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Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale": A Contextual Dystopia ("La servante écarlate" de
Margaret Atwood: une dystopie contextuelle)
Author(s): David Ketterer
Source: Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Jul., 1989), pp. 209-217
Published by: SF-TH Inc
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239936
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ATWOOD'S CONTEXTUALDYSTOPIA 209

David Ketterer

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid'sTale:


A Contextual Dystopia
Until recentlyMargaretAtwood'sinterestin SF andfantasyhas foundonly
incidentalexpressionin hercreativework.At the conclusionof LadyOracle
(1976), the narrator,a writerof "CostumeGothics,"reflects:"maybeI'll
try some science fiction. The futuredoesn't appealto me as much as the
past, but I'm sure it's betterfor you" (37:345). Atwood herself has since
tried some SF, most notably The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which was
nominatedfor the Ritz-ParisHemingwayPrizein France,shortlistedfor the
prestigiousBookerPrize,andwon the Los AngelesTimesPrize,the Gover-
nor General'sAwardin Canada,and the first ArthurC. ClarkeAwardfor
the best SF workpublishedin Britainin 1986. TheHandmaid'sTale is, in
fact, the best and most successful SF novel writtenby a Canadian.SF is
only worthyof seriousattentionwhen it is aboutsomethingreal;andin this
case, underlyingthe mutedfeministpolemic,the centraltheme,equallyreal
andearlieridentifiedby Atwoodas particularlyCanadian,is thatof human
survival.' How long will we survive?That, after all, is the big question
aboutthe future.
Atwood has imagined a late-20th-centuryfuture where a woman's
abilityto procreateis of paramountimportancesince disease and pollution
have led to a catastrophicdecline in the birthrate.Given this situation,the
patriarchalRepublicof Gilead,establishedas the resultof a coup in New
England,has thwartedwhat might seem a likely outcome:the increasing
power of women with "viableovaries"(38:234). After passinglaws deny-
ing womenjobs, property,and money, all women who were not officially
recognizedas Wives, widows, or lower-classEconowiveswere sortedinto
four groups:(1) women with viable ovariesbecame"two-leggedwombs"
(23:128), nuns of fertilityknown as Handmaids;dressedin red habitsand
white-wingedhoods, each, aftera periodof training,was assignedto a par-
ticularCommanderandhis sterileWife; (2) post-menopausalor unmarried
sterilewomencalledAunts,whosejob it was to indoctrinatethe Handmaids
with the aid of cattle prodsand whistles;(3) a green-dressedservant-class
known as Marthas;and (4) women who could not or would not belong to
eitherof these groupsand who were not hangedas subversive"criminals"
becameUnwomen,who were usuallygiven thejob of clearingtoxic wastes
210 SCIENCE-FICTION
STUDIES,VOLUME16 (1989)
-itself a deathsentence.Some womenwere allowedemploymentas pros-
titutes,butthis alternativewas not officiallyrecognized.
Gileadis basedon a new right-wing,religiousfundamentalism. In this
regard,Atwood's choice of dedicateesfor the novel is significant.One of
them is PerryMiller, the fatherof AmericanPuritanstudies and one of
Atwood'steachersat Harvard.The other,MaryWebster,representsa move
fromthe academicto the horriblyactual.In a 1980 essay, Atwooddescrib-
es how Websterof Connecticut,one of her ancestors,survivedher hanging
afterbeing condemnedas a witch, thanksto a tough neck. Because of the
law of doublejeopardy,wherebya personcould not be executedtwice for
the samecrime,Websterwas released("Witches,"p. 331).
The novel consistsof the tapedaccountsandrecollectionsof a 33-year-
old Handmaidnamed Offred. This name-suggestive of "offered" or
