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On The Handmaid's Tale.


J. Brooks Bouson An internationally acclaimed writer and literary celebrity, Canadian author Margaret Atwood is perhaps best known for her 1985 futuristic dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, which envisions what life might be like in the United States if the ultraconservative Religious Right were to seize control of the government and establish a totalitarian society based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. An award-winning and best-selling novel. The Handmaid's Tale has reached a wide intemational audience in the years since its publication; indeed, it has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Firmish, Norwegian, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Slovenian, Croatian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, among others. Not only has it become a staple in literature and women's studies courses in colleges and universities, but it also has been the subject of bookclub discussions and various study guides as well as countless critical investigations as readers, students, teachers, and scholars have grappled with the plight of Atwood's Handmaid, Offred, who serves as a breeder in the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist theocracy formed in the United States after the violent overthrow ofthe govemment. Vintage Atwood and a virtuoso performance. The Handmaid's Tale has been canonized as a feminist classic for its trenchant critique ofthe power politics of gender relations and its dire warnings against the antifeminist backlash that began in the conservative 1980s. Just as Atwood, in the years since the publication of The Handmaid's Tale, has come to be regarded as a revered Canadian writer who "touches on 'global' concems that transcend national borders" in her works, so The Handmaid's Tale has come to be read not only as a global feminist fable for the twenty-first century but also as a "political fable for our time, as if the present is rushing in to confirm Atwood's dire wamings about birth technologies, environmental pollution, human rights
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abuses, religious fanaticism, [and] extreme right-wing political movements" (Moss 28, Howells 94). The Handmaid's Tale is a work that continues to compel and disquiet women readers who find chilling evidence in the contemporary twenty-first century world that the future depicted in Atwood's cautionary fable "is a too logical extension of many dimensions of the present" and that Atwood's novelistie "account ofthe creation of a fascist and totalitarian state" could, with some minor changes in detail, provide "a plausible future scenario for readers in Asian, African and Middle Eastem nations" (Staines 21, Jacob 31). Yet while Atwood has been lauded as a prophetic writer for her feminist dystopia, when she first started thinking about the novel, as she recalls, she avoided writing it because it "seemed too hopeless a task and too weird a concept" ("Introduction" 3). When, in 1984, she finally began writing the novel in West Berlin on a rented electric typewriter, the "irony" of the year was "not lost" on her: "How could I be so corny as to start a dystopia in the year scheduled for George Orwell's? But the thing could no longer be avoided: it was that novel or none" ("Introduction" 4). Although she wrote The Handmaid's Tale "with some trepidation," fearing it might be viewed as "stupid" or "silly" and end up being the "worst failure" one could "possibly imagine" (Hancock 114), she persisted working on it and finished writing it in the spring of 1985. Published in 1985 in Canada and England and in 1986 in the United States, The Handmaid's Tale was also made into a film; the film version ofthe novel, which was scripted by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schloendorff, premiered in the two Berlins in early 1990, soon after the Wall fell late in 1989. If Atwood feared when she was writing the novel that others might find the work "silly," she instead has ended up being taken very seriously indeed, not only by women readers but also by members of the conservative Religious Right who have tried to get the novel banned from high school reading lists because of what they describe as its "sexual content" and "obscenity" (see Wood 199). Once when she was asked about the American reaction to the novel, Atwood replied,
4 Critical Insights

