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Margaret Atwood’s

Dystopian Fiction
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Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Margaret Atwood’s
Dystopian Fiction:

Fire Is Being Eaten

By

Sławomir Kuźnicki
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Fiction: Fire Is Being Eaten

By Sławomir Kuźnicki

Refereed by Ilona Dobosiewicz and Jacek Gutorow

This book first published 2017

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2017 by Sławomir Kuźnicki

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-8367-0


ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-8367-2
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Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments ..................................................................................... vii

Chapter One ................................................................................................. 1


Context Is All
Margaret Atwood’s Immersion in the World’s Problems
Edward W. Said’s Concept of Worldliness
Science, Women and Religion
Dystopian Speculative Fiction

Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 21


The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men
Environmental Degradation and its Impact on Society
Underwoman in Pursuit of Identity and Community
Between Theocratic Regime and Misogynistic Perversion
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Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 75


Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists
Science and the Disregard for Morality
Between Male Fantasy and Female Manipulation
Post-Religion and the Pursuit of Spirituality

Chapter Four ............................................................................................ 119


The Year of the Flood, or the Kingdom of Gardeners
Abuse of Technology and Science
Women’s Communities with and without Men
The God’s Gardeners’ Green Christianity and Survivalism

Chapter Five ............................................................................................ 163


MaddAddam, or the Community of Survivors
Between Rational Pessimism and Ironic Optimism
Women, Men and Pregnancy/Motherhood
Religious Mythology and the Emerging Culture

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vi Table of Contents

Chapter Six .............................................................................................. 199


Negotiating with the Living
Science, Women and Religion Revisited
Ethics of the Dystopian Project

Copyright Acknowledgments .................................................................. 209

Works Cited ............................................................................................. 211


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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank the following people:

Margaret Atwood, for her inspiring novels, not only the four ones I focus
on in this book;

Prof. Ilona Dobosiewicz, for her immense help and for being the
motivating force at various stages of this project;

Prof. Jacek Gutorow and prof. Tadeusz Lewandowski, as well as prof.


Mariusz Marszalski, for their critical reading of this manuscript and for all
their helpful suggestions;

Prof. Joanna CzapliĔska and prof. Andrzej Ciuk, as well as prof. ElĪbieta
SzymaĔska-Czaplak, for their faith in me;
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Anna KuĨnicka and Emilia KuĨnicka, for their love, patience and being-
there-for-me;

ElĪbieta KuĨnicka-Soátysik and Zdzisáaw Soátysik, as well as Zofia


ChorąĪyczewska and Czesáaw ChorąĪyczewski, for their parental care;

Bartosz SuwiĔski and Agata Haas, for everlasting inspirations,


unforgettable adventures, and shared experiences.

Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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CHAPTER ONE

CONTEXT IS ALL

More and more frequently the edges


of me dissolve and I become
a wish to assimilate the world.

(Margaret Atwood, “More and More,” Eating Fire, 49)

Margaret Atwood’s Immersion in the World’s Problems


The phrase “context is all,” uttered by Offred from The Handmaid’s
Tale, gives the title to this introductory chapter.1 It is crucial not only to
her position in the book’s fundamentalist dystopia, but also to reading all
Margaret Atwood’s works: “I think it’s probably a motto for human
society,” she has commented.2 Thus contexts of different sorts—feminism,
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nationalism, postcolonialism, environmental issues, to enumerate just a


few of the most prominent ones—shape Atwood’s literary output and
define her as a writer. Since her poetic and fiction debuts in the 1960s, she
has been undertaking literary tasks both interesting from the formal point
of view, and influential as far as their ethical content is concerned.
“Writers are eye-witnesses, I-witnesses,” as she once explained the duty
that seems to be inscribed in her profession, personalising the politics of
the day.3 The moral duty Atwood writes about throughout all her literary
career, and with increasing commitment, could be termed radical
humanism: “from her early disclaimers of aspiration to a political voice,
her frequent statements that ‘books don’t save the world,’ she has moved

1
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage, 1996), 154.
2
Jonathan Noakes, and Margaret Reynolds, Margaret Atwood: The Essential
Guide to Contemporary Literature (London: Vintage, 2002), 14.
3
Margaret Atwood, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Toronto: Anansi,
1982), 203.
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2 Chapter One

steadily to a firm commitment to human rights and the conviction that if


books, in fact, don’t save the world, then nothing else can either.”4
This book explores Atwood’s concepts and ideas gathered around the
three contextual and changing roles I consider of greatest importance not
only to her, but to the surrounding world, as well. These are: science,
women and religion. Such an outline of the analysis both emphasises the
superiority of substance over composition in Atwood’s novels, and
demonstrates her immersion in worldly issues, i.e. in the web of cultural
contexts. However, each of the three fields of my analysis includes literary
material from those of Atwood’s works that could be described as
realisations of her speculative fiction project, or, to put it simply, her
dystopian novels. Thus, I concentrate on the following books: The
Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood
(2009), and MaddAddam (2013), in which the author generally places the
action in the future, experimenting with the aforementioned genre of
dystopia. All of these books were written and published during the last
three decades, which makes their cultural context contemporary. In other
words, these particular novels function within the broad contemporary
context of culture, which corresponds with Fiona Tolan’s comments about
the Canadian author: “The novelist absorbs influences form his or her
culture, and these influences interact in a manner at once unpredictable
and generative, whereby the pure theory that is absorbed undergoes a
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process of contamination and manipulation by the novel.”5


Since contextual analysis of Atwood’s works is desirable, it is worth
presenting the author’s brief literary profile. Born in 1939, in Ottawa,
Canada, Margaret Atwood is a highly prolific writer who, by the end of
2016, has published 16 novels, 10 collections of short stories, 17 poetry
volumes, 4 e-books, 7 children’s books, television scripts, libretti, literary
and cultural criticism, as well as numerous essays, reviews, and forewords.
With her works translated into about forty languages, she has established
her literary reputation as the most prominent Canadian writer. It was in
Canada where she spent much of her formative years (mainly in the
backwoods of Northern Quebec, where her father, an entomologist, did his
field research); it was also in Canada, namely the University of Toronto,
where she finished her undergraduate studies in 1961. Indeed, the
Canadian experience seems to have influenced her both as a human being
and as a writer, and she has returned to various aspects of her Canadiannes

4
Barbara Hill Rigney, Women Writers: Margaret Atwood (London: Macmillan
Education, 1987), 16.
5
Fiona Tolan, Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction (New York: Rodopi,
2007), 3.
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Context Is All 3

throughout her whole literary career, e.g., in 1972 she published the
acclaimed survey of Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide to
Canadian Literature. However, the scope of interests she expresses in her
writings does not limit her to Canadiannes only.
As a novelist, Atwood debuted in 1969 with The Edible Woman, a
feminist novel that helped establish her significance not only in Canada. In
the next four novels—Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before
Man (1979), and Bodily Harm (1981)—she continued to explore feminist
matters. At the same time, these books marked Atwood’s growing interest
in the issues that would later be considered important to her, like
feminism. They include: ecology, relationships between children and their
parents, and pornography. These novels also helped to spread her popularity
and significance, because in the case of Atwood these two always go
together, no matter how unpleasant the topic she undertakes in her prose.
Nevertheless, her breakthrough novel was The Handmaid’s Tale (1985),
which won two important literary awards (the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke
Award and 1985 Governor General’s Award), and was shortlisted for
another (the 1986 Booker Prize). Subsequent novels have confirmed
Atwood’s significant position in contemporary literature, all of them
exploring new thematic territories, as well as providing the writer with
more literary awards. The first of them is Cat’s Eye (1988), in which
Atwood draws on her childhood and teenage years to present the way
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Canada changed throughout the twentieth century. This book was


shortlisted for the 1988 Governor General’s Award and the 1989 Booker
Prize. In The Robber Bride (1993), Atwood concentrates on female–
female relationships, ironizing about such issues as female friendship and
solidarity. This book was a finalist for the 1994 Governor General’s
Award and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It was followed by Alias Grace
(1996), the winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, again a finalist for the 1996
Booker Prize and the 1996 Governor General’s Award, as well as
shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction. It was Atwood’s first
historical novel, exploring the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his
housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in Upper Canada, but focusing on
Grace Marks, their servant, who was convicted of the crime and sentenced
to life in imprisonment. With The Blind Assassin (2000), Atwood finally
won the Booker Prize; additionally, the book was awarded the 2001
Hammett Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2000 Governor General’s
Award and the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction. Being a postmodern roman
à clef and historical fiction about the 1930s and 1940s Toronto (although
narrated from the present-day perspective), the novel also includes
elements of pulp science-fiction in the form of a novel within a novel. One

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4 Chapter One

of Atwood’s most ambitious books, The Blind Assassin, also demonstrates


her growing interest in popular culture. This element dominates the novels
constituting the MaddAddam trilogy—all of them very successful both
commercially and artistically, which is exemplified by the literary honours
they have earned. Oryx and Crake (2003) was shortlisted for the 2003
Booker Prize, the 2003 Governor General’s Award, and the 2004 Orange
Prize for Fiction; The Year of the Flood (2009) was longlisted for the 2011
IMPAC Award; finally, MaddAddam (2013) was awarded Goodreads
Choice for Best Science Fiction 2013. Additionally, in 2005, between
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Atwood published The
Penelopiad, a novella in which she rewrote the major events of The
Odyssey using the female perspective of the nominal Penelope, Odysseus’
wife. This short book was nominated for the 2006 Mythopoeic Fantasy
Award for Adult Literature and the 2007 IMPAC Award. In 2014, she
wrote the novel Scribbler Moon, but it will not be published until 2114,
being a part of the Future Library project. The Heart Goes Last (2015)
confirms Atwood’s growing anxiety about the current political and social
situation because it is another book in a series envisioning negative future
scenarios, this time with a surprisingly notable amount of the elements of
dark comedy. Her last novel is Hag-Seed (2016), published in the Random
House series of contemporary retellings of William Shakespeare’s plays,
Atwood’s choice being the great playwright’s last individually written
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dramatic text, The Tempest. However, knowing her literary and political
activity as well as her vigour, we should not treat the novel as the
Canadian’s farewell.
As I have shown in this short discussion of her works, since her
novelistic debut in 1969 (as well as her poetic debut in 1961 with the
volume Double Persephone), Atwood has shown that she does not intend
to restrict herself to national matters only.6 Quite the contrary, alert to the
shifting contemporary worldwide geopolitical situation, she has
undertaken in her writing such current issues as women’s position in the
world, ecological concerns, and the possible future of contemporary high-
tech societies. Being a cautious observer of the world, she does not avoid
criticising dangerous tendencies, or warning of their possible consequences.

