Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again"

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World (series premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, 26 April 2016)

I first read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, shortly after it was published, but I never put it on a syllabus, and although a fair number of my students chose to work with Atwood’s novel for group projects over the years, I must be honest and admit that I never reread the book myself. It was just too disturbing. (And I taught Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus every year!) It wasn’t until I started work on a project about "women's worlds" that I forced myself to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a second time.*

Photo taken at the Women's March by
Sarah Pinsker

And now, more than thirty years after its publication,  Atwood's novel is is not only only the source of a critically acclaimed and much-anticipated new TV series, it's at the top of the Amazon best-seller list (#5, as of today), and references to it are everywhere--this post is illustrated with placards and posters from the 21-22 January 2017 Women's March that drew some half a million people to Washington, D. C., that took place in 408 cities in the United States, and that saw 168 "sister" marches take place in 81 countries around the world. 

Atwood has recently written that she, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, found watching one scene in the new television version "terribly upsetting': "It was way too much like way too much history," she says.

Just what are so many people now finding not only so relevant but, like Atwood, so upsetting?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator’s first-person account of her life covers a few months, from spring to late summer. The narrator who is recounting the story that we are reading is no longer an individual with her own hopes and dreams. She offers us only one brief physical description of herself, halfway through the novel, and even then she is utterly nondescript: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes.” We cannot picture her in our mind—she can hardly picture herself. “I have trouble remembering what I used to look like,” she says. 

And our narrator has no name. She is called “Offred,” a patronymic. She belongs to Fred, she is “of” Fred, she is Fred’s. Although she remembers the name she bore before she became Fred’s property, she suppresses it: “I must forget about my secret name and all ways back.” “I too am a missing person,” she writes. Although Offred claims she will someday reclaim her name, she never does. Offred remains Offred.

Stripped of her names and identity, Offred has been reduced to her body, which is no longer her own. During a time when most women are sterile, our narrator has a viable uterus. She is a “two-legged womb,” and her body has been claimed as a critical national resource—she is a Handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to produce a child for a childless Wife. 

At her current “posting,” Offred is imprisoned in a room at the top of the stairs, a room where she sits night after night and waits to be called downstairs for the highly ritualized monthly Ceremony, when the man to whom she now belongs will try to impregnate her. Although she is the only occupant of the upstairs room, she refuses to call it a room of her own. It is “not my room,” she insists, “I refuse to say my.” 
Ben Cartwright,
for the Women's March

The totalitarian theocracy of Gilead justifies its subjection of fertile women, forcing them to conceive and bear children for the ruling Commanders and Wives, on the authority of the Old Testament, in particular Sarah’s command to Abraham that he give her a child, conceived with her slave, Hagar (“You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” Genesis 16:2) and Rachel’s command to Jacob that he give her a child, conceived with her “maid,” Bilhah (“Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her,” Genesis 30:3).

Although The Handmaid’s Tale is set against a background of war, we hear few of the specifics. The United States has become the Republic of Gilead—Offred alludes briefly to the “catastrophe” of the mid 1980s when the president was assassinated and the Congress was eliminated. This was a violent military coup, a terrorist attack perpetrated by a shadowy Christian fundamentalist group calling itself the “Sons of Jacob,” although, as Offred notes, these homegrown rebels “blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” The army declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. Newspapers were censored, and freedom of movement was restricted—roadblocks were set up and passes were required to travel. 

But no one objected: “Everyone approved . . . since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.” Although new elections were promised, they never materialized. The transition from democratic republic to militant fundamentalist theocracy was quickly and ruthlessly effected—Offred asks herself how it happened, but the answer is clear enough. Although she says everyone was “stunned” at the turn of events, there were no protests and no riots: “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” 

Offred’s own inaction reflected the larger apathy; for the next few years after the President’s Day Massacre, she and her husband followed their usual routine, getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home. They had a child together, a daughter. Although there were news stories reporting on the terrible changes underway—women “bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say”—these were stories “about other women.” “We lived, as usual by ignoring. . . . We lived in the gaps between the stories,” Offred says. 

She sees the final “catastrophe,” the sudden reordering of society along Old Testament principles, only in personal terms—she lost her job and her bank account, her marriage was dissolved, she was arrested, and her five-year-old child was “confiscated” by the state and reassigned to a new, “morally fit” couple. Three years have passed since the traumatic day she became a prisoner of war, but that war continues. The threats to Gilead are both everywhere and nowhere. “This is the heart of Gilead,” Offred tells us, “where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves.” 

About this never-ending war Offred observes, “First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once.” At one point she hears from another Handmaid that the war “is going well.” Later she catches a few brief moments of a television newscast and hears that army has captured “a pocket” of Baptist guerilla fighters in the Appalachian Mountains. Rebels also include Catholics and “the heretical sect of Quakers.” Offred craves these glimpses of the world outside her room, but she is skeptical about what she hears—“who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it.”

Photo by Greg Zimmerman
The book is divided into sections, too, which also seem to impose a recognizable chronology on the story: there are fifteen numbered parts, in which “Night” alternates with daytime activities like “Shopping” and daytime locations that seem familiar, like “Household.” In each of the “Night” sections, Offred is alone in her empty room at the top of the stairs (this pattern is broken just once when, instead of “Night,” the section is entitled “Nap”). But if we examine the titles of the alternating sections, Offred’s experiences seem less and less familiar as the novel progresses. What kind of activity is “Salvaging”? And where is “Jezebel’s”? We move from the familiar to the unfamiliar as the novel unfolds and we travel more deeply into the brave new world of Gilead.

