My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.
Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America—one with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life—The Handmaid’s Tale is also a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable postmodern metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we are introduced to the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, and her feminist mother.
In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:
I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.
Her observant passivity exhibits realism about most people’s capacity for heroism and makes her an ideal guide to the new landscape Atwood wants to explore; her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, gives what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotional variation and subtlety.
Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in medias res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which Atwood carefully shows to be marked by the misogyny informing Gilead.
From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire, of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre. Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:
The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.
In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. Atwood protects this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, within the carapace of her novel’s satire. In the high tradition of the 20th-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood warns us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.
This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that surprised me. I anticipated a critique of religious patriarchy, but not Atwood’s accusations of complicity against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their censorious immolation of pornography recalls the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:
I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.
Likewise, the language of Gilead’s “aunts,” who instruct the handmaids in the theocracy’s values, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:
Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
Atwood is here not only akin to the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also to the Orwell of the essays, the inner critic of his own party, who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”
With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature, a vital feminine force, is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:
The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.
Like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, the presence of nature in the text suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology. Nature, including human nature, surges up and expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.
The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally with American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), that would take the helm of the state, control culture, and subdue the individual. Atwood specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #MeToo movement:
If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.
Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #MeToo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions. I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. The apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.
Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work, of The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel.
First, I am skeptical of its genre. I increasingly distrust dystopian fiction, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It makes everything too easy: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (for example, liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash to them) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.
For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood celebrates took some cues (as The Scarlet Letter implies). An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and would make for a deeper novel. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its particularity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.
Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! To create Gilead, by contrast, Atwood resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it looks like the Iranian Revolution with Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies.
Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. It would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”
Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:
But 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. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.
I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:
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 rumors 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.
But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.
Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewilderingly complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.
To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.