6
In the “Preface” to the second edition of Survival Atwood states: “I wouldn’t
write Survival today, because I wouldn’t need to. The thing I set out to prove has
been proven beyond a doubt: few would seriously argue, any more, that there is no
Canadian literature. For a country with the population of Illinois or Mexico City,
we’ve done more than well—we’ve done spectacularly” (Survival: A Thematic
Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 2004,
11).
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Context Is All 5

At the same time, in her novels one can detect the traces of romance,
historical fiction, a pseudo-autobiography, dystopian fiction, and science
fiction. As a novelist, she is open not only to new thematic challenges, but
also to the possibilities stemming from a given literary form. Hence, to
decode and understand her ideas fully, it is necessary to approach them in
their form. Consequently, this is what I intend this book to be: an attentive,
contextual analysis of Atwood’s selected novels that takes into
consideration the generic factor; an analysis that investigates how the links
between her prose and worldly matters operate and what the Canadian
writer’s moral intentions are. It is also to answer the question of what
generic forms she employs to achieve her aims, and why she does so.
Finally, this monograph shows that Atwood’s work, so deeply rooted in
culture, changes together with the way the surrounding world does,
making her work a flexible and lively subject of such an analysis.
Consequently, investigating the worldly matters of Atwood’s fiction
requires a method that emphasises its immersion in the external and
contemporary world, a method open to both the formal and ethical aspects
of the object of critical investigation, a method oriented towards various
contexts present in a literary piece of work.

Edward W. Said’s Concept of Worldliness


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The contextual method of reading literature definitely corresponds with


the notion of worldliness proposed by Edward W. Said (1935–2003), the
Palestinian American literary theorist and public intellectual best known
for his substantial contribution to the postcolonial critical theory. He states
in The World, the Text, and the Critic: “My position is that texts are
worldly, to some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to
deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of
course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.”7
In this sense, worldliness may become the motor of a cultural analysis of
various realities and power relations, which “are the realities that make
texts possible, that deliver them to their readers, that solicit the attention of
critics.”8 To a great extent, Said’s stance mirrors the words of Clifford
Geertz, who states: “Believing that man is an animal suspended in webs of
significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the
analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law

7
Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1983), 4.
8
Said, The World, 5.
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6 Chapter One

but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”9 Hence, meanings are


interrelated with the world in which they are created. As Said continues:
“Words and texts are so much of the world that their effectiveness, in
some cases even their use, are matters having to do with ownership,
authority, power, and the imposition of force.”10 Literary texts are
supposed to be created within a complicated web of contexts—political,
sexual, etc.—with which they should engage in critical argument. What is
interesting here is the fact that Said understands his concept as
multifaceted—concerning not only literary critics and general readers, but
producers of texts, as well: “writing is not free, nor is it performed
uniquely by a sovereign writer who writes more or less as he or she
pleases. Writing belongs to a system of utterances that has all sorts of
affiliative, often constricting relationships with the world of nations, as
Vico called it.”11 A writer, then, is selectively and critically open to what
the contemporary world has to offer. Said specifies: “The point is that
texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are
always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they
are in the world, and hence worldly. Whether a text is preserved or put
aside for a period, whether it is on a library shelf or not: these matters have
to do with a text’s being in the world.”12 In my opinion, this immersion of
texts in the external world suits Margaret Atwood’s literary activity
perfectly. She describes her concerns in the following way: “Politics in the
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sense of who has the power and how people behave. That’s what politics is
and that is also what novel writing is about. Politics in the widest sense
affects everybody. So writers write about human thought, behaviour,
action, even when they’re writing fantasy.”13
Thus, according to Atwood, a writer is someone who in their writings
always refers to the current power relations, trying to refute their totalising
and unjust effects. In other words, as Said puts it, a writer is an intellectual
with a moral duty “to speak the truth to power.”14 He understands this
critical attitude in the following way:

9
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of
Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 5.
10
Said, The World, 48.
11
Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said,
edited by Gauri Viswanathan (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 24.
12
Said, The World, 35.
13
Peter O’Brien, ed., So to Speak: Interviews with Contemporary Canadian
Writers, (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1987), 176–77.
14
Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures
(New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 97.
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Context Is All 7

The goal of speaking the truth is mainly to project a better state of affairs
and one that corresponds more closely to a set of moral principles—peace,
reconciliation, abatement of suffering—applied to the known facts.
Certainly in writing and speaking, one’s aim is not to show everyone how
right one is but rather to try to induce a change in the moral climate.15

Therefore, a writer has an obligation to humanity, which should not be


limited to providing readers with mere entertainment. Standing for a voice
that is heard, a writer is an intellectual whose duty is to represent the
repressed, the humiliated, and the unheard. He elaborates on this thought:

The intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in society that


cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional, a competent
member of a class just going about her/his business. The central fact for me
is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for
representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude,
philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge
to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place
it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and
dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be
co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to
represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept
under the rug.16
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Consequently, such an uncompromising attitude requires an unshakable


moral position that cannot change just for the sake of feeling comfortable.
Quite the contrary, a writer’s stance is the reversal of comfort, both when
it comes to them and their audiences. Only then can a writer’s goal be
fulfilled, the goal consisting in “advance[ing] human freedom and
knowledge.”17 To do so, then, a writer must operate in their time and
space, always referring to their contemporary problems and controversies,
because “literature is produced in time and in society by human beings,
who are themselves agents of, as well as somewhat independent actors
within, their actual history.”18
Atwood seems to match Said’s definition of an intellectual perfectly.
In her texts, she relates to numerous contemporary problems, and since she
has been writing for more than forty years, her idea of contemporariness
constitutes a vast realm reflected in different critical readings of her works.
For example, Nathalie Cooke points at Atwood’s three main interests:

15
Said, Representations, 99–100.
16
Said, Representations, 11.
17
Said, Representations, 17.
18
Said, The World, 152.
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8 Chapter One

“environmental awareness, Canadian nationalism, and feminism,”19


whereas Linda Hutcheon places Atwood in “both the feminist and
postmodern contexts.”20 Coral Ann Howells adds that Atwood’s self-
consciousness as a writer derives from her “interest in the dynamic powers
of language and story.”21 Barbara Hill Rigney meanwhile points out the
myth and fairy tale elements in her writing.22 Taken together, these themes
do not encapsulate the broad cross-section of Atwood’s literary interests.
Moreover, the considerable time span of her life as an artist makes it
impossible to view all of those themes as one-dimensional. The themes
evolve as Atwood matures both as a writer, and, what is even more crucial,
as a human being. Hence, it is justified to look at those thematic areas,
focusing on their specific and altering cultural contexts, since, as Howells
points out, “as a political writer, [Atwood] is interested in an analysis of
the dialects of power and shifting structures of ideology.”23 In this book,
therefore, I focus on three of Atwood’s worldly motifs that are crucial in
the twenty-first century. These are the motifs of science, women and
religion. My reading of Atwood’s works seems to suit the
contemporariness of the analytic processes. To cite Said one more time:

Criticism in short is always situated; it is skeptical, secular, reflectively


open to its own failings. This is by no means to say that it is value-free.
Quite the contrary, for the inevitable trajectory of critical consciousness is
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to arrive at some acute sense of what political, social, and human values
are entailed in the reading, production, and transmission of every text. To
stand between culture and system is therefore to stand close to—closeness
itself having a particular value for me—a concrete reality about which
political, moral, and social judgments have to be made and, if not only
made, then exposed and demystified.24

Nonetheless, before a close reading of Atwood’s novels, it seems


necessary to explain and justify both the very choice of the motifs
analysed, and the selection of the literary material.

19
Nathalie Cooke, Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion (Westport:
Greenwood Press, 2004), 3.
20
Linda Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-
Canadian Fiction (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), 153.
21
Coral Ann Howells, Margaret Atwood, 2nd edition (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2005), 19.
22
Rigney, Women Writers, 8.
23
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 19.
24
Said, The World, 26.
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Context Is All 9

Science, Women and Religion


Firstly, science, with which Atwood is undeniably familiar, has been a
vital part of her life from early childhood: “her late father, Carl, was a
zoologist. A man she describes warmly as ‘very remarkable,’ he came
from the backwoods of Nova Scotia, put himself through school by
correspondence course and went on to gain a PhD in entomology.
Eventually he became a professor in Toronto.”25 However, the notion of
science also derives from Atwood’s certified preoccupation with ecology,
a bundle of ideas that could be summarised as “her environmental interests
and increasingly urgent warnings about global warming, pollution and, the
risks of biotechnology.”26 In a way, science seems a reversal of nature,
both its extension and violation, since when put together, these two notions
can be viewed as binary opposites of a particular power relation: one
representing oppression and domination (science), versus the other,
dominated and oppressed (nature). In Atwood’s works this opposition should
not be viewed in such simple terms. Quite the contrary, to her science is just a
tool people use to describe and understand the world. Therefore, science
cannot exist without human beings, who either enhance it with, or deprive it
of meaning. It is this very process that seems of most importance to Atwood.
In our contemporary world, driven by countless scientific inventions, she
does not hesitate to ask whether it is mainly science through which humanity
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

can acquire knowledge. Or, whether science actually distances us from what
is really important. Consequently, she acts as Said’s intellectual, unafraid to
enquire about inconvenient issues that appear central to all of us, here and
now. The Palestinian critic notes: “literature is produced in time and in
society by human beings, who are themselves agents of, as well as somewhat
independent actors within, their actual history.”27 As a writer and intellectual,
Atwood remains independent. That is exactly why people and their
contemporary attitude to both science and its opposite, the natural
environment, constitute Atwood’s real interest. She states:

Mankind made a Faustian bargain as soon as he invented the first


technologies, including the bow and arrow. Our technological system is the
mill that grinds out everything you wish to order up, but no one knows
how to turn it off. The end result of a totally efficient technological