"afraid"(Parrinder: 20) or "off-red"(a rebelliousreferenceto herredhabit)
or "off-read"(in the sense of misread-Lacombe: 7)-is not her real one.
Like all of the Handmaids,her real name has been erasedin favor of the
form "Of' plus the first name, possibly abbreviated,of her Commander.
Her recollections,usually narratedin the seven spaced sections (out of a
total of 15) all entitled "Night"(a time of relative freedom), are of an
earlierera recognizablythatof the 1970s and '80s. She recallsher feminist
mother(now, we subsequentlylearn,an Unwoman)and the failed attempt
she had madewith her now "disappeared" husbandLuke andtheirchild to
flee to Canadaduringthe earlystagesof Gilead'stotalitarianregime.
Offred'snumbingaccountof her presentrealityin what is apparently
the walledtownof Cambridge,Massachusetts(whereHarvardUniversityis
closed andthe footballstadiumis used for executions),oftentakesthe form
of describingsuch Orwellianritualsas Testifying (chap. 13), communal
prayers(chap. 15), the Ceremony(chap. 16), Birth Day (chap. 21), Pray-
vaganzas(chaps.33 and 34), Salvaging(chap.42), andParticicution(chap.
43). Testifyingis the Gilead equivalentof what usually happensat group
therapysessions. The evening communalprayersession begins with the
Commanderreading appropriatebits from the Bible-most notably:
"Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also
have children by her" (15:84), an abbreviationof verse 3 of one of the
novel's epigraphs,Genesis30:1-3,whichis surelythe essentialseed of The
Handmaid's Tale. The Ceremony is modelled directly on the Genesis
passage.A Handmaidis fuckedby a Commanderas she lies betweenthe
legs andholds the handsof the Commander'sWife, in Offred'scase a one-
time gospel singerwhose real name is Pam but who called herself Serena
Joy. Of particularimportanceis Birth Day, when one of the Handmaids
gives birthwith the Wife's legs once againabouther,in the presenceof the
otherHandmaids.This occursin the seventhand centralof the book's 15
sections,the section entitled"BirthDay." Only "BirthDay" and "Salvag-
ing" (Section XIV) are dignifiedas section titles. Women's Prayvaganzas
ATWOOD'S CONTEXTUALDYSTOPIA 211
accompanygroupweddings;"men'sarefor militaryvictories"(34:206).At
Salvagings,the Handmaidssymbolicallytakepartin the hangingof "crim-
inals."The bodies are subsequentlyconveyedto the mainguardedgateway
of the Wall andleft hangingthere.At Particicutions(the wordis, of course,
an amalgamof "participation" and"execution")the Handmaidsareencour-
aged, by way of catharsis,to literallyteara male offender-in the instance
described,a supposedrapist-to pieces.
Many of the featuresof Gilead are familiarto the readerof dystopian
fiction:the lack of freedom,the constantsurveillance,the routine,the failed
escape attempt(in this case by Offred'sfriend,identifiedby her realname,
Moira),and an undergroundmovement(in this case called Mayday).But
the unique natureof the society that Atwood has createdleads to other,
rathermore original,plot possibilities.At the centerof Offred'sstory are
the acts of betrayalshe is forcedto commitby the Commander,on the one
hand, and on the other,by his Wife. The Commanderrequiresa relation-
ship with Offred outside of the Ceremony.Most of the time they play
Scrabble(an illegal game since it promotesliteracy);but on one occasion
the Commandertakesher to Jezebel's,a brothelfor officerswhichincludes
Moiraamongits prostitutes.In the meantime,his Wife, concernedthatthe
Commandermay be sterile, sets Offred up with Nick, the chauffeur.
Offred'sstoryends with the Wife's discoveryof Offred'ssecret"relation-
ship"with her husbandand the consequentarrivalof two men in a black
van who take Offred away. Presumablyshe is to be "salvaged"but the
