Some books haunt the reader. Others haunt the writer. The Handmaid's Tale has done both.
The Handmaid's Tale has not been out of print since it was first published, back in 1985. It has sold millions of copies worldwide and has appeared in a bewildering number of translations and editions. It has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women's bodies and reproductive functions: "Like something out of The Handmaid's Tale" and "Here comes The Handmaid's Tale" have become familiar phrases. It has been expelled from high schools, and has inspired odd website blogs discussing its descriptions of the repression of women as if they were recipes. People – not only women – have sent me photographs of their bodies with phrases from The Handmaid's Tale tattooed on them, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" and "Are there any questions?" being the most frequent. The book has had several dramatic incarnations, a film (with screenplay by Harold Pinter and direction by Volker Schlöndorff) and an opera (by Poul Ruders) among them. Revellers dress up as Handmaids on Hallowe'en and also for protest marches – these two uses of its costumes mirroring its doubleness. Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy? Can it be both? I did not anticipate any of this when I was writing the book.
I began this book almost 30 years ago, in the spring of 1984, while living in West Berlin – still encircled, at that time, by the Berlin Wall. The book was not called The Handmaid's Tale at first – it was called Offred – but I note in my journal that its name changed on 3 January 1985, when almost 150 pages had been written.
That's about all I can note, however. In my journal there are the usual writerly whines, such as: "I am working my way back into writing after too long away – I lose my nerve, or think instead of the horrors of publication and what I will be accused of in reviews." There are entries concerning the weather; rain and thunder come in for special mentions. I chronicle the finding of puffballs, always a source of glee; dinner parties, with lists of those who attended and what was cooked; illnesses, my own and those of others; and the deaths of friends. There are books read, speeches given, trips made. There are page counts; I had a habit of writing down the pages completed as a way of urging myself on. But there are no reflections at all about the actual composition or subject matter of the book itself. Perhaps that was because I thought I knew where it was going, and felt no need to interrogate myself.
I recall that I was writing by hand, then transcribing with the aid of a typewriter, then scribbling on the typed pages, then giving these to a professional typist: personal computers were in their infancy in 1985. I see that I left Berlin in June 1984, returned to Canada, wrote through the fall, then spent four months in early 1985 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I held an MFA chair. I finished the book there; the first person to read it was a fellow writer, Valerie Martin, who was also there at that time. I recall her saying: "I think you've got something here." She herself remembers more enthusiasm.
From 12 September 1984 to June 1985 all is blank in my journal – there is nothing at all set down, not even a puffball – though by my page-count entries it seems I was writing at white-hot speed. On 10 June there is a cryptic entry: "Finished editing Handmaid's Tale last week." The page proofs had been read by 19 August. The book appeared in Canada in the fall of 1985 to baffled and sometimes anxious reviews – could it happen here? – but there is no journal commentary on these by me. On 16 November I find another writerly whine: "I feel sucked hollow." To which I added: "But functional."
The book came out in the UK in February 1986, and in the United States at the same time. In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, "Jolly good yarn". In the US, however – and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy – it was more likely to be: "How long have we got?"
Stories about the future always have a "what-if" premise, and The Handmaid's Tale has several. For instance: if you wanted to seize power in the US, abolish liberal democracy and set up a dictatorship, how would you go about it? What would be your cover story? It would not resemble any form of communism or socialism: those would be too unpopular. It might use the name of democracy as an excuse for abolishing liberal democracy: that's not out of the question, though I didn't consider it possible in 1985.
Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren't there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth. The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.
Like any theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New. Since ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services, and as it is one of the axioms of the novel that fertility in the industrialised west has come under threat, the rare and desirable would include fertile women – always on the human wish list, one way or another – and reproductive control. Who shall have babies, who shall claim and raise those babies, who shall be blamed if anything goes wrong with those babies? These are questions with which human beings have busied themselves for a long time.
There would be resistance to such a regime, and an underground, and even an underground railroad. In retrospect, and in view of 21st-century technologies available for spywork and social control, these seem a little too easy. Surely the Gilead command would have moved to eliminate the Quakers, as their 17th-century Puritan forebears had done.
I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the "Christian" tradition, itself. (I enclose "Christian" in quotation marks, since I believe that much of the church's behaviour and doctrine during its two-millennia-long existence as a social and political organisation would have been abhorrent to the person after whom it is named.)
The Handmaid's Tale has often been called a "feminist dystopia", but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom, where the unmarried men must serve in the ranks before being awarded an Econowife.
The Handmaids themselves are a pariah caste within the pyramid: treasured for what they may be able to provide – their fertility – but untouchables otherwise. To possess one is, however, a mark of high status, just as many slaves or a large retinue of servants always has been. Since the regime operates under the guise of a strict Puritanism, these women are not considered a harem, intended to provide delight as well as children. They are functional rather than decorative.
Three things that had long been of interest to me came together during the writing of the book. The first was my interest in dystopian literature, an interest that began with my adolescent reading of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley's Brave New Worldand Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and continued through my period of graduate work at Harvard in the early 1960s. (Once you've been intrigued by a literary form, you always have a secret yen to write an example of it yourself.) The second was my study of 17th and 18th-century America, again at Harvard, which was of particular interest to me since many of my own ancestors had lived in those times and in that place. The third was my fascination with dictatorships and how they function, not unusual in a person who was born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of the second world war.
Like the American revolution and the French revolution, like the three major dictatorships of the 20th century – I say "major" because there have been more, Cambodia and Romania among them – and like the New England Puritan regime before it, Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle, its ever-present shadow, sublegal opportunism, and the propensity of the powerful to indulge in behind-the-scenes sensual delights forbidden to everyone else. But such locked-door escapades must remain hidden, for the regime floats as its raison d'être the notion that it is improving the conditions of life, both physical and moral; and like all such regimes, it depends on its true believers.
I was perhaps too optimistic to end the Handmaid's story with an outright failure. Even Nineteen Eighty-Four, that darkest of literary visions, does not end with a boot stamping on a human face for ever, or with a broken Winston Smith feeling a drunken love for Big Brother, but with an essay about the regime written in the past tense and in standard English. Similarly, I allowed my Handmaid a possible escape, via Maine and Canada; and I also permitted an epilogue, from the perspective of which both the Handmaid and the world she lived in have receded into history. When asked whether The Handmaid's Tale is about to "come true", I remind myself that there are two futures in the book, and that if the first one comes true, the second one may do so also.
The Handmaid's Tale is reissued this month by the Folio Society
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.
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.
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.”