25
Peter Kemp, “Visions of the Future’s Darkness,” review of Oryx and Crake, by
Margaret Atwood, The Sunday Times, April 20, 2003, accessed November 6, 2010,
http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article227358.ece.
26
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 6.
27
Said, The World, 152.
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10 Chapter One

exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert, having been devoured by


the mills of production, and the resulting debt to nature would be infinite.28

Here one can see a deeply ethical way of Atwood perceiving and rewriting
the contemporary world, a way that gathers in itself all her recurring
interests (e.g. regarding feminism, since in her view it has become
especially visible in the last few years, it is no use talking only about
gender power relations anymore). What is required instead is a close
analysis of such implications, both contextual and political, in relation to
human beings and the natural environment surrounding them. Hence, it is
the concept of worldliness that makes science in the contemporary world
the object of cultural investigation, open to numerous and fast altering
contexts. It also shows that Atwood’s concerns are wide, and science—
with its realisations ranging from genetic engineering to virtual reality—
has been identified by her as one of the greatest new menaces, becoming
an important theme of hers.
Then there is the motif of women. When it comes to Atwood, the
feminist context, which constitutes a broader perspective of this very
motif, appears most important. Rigney states: “Atwood has grown up with
the contemporary women’s movement.”29 This fact is crucial, for it
emphasises the passing of time together with the alteration of subject-
matter. Born in 1939, Atwood’s first years of adulthood, as well as the
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

beginning of her writing, fall in the 1960s, i.e. the flourishing of second-
wave feminism, which—inspired mainly by Simone de Beauvoir’s The
Second Sex (1949, 1953), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963),
and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969)—“center[ed] on the subjects of
gender, femininity, and sexuality.”30 It was during this period that the
fundamental questions about female identity appeared. In her attempts to
answer them, Simone de Beauvoir noted:

Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to
him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. And she is simply what
man decrees. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and
not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as
opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the
Other.31

28
Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (London:
Bloomsbury, 2008), 201–2.
29
Rigney, Women Writers, 12.
30
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 2.
31
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1986), 16.
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Context Is All 11

Consequently, patriarchy was identified as the kind of cultural theory and


practice that—using all the available instruments that men have in their
privileged and superior position—is responsible for women’s inferior
status. Kate Millet used the phrase “sexual politics” to describe this
situation: “the term ‘politics’ shall refer to power-structured relationships,
arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another.”32
At the same time, in the famous 1969 essay “The Personal Is Political,”
Carol Hanisch noted the fact that since patriarchy starts at home, in the
most private sphere of a woman’s life, then this sphere should be made
public: “personal problems are political problems. There are no personal
solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective
solution.”33 Her postulation for women was to act together to fight the
degrading and unjust legacy of patriarchal culture. Hence, unlike first-
wave feminists, who mainly concentrated on emancipation issues, second-
wave feminists emphasised and appreciated the difference between men
and women, making it both the central weapon against the male-
dominated system, as well as the tool to stress their unique identity.
Additionally, as Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore comment: “a second
current of feminist literary criticism grew up alongside and in response to
the analysis of patriarchal culture. This was concerned with women’s
writing, and specially with writing as a mode of resistance.”34 As a result,
the importance of women’s writing was underlined because it not only
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demonstrates the shift from passivity to activity, but also plays a


significant role in persuading women to actively disagree with the notion
of their inferiority.
However, Atwood has never been a blind enthusiast of all the ideas of
second-wave feminism. As Howells comments: “Atwood has always been
seen as a feminist icon, albeit a resistant and at times an inconvenient
one,” and, as a sign of which, “her fiction is a combination of engagement,
analysis and critique of the changing fashions within feminism.”35 This
corresponds with Fiona Tolan’s feminist reading of Atwood’s novels.
Tolan, nevertheless, admits:

32
Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (London: Virago, 1971), 23.
33
Carol Hanisch, “The Personal Is Political,” accessed December 20, 2014,
http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html.
34
Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, “Introduction: The Story So Far,” in The
Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, edited
by Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London: Macmillan Press. 1997), 6.
35
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 15, 17.
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12 Chapter One

A theory such as feminism, which is simultaneously political, popular, and


academic, immediately negotiates sites of interaction with a myriad of
alternative discourses. Consequently, the feminism to be read in Atwood’s
novels is not the feminism that is to be discovered in feminist textbooks.
Therefore, it is to be assumed that the novelist has generated a new and
original contribution to feminist discourse. Her work is never presumed to
be a sole influence or a direct precipitant of feminist development, but it is
identified as a salient and intelligent component of a general cultural
discourse.36

In other words, feminism alone seems not enough for Atwood, as for her
“art is a moral issue, and it is the responsibility of the writer/artist not only
to describe the world, but also to criticise it, to bear witness to its failures,
and, finally, to prescribe corrective measures—perhaps even to redeem.”37
However, such a worldly position does not contradict the feminist attitude,
because “for the feminist reader there is no innocent or neutral approach to
literature: all interpretation is political. To interpret a work is always to
address, whether explicitly or implicitly, certain kinds of issues about what
it says.”38 It is also true, yet, that an extended openness to the issues of the
external world is more characteristic of post-feminism, which started
emerging from second-wave feminism in the 1980s. Consequently, the
ideas of third-wave feminism seem to appeal to Atwood’s cross-cultural
interest to a greater extent. No wonder, since the contemporary version of
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

feminism, or “feminisms,” as Howells proposes,39 more subtly points at


both the politics of power and cultural analysis, with its postcolonial-
inspired shift towards formerly marginalised groups of women (black,
lesbian, and third world, etc.). Belsey and Moore note: “Drawing on the
[African-American women’s] experience of being rendered doubly
invisible within American culture, a generation of black women activists,
autobiographers, critics and novelists aimed to distinguish the difference
of their history and art.”40 At the same time, post-feminism is much
broader than just emphasising the postcolonial experience. Donna
Haraway notes:

It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective. With


the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender,
race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in “essential” unity.

36
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 3–4.
37
Rigney, Women, 1.
38
Belsey and Moore, “Introduction,” 1.
39
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 17.
40
Belsey and Moore, “Introduction,” 12.
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Context Is All 13

There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. There
is not even such a state as “being” female, itself a highly complex category
constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social
practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on
us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities
of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.41

Again, the questions of (not only female) identity, this time linked to the
issue of gender, appear most crucial. Judith Butler states: “Because there is
neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalises nor an objective
ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various
acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without these acts, there
would be no gender at all.”42 Complicated and diverse, what tends to be
called post-feminism can be described as the immersion of women in the
world of culture, with all its social, sexual and power relations characteristic of
the very contemporariness of the last thirty years. Such a broad definition,
with the stress on the worldliness of women, appears to match Atwood’s
understanding of post-feminisms. She admits: “I am interested in many
forms of interaction possible among women—just as I am in those
between women and men. I’m interested in male–male interaction.”43 It is,
then, exactly what seems of greatest importance to my analysis: the overall
cultural conditioning of women in the times of post-feminism(s); hence,
Atwood’s motif of women does not restrict itself only to this discourse’s
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

analysing practices, but encompasses—in a very Saidian manner—women


in the world, with all the cultural contexts of this motif.
Concerning religion, Atwood offers critical insight into the various
power relations that seem to be inscribed in every system of attitudes,
beliefs and practices of that kind. A declared agnostic, Atwood finds
religion interesting mainly in cultural and historical terms. She states: “I
can’t say the established religions have a terribly good track record. Most
of them have quite a history of doing people in—not to mention their
attitude towards women.”44 However, entering the discourse on religion,
she mainly has in mind Christianity, especially in its North-American
context. Here, the notion of her Canadian nationalism returns, since
Atwood has frequently defined it through opposition to the dominant

41
Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, edited
by Simon During, 3rd edition (London: Routledge, 1999), 319.
42
Judith Butler, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, edited
by Simon During, 3rd edition (London: Routledge, 1999), 381.
43
Geoff Hancock, ed., Canadian Writers at Work: Interviews with Geoff Hancock
(Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), 262–63.
44
Hancock, Canadian, 285.
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14 Chapter One

American identity. In the case of religion, the writer proposes a sober


critique of both the Puritans and their seventeenth-century idea of
theocracy, which “was totalitarian and hierarchical in nature,” and the
contemporary legacy of such a standpoint.45 In other words, she traces the
deeply-rooted totalitarian elements of religions (and especially Puritanism),
and she does so by uncovering its violently dominant attitude, e.g. towards
women, where male hegemony demonstrates itself in the most visible
form, at least according to Atwood. She seems to be aware of Millett’s
idea that “religious and literary myth all attests to the politically expedient
character of patriarchal convictions about women.”46 Nevertheless, the
writer’s perception of religion as ideology is far from being one-
dimensional, as she does not restrict herself to only criticizing its
mechanisms. Quite the contrary, as “a prominent figure in cultural
politics,” she realises the vast positive resources that could be gained from
religion.47 These include both ideological matters—her tone when writing
about religion is very often not only harshly critical but also ironically
benevolent—and her fascination with religious artefacts, e.g. the Bible and
its value to the world’s culture, which should not be overestimated. The
inspiration—both thematic and generic—that she gains from this canonical
text of Western civilization is impossible to overlook. She states: “What is
interesting to me about the whole complex [of religious beliefs and
practices] is that mythology precedes religion. If we can talk about
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

mythology instead of religion, then we’ll be probably on a firmer


ground.”48 This, on the other hand, can be associated with Atwood’s
postmodern poetics, which Linda Hutcheon defines as her “use and abuse
of traditional (male) literary conventions.”49 It also reveals that although
this book is focused on content rather than form, the latter is also of utmost
importance.