possibilityexists thatthe two men areagentsof Mayday.
The success of Offred'snarrativedependslargelyon Atwood's skilled
use of indirection,irony, and understatement.Informationis allowed to
seep throughgradually,often in a naturalistic,offhand,giveawaymanner.
As one would expect of a poet, Atwood's indirectionfrequentlytakes the
formof imageryand symbolism.Giventhe subjectmatter,the sexual sym-
bolism establishedat the very beginningof the book is surely inevitable:
"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.The floor was of var-
nished wood, with stripesand circles paintedon it..." (1:3). As the book
develops, it is the female imagery of circles and curves which predom-
inates. Even the Wall, which might be construedas a masculinesymbol,
formsan imprisoningcircle.
Of particularinterestis the circular"hallmirror,whichbulgesoutward
like an eye underpressure"(8:46), or like the swollen belly of a pregnant
woman. Likewise, in the Commander'ssitting room, "over the mantel,
there's an oval mirror"(14:76), the word "oval"suggestingthose viable
ovaries.The braidedrug in Offred'sroomis also "oval"(2:7) andthe face
of hermotherin a photographis "a closed oval"(7:37). Frequentlystressed
is Offred's sense of the hallwaymirroras a typicallydystopianwatching
eye: "Thereremainsa mirror,on the hall wall....I can see it as I go down
the stairs,round,convex, a pier-glass,like the eye of a fish, andmyself in it
212 SCIENCE-FICTION
STUDIES,VOLUME16 (1989)
like a distortedshadow..."(2:9); "I descendthe stairs,a brief waif in the
eye of glass that hangs on the downstairswall" (14:75), makingOffreda
hangingbody like those on the Wall; "In the curvedhallwaymirrorI flit
past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraithof red
smoke"(32:196);and lastly, "I see the two of us...in the brief glass eye of
the mirroras we descend"(40:243).The secretpolice arecalledEyes. And,
like all the Handmaids,Offred'sanklebearsa related"smalltattoo":"Four
digits and an eye, a passportin reverse.It's supposedto guaranteethat I
will neverbe able to fade, finally,into anotherlandscape"(12:60-61).Even
the penis is described as a "delicate stalked slug's eye" (15:83). The
circularmirror,then, comprehendsand encompassesmost of the novel's
significantthemes:viable ovaries,pregnancy,surveillance,imprisonment,
hangedbodies, cyclical process (aboutwhich more later),and finally, the
loss of human reality-the mirrorconveys only images of reality and
rendersOffredas "a distortedshadow"(2:9), "a brief waif' (14:75), or "a
wraith"(32:196).2
The preconceptionsof the readeraccustomedto the typical dystopian
fiction are likely to be upset by the "HistoricalNotes" that concludeThe
Handmaid'sTale. It is usually assumedthat the authorof a dystopia is
concernedwith describingthe horrorsof life if presenttrendscontinue,If
This Goes On. The authormay hope thathis or her fiction will serve either
as a warning,if the possibilityis allowedthatwhatseems inevitablemaybe
averted,or, at a later stage, as a call to rebellion.The "HistoricalNotes"
consistof "apartial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium
on Gileadean Studies...which took place at the University of Denay, Nuna-
vit, on June 25, 2195" ("Notes,"p. 281). Given that the one identified
memberof Denay's facultyhas the Indianname CrescentMoon it seems
reasonableto concludethat the university'sname derivesfrom that of the
IndianDene Nation.Nunavitmay be an Inuitplace somewherein the north
of "what was...Canada"("Notes," p. 292) or, more probably, a future
revised spellingof Nunavik,Greenland.Have the NorthAmericanIndians
and Inuit inheritedthe earth?What is transcribed,Professor Pieixoto's
lecture, "Problemsof Authenticationin Reference to The Handmaid's