"Oh, banned in high schools, death threats at the time of the movie," her tone suggesting, as one commentator notes, that she took "a kind of pride in these incidents," as if being the target of censorship was "a mark of recognition of her accomplishment as a writer" (Cohen 50). Describing The Handmaid's Tale as "speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety," Atwood insists that her novel is "based on actuality or possibility" (Meyer 161). "All fictions begin with the question What if," Atwood explains, and the ''what if of The Handmaid's Tale is ''what if you wanted to take over the United States and set up a totalitarian govemment... ? How would you go about it? What conditions would favor you?" ("Writing Utopia" 97, 98). In Atwood's dystopian scenario, right-wing religious fanatics stage a military takeover of the govemment of the United States by assassinating the president and machine-gunning the Congress, and then they establish a fundamentalist regime that harks back to seventeenth-century American Puritanism. As Atwood comments, the "future society" that she proposes in The Handmaid's Tale, like Puritan New England, takes the form of a theocracy "on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots" ("Writing Utopia" 97). In the patriarchal and theocratic Republic of Gilead, women are consigned to various classes according to their functions: the Wives, who are married to the ruling elite; the Handmaids, who serve as breeders for the regime and give up their children to the Wives; the Marthas, who work as domestic servants in the homes of the elite; and the Aunts, who indoctrinate and train the Handmaids. Because fertile women are viewed as a natural resource in a world of mass sterility and birth defectsa result of widespread environmental devastation caused by the overuse of pesticides, by toxic waste leakages from stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and by nuclear power accidents the Handmaids are treated as property of the male leaders and tumed into sexual commodities to be exploited by the state. Concemed, as she has remarked, that the gains made by women as a result of the feminist movement may be "precarious" (Langer 133), Atwood addresses a
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postfeminist generation of women in The Handmaid's Tale. In chilling detail, she delineates the virtual enslavement of the Handmaids, who are reeducated by the Aunts and then assigned to the households of the Commanders of the regimemembers of the ruling elite whose Wives are infertile^where they are forced to undergo a monthly impregnation ritual. In telling the story of Offred, a thirty-three-year-old Handmaid whose proprietary and patronymic name identifies the Commander to whom she temporarily belongs, for she is "Of Fred"Atwood lays bare the inherent misogyny of patriarchal culture. Stripped of their individuality and used for breeding purposes as they are forcibly enlisted in the regime's project of reversing the precipitous decline in the Caucasian birthrate, the Handmaids, as Offred remarks, are "containers," "two-legged wombs . . . sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices" (124, 176). Those Handmaids who do not capitulate to the regime are brutally punished or executed. "Ordinary," the Handmaids are told, "is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will" (45). A "refugee from the past," Offred recalls her pre-Gilead life in a society where women felt as if they were "free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters" of their lives (294). Offred is part of the "transitional" generation. "For the ones who come after you," she is told, "it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts." They will freely submit, Offred recognizes, because "they will have no memories, of any other way" (151). "In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it," the Handmaids are told (33). Yet even as they are promised "freedom from" the sexual degradation and violencethe pornography and rapethat existed in the pre-Gilead world, they are forced to undergo the sexual humiliation of the monthly insemination ritual, which is based on the biblical story of Rachel and Bilhah, in which the barren Rachel tells her husband Jacob to have sexual relations with her handmaid so that she might "have children by her" (Genesis 30:3). As Offred lies between the legs of the Commander's wife, the Com6 Critical Insights