Dystopian Speculative Fiction


Atwood is conscious of the themes and style she uses: “her peculiar
astringent blending of these two elements [i.e. form and contents] links her
separate works, which display such technical and intellectual versatility

45
Belsey and Moore, “Introduction,” 12.
46
Millet, Sexual Politics, 46.
47
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 4.
48
Branko Gorjup, “Interview with Margaret Atwood,” in Margaret Atwood:
Essays on her Works (Toronto: Guernica, 2008), 242.
49
Hutcheon, The Canadian, 138.
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Context Is All 15

that they often seem unrelated.”50 However, as Howells explains, there is a


kind of affinity in all Atwood’s novels:

Atwood is an extremely versatile writer, and in every novel she takes up


the conventions of a different narrative form—Gothic romance, fairy tale,
spy thriller, science fiction of historical novel—working within those
conventions and reshaping them. Her writing insistently challenges the
limits of traditional genres, yet this experimentalism is balanced against a
strong continuity of interests, which are both aesthetic and social.51

Definitely, one of Atwood’s most powerful means of expressing worldly


interests—because it seems that, after all, substance always comes before
form in her prose—is the genre of dystopian or speculative fiction, as both
terms are adequate. Thus, they become the key terms of this monograph
and determine my choice of her literary material to be analysed. However,
these genres are similar and dissimilar at the same time, to various degrees
representing the broader category of science fiction. All these interesting
dependencies and intersections need to be specified.
Starting from speculative fiction, it must be emphasized that for many
critics the term is more or less synonymous with science-fiction (also
referred to as SF), representing a variant on the broader genre. P. L.
Thomas, who uses both these terms interchangeably, notes: “SF and
speculative fiction are genres that move readers to imagine alternative
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

ways of being alive.”52 What is more, according to Michael Svec and Mike
Winiski, who prefer the term speculative SF genre, its most fundamental
features are:

1. Deep description of the science content or technologies that were


plausible or accurate to the time period.
2. The novum: a plausible innovation as a key element in the speculation.
3. Big Picture: exploration of the impact on society and humanity.
4. Nature of Science: science and technology as human endeavours.53

50
John Moss, A Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel, 2nd edition (Toronto:
McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1987), 1.
51
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 5–6.
52
P. L. Thomas, “Challenging Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction,” in Science
Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres, edited by P. L. Thomas
(Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2013), 4.
53
Michael Svec and Mike Winiski, “Confronting the Science and the Fiction,” in
Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres, edited by P. L.
Thomas (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2013), 38.
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16 Chapter One

It can be stated, then, that speculative fiction represents an alternative,


futuristic vision of the contemporary world in which science and
technology appear of utmost importance to the picture of society they
shape. Moreover, even though fictional science always exceeds the actual
possibilities of the state of the art, the vision it proposes carries in itself a
huge amount of probability. Hence, speculative fiction tends to drift
towards the genre of utopia/dystopia, because it envisions a reality that is
always alternative to ours, either more positive, or more negative.
Consequently, Erika Gottlieb proposes the term “speculative dystopian
fiction” as the most appropriate, at the same time emphasising the satirical
value of the genre.54 This is the label I use in the context of Atwood’s
novels, either as the combination of these two words, or both dystopia and
speculative fiction appearing as separate but interchangeable terms. To
explain this generic combination, Gottlieb asks:

What are the most salient characteristics of dystopian fiction if we


concentrate on such well-known representatives of this speculative genre
as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Bradbury’s
Fahrenheit 451, Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s
Tale? All these works are political satires, projections of the fears that their
writers’ own society in the West could be moving towards a type of
totalitarian dictatorship already experienced as historical reality in the
USSR and in Eastern and Central Europe.55
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

This point of view, showing some affinity between the dystopian genre
and SF, corresponds with Chris Ferns’ opinion when the critic calls
utopia/dystopia “a subgenre of science fiction.”56 M. Keith Booker notes
both similarities and differences between these two genres. He states:
“There is clearly a great deal of overlap between dystopian fiction and
science fiction, and many texts belong to both categories. But in general,
dystopian fiction differs from science fiction in the specificity of its
attention to social and political critique.”57 It seems, then, that
speculative/dystopian fiction is the ground on which the genres of science-
fiction and utopia/dystopia meet, for in this genre futuristic visions are
always determined by a satirical and critical approach to contemporary

54
Erika Gottlieb, Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial
(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 34.
55
Gottlieb, Dystopian, 7.
56
Chris Ferns, Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Form, Gender in Utopian Literature
(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 10.
57
M. Keith Booker, Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide (London:
Greenwood Press, 1994), 4.
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Context Is All 17

reality. What is more, it demonstrates that they are so inseparably linked to


each other that it is impossible to determine definite dividing lines. As
Atwood states: “When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly
undefended, the things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.”58 As
a result, both the political and satirical dimension of speculative dystopias,
as well as technocratic and futuristic elements present in speculative SF,
match Atwood’s understanding of the broad genre in an apt way.
Unlike critics who do not seem to notice the difference between
dystopian fiction and science-fiction, Atwood disagrees with such a
categorisation. Commenting on The Handmaid’s Tale, she strongly
opposes identifying her book as science-fiction: “I define science fiction as
fiction in which things happen that are not possible today—that depend,
for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green
monsters on other planets or galaxies, or that certain various technologies
we have not yet developed.”59 She even labels her own version of
dystopian fiction with the neologism ustopia: “Ustopia is a word I made
up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its
opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the
other.”60 By speculative fiction, she understands quite a different type of
prose than most SF critics, i.e. fiction founded on more solid facts: “We’ve
done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing
inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

society is based are already in motion.”61 This disagreement in labelling


her speculative novels SF, provoked by Ursula Le Guin’s reviews of Oryx
and Crake and The Year of the Flood, sucked Atwood into a public
dispute over these terms. She explains her point:

I found that what [Le Guin] means by “science fiction” is speculative


fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really
could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.” In short, what Le Guin
means “science fiction” is what I mean “speculative fiction,” and what she
means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science
fiction.”62

58
Margaret Atwood, “Introduction,” in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human
Imagination (New York: Random House Inc., 2011), 7.
59
Margaret Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” in Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews,
Personal Prose 1983–2005 (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2005), 92.
60
Margaret Atwood, “Dire Cartographies: the Roads to Ustopia,” in In Other
Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (New York: Random House Inc., 2011),
66.
61
Atwood, “Dire Cartographies,” 92.
62
Atwood, “Introduction,” 6–7.
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18 Chapter One

As Svec and Winiski summarise the dispute: “Margaret Atwood saw SF as


descending from H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds with speculative fiction
tracing its origins to Jules Verne.”63 What is more, this generic category
should not be limited to the future only, and its definition could be as
follows: “The speculative mixing of past and present typifies speculative
fiction, which most often generates other worlds as comment upon our
own. Such fiction raises questions not only about what might happen, but
also about what is happening.”64 In other words, what interests Atwood is
describing the present, and in the vehicle of speculative dystopian fiction
she seems to have found her own method to take part in the discourses of
the contemporariness. As she confessed after the publication of Alias
Grace (the first historical novel of hers in which she employed a similar
technique), in the reference to the past:

The fictional world so lovingly delineated by the writer may bear a more
obvious or a less obvious relation to the world we actually live in, but
bearing no relation to it at all is not an option. We have to write out of who
and where we are, whether we like it or not, and disguise it as we may. As
Robertson Davies has remarked, “we all belong to our own time, and there
is nothing whatever that we can do to escape from it. Whatever we write
will be contemporary, even if we attempt a novel set in a past age.” We
can’t help but be modern, just as the Victorian writers—whenever they set
their books—couldn’t help but be Victorian. Like all beings alive on
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Middle Earth, we’re trapped by time and circumstance.65

Characterising her writing, this assertive declaration distinctly corresponds


with Said’s notion of worldliness, with all its cultural references to our
here and now, to which Atwood’s prose seems to be consciously open.

***

The main body of this book consists of four chapters, each devoted to
Atwood’s first dystopian speculative novels analysed in chronological
order. They are: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003),

63
Svec and Winiski, “Confronting,” 38.
64
Madonne Miner, “Trust Me: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s
The Handmaid’s Tale,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House
Publishers, 2001), 23.
65
Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical
Fiction,” in Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 (New
York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2005), 158–59.
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Context Is All 19

The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). Each of these
chapters is divided into three subsections, in which I approach the given
novel from the perspective outlined in a detailed way in this chapter, i.e. the
issues connected to science, women and religion. However, these three
problematic areas should be treated as starting points for the discussion of
various aspects of Atwood’s novels directly and indirectly associated with
them. In other words, these three interpretative platforms are pretexts rather
than a means in themselves. Their function is also to make my argument
intelligible and palatable. What is more, it is my deliberate decision to
exclude from the corpus of this monograph Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last
(2015), which also carries some characteristics of the genre. I have taken this
decision for a number of reasons, two of which are of decisive importance.
Firstly, the last novel enjoys a relatively poorer critical reception, especially
in comparison to the four first ones’ general acclaim. Secondly, the dystopia
envisioned in The Heart Goes Last drifts towards a parody of the genre,
focusing on hilarious scenes and situations rather than investigating serious
moral problems. No matter if this is done by the writer willingly or not, the
relatively lesser seriousness of the novel’s message makes it stand apart
from the Atwoodian canon of dystopian fiction.
The title of my book is an obvious reference to one of Atwood’s most
famous poems, “Eating Fire,” originally taken from the 1974 volume You
Are Happy. In the first of its five sections we read:
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Eating fire

is your ambition:
to swallow the flame down
take it into your mouth
and shoot it forth, a shout or an incandescent
tongue, a word
exploding from you in gold, crimson,
unrolling in a brilliant scroll

To be lit up from within


vein by vein

To be the sun.66

In my opinion, this is precisely what Atwood urges us to do in her prose,


and especially in her dystopian speculative novels: to read carefully,

66
Margaret Atwood, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 (London: Virago
Press, 1998), 181.
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20 Chapter One

remembering that each word has its value, its power, and to let this word
transform us. It is the writer’s responsibility and her moral duty to use
words in this way. In Negotiating with the Dead, a non-fiction book with
the revealing subtitle, A Writer on Writing, she refers to this problem of
ethics in literature:

This may be overdoing it a bit, especially in the age of the atom bomb, the
Internet, and the rapid disappearance of other species from this earth. But
still, let us suppose that the words the writer writes do not exist in some
walled garden called “literature,” but actually get out there into the world,
and have effects and consequences. Don’t we then have to begin talking
about ethics and responsibilities?67

She leaves that question about the necessity of worldliness in literature


open because the answer appears obvious. Yet, she clearly articulates
some kind of solution, returning at the same time to the already-mentioned
concept of I-witnessing: “Is there a self-identity for the writer that
combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it
be? Ask the age we live in, and it might reply—the witness. And, if
possible, the eyewitness.”68 She concludes this train of thought in the
following way: “The eye is cold because it is clear, and it is clear because
its owner must look: he must look at everything. Then she must record.”69
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

67
Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (London:
Virago Press, 2003), 86–87.
68
Atwood, Negotiating, 104.
69
Atwood, Negotiating, 108.
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CHAPTER TWO

THE HANDMAID’S TALE,


OR THE REPUBLIC OF MEN

In their monstrous night


thick with possible claws
where danger is not knowing,

you are the hugest monster.


(Margaret Atwood, “Cyclopes,” Eating Fire, 92)

***
Fists have many forms;
a fist knows what it can do
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

without the nuisance of speaking:


it grabs and smashes.

From those inside or under


words gush like toothpaste.

Language, the fist


proclaims by squeezing
is for the weak only.

(Margaret Atwood, “We Hear Nothing,” Eating Fire, 118)

***
This is your trick or miracle,
to be consumed and rise
intact, over and over, even for myths there is
a limit, the limit when you accomplish
failure and return
from the fire minus your skin.