Tale"("Notes,"p. 282), makes it clear thatthe Republicof Gileadis now
long past.
The immediateeffect of the "HistoricalNotes"is to appraisethe reader
of the "fact"thathe or she has all alongbeen fictively situatedin this post-
Gilead future,a futureperhapslike the presentof the 1980s to the extent
thatfrombothperspectivesGileadappearsto be an almostincrediblesocie-
tal extreme. At the same time the "Notes" strongly imply that Atwood
cannothave intendedThe Handmaid'sTale only as the typicaldire dysto-
pian warningor call to rebellion if she envisages Gilead either passing
away naturallyin the fullness of time or being dramaticallyoverthrown.
Gilead does not correspondto an Orwellian"boot stampingon a human
ATWOOD'S CONTEXTUALDYSTOPIA 213
face-forever" (1984, p. 390). It might,then,be asked:Is thereany pointin
penninga dystopiaif thatdystopiais explicitlypresentedas only transitory?
In orderto arriveat what I believe to be the correct"yes" answerto this
question, Atwood's dystopia must be distinguishedfrom the traditional
kindas a particularvariantof whatI shall terma "ContextualDystopia,"by
which I meanafully ContextualDystopia.After all, as Offredtwice notes,
"Contextis all"(24:136;30:180).In a review,BrianStablefordshows him-
self to be awareof the problemwhen he labels The Handmaid'sTale "a
Book of Lamentations" (p. 97) ratherthana dystopia.Unlikethe traditional
dystopia, Atwood is concernednot just with the precedingcontext, the
historicaldevelopment-continuousor discontinuous-thatled to the esta-
blishmentof dystopia,but also with a succeedingdiscontinuouscontext,
andhistoricaldevelopment-unanticipatedby Offred'sdystopiandiscourse
but impliedwithoutbeing describedin the "Notes"-that led, over time or
abruptly,awayfromdystopia.
A ContextualDystopiain this specific sense is rare.In fact, I know of
no otherexample.The nearestparallelis perhapsJackLondon'sTheIron
Heel (1906), but therethe socialist"eutopia"that succeededthe dystopian
Oligarchyof the Iron Heel is clearly, in an immediatesense, continuous
with ErnestEverhard'sdystopianmemoir.Everhard'sdesperaterevolution-
ary activitiesspurredsimilaractivitieswhich, in the fullness of time, led to
the overthrowof the IronHeel andto a situationwherea "eutopian"is able
to edit and annotatethe manuscriptof the long-agoexecutedEverhard.No
such historicalsequenceis even hintedat in Offred'saccount(Maydaycan
only help dissidentsescape from Gilead). (It might be wonderedwhether
there are examples of what is surely a theoreticalpossibility-namely, a
ContextualEutopia in the full sense of contextual. As with dystopias,
instancesof eutopias[with or withoutqualifyingquotationmarks]includ-
ing the presentationof an historically continuouspost-eutopiansociety
seem more likely than those includingthe presentationof an historically
discontinuousone.) In Atwood's case, as a result of both the essentially
continuous'fore and the essentiallydiscontinuousafterhistoricalcontexts
and the consequentacknowledgementof one particularSF sense of differ-
ence-change in the course of time-The Handmaid'sTale conveys an
evenhandedness,a degreeof hard-headedacceptanceregardingthe contex-
tual, framed,and hence limitedhumancondition,a horizonof acceptance,
that counteracts-some might say disastrouslydefuses-Atwood's occa-
sionallybittersatireandjustifiedanger.It shouldbe observedat this point
that the traditionaldystopia(and eutopia)generallyassumes,and to some
extent depends upon, a linear conceptionof time. A cyclical conception
carrieswith it at least some degreeof fatalisticacceptancethatthe writerof
traditionaldystopias(or eutopias)would considerinappropriate. Atwood's
vision of historicalchange in The Handmaid'sTale appearsto allow for
