“We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives”: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Warning: Some minor spoilers about the endings of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

In the Republic of Gilead, built upon the ruins of a United States torn apart by economic, social and environmental conflict, women have been reduced to breeding machines. Offred, the protagonist of the story, is a “handmaid” – that is, a woman specifically selected for the role of producing offspring, through copulation with one of the rulers of the society, known generically as “commanders”. Sexual intercourse outside that strictly defined boundary is punishable with death or exile to the “colonies”; any form of rebellion against the established order is similarly treated. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred attempting to shape her own life – through resistance, submission or escape – in this society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic novel – belonging, I think, rather clearly to the dystopic tradition through its use of certain common elements: a future world, an oppressive order, a combination of force and ideology to maintain that order, and a protean resistance movement. Nonetheless, in certain respects it is a rather atypical dystopic novel, and I think this is evident in a vivid and striking way through the character of the protagonist and narrator, Offred. Through an analysis of her character one can also, I think, come to a better understanding of some of the main themes of the story. So, here goes:

When I think of great dystopic novels, three immediately come to mind: 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Though very different from each other in their own ways, they are similar in that the protagonist(s) in each of these stories – Winston Smith (and Julia), John the Savage and Guy Montag – are all clear, unambiguous rebels, taking on the System through a series of consciously defined acts of rebellion, acts which they are aware put their lives at risk, acts which they carry out nonetheless because they believe in resisting the System. Offred, however, is a far more ambiguous character. She is not brainwashed or willingly compliant, like many of the persons she interacts with. She has not succumbed to the ideology but neither is she willing to act against it. So, at one point, she goes as far as admitting:

Is this what I would die for? I’m a coward, I hate the thought of pain.”

And, at another point, when the she spots the summary execution of someone else on the street, her immediate reaction is: “What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.” And even when she does commit acts of rebellion, they are not motivated by ideals of resistance – simply pure physical need. Indeed, it is Offred’s friends and companions who are actively involved in the resistance movement, but Offred herself is almost completely passive – things happen to her, and she responds to them, events move her, but she never moves – or even tries to move – them. This makes Offred a less inspiring character than a Winston Smith or a Guy Montag, but I also think that it makes her a truer character, and one easier to identify with – for the truth is that most of us aren’t actually willing to put our lives on the line in order to resist power. 

(Let me put it this way: Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451 is Edward Snowden. But for one Edward Snowden, there are a million others who feel the same way, but do not act. Offred stands for – speaks for – thinks for – those million others.)

Concomitant with the ambiguity in Offred’s character is the ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel itself. Again, here, Atwood seems to depart from the canonical dystopic novels. At the end of 1984, Winston Smith is broken; at the end of Brave New World, John the Savage dies; and at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag escapes and meets others like himself. Contrast this with the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, is interesting because of its conscious insistence on leaving threads untied, loose ends as they are, in resisting the idea of a conclusion. And once again that, perhaps, makes it truer to reality.

In other respects, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solid dystopic novel, treating the themes of power, ideology and resistance with a subtle and deft touch, creating a world that is different enough to be terrifying, but not so alien that it is incomprehensible, and creating characters that are instantly recognisable. There is, for instance, that ironic breakdown of the useful-work-versus-useless-toil dichotomy:

“Sometimes I think those scarves aren’t sent to the angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the wives busy to give them a sense of purpose.”

There are sharp – and beautiful descriptions – of the sense of alienation, hopelessness and entrapment that are the lot of anyone who is disenfranchised and has lost control over the shaping of her own life:

We lived in the gaps between the stories…

“… the amount of unfilled time, the long parenthees of nothing.”

“I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor…”

I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

There is, of course, the compulsory account of the workings of ideology, in a way that the oppressed comes not only to accept her oppression, not only to endorse it, but – most horrifying of all – to identify with it (Kundera makes a similar point in The Joke when referring to defendants pleading for punishment in show trials – as does Orwell in Animal Farm):

I have once again failed to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.”

This works, as it always does, through language and images. One point that emerges clearly from the writings of Ismail Kadare on myth is that a central issue of contestation is who will have the power to define the existence and content of myth; similarly, here it is about the power to control vocabulary and image – in other words, what images come to mind when certain words are mentioned? Consider:

“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. I could use it to run, push buttons, of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits but my body was nevertheless lithe, 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. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, through black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.”

The body being envisioned as a vehicle of fertility implies that Offred’s very thinking – her conceptualisation – of herself is in the specific terms, the language of fertility – and as we know, rebellion against language is the most difficult rebellion of all. The message is clear – he who has power to define the meanings of words, and the images that are associated with them, has power simpliciter. The point is made with striking clarity in Aunt Lydia’s peroration to the (potential) handmaids, as they are being trained for their new roles:

We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

Perhaps one of the best scenes in the book is the Dionysiac episode in which the body of a condemned rapist is ripped to shreds by the assembled women bears strong resemblances not only to some of the scenes in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, but also exhibit another method of control – providing one avenue for the release of all the emotions, all the energy, all the violent hatreds that are suppressed elsewhere through force and ideology, providing one tightly controlled and defined avenue to power that somehow makes suppression at all other times acceptable, and the need to rebel less urgent (Sundays for factory workers!). Part of the greatness of this book lies, I think, in its refusal to identify one, monolithic locus of tyranny operating through particular forms of control, and one particular form of resistance. Atwood understands (in an almost Foucauldian vein) that power and control operate at all levels of society, tailored to the specific circumstances in question – and resistance takes the appropriate form itself. In this sense, the book is a more subtle exploration of the theme than, say, Brave New World (soma and genetic engineering) and Fahrenheit 451 (book burning and television), where the forms of control – and therefore, forms of resistance – are more clearly defined, and thus more… essentialistic. Once again, we come back to the point about ambiguity – at all times, The Handmaid’s Tale refuses eschews reductionism – but nor does it makes things so complex that the narrative loses force.

Lastly – Atwood is a rare writer who combines a great sense of plot and pacing with poignant and moving language. I leave you with three particularly striking passages:

“I sit in my room at the window, waiting. In my lap is a handful of crumpled stars.”

“The way we’re talking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo.” 

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”

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6 Comments

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6 responses to ““We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives”: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

  1. Brian Joseph

    I read this some years ago but it had an enormous impression on me at time. It truly is a great work. I think that you are on to something when comparing it to the dystopian classics but identifying it as more subtle. Offred is indeed a passive character compared to the others.

    Speaking of Fahrenheit 451 and lack of passivity, I see Montag in some ways diametrically opposed to the relative impotence of other Dystopian novel protagonists, especially Winston Smith , as Montag eventually incinerates his antagonist.

    • I agree – Montag is the only one of them who actually “wins”, doesn’t he? Winston Smith certainly loses. John the Savage dies. But I think the crucial thing is that both of them try to fight. In that sense, there is a redemptive quality about their failure – because their effort to resist is – at least partially – heroic. Or even if the effort is not (I’m thinking of Winston), the very fact that they made the effort has a heroic quality to is. Offred, on the other hand, never even tries. Makes her more human, more like all of us, but also less heroic.

  2. This book has one of my all-time favourite quotes. I don’t remember the exact sentence but it was something like this : “There are two types of freedom: freedom to and freedom from.”

    Pretty much summed up not only the book itself but probably about 200 pages of arguments about feminism and Indian “culture”.

  3. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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