happy ending (an ending, which incidentally, Volker Schlondorff's film version provides). The romance plot is put to a crucial test when one day Nick bursts into Offred's room accompanied by a party of Eyes (secret police) to take her away in the dreaded Black Van reserved for dissidents. Is this a betrayal or a rescue? Offred does not have the faintest idea and she realises that she knows so little about Nick that ‘trust’ is, ironically, all that she is left with: ‘Trust me, he says, which in itself has never been a talisman, carries no guarantee’). Her narrative ends with Offred laying herself open to all risks and all possibilities as she departs from the Commander's house like a criminal under guard and climbs into the van:

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.

So Offred enters Cixous's moving open transitional space of becoming (‘Medusa’) at the same moment as her voice ceases. This is no Utopian ending but a radical disruption, and we never find out what becomes of her. From the discovery of her tapes there is a strong assumption that she was indeed rescued by Nick, but there is no evidence of what happened after that. (The film version seems more certain of the outcome than Atwood's narrative.) The final frame of the novel is provided by the Historical Notes which introduce several crucial shifts in perspective. They offer an interpretative view of Offred's tale which has truly been ‘given over into the hands of strangers', and it can't be helped because Offred is long since dead. Two hundred years later Gilead has become ancient history and knowledge of it is buried in the past, so that only traces of its failed social experiment remain in the form of archaeological fragments, scattered diaries and letters, among which are Offred's cassette tapes. These Notes are a transcript of a lecture given by a Cambridge Professor, Darcy Pieixoto, at an academic symposium on Gileadean Studies held in the year 2195. It is this professor who together with a colleague is responsible for the transcription and editing of the story we have just finished reading, or what he describes pedantically as the ‘soi-disant manuscript … which goes by the title of The Handmaid's Tale’. Already the voice of the male academic threatens to drown out the voice of Offred and the significance of this woman's autobiography.

Before pursuing the implications of this shift in voice, it is necessary to consider that other shift in time and place which occurs in these Notes. The novel actually rehearses two different futuristic scenarios: Offred's Gilead set in a nightmarish polluted and fundamentalist United States whose population is threatened with extinction; and there is the second one (post-Gilead) which is set in Arctic Canada (post-Canada as we know it?). This territory is clearly unpolluted, for the conference participants are invited to go on a Nature Walk, having enjoyed a dinner of fish from the sea the evening before. The conference session is chaired by a woman professor, Maryann Crescent Moon, whose name indicates that she is a Native Person (as is Professor Running Dog). The most crucial evidence for the Canadian location is the place name, for the conference is held at the University of Denay, Nunavit. The Dené are the Native People who live in northern Alberta, while ‘Nunavit’ is the name of a huge area in the eastern Arctic which will become in the last year of the twentieth century the first aboriginal self-governing territory in Canada. Of course ‘Denay, Nunavit’ is also a pun, a piece of authorial advice to the reader to believe Offred's story, no matter what interpretations or misinterpretations might be offered in the Historical Notes.

Indeed, misinterpretations are offered in what turns out to be a ferocious satiric thrust at male academic historians; sexist attitudes have not disappeared, as we gather from the professor's sexist jokes about ‘tails’ and ‘frailroads’ and in his reading of the Tale itself. He is not concerned with Offred as an individual; instead he is preoccupied with establishing the authenticity of her text and its value as objective historical evidence, while sidestepping the crucial moral issues raised by her account: ‘Our job is not to censure but to understand’ (at which, to their discredit, the assembled academics applaud). He blames Offred for not keeping a piece of the Commander's computer printout as evidence of the way the Gileadean system of government worked. His reconstruction effects a radical shift from ‘herstory’ to ‘history’ as he attempts to discredit Offred's narrative by accusing her of not paying attention to significant things. In response, the reader may feel that it is the professor who is paying attention to the wrong things, for Atwood highlights perspective rather than knowledge or truth as the main feature of any historical narrative. Pieixoto's account obliterates Offred as a person; he never tells what happened to her because he does not know and he is not interested. In fact, he does exactly what Offred feared history would do to the Handmaids: ‘From the point of view of future history, we'll be invisible'.

The abrupt shift from Offred's voice to the historian's voice challenges the reader on questions of interpretation. We have to remember that The Handmaid's Tale was Offred's transcribed speech, reassembled and edited by male historians and not by her. Really the tale is their structure, which may account for some of the disruptions in the narrative. Her tale has been appropriated by an academic who seems to forget that his reconstruction is open to questions of interpretation too. He is abusing Offred as Gilead abused her, removing her authority over her own life story and renaming it in a gesture which parallels Gilead's patriarchal suppression of a woman's identity in the Handmaid's role. No wonder the professor claims to have lost Offred, as like Eurydice's ghost ‘she slips from our grasp and flees', though he is quite wrong to accuse her of not answering him when he has refused to listen to what she has been saying. The challenge of interpretation is finally directed out to the readers, who have heard it all. Finally, I would suggest that just as Offred's story has shown up the limits of Gilead's autocratic power to control the subjective lives of at least two of its inhabitants, so it defies Pieixoto's appropriation 200 years later. This may look like a case of the ‘disappearing author', though that is a postmodern position that Atwood vigorously resists (Deny None of It) in the interests of our shared moral responsibility. By putting herself into the text, Offred has put herself ‘into the world and into history', challenging readers to connect her world with our own in the present in the hope of averting a nightmare like Gilead for our own future.

Lois Feuer (essay date Winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4801

SOURCE: “The Calculus of Love and Nightmare: The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, Feuer discusses gender, essentialism, and ambiguity in The Handmaid's Tale,noting parallels with George Orwell's 1984. According to Feuer, Atwood's ironic presentation of a totalitarian “woman's culture” reflects schisms in contemporary feminist theory.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of Atwood's contribution is to show costs at both ends of the spectrum in the essentialist debate: the “woman's culture” that Offred's mother envisioned has eventuated in the oppression she thought she was fighting in burning pornographic magazines. Atwood looks explicitly at the thesis that we are our own enemies: the fundamentalist conservatives who create Gilead by overthrowing American democracy use as a guide a CIA pamphlet on destabilizing foreign governments produced by that very democracy. In like manner, the essentialism of Offred's mother and her “woman's culture” unintentionally supports the essentialism of the fundamentalist right. As Sage puts it, “What Atwood is after here—one of the book's persistent polemical projections—is the tendency in present-day feminism towards a kind of separatist purity, a matriarchal nostalgia … [that] threatens to join forces with right-wing demands for ‘traditional values.’” Offred remembers telling Moira that “if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away.” As Greene points out, “Atwood offers a cruel refutation of separatism when she has Moira find her separatist utopia with a vengeance at ‘Jezebel's,’ unofficially-sanctioned nightclub brothel where unassimilable females, professionals and lesbians end up—‘butch paradise,’ as Moira calls it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Essays and Criticism