both a series of pendulumswings and (as I have alreadyintimatedin rela-
214 STUDIES,VOLUME16 (1989)
SCIENCE-FICTION
tion to the hallway mirror)the effects of cyclical process; possibly the
pendulumswings are subsumedby, or incorporatedinto, a cyclical history.
It mightbe notedin this regardthatthe sequenceof chaptertitles mimesthe
cycle of night(death,freedom)andday (birth,imprisonment).
A cyclical view of historymay, of course,take the formof staticrepe-
tition or of a progressiveor regressive spiral. Atwood does not commit
herself on this matter.There is no clear sense of the kind of society (or
societies) thathas (or have) replacedGileadand why. However,the world
of 2195 does seem more civilized than,and generallypreferableto, thatof
Gilead. Pieixoto's prissy academicjokes and the laughterthey elicit from
his audienceprovideevidence that sexist attitudesstill persist.The place
namesDenayandNunavit,readas "deny"and"none-of-it"(Kaler:9), may
suggest thatAtwoodis pointing,with disguisedhorror,to the smug blind-
ness of a society thatrefusesto recognize,in whatProfessorPieixototerms
"theclearerlight of our own day"(Notes, p. 293), the seeds of sexism that
couldlead to anotherGilead.But Atwoodhereseems moreintenton lightly
or resignedly satirizing human foible and vanity, and the decorum of
academicdiscourse.Justas Offredbelieves regardingGileadthattherecan
be "no shadowunless there is also light" (18:99) so, in Pieixoto's world,
the predominatinglight is not withoutshadow;it is simplythatthe propor-
tions have been reversed.Anythingapproachinga fair, non-sexistsociety
dependsupon eternalvigilance.And Pieixoto, one of the co-editorsof the
ms. The Handmaid'sTale (the Chauceriantitle was suppliedby the other
one), does provide some helpful information. Offred's tapes were
unearthedon the site of what was Bangor,Maine.A non-Canadianreader
or a Canadianreaderwho has forgottenthe government's"Participaction"
programis informed that the term "Particicution"was "lifted from an
exercise program popular sometime in the last third of the century"
("Notes,"p. 289; Atwoodperhapsneeds a "twentieth"beforethe "century"
here). It is hypothesizedthat eitherFrederickR. Waterfordor more likely
B. FrederickJuddwas Offred'sCommander.The scholarshipof 2195 has,
however,failed to come up with whatis most probablyOffred'sreal name
in spite of the clue thather manuscriptprovides.At the end of Chapter1
Offred lists the names that she and her fellow traineeHandmaidswould
whisperfrom bed to bed: "Alma.Janine.Dolores. Moira.June"(1:4). In
the course of the narrativeall of these names are accountedfor (22:121;
5:26; 22:125;5:25) exceptfor June.Presumably,then,Juneis Offred'sreal
name.As it happens,the GileadeanStudiesSymposiumtook place in June.
(Are we to intuit,in termsof cyclical process,thatthe Springand Summer
of Gilead,like the Summerof the post-Gileadsociety, will inevitablygive
way to Fall andWinter?)Of course,Offred'slist of namesmay be a list of
protectivepseudonyms.If so, Offredhas deliberatelychosen for herself a
name that, she remindsus, signifies love: "Love, said Aunt Lydia with
distaste. Don't let me catch you at it. No mooning and June-ingaround
ATWOOD'S CONTEXTUALDYSTOPIA 215
here,girls"(34:206).
This last quotationis one of severaloccasionswhereAtwooduses the
device of quoting direct speech without quotationmarks.It is generally
used to signalthata conversationis being recalledandreconstructed. What
is reconstructed-andmuchof Offred'snarrativeamountsto reconstruction
-may not be the entiretruth.Implicithereis one moreaspectof Atwood's
consciousartistry.With one notableexception,thatartistrywas acclaimed
by all the novel's reviewers.Since the one exception was the prominent