(Atwood, “Eating Fire,” Eating Fire, 182)

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22 Chapter Two

Environmental Degradation and its Impact on Society


Although The Handmaid’s Tale is not a book preoccupied with
scientific and environmental issues, echoes and shadows of these problems
are of the highest importance in reference to social and sexual
discrimination. Atwood fully understands “the duality of modern methods
of technology and the regressive acts of a pre-civilized, prehistoric
mentality,” which—according to Erika Gottlieb—constitutes one of the
most important features of dystopian writing.1 Science, then, is used in The
Handmaid’s Tale as a kind of a backdrop, or a point of reference, for the
more visible and stigmatised issues of women’s discrimination and
theocratic domination. Emphasising such an approach, Atwood describes
her reasons for writing the novel in the following way:

To make my future society, I proposed something a little more complex


[than the twentieth-Century dictatorships]. Bad economic times, yes, but
also a period of widespread environmental catastrophe, which has several
results: a higher infertility and sterility rate due to chemical and radiation
damage (this, by the way, is happening already) and a higher birth-defect
rate, which is also happening.2

The scientific issues constitute the background without which the literary
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

representations of femininity vs. theocracy would not be so convincing


and alarming. Therefore, although not so explicit—and even almost
unnoticeable at first—science turns out to be one of the dominant elements
of The Handmaid’s Tale, and as such requires a closer analytic
investigation.
Atwood’s first effort in the genre of dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, is
the story of Offred, a handmaid who lives in the near-future state of
Gilead. Situated in the north-eastern part of the United States, the
republic’s name carries a number of biblical connotations, as it appears in
the Holy Book in reference to both persons and geographical names. For
the first time, it is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as a mountainous
region east of the Jordan River, directly connected with the story of Jacob.
Gilead becomes central to the novel and its critique of extreme patriarchy
(the notion discussed in the Religion chapter), since “the Old Testament
mentions Gilead as a backdrop for quite a few important events from

1
Gottlieb, Dystopian Fiction East, 37–38.
2
Margaret Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” in Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews,
Personal Prose 1983–2005 (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2005), 98.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 23

patriarchal history.”3 Additionally, however, the name appears in the


traditional Negro spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” which takes its
title from the “balm of Gilead,” a popular mixture in biblical times that can
be interpreted as a spiritual medicine able to heal Israel, as well as all the
sinners in more general terms.4 This reading links the Old Testament
Gilead with the New Testament concept of salvation, a kind of a promised
land, where misogynistic and totally male-dominated distortion can be
seen on the pages of Atwood’s novel: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt
Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.”5 As in all police regimes,
Gilead completely limits its citizens’ freedom, dividing society into easily
distinguishable, and thus controllable, classes whose social functions are
also clearly established. In other words, the state’s authorities implement
the ancient maxim divide et impera, according to which it is easier to
maintain power by inducing minor conflicts between various social groups
so as to prevent them from linking up. This is particularly true in the case
of women who, although divided into easily distinguished and often
antagonistic classes, have almost no legal rights no matter which position
on the female hierarchy they occupy. The thirty-three-year-old Offred
belongs to the class of handmaids, surrogate mothers, whose aim is to give
birth to children, as Gilead, due to numerous environmental catastrophes,
suffers from underpopulation: “[there was] a graph, showing the birth rate
per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

of replacement, and down and down.”6 This would be a huge problem for
all states, but it is even greater for a theocratic one, whose aim seems to be
the process of expansion, impossible without an army of new believers.
Offred lives in the house of the Commander, a high state official, with
whom she is obliged to mate during a monthly ceremony literarily inspired
by the Old Testament story of Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah, and their
handmaids. In this degrading situation, recalling mostly good memories
from the pre-Gilead times when she lived a relatively happy life with her
partner and their daughter, she tries to survive: both literally, as only
giving birth to the Commander’s child can enable it, and symbolically, as

3
Dorota Filipczak, “Is There No Balm in Gilead?—Biblical Intertext in The
Handmaid’s Tale,” Journal of Literature and Theology 7 (1993): 171–85.
4
The phrase has also gone through to popular culture, as a reference to it, both
direct and highly ironic, can be found e.g. in the title of the song “There Is a Bomb
in Gilead” (2005) by an American punk-rock artist known as Unwoman (which
term, by the way, comes from The Handmaid’s Tale too and is discussed later on
in this chapter).
5
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 33.
6
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 123.
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24 Chapter Two

preserving her female identity seems the only way not to yield and retain
some sort of dignity. Paradoxically enough, it is only from the semi-
documentary epilogue of the novel entitled “Historical Notes”—a
transcript of an academic seminar from the year 2195 devoted to studying
the already non-existent state of Gilead—that we learn about both the end
of the theocratic regime, and the way Offred’s story is still misread and
misunderstood.
Atwood uses science in her novel as a kind of a decorative, yet very
significant background, indicating the reputed higher technological level
of Gilead’s development and suggesting its importance in the regime’s
emergence. For example, in the years directly preceding the theocratic
turnover, the authorities replace traditional money with plastic cards,
which results both in the establishment of virtual currency and, most
importantly, in subordinating the citizens, who now become dependent on
the state-controlled Compubank. It is an institution that combines the
features of a huge bank with a bureau collecting full data about all the
citizens. Offred describes it: “I guess that’s how they were able to do it
[i.e. to take over the power], in the way they did it, all at once, without
anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it
would have been more difficult.”7 The progress of science enables the
regime to control the masses, especially women, as at some point of this
political process, this shift into open and official misogyny, all females are
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

deprived of the possibility to access their accounts and become absolutely


dependent on men. Additionally, science and technology are directly
connected with Offred’s pre-Gilead profession: “I worked transferring
books to computer disks. Discers, we called ourselves.”8 This adds one
more layer to the possible readings of science in The Handmaid’s Tale,
which according to Marta Dvorak suggests Atwood’s rather negative
attitude to the social changes triggered by technological progress:
“Atwood targets contemporary readers who increasingly communicate
with one another and the external world through electronic images and
wavelengths.”9 This process appears to be ongoing, as its next phase could
be represented by the Gilead print-out machines called Soul Scrolls:

7
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 182.
8
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 182.
9
Marta Dvorak, “What is Real/Reel? Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rearrangement of
Shapes on a Flat Surface,’ or Narrative as Collage,” in Modern Critical
Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” edited by Harold
Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001), 147.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 25

What the machines print is prayers, roll upon roll, prayers going out
endlessly. Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of
piety and faithfulness to the regime. The machines talk as they print out the
prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless
metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over.10

Understandably enough, Atwood’s picture of these devices is highly


ironic. Soul Scrolls suggest the rather soulless nature of the system and the
religion behind it, with this soullessness—this superficiality—achieved to
a great extent thanks to the possibilities provided by technological
advancement.

***

However, science’s most interesting function is far from decorative. It


is responsible—at least partially through the environmental degradation it
has caused—for the oppressive political system of Gilead. Although there
is relatively little about Gilead’s environmental situation in Offred’s
narration—she definitely has limited access to knowledge of geopolitical
facts—the protagonist still possesses some basic information: “women
took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up
piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power
plants and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch.”11 No
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

wonder it is mainly when the narrative perspective changes in “Historical


Notes” that the reader learns about the scale of the environmental
problems that Gilead was forced to face. A dry typescript from an
academic seminar, the “Historical Notes” section offers an apparently
more objective point of view, at least when it comes to analysing the
ecological situation in Gilead. It is underlined by the fact that it is mainly a
scholar—Professor Pieixoto—who is speaking from a perspective when
Offred, together with the Gilead regime, are long gone. This is how,
according to the historian, the ideological assumptions of the state of
Gilead, i.e. its core reasons for existence, are directly influenced by the
conditions of science and its impact on the environment:

Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on


the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant
accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the
period, as well as leakages from chemical and biological-warfare
stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many

10
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 175–76.
11
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 122.
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26 Chapter Two

thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were
simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of
chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.12

Thus, the wrong scientific proceedings resulting in environmental


contamination have a huge influence on the political situation of Gilead as
a totalitarian state. All these alarming tendencies that Professor Pieixoto
notes are chiefly connected with how people, both in Gilead and in pre-
Gilead times, deal with scientific innovations and how such actions trigger
environmental degradation. Studying the Gilead regime almost two
hundred years after its collapse (the academic conference on which he
gives his speech takes place in 2195), he has access to information
completely out of reach for Offred, who is forced to exist in political
ignorance. This is also visible in reference to her knowledge about
environmental dangers, on which she does not focus in her narration,
because these are the issues beyond her cognisance. That is why there is so
little about them in Offred’s account, and so many in Pieixoto’s.
Additionally, all these alarming tendencies that the scholar mentions are
characteristic of our times, a fact that makes the novel a kind of a warning
for its readers. Coral Ann Howells states: “early 1980s North American
society has slipped away from its historically specific context to become a
political fable for our time, as if the present is rushing in to confirm
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Atwood’s dire warnings about birth technologies, environmental pollution,


human rights abuse, religious fanaticism, extreme right-wing movements.”13
Gilead, then, is an example of a state that finds itself in the final phase of
existence, or even on the edge of extinction. Unfortunately, in such
extreme circumstances, it is quite common that people resort to the most
basic and primitive resolutions, which in this case is religion in its most
discriminatory and misogynistic form.
Consequently, abusing science has a direct impact on the way Gilead’s
society is organised, with the most disastrous effects on women. The first
victims here are the handmaids, who are to remedy the fatal consequences
of environmental contamination. This forced function basically reduces
women to reproductive activities only, because the need for children is
primary in Gilead’s society, which suffers from infertility and, consequently,
underpopulation:

The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Centre. The air got too
full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic

12
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 316–17.
13
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 94.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 27

molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep
into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh
may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and
unborn babies.14

In other words, “such is the condition of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale,


where sterility and a general shortage of food result from the changes in an
environment contaminated by nuclear fall-out, the world sliding into slow
decreation.”15 Hence, the handmaids are the chosen ones because they are
able, at least hypothetically, to ensure the survival of the whole nation.
However, it all comes at a cost, which in this case is their complete
subordination, or even humiliation. They are not treated as human beings
any more. Instead, their biological functions seem to be of the greatest and
only importance to Gilead’s male-dominated society, which consequently
directly reinforces the openly misogynistic state. Therefore, it can be said
that together with other features of capitalism and consumerism, the
scientific procedures that resulted in such ecological contamination are to
a great degree responsible for the emergence of the very patriarchal
regime: “the takeover of the theocracy came about gradually, as a response
to the breakdown of consumerist capitalist democracy, to the infertility
caused by the ecological imbalance of nuclear experiments, fallout, and
toxic waste.”16 No wonder that in the male-dominated society women—
the handmaids in this very case—are to pay the greatest price, literally
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

sacrificing their minds and bodies for the state in which they are not even
fully recognised citizens. However, apart from the handmaids, represented
by Offred, all the other women in the state of Gilead also have to accept a
more or less humiliating position. The most degrading one is occupied by
unwomen, who demonstrate the relationship between the misuse of
science and religion in the most explicit way.
When mentioned for the first time in the novel, unwomen are presented
as both the greatest pre-Gileadean enemies of religious values and a sign
of wrongly understood womanhood, since this is the label the misogynistic
state uses for these feminists. Consequently, they become a tool in the
state’s official propaganda, according to which “back then, the unwomen
were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The
government gave them money to do that very thing.”17 When they appear
in the novel again, this time in the contemporary context of Gilead’s