If we hold fast to the organization suggested by this table of contents, The Handmaid’s Tale seems  to focus on the events of seven days and nights over the course of the few months spanned by the novel. But once we begin reading, we can see that the simple chronology is not so simple after all. The story jumps back and forth in time, as Offred remembers her past—these memories are of her mother, of her childhood, of her college life and friends, of her marriage, and of her daughter (whose name we never learn). 

There are also memories of the more recent past—of her “retraining” as a Handmaid, of events she has experienced in the three years since, of her previous “posting” in another household. As we read, we experience a kind of vertigo, a dizzy slipping between the present and the past, before and after. It’s not so much where we are that is confusing, it’s when we are, as we experience Offred’s stream-of-conscious narration, her mind moving constantly backward and forward as something she is experiencing triggers a memory of the past. 

Because Offred’s story is related in the first person and in the present tense, we seem to experience the events she relates along with her. We are there, with her, in her empty room during the long nights when she can’t sleep. We are with her in bed during the monthly Ceremony as she lies between the legs of the Commander’s Wife with the Commander on top of her. But as we read, we slowly become aware of the constructed nature of Offred’s story. 

We are not, after all, experiencing these events as they happen to her. What we have, instead, is an approximation, an account that may—or may not—correspond to what really happened. “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling,” Offred says. “I need to believe it. I must believe it.” Why is it so important to her? Because if it is a story, then she is its author—“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.” As she quickly notes, however, this “isn’t a story.” Then, just as quickly, it is: “It’s a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.” “But,” she adds, “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.” 

And another twist: “Even when there is no one.” At this point, reeling from the narrator’s contradictions, we encounter something new. The narrator suggests that she is writing a letter, addressed to us: “Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.” Yet the letter she addresses to us is not a letter she expects will ever be delivered: “I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.” But I can hear you, we want to shout, breaking through the words on the page to the author of those words. We can hear her—it Offred who cannot hear us.

Later Offred stops midway through one story and offers us another, saying, “I am 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.” A few pages on, she reveals that the story she is telling us “is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head . . . 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—.” 

 At this very moment, offering us a reason to hope that she has, after all, escaped, she reminds us of her narrative as fabrication: “When I get out of here, if I’m 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, at yet another remove.” A few pages later, she tells us she imagines killing the man whose Handmaid she is, imagines “the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” Then she stops. “In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind,” she says. “I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction.” She rewrites—or retells—the scene, then tells us that this revision “is a reconstruction, too.” 

In fact, the entire narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale takes on a totally unexpected aspect just when we think it’s over. Against all odds, Offred may be liberated—on the last few pages her story abruptly ends when she is escorted to a waiting vehicle. Is she being arrested or escaping? Even she does not know: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” she says. She remains curiously, frustratingly apathetic: “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.” 

Photo by David Fitzgerald

We are ultimately left with uncertainty: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” Unsettled—and maybe a bit frustrated—by this inconclusive conclusion, we turn to the “Historical Notes” that follow. We expect these notes will include Atwood’s comments about her novel or that they are reflections appended by an editor—but the “historical” notes at the end of Atwood’s novel are something altogether different.

What follows Offred’s unfinished story is a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” dated to June 2195. The transcript records the speech of a keynote address by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto—in which we discover that we have not read an unmediated account of Offred’s experiences as a Handmaid. Rather, the account we have just read, which we thought was the work of Offred, is another reconstruction. 

“Her” story has not just been transmitted through male hands, it is the recreation of two male scholars—it has been transcribed, edited, annotated, and published by Pieixoto and his Cambridge colleague, Professor Knotly Wade, who is responsible for the naming of Offred’s story. He has titled it The Handmaid’s Tale, “in homage,” we learn, “to the great Geoffrey Chaucer.” 

What is the effect of this narrative frame on Offred’s account of the horrors of life in Gilead? It not only distances us from her story, it undermines our faith in it—if it is just like one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is fiction and the “person” who created it is also a fiction, a female character created by a male author. And somehow we are, today, reading a transcript of a speech to be delivered more than two hundred years in the future.

The character of Offred and the truthfulness of her story are further reduced in this narrative frame by the overt misogyny of Pieixoto, who jokes about the pun in Wade’s title (“I am sure all puns were intentional, 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 in that phrase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. [Laughter, applause.]),” who undercuts the credibility of the tale’s supposed author (“This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author”), who refers patronizingly to the story itself (“This item—I hesitate to use the word document. . . .”), and who discounts the extent of her suffering with “humor” (“our author refers to . . . ‘The Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ [Laughter, groans.])” Pieixioto ends his address on The Handmaid’s Tale by asking members of the audience, “Are there any questions?” We have questions, lots of them, but we have no opportunity to ask them. Like Offred, we find ourselves silenced. And because we cannot ask questions, we receive no answers.

While Offred has been liberated from her imprisonment as a Handmaid, she is still held captive. In The Handmaid’s Tale, her story is controlled by men—transcribed, edited, disseminated, and interpreted by male scholars. We don’t know what her fate was when she was taken away from the Commander’s home—but two hundred years later, in 2195, we know she has not escaped from male control. She is as much a prisoner of male power and “authority” as she was when she was in her small, empty room at the top of the stairs. 

In her recent op-ed on "What The Handmaid's Tale Means in the Age of Trump," Atwood writes that she is frequently asked whether The Handmaid's Tale  was written as "a prediction."  "That is . . . [a] question I’m asked — increasingly," she says, "as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."

Let's hope Atwood is right:
In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.