“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions.” –Margaret Atwood*
I have always enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s short stories and the few essays of hers that I read. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been an intention based on recommendation. My desire to read it had little to do with its popularity as a banned/challenged book. Just the same, for Banned Books Week I determined that if the Library had a copy in, I would read it.
I nibbled on it.
311 pages are little effort really and yet in and around my activities I dragged the book out. It was lovely to indulge the read that way. I recommend everyone reading that way once and a while. The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to keep turning pages, to know what was going on, what was going to happen. I just didn’t.
I also have a desire to take a small portion and apply proper Criticism, at least a focused response. Perhaps I will. There are so many perfectly rendered moments in this book. There are plenty of those deliciously provoking ideas. For here, some notes.
“If its only a story, it becomes less frightening” (144). …does it, really?
Tale: noun. 1. a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted; a lie. 2. archaic, a number or total: an exact tale of the dead bodies. –Oxford English Dictionary.
According to the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” and Dr. James Pieixoto, Tale is also an intentional pun, “particularly having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word ‘tail’; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats” (301)–yes, there was “(Laughter, applause)”—quaint.
Offred (Of*fred, as we know her to be called) is our protagonist and the first person narrator. Later in the story it becomes more and more evident that the narrative is being recorded for posterity. The “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” on 299+ is a transcript from a Symposium at a future date (2195) looking back on Offred’s narrative (the story the Reader just finished). This “recording” poses a difficulty for me (and not because they are on cassettes). The narrative is told in present tense. While I realize that even the memories are told in a present tense, the improbability that Offred could recall so clearly a present tense (as she would not have a recorder on her)—while I’m thinking here aloud: The present tense of the History, the Tale makes it not a problem occurring the in past, or future, but gives it a relevancy in the now. Clever. I wish, however, the Tale was not complicated by memory, by restructuring as Offred often calls it. But then, what History isn’t? And authenticity is a preoccupation in the Tale and “Notes”—believability, if never complete reliability.
I was irritated by the presence of “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” as it seemed irrelevant. I do not need an epilogue that essentially tells me nothing new about Offred. After reading a personal account, the academic seemed distasteful. Then, in re-viewing, I re-read this:
She could have told us much about the workings of the Gileadean empire, had she the instincts of a reporter or a spy. What would we not give, now for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has deigned to vouchsafe us (310).
The Human story was not granted much dignity, its cost is lost amidst procedures (however necessary). The machinations of women’s society are crumbs compared to that of a patriarchal empire—even as it is strongly suggested in the Tale that it is the machinations of the women who helped bring about the Gileadean empire. The “Notes” have a familiarity and sense that little has actually changed. That the future isn’t even unlike the present.
There is some linearity to the narrative. Yet the past, both near and far, are interspersed amid the chronological events in the current household. There is no obvious structuring, no careful outline to the reflections or restructuring of past events. The story has an organic sensibility to its way of telling. Just the same, it is crafted; early relations inform later occurrences, etc.
Offred is also a reluctant narrator. At times she reveals things as obliquely as they are often revealed to her. Like the reader, she would rather look away or is left to figure out what has happened, is happening, or is going to happen. The Handmaid’s Tale is a painful read. If one aspect escapes her audience, another page turn is well aimed for the gut (or lower). The Reader should be discomfited, whether male or female. Whether one finds sympathy with Offred or not, the dystopic glare is enough to find revulsion with Offred’s world.
As hopeless as Offred’s situation seems, with its probable trajectory of a terrible end, Atwood offers Hope at the very end. Depending on the Reader’s Disposition or Desperation, the Reader can imagine Offred’s outcome; not even the “Historical Notes” would rob the Reader of the narrative’s ending. The offering of Hope is a blessed relief after a long bout of depression.
Atwood’s gift with language is exquisite. Her images are lovely, even when the setting is ghastly. She can make any environment a death chamber.
The characters and their situations are persuasive—Atwood defines the unflinchingly honest we so often ascribe a successful characterization.
I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. […] I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m story 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. I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers for instance, because where would we be without them? […] I keep going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it. […] I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out (267-8).
Offred captures herself accurately; her actions support her self-perceptions; she is not a lovely victim, but she is an innocent one—as she is completely undeserving; but then, who is?
There is little compassion for Serena Joy or the Commander or the Aunts. Perspective is offered, but grace is absent. The Handmaid’s Tale paints a compelling portrait of humans trapped by their own devices—their own dogma.
“[Serena Joy’s] speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.” (45) “She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. 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” (46).
Atwood’s Wives and Commanders (those who have made the rules by which all must live by) create subversions. They find cracks with which to fill their own human desires—the desires that do not otherwise fit. The doctrine handed down may be in a language familiar to Bible-readers and Religious-realms, but there isn’t much to credit an authentic reflection of its principles. It is a tool of oppression, and a profitable one (i.e., the prayer scrolls).
No one, however, is exempt from the play for Power. The Gileadean empire is oppressive, and repressive. And while there is no question in a Commander’s ultimate power over the rest, there are still footholds to be made. And there are things that Gileadean Will cannot take away or repress. For instance, Sensuality is felt in the contemplation of a shadow, of a flower, of a brief glimpse of skin…
Atwood creates in this novel the very thing that makes her short stories so successful, no word or image is superfluous. Her word play is fun and deadly serious. Language is nothing to take so casually as we do. Atwood will dismantle a word, take it along its course, and then place it as a mantle (whether cloak or role) across a character’s shoulders.
I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part.
The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81).
So. More waiting. Lady in waiting: that’s what they used to call those stores where you could buy maternity clothes. Woman in waiting sounds more like someone in a train station. Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am blank, here, between parentheses. Between other people”(227-8).
It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.
The Book of Job (173).
Suspended amidst the hollow, the unreal, waiting, wondering why this is all happening… “I am in disgrace, which is the opposite of grace” (291).
I’ll take care of it [the cat], Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real. (193)
On a Wall, the government of Gilead hang the executed with their faces hid beneath bags and a placard with a representation (symbol or vocation) rather than a name. In the story, Characters are not given names, but titles–not merely/only to make them symbolic, but in the symbolizing de-humanize them.
“Offred” gives no clue, since, like “Ofglen” and “Ofwarren,” it was a patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. such names were taken by these women upon their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it” (305-6).
As Offred, she is a vessel to be used in the name of Fred, and is dispensable. “You have to create an it, where none was before.” While the name may be representational, individuality cannot be wholly erased. Serena Joy is both an object of her cause, a model of the Wives, but she is driven by her own individualized inner workings. So much of the conflict (if not all of it) stems from the human incapability to conform. And the added complication?—the unease of the idea that humans are all too capable of conforming…
An important conversation in this novel is the role of women, not just as the oppressed, but as the oppressor. The plays for power, for control, and for validation are sometimes (if not every time) violently depicted.
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” – Oscar Wilde
Atwood is beautiful, so incredibly complex, but in a way that is absolutely accessible. Her Handmaid’s Tale meditates on so many ideas—some more dangerous than others.
“I was once a graduate student in Victorian literature and I believe as the Victorian novelists did, that a novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination. I firmly believe this.”-Atwood*
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
First Anchor Books Edition (paperback), 1998.
Originally published in 1985.