writerMaryMcCarthyand since her attackappearsto largely stem from
her generic misapprehensionof the novel as a straightforward dystopia,I
will conclude by attemptingto rebutthe variouschargesthat she levels.
Her piece in TheNew YorkTimesBook Reviewentitled"Breeders,Wives
and Unwomen"begins with the claim of "thin credibility"(p. 35). At-
wood's extrapolationdoes not ring true. McCarthyseems not to have
allowed for the fact that the future Atwood describes was surely not
conceived as a direct extrapolationfrom our presentbut as a pendulum
swing away frompresent-dayfeminism.Given thatintention,the historical
stepsthatlead to Gileadare,I believe, plausibleenough.Atwood'sfutureis
novel andnot inherentlyincredible.
McCarthyalso complainsthat Offred'sfutureaccountis writtenin a
languagevirtuallyindistinguishablefrom our own. It is certainlytrue that
languagechangeswith time and thatmany SF writers-William Gibsonis
a recentexample-attempt to createa futureargot.But while a futureargot
may add to the SF realism,it can also have the reverseeffect and date a
work very quickly. Atwood has chosen the less risky convention of
allowing today's languageto standin for a futurelanguagewhose subtle
alterationssimplycannotbe predicted.Atwoodis not writinggenreSF and
in fact some of her linguisticinventionsare not as felicitous as those we
have come to expect fromthe genreSF writer.Forexample,her "Birthmo-
bile"(4:21) mightbe criticizedas a tawdrytouchout of Batman.However,
it is morerelevantto note thatGilead(unlikethe worldof 2195) is placed
in a very nearfuturesetting.Linguisticchangesin the shorttermare very
minorand, in fact, Atwood's "Birthmobile" is probablyderivedfrom such
contemporary real-worldtermsas "bookmobile"or "snowmobile."McCar-
thy's overall chargethat Gilead is "insufficientlyimagined"and that this
poet's novel "lacksimagination"is, as I hope my analysisof this concretely
detailed dystopia has demonstrated,simply untrue. Nor is the "writing
undistinguished"(p. 35). The novel's short, breathlesschaptersgain in
power as they proceed.What might be criticizedas overwordiness("We
lived in the blankwhite spaces at the edges of print....Welived in the gaps
between the stories"[10:53]) could be justified as perfectlysuited to the
mode of oralnarration.The style suitsthe teller.
But what of the teller's character?McCarthybelieves that Offred's
character,like that of all the charactersexcept the Aunts, is weak. But
216 STUDIES,VOLUME16 (1989)
SCIENCE-FICTION
surelyone of the primeaims of Gileadis to depriveits citizens,particularly
the Handmaids,of their characters.In the circumstancesit is not just
special pleading to insist that shadowy characterizationis appropriately
inevitable.The pointmightalso be madethatMcCarthyis here applyingto
the genre of SF a criterionmore appropriateto the realistic novel. It is
finally a failure to correctlyidentify Atwood's generic intent (insofaras
that intentcan be "reconstructed" from the text) that leads to McCarthy's
most damningcriticism.Thinkingof The Handmaid'sTale as straightfor-
wardlyakinto Orwell's 1984 and as belongingto the traditionaldystopian
genre,McCarthybelieves thatAtwood's novel lacks "thedestructiveforce
of satire,"it has "no satiricbite"(p. 35). But in the light of the concluding
"HistoricalNotes"andwhatI have arguedis the novel's genericstatusas a
particularkind of ContextualDystopia,possiblythe firstof its kind,purely
destructivesatirewould be quite out of place. Both men and women come
in for attackin The Handmaid'sTale.3But Atwood's concernis not with
the destructionof either sex; it is with their mutualsurvival.After all, as
Offredobserves,directlyaddressingher putativereaderor readers,"who
knowswhatthe chancesareout there,of survival,yours?"(7:37).