mander services her. "What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved" (121). In Gilead, as the Commander tells Offred, women are "protected" so that they "can fulfill their biological destinies in peace" (284). The pre-Gilead yearsthat is, contemporary societyin the Commander's view, "were just an anomaly, historically speaking. . . . All we've done is retum things to Nature's norm" (285). What lies behind the patriarchal ideal of protected womanhood, as Atwood's novel insists, is a rigid belief in the male use and control of female sexuality. "Blessed are the silent," according to the revised Gileadean Bible (115). In Gilead, men have "the word" while women like Offred, who are not allowed to read or write or speak openly to others, are rendered speechless (114). Commenting that a novel is "always the story of an individual, or several individuals" and not "the story of a generalized mass," Atwood recalls that the "real" problem she confronted when writing The Handmaid's Tale was figuring out "how to make the story real at a human and individual level" ("Writing Utopia" 100). Like Atwood's other fictional characters, Offred is, above all else, a compelling storyteller. In The Handmaid's Tale we hear, through the voice of Offred, Atwood's characteristic voice, which ranges from the serious and poetic to the wryly ironic and deeply sardonic. Atwood's Handmaid not only tries to hold on to her memories of her pre-Gilead past that is, our presentthrough her storytelling, but she also attempts to retain a sense of her individual identity and her connection with imagined others. "I wait. I compose myself," she says. "My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech" (86). In the "Historical Notes" appended to Offred's tale, readers leam that her narrative is really an oral diary, a transcription of some thirty cassette tapes. For Offred, to compose her story is to rebel against the Gileadean regime, which relegates women to silence. It is also an act of individual assertion and survival as she communicates to an imagined listener. "By
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telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are" (344). To Atwood, if novel reading has "any redeeming social value," it is that it forces readers "to imagine what it's like to be somebody else" ("Writing the Male" 430). But the twenty-second-century male historian who transcribes Offred's tapesProfessor Pieixotois a "bad" reader of Offred's text, as critics have long observed. Atwood's fictional professor reveals his moral obtuseness not only in his refusal to pass judgment on Gileadean society but also in his cold, academic dissection of Offred's story. A male historian who is obsessed with problems of authentication and with establishing the identities ofthe people described in Offred's tale. Professor Pieixoto is incapable of empathizing with Atwood's Handmaid or of reacting to what is so palpable to Atwood's readers as they respond to the story of her Handmaid Offred's desperate need to tell her story and to be heard and understood. As Atwood reads and interprets women's lives in The Handmaid's Tale, she emphasizes the survival value ofthe act of storytelling. To Atwood, not only is story essential to the novel, but story also must have what she calls "the Ancient Mariner element, the Scheherazade element: a sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear"; indeed, story "must be told with as much intentness as if the teller's life depended on it" ("Reading Blind" 75; see also "In Search" 175). If Atwood's fictional professor seemingly has interpretive authority as he comments on Offred's tale, we may hear in his final words"Are there any questions?" (395)the voice of Atwood herself anticipating the ever-proliferating questions asked by critics and readers alike as they grapple with the interpretive and emotional complexities o The Handmaid's Tale and its Scheherazade-like storyteller, who, condemned to a life of silence, tells her story as an act of resistance and survival.

Critical Insights

Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. New York: Ballantine/Fawcett Crest, 1987. London: Vintage, 1996. . "In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction." Writing with Intent, 158-76. . "Introduction: Part One, 1983-1989." Writing with Intent, 3-5. _. "Reading Blind: The Best American Short Stories, 1989." Writing With Intent, 68-79. . "Writing the Male Character." Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. 1982. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. 412-30. . "Writing Utopia." Writing with Intent, 92-100. . Writing with Intent Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose: 1983-2005. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. Cohen, Mark. Censorship in Canadian Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001. Hancock, Geoff. "Tightrope-Walking over Niagara Falls" (Interview). Ingersoll 90-118. Howells, Coral Ami. Margaret Atwood. 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Waltzing Again: New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 2006. Jacob, Susan. "Woman, Ideology, Resistance: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Third World Criticism." Margaret Atwood: The Shape-Shifter. Ed. Coomi Vevaina and Coral Ann Howells. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1998. 26-43. Langer, Beryl. "There Are No Texts Without Life" (Interview). Ingersoll 125-38. Meyer, Bruce, and Brian O'Riordan. "The Beaver's Tale" (Interview). Ingersoll 153-63. Moss, Laura. "Margaret Atwood: Branding an Icon Abroad." Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ed. John Moss and Tobi Kozakewich. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2006. 19-33. Staines, David. "Margaret Atwood in Her Canadian Context." The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Ed. Coral Ann Howells. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 12-27. Wood, Ruth. "Called to Be a Handmaid: Defending Margaret Atwood." Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Ed. Nicholas Karolides. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. 199-205.

On The Hatidmaid's Tale

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