14
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 122.
15
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 177.
16
Gottlieb, Dystopian, 105.
17
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 128.
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28 Chapter Two

existence, their function is strictly linked to the world of environmental


degradation as depicted in Atwood’s dystopia. Categorised as unable to be
brainwashed but still deserving penalty, they are sentenced to live and die
in the Colonies, which are highly toxic sites where dangerous nuclear
waste is processed. Moira, one of the characters, recounts:

In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up. They’re very clean-
minded these days. Sometimes it’s just bodies, after a battle. The ones in
city ghettoes are the worst, they’re left around longer, they get rottener.
This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a
plague or something. So the women in the Colonies there do the burning.
The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation
spills. They figure they’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your
nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t
bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s
cheaper not to.18

Furthermore, it is made explicit that these post-scientific Colonies are for


people who are no longer of any use to the fundamentalist state, and no
longer productive since they include mainly older females and former
handmaids who have miscarried three times. This additionally emphasises
the tragic fate of the handmaids. What is more, in the Colonies there are
also men, mainly homosexuals, whom the regime labels Gender Traitors:
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

“I’d say it’s about a quarter men in the Colonies, too. All of them wear
long dresses, like the ones at the Centre, only grey. Women and men too,
judging from the group shots. I guess it’s supposed to demoralize the men,
having to wear a dress.”19 At the same time, these unmen, as one could
call them, are also known as unwomen. This indicates the intolerant
politics of a state in which being an unwoman means not existing in the
legal sense of this word, regardless of the sex one represents. What is
more, dealing with toxic waste, both in literal and more symbolic terms, is
not only a punishment but a sophisticated torture method.
Science in The Handmaid’s Tale, then, constitutes its core background.
On the one hand, it may seem that its function is limited only to adding
credibility to Atwood’s vision of the near future, since it helps to picture
the world as definitely more technologically advanced than it was in the
year of the book’s publication, 1985. On the other one, however, its role,
although not so exposed and obvious, is far more important. It is science
that seems directly responsible for ecological degradation, which, resulting
in the infertility problem, enables fundamentalist and anti-female tendencies

18
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 260.
19
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 261.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 29

to emerge and, consequently, dominate the state of Gilead. Consequently,


for Gilead’s theocratic regime science—together with the technological
progress that stands behind it—becomes a tool thanks to which the state is
able to function so well. It becomes a tool in people’s hands that is
tragically abused, since instead of offering humanity the hope of progress,
it is used to privilege one group of people at the cost of another. Therefore,
it would be wrong to underestimate the role of science in Atwood’s
philosophy, which proves true in her later novels where the picture and
scope of scientific and environmental issues is far more developed, visible
and significant.

Underwoman in Pursuit of Identity and Community


In discussing the various roles of women in The Handmaid’s Tale it is
necessary to refer to second-wave feminism, because the novel was
written in the waning days of the movement. Firstly, the fact that the
society depicted in the novel is completely male-dominated contrasts
visibly and purposefully with Atwood’s individual characters, who are
mainly women. Secondly, the way they handle the difficult situation by
constituting a peculiar kind of a feminine community is significant here. In
this informal and unorganised community, as well as individually, they
seek to express their own voice and identity, so thoroughly oppressed by
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

the dominant patriarchal system. Consequently, the pursuit of female


personality, both individually and in informal groups, makes The
Handmaid’s Tale a feminist dystopia, a notion that needs discussing.
As hinted above, in this novel Atwood openly refers to the legacy of
feminist thought in the 1970s, the peak of the second wave of the
movement. However, Atwood’s critical interests focus more on the
practical and social aspects of second-wave feminism, better represented
by Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) and Kate Millett (Sexual
Politics, 1970), than the more theoretical and academic approach of such
thinkers as Helene Cixous (“The Laugh of the Medusa,” 1976). Therefore,
the more down-to-earth issues deriving directly from first-wave feminism,
like the oppressive patriarchal system, which Friedan calls “the problem
that has no name,”20 and the fight for women’s rights, are of definitely
greater importance to the Canadian writer. While early twentieth-century
feminists concentrated on the woman’s right to vote, the dominant
emphasis of the 1970s movement was put on sexuality and the social roles
that stand behind it, with severe criticism of patriarchy and the importance

20
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 9.
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30 Chapter Two

of difference applied to male and female experience. To quote Kate


Millett: “sex is a status category with political implications.”21 It was also
the movement that refuted the division into the personal and the political,
which was clearly signalled even in the title of Carol Hanisch’s famous
essay from 1970, “The Personal is Political.” Hanisch states: “personal
problems are political problems,” which, consequently, leads her to the
conclusion that “the most important [for women] is getting rid of self-
blame.”22 Such a thesis completely changed women’s position in the world
because the private/personal side of their existence within society,
previously hidden behind the façade of self-blame, came to light,
becoming a matter of public attention. Additionally, Hanisch shows that
the source of blame should be relocated to the patriarchal system that is
responsible for the position of women, the opinion shared by many
second-wave feminists. In Atwood’s novel, this assumption is realised in
the example of Gilead and its politics: oppressive towards women and,
hence, openly misogynistic. Finally, second-wave feminism was the
movement that put stress on the female self, i.e. a non-male way of
experiencing reality. In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood (re-)uses some of
these ideas and tries to determine their validity and significance in a time
and place that clearly resembles 1980s America. This decade and this
country provided Atwood with the direct inspiration for her dystopian
novel. However, the book can be also read in definitely more universal
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

terms. The Republic of Gilead also seems to be an extreme reaction to


second-wave feminism, with its aspirations for complete freedom of
women and the collapse of the patriarchal system of values.
One of the most controversial issues connected with Atwood’s attitude
to feminism is the placement of The Handmaid’s Tale in the generic
context of speculative dystopia. Although Atwood wrote her book fully
aware of all its generic implications, she also endeavoured to enrich her
dystopia with features then alien to the genre, the female voice most
important among them. Consequently, employing the “obvious feminist
focus”23 makes The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist variation on a dystopia.
Atwood herself states:

21
Millet, Sexual, 24.
22
Hanisch, “The Personal Is Political.”
23
Amin Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian
Tradition,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s “The
Handmaid’s Tale,” edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House
Publishers, 2001), 6.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 31

The majority of dystopias—Orwell’s included—have been written by men,


and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them,
they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who’ve defied the sex
rules of the regime. They’ve acted as the temptresses of the male
protagonists, however welcome this temptation may be to the men
themselves. Thus Julia, thus the cami-knicker-wearing, orgy-porgy seducer
of the Savage in Brave New World, thus the subversive femme fatale of
Yvgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 seminal classic We. I wanted to try a dystopia
from the female point of view—the world of Julia, as it were.24

Additionally, Chris Ferns points at a different quality that makes The


Handmaid’s Tale a unique representative of the genre:

Far more exclusively than any other dystopian author, Atwood chooses to
focus on the private consciousness of her protagonist—on the one realm
that the State cannot successfully invade. For all the elaboration of the
State’s surveillance mechanisms, it cannot prevent her from committing
treason in her own mind, from thoughtcrime, to use Orwell’s
terminology.25

Therefore, the gender factor present so prominently in The Handmaid’s


Tale has to be emphasised, because it influences the perception of the
novel as a feminist dystopia. According to Judith A. Little, “feminist
dystopias describe the worst misogynistic societies we have experienced
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

or can imagine.”26 However, the label itself can be understood not in the
sense that it depicts a terrifying society governed harshly and unjustly by
radical feminists (although the traces of the repressive distribution of
power could be seen among women, too), but rather that it shows a society
in which women lose all their power, even though their biological
functions as mothers make them highly required due to a huge
underpopulation problem.
At the same time, it is Atwood’s decision to charge Offred with the
function of a narrator that makes The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist dystopia.
Coral Ann Howells agrees with such a standpoint where generic features of
dystopia are juxtaposed with Offred’s obvious female voice: “[Offred’s]
treasonable act of speaking out in a society where women are forbidden to

24
Margaret Atwood, “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” in Writing
with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983–2005, 287–93 (New York:
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2005), 291.
25
Ferns, Narrating Utopia, 131–32.
26
Judith A. Little, “Introduction,” in Feminist Philosophy and Science: Utopias
and Dystopias, edited by Judith A. Little (New York: Prometheus Books, 2007),
16.
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32 Chapter Two

read or write or to speak freely effects a significant shift from ‘history’ to


‘herstory.’ Offred’s tale claims a space, a large autobiographical space,
within the novel and so relegates the grand narratives to the margins as a
mere framework for her story, which is the main focus of interests.”27
Indeed, the protagonist’s point of view appears to Atwood as important as
the implications of the plot. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the writer gives
Offred a voice in the fullest possible way. She makes her a narrator that is
far from being omniscient, and yet becomes the only source of information
not only about her inner thoughts and feelings, but also about the external
world of the regime that surrounds her. Telling her story, Offred is not
interested in factual data. She focuses on her own role in the events that
happen around her (though not only to her), frequently switching from her
present dystopian situation to the times before the patriarchal takeover.
She constitutes a type of narrator that the reader may find difficult to rely
on at first. Yet, over the course of time she proves powerful. It is then a
conscious, inner female voice—Offred’s storytelling/writing—that,
representing identity, becomes the basic and genuine feature of Atwood’s
dystopia, or its axis.
Dominant as it is, Offred’s point of view constitutes only one level of
narration in the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale is constructed in such a way
that it ends with an epilogue that seemingly calls into question the
meaning of the whole story. In other words, the lively voice of Offred’s is
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

quite tragically juxtaposed not only with the sexual discrimination that
women face in Gilead, but also with the world of the far future, with the
patriarchal state of Gilead no longer existing, but its negative views on
women still present. On the surface, as the epilogue of the novel entitled
“Historical Notes” suggests, the new, post-Gilead world seems to be an
ecologically clean place, with people from multiple cultures, religions and
points of view coexisting in peace and harmony. This is something
impossible to imagine in Gilead. However, all these values seem to be
only superficial. There are scholars of this future world who misread
Offred’s discourse in a most unacceptable way: “these ’Historical Notes’
are a further reinforcing of the authority of Offred’s narrative: the
academics are satirised as trivialisers of history. They have turned Gilead
into a matter of textual authentication and an occasion for levity and
entertainment. The scholars are pompous cultural relativists.”28 First of all,
we learn that this is a male historian, professor Pieixoto, who discovers