NOTES

1. See Atwood's Survival.For a spiritedillustrationof the propositionthat


all significant SF is about something real, in the sense of an enduringor rela-
tively enduringhumanreality, see Blish, pp. 125-29.
2. For a survey of the negative role of mirrorsin Atwood's poetry and fic-
tion before TheHandmaid'sTale, see Davey, pp. 94-98.
3. With regardto Atwood's "evenhandedness"here, it should be noted that
her "Freeforall"provides a reverse companionpiece to The Handmaid's Tale.
Both works posit a situation in which sexually transmitted diseases have
jeopardized the future of human reproductivesurvival. But in "Freeforall,"as
instanced by the Toronto of 2026, a repressive societal solution has emerged
which victimizes males considerablymore thanfemales.

WORKS CITED

Atwood, Margaret."Freeforall,"The TorontoStar, 20 Sept. 1986; rpt. in Tes-


seracts2, ed. Phyllis Gotlieb & Douglas Barbour(Victoria, BC: Porcepic
Books, 1987), pp. 130-38.
. The Handmaid'sTale. Toronto:Seal Books, 1986.
. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto:
House of Anansi, 1972.
. "Witches," in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Toronto:
House of Anansi, 1982), pp. 329-33.
ATWOOD'S CONTEXTUAL DYSTOPIA 217
Blish, James [as "William Atheling, Jr."]. "A Question of Content," in The
Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction
(Chicago:Advent, 1964), pp. 125-29.
Davey, Frank.MargaretAtwood:A FeministPoetics. Vancouver:1984.
Kaler, Anne K. "The Narratoras Female Hero in Margaret Atwood's The
Handmaid'sTale." Unpublishedpaperpresentedat the Ninth International
Conferenceon the Fantasticin the Arts, FortLauderdale,March 1988.
Lacombe, Michele. "The Writing on the Wall: AmputatedSpeech in Margaret
Atwood's TheHandmaid'sTale,"WascanaReview, 21 (Fall 1986):3-20.
McCarthy, Mary. "Breeders, Wives and Unwomen." The New York Times
Book Review (9 Feb. 1986), pp. 1, 35.
Orwell, George. 1984. With a Critical Introductionand Annotations by Ber-
nardCrick.Oxford:ClarendonPress, 1984.
Parrinder,Patrick. "Making Poison," London Review of Books, 8 (20 Mar.
1986), pp. 20-22.
Stableford, Brian. "Is There No Balm in Gilead? The Woeful Prophecies of
The Handmaid'sTale,"Foundation,no. 39 (Spring 1987), pp. 97-100.

RESUME

David Ketterer. La servante ecarlate de Margaret Atwood: une dystopie


contextuelle.-Le roman de Margaret Atwood, La servante ecarlate est le
meilleur roman de science-fiction qu'ait produit le Canada anglais. Plusieurs
e'le'mentsdoivent etre souligne's:les se'riesd'e'vnementsrituels, le symbolisme
du miroir ovale du couloir et le statut ge'ne'riquetout particulier de ce roman
qui pourrait e^trequalifie'de *<dystopie contextuelle)>.Cetteforme se demarque
de la dystopie conventionellepar 1'interetporte aux faits historiques discon-
tinus qui suivirentla dystopie (il est d noter que cet interet n'est pas pre'vupar
le discours dystopien) et par les conse'quencesdecoulant de l'interpre'tation
judicieusement e'quilibre'equi furent suscite'es par 1'intere^tinitial. Mary
McCarthyn'a pas su reconnaitre cette distinction ge'ne'riqueet ce manque est
en partie responsablede sa critique ne'gative.(DK)

Abstract.-Of particular interest in MargaretAtwood's The Handmaid'sTale


(1985 )-to date the best English Canadian SF novel-are the series of ritual
events, the symbolism of the oval hallway mirror, and its generic status as a
particular kind of what is termed a "Contextual Dystopia." This kind is
distinguishedfrom the traditionaldystopia by virtue of both its consideration
of the discontinuous historical circumstances (unanticipated within the
dystopian discourse) which succeeded the dystopian regime, and of the
judiciously balanced interpretativeconsequences of that consideration. Mary
McCarthy's negative review of The Handmaid's Tale is countered partly in
termsof herfailure to recognize this generic distinction.(DK)

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