27
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 93.
28
Glenn Deer, “The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power,” in
Modern Critical Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,”
edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001), 108.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 33

and edits Offred’s oral diary (in the form of a scattered tape) into what is
entitled The Handmaid’s Tale. For Pieixoto, Offred’s account has little, if
any, historical value. The professor calls Offred’s narrative “an item”—“I
hesitate to use the word document,” he states.29 By repeating this unjust
term several times, he deprives Offred’s story of its most important
quality, i.e. truth. What is more, ironically it is a man who appears to
reconstruct a woman’s discourse about the abuses of the male world. This
fact at the same time not only degrades the narrator’s voice, but also
undermines her identity. Consequently, this results in “a radical shift from
‘herstory’ to ‘history’ as he attempts to discredit Offred’s narrative by
accusing her of not paying attention to significant events.”30 Being more
interested in dry historical facts, i.e. mainly the identity of Offred’s
commander, Pieixoto does not appear to perceive Offred as an individual
human being, or, as a being equal to him, a man. He does what Offred
fears most: that “from the point of view of future, [the handmaids] will be
invisible.”31 Pieixoto’s misogynistic interpretation deprives Offred of her
identity, making her an unimportant part of the great realm of history,
where objective analysis means more than any sign of emotional
subjectivity. Addressing a group of scholars who subsequently applaud
him, the historian comments on Gilead’s totalitarianism:

If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion


Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans.


Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity
culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of
pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from
which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to
understand.32

Paradoxically then, even though “the voice of the repressed woman we


know as Offred survives longer than the regime that tries to silence it,”33 it
is hard to say that she triumphs over Gilead, since the tendencies that
dominated in that totalitarian state are still present, only this time more
carefully hidden.

29
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 313.
30
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 107.
31
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 240.
32
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 315.
33
Sharon Rose Wilson, “Off the Path to Grandma’s House in The Handmaid’s
Tale,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s
Tale,” edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001),
77.
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34 Chapter Two

Returning to the issue of Offred’s voice as the most noticeable emblem


of her female identity, the technical problem of whether Offred’s narrative
is actually writing or telling arises. She states consciously: “I would like to
believe this is story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it.
Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better
chance. Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and
writing is in any case forbidden.”34 These words make it obvious that she
is telling. This interpretation can be reinforced by the fact one learns from
the documentary epilogue to the novel. Offred’s story was recorded on
“approximately thirty tape cassettes, of the type that became obsolete
sometime in the eighties or nineties,” which were only found later, after
Gilead’s collapse.35 Nevertheless, the very nature of Offred’s discourse
makes it more appropriate to accept Glenn Deer’s analysis of The
Handmaid’s Tale, in which, emphasising Offred’s point-of-view narrative
as well as the fact that the protagonist is an educated woman (in the pre-
Gilead years she worked as a librarian), the critic states that “one of the
great compositional problems of the novel is that the oral qualities of
Offred’s taped discourse are always imaginary oral qualities: as we read
the printed discourse, we attend to a complex syntactical and rhetorical
play that is the product of the economy of writing, not speech.”36 It would
be justified then to treat Offred’s discourse as both “a substitute for
dialogue,”37 and a text of culture; i.e. a discourse combining in itself both
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

oral and written qualities. More importantly, however, Offred’s voice


becomes a representation of her attitude to the regime in which very
frequently contradictory tendencies meet: her decision to speak/write can
be regarded by Gilead’s authorities as treason, since such activities are
forbidden to women. Still, the heroine’s discourse is so often full of
hesitation and evasion that it may be difficult to show its pure feminine
and resistant quality. As Offred states critically: “They used to have dolls,
for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I
was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll.”38
Nonetheless, she seems to be too hard on herself. Amin Malak notes:

What makes Atwood’s book such a moving tale is its clever technique in
presenting the heroine initially as a voice, almost like a sleepwalker
conceiving disjointed perceptions of its surroundings, as well as flashing

34
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 49.
35
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 313.
36
Deer, “The Handmaid’s,” 95
37
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 101.
38
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 26.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 35

reminiscences about a bygone life. As the scenes gather more details, the
heroine’s voice is steadily and imperceptively, yet convincingly, transfigured
into a full-roundness that parallels her maturing comprehension of what is
happening around her. Thus the victim, manipulated and coerced, is
metamorphosed into a determined conniver who daringly violates the
perverted canons of Gilead.39

Offred’s growing self-awareness is thus reflected in her speaking voice,


which consequently results in her courageous will to disobey: “Offred
refuses to be silenced, as she speaks out with the voice of late twentieth-
century feminist individualism, resisting the cultural identity imposed on
her.”40 All these complexities in decoding the meaning and significance of
her voice influence the way Offred’s female identity can be read, making
the heroine a highly ambiguous character.
When it comes to Offred’s resistant identity and the complicated
patriarchal power structures she finds herself in, the difficulties of perceiving
and evaluating her become visible in reference to her very name. The
heroine confesses:

My name isn’t Offred. I have another name, which nobody uses now
because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like
your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is
wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this
name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some
charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single
bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my
eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.41

This conscious act of protecting her real identity may suggest some
survival instinct hidden deep inside Offred. Keeping in mind her real name
and, at the same time, refusing both to utter and forget it, she rebels
against the regime that requires from all its citizens—and especially
women—complete obedience. She dares to question her social status of an
underwoman, which also indicates the validity of her name. The name
“Offred” obviously derives from the Commander who, physically and
symbolically, possesses and “commands” the heroine (“of Fred”). It can be
explained in different ways as well: “Offred’s name also suggests ‘Off-
red’ as a secret rebel, the ‘Offered’ in a blood sacrifice, and, especially, the

39
Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s,” 8.
40
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 99.
41
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 94.
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36 Chapter Two

‘red’ figure who goes ‘off’ the path.”42 Offred is then a secret rebel who
struggles for her private freedom and identity, but also, symbolically, for
the freedom and identity of other handmaids and women in general.
However, her name implies some passivity, too: “she, herself, is ‘afraid’
(to play on a word that sounds like ‘Offred’)—afraid to rally against the
Revolution, to reveal herself to Ofglen, to spy on behalf of the Mayday
group, to attempt escape, to commit suicide.”43 Sometimes this passivity
manifests itself in the projected denial of her real name and acceptance of
her present situation: “that’s where I am, there’s no escaping it. Time’s a
trap, I’m caught in it. I must forget about my secret name and all ways
back. My name is Offred now, and here is where I live. Live in the
present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got.”44 Nonetheless, such
breakdowns of resistance and doubts in the meaning of fighting for
freedom seem to be inscribed in Offred’s personality, making her a more
reliable character. In the end, the desire to express herself freely and
preserve her identity fully prevails: “she guards her lost name as the secret
sign of her own identity and as guarantee of her hopes for a different
future.”45 Thus, a desire for free manifestation of identity in such
circumstances may mean a desire for survival. Her discourse becomes
what Coral Ann Howells calls “a woman’s survival narrative.”46
Offred’s unwavering decision to keep her name a secret and to use
language as a weapon against the oppressive political system clearly
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

corresponds with the aforementioned survival procedures. For Offred, true


survival means not only the preservation of her identity, but also creating
it anew, which turns to be a constant, never-ending process. She fully
realises that the only way to survive is to preserve her language, as it plays
the vital part in this process. However, the heroine herself does not seem
to be fully convinced of the strength that lies in her and the language that
she uses: “that is how I feel: white, flat, thin. I feel transparent. Surely they
will be able to see through me. I feel as if there’s not much left of me; they
will slip through my arms, as if I’m made of smoke, as if I’m a mirage,
fading before their eyes.”47 Therefore, she has her moments of doubt as
well. “I don’t want to be telling this story,” she says on one occasion. “I
don’t have to tell it. I don’t have to tell anything, to myself or to anyone
else. I could just sit here, peacefully. I could withdraw. It’s possible to go

42
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 68.
43
Cooke, Margaret Atwood, 125.
44
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 153.
45
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 99.
46
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 93.
47
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 95.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 37

so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out. Why
fight?”48 Due to such projected moments of withdrawal, Chris Ferns calls
Offred “the most passive of all the rebels against dystopia.”49 As Offred
states: “I’m too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about
where I am,” as says the protagonist at one instant.50 Such readings are
partly true because hesitation and withdrawal mark the natural fears of a
person put in the extreme circumstances the totalising, theocratic state of
Gilead offers. Offred shelters herself from the hostile reality she finds
herself living, as probably most people in her situation would: “Steel
yourself, my mother used to say. I never thought much at the time about
what the phrase meant, but it had something to do with metal, with
armour, and that’s what I would do, I would steel myself. I would pretend
not to be present, not in the flesh.”51 Interestingly enough, such fears and
anxieties are an obvious sign of Offred’s intelligence. She fully realises
her unjustly inferior position, stating: “I resign my body freely, to the uses
of others. They can do what they like to me. I am abject. I feel, for the first
time, their true power.”52 This utterance of Offred’s clearly corresponds
with Julia Kristeva’s definitions of abject and abjection: “a ‘something’
that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about
which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of
non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it,
annihilates me.”53 At the same time, Offred’s words may suggest that
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

whereas on the physical level of her existence in Gilead she cannot beat
the system, there are still a multitude of possibilities in language.
Consequently, the main two options for Offred are either to yield to this
annihilating force that embodies itself in the patriarchal totalitarianism of
Gilead, or—recognising and realising some active potentials of her
identity—struggle for her coherence. She chooses the latter, stating
ironically: “I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how
ignorant I was.”54
As already suggested, Offred’s main weapon against the regime and, at
the same time, her ultimate tool in retaining her identity appears to be
language: “Because Offred recognises the connections between the male

48
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 237.
49
Ferns, Narrating, 131.
50
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 138.
51
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 169.
52
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 298.
53
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S.
Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.
54
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 275.
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38 Chapter Two

control of language and male power, her dialogic resistance to the official,
monologic discourse of Gilead is a conscious form of political
disobedience.”55 Additionally, she seems to be absolutely conscious of the
possibilities of language and highly precise in its use: “through her
dialogic wordplay and focus on words, Offred not only registers her
resistance to the official speech and totalising discourse of the state, she
also signals her desperate desire to retain some sense of control. Words, to
Offred, are more than precious commodities. They are also signposts to
the reality she is determined to hold on to. While the world can be read as
if it were a text, it is not equivalent to a text.”56 This mastery in wordplays,
combined with a sense of desperation, is easily noticeable in the following
passage: “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean
a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word
for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others. These are
the litanies I use, to compose myself.”57 These puns have both internal and
external connections. Offred actually seems fully aware of this, a fact that
can be detected in her compositions. By controlling language, she appears
to have some sort of power—limited as it must be—over her identity and
destiny; as she recounts the forbidden game of Scrabble, i.e. a game of
words, that the Commander invites her to play: “I win the first game, I let
him win the second.”58 Consequently, she realises the power of language
in her difficult political context:
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Offred is depicted as fascinated with the paradoxes of power. Offred’s


ethical assumptions would suggest that she is opposed to irrational modes
of argument and persuasion; she is opposed to the tyranny of propaganda.
Yet this ethical consciousness demonstrates its attraction to the rhetorical
efficiency of violence, power, and the grotesque: Offred has, in her
discursive practice, started to play the game of power politics like a true
Gileadan.59

Far from passivity then, Offred is fully aware of the fact that it is only
through language and its quality of bitter irony that her identity can
survive. She draws the analogy between the red tulips in her Commander’s

55
J. Brooks Bouson, “The Misogyny of Patriarchal Culture in The Handmaid’s
Tale,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s
Tale,” edited by Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001),
53.
56
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 54
57
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 120.
58
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 149.
59
Deer, “The Handmaid’s,” 100.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 39

wife’s garden and blood of an executed man—two seemingly unconnected


pictures: “each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such
valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a
lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to be very clear, in my
own mind.”60
Language-consciousness and the maturity of her voice provoke
questions about Offred’s narration and its role in the heroine’s survival.
Definitely, Offred makes a highly interesting narrator, who Chris Ferns
likens to D-503 from Zamyatin’s canonical dystopia, We:

The narrators in Zamyatin’s We, or indeed Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale


are more active, by contrast, yet at the same time less confident. D-503 and
Offred are hesitant, reluctant to pass judgment, sometimes even confused,
and their narratives reveal, not mind already made up, but rather minds in
the process of being made up. D-503 reveals himself as engaged in an
internal struggle over what to think, over whether to accept or reject the
values of the One State, while Offred, although clearly opposed to the
fundamentalist values of Gilead, is occupied throughout the book with the
question as to what she can or should do about her situation.61

This hesitation, this passive-active tension, is also another factor that


makes Offered a round character, a notion that E. M. Forster defines in
Aspects of the Novel by building an opposition to a flat character.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

According to the writer and critic, unlike round characters, flat ones “are
constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one
factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round.”62
Hence, Offred—due to her complexity, her capability of “surprising in a
convincing way”63—possesses all the characteristics of roundness, no
matter how disturbing, or even irritating, they would make her. She says:
“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. I can pick up
where I left off. It isn’t a story I’m telling. It’s also a story I’m telling, in
my head, as I go along.”64
At the same time, Offred can be characterised as a manipulative
narrator. She deliberately slows down or even stops her discourse, jumps
from one episode or flashback to the other, and leaves some scenes

60
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 43.
61
Ferns, Narrating, 111.
62
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 73.
63
Forster, Aspects, 81.
64
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 49.
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40 Chapter Two

unfinished. No wonder Glenn Deer points to Offred’s narrative self-


consciousness, as well:

Atwood’s narrator is an authoritative and authoritarian storyteller, one who


manipulates the reader as she tells her story but one who is also caught in
the web of Gileadan power politics. Offred’s powerful narrative skill
conflicts with the powerlessness, the innocence, and the descriptive
phenomenological cast of mind that also characterizes her. It is as if
Atwood’s skill as storyteller continually intrudes, possessing her narrative
creation. Narrative self-consciousness, in fact, does explicitly and
strategically emerge.65

This paradox of inner power as presented in narrative skills, juxtaposed


with external powerlessness, is clearly visible in the following extract
where Offred seems to play with the reader openly:

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilised. 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 realisations 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 sorry 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 keep on
going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

story, because after all I want you to hear it. By telling you anything at all
I’m at least believing in you, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling
you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.66

It seems that the act, or even the process, of believing in some kind of
audience means to Offred also believing in herself and, hence, helps her
constitute her own identity. Moreover, the prospect of an audience—
however difficult to envision—gives her power and strengthens her will to
persevere. This is emphasised by the image of God-like creation that, by
adding to her discourse a dose of quasi-religious heresy, marks the power
of her narrative even more. It also shows that the story holds a kind of
power over Offred. She is enchanted by what she is telling and there is no
escaping it. She has to go on to preserve herself, to endure.
Another crucial element of Offred’s integrity and identity preservation
is the sense of the past, or, to be more precise, the passing of time. The
memories from previous, ordinary life have therapeutic and comforting
properties in her present situation: “our happiness is part memory,” says

65
Deer, “The Handmaid’s,” 95.
66
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 279.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 41

the protagonist.67 Consequently, as “a creature of her own past,”68 she


refuses to erase her own recollections, which directly defies the rules of
the new regime. Most frequently, remembrance of the past has a
stimulating effect on Offred: “Offred’s memories allow her to envision the
other, and so provide a form of rebellion against the totalitarian system.”69
Sometimes, however, by reminding her of the “good old days,” those
reminiscences can be painful, too. She confesses: “I have them, these
attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head.
Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I
thought. There is nothing to be done.”70 Even so, thanks to the sense of the
passing time, she fully realises the fact that her unbearable present will
become the past one day, that, Gilead will eventually cease to exist. She
summarises her difficult situation in a surprisingly reasonable manner:
“This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction, in my head, as I lie
flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said,
what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it;”71 and
closer to the end of the book: “All I can hope for is a reconstruction.”72 As
Nathalie Cooke notes: “After all, as Offred knows, the one who can
control the story can also control the story’s ending.”73 Offred seems
capable of such skills, which is visible in the epilogue of the novel where
her fragmented and reconstructed account becomes the subject of
academic analysis for the scholars of the distant future. However, it is the
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

very same word, “reconstruction,” that Professor Pieixoto uses to deprive


Offred’s account of any academic value, questioning her reliability and, in
a broader sense, underrating her genuine identity.
“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as
one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not
something born,” says Offred, commenting on her social function as a
handmaid.74 This urge to preserve her identity becomes the basis of her
creed. Another feature is the desire to have if not a partner in a dialogue,
then at least someone to receive her story, so that her identity could not
only endure, but also find its full ontological and highly individualised
realisation:

67
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 136.
68
Ferns, Narrating, 132.
69
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 166.
70
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 62.
71
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 144.
72
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 275.
73
Cooke, Margaret Atwood, 130.
74
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 76.
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42 Chapter Two

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.
attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more
hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I
will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one. You
can mean thousands. I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good,
because I know you can’t.75

Unfortunately, both wishes do not seem to be fulfilled on the pages of


Atwood’s novel. Offred is misread both by her openly chauvinistic and
patriarchal civilization, which—according to Atwood—is an exaggeration of
the intolerant world we live in nowadays, as well as by the future culture
that only pretends to appreciate and value all sorts of diversity—including in
gender—but is actually equally deeply rooted in contemporariness.
Although Offred manages to preserve her identity and her storytelling is
powerful, both cases of misreading her and her discourse are pessimistic,
making her a tragic character and her project only partly successful.

***

Apart from identity—struggling for it and preserving it desperately—


another very important feminist issue in The Handmaid’s Tale is the sense
of female community. What is more, whereas fighting for female identity
is most explicit in the case of Offred, mainly due to the very fact that her
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

point of view dominates the narrative, the notion of a women’s community


applies to most of the other female characters presented in the novel. The
male-dominated state of Gilead divides them into such artificial female
communities as castes of handmaids, but also wives, aunts and unwomen.
These groups of women are created by men only as a means of control,
since, from the viewpoint of the authorities and as a general rule in
patriarchal cultures, such “communities of women without men are seen
immediately as mutilated. Exiled from time.”76 They are both a distortion
of and a threat to the biological and patriarchal order of things. Luke,
Offred’s partner in pre-Gilead times, states: “Fraternise means to behave
like a brother. He said there was no corresponding word that meant to
behave like a sister. Sororise, it would have to be, he said.”77 These words
uttered by a man may suggest that a community of women will always
lack some basic ingredients that makes it a community in the full

75
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 50.
76
Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1978), 4.
77
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 21.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 43

understanding of the word, at least from the male perspective. The female
characters in The Handmaid’s Tale seem to disagree since they struggle to
preserve if not fully formed communities, then at least a sense of them.
Nina Auerbach writes in her Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction:
“All true communities are knit together by their codes, but a code can
range from dogma to a flexible, private, and often semi-conscious set of
beliefs in female communities, the code seems a whispered and a fleeting
thing, more a buried language than a rallying cry,”78 which, in turn, leads
her to formulate at least two important conclusions. Firstly, women’s
communities are most frequently formed on the margins of society, in the
shadow of the male-dominated mainstream: “since a community of
women is a furtive, unofficial, often underground entity, it can be defined
by the complex, shifting, often contradictory attitudes it evokes.”79
Secondly, such communities are always characterised by an almost infinite
variety of attitudes: “many perspectives are possible because communities
of women have no one official banner to wave. The strongest community
we can perceive is one with many voices.”80 These words correspond with
what Atwood says about the issue of female communities in The
Handmaid’s Tale and some dangers they may generate: “the women at the
top have different kinds of power from the power of the men at the top, but
they have power nonetheless, and some of the power they have is power
over other women, as is always the case in those kinds of societies.”81
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Dangerous but also promising, this underground plurality of attitudes can


be easily detected in the communities formed or dreamt about by the
women in Atwood’s novel, and although the very idea of a community
seems to be inscribed in most of the female characters, when it comes to
the details and technicalities, its realisation may differ completely.
First of all, this sense of community seems to define the lives of all
handmaids, including Offred. This is parodied in the institution of the Red
Centre, where the women are prepared for their future social function.
Supervised by the caste of Aunts, they are brainwashed there, convinced
of the definition of community that was popular in pre-Gilead times—
proposed by second-wave feminism with the emphasis of femininity as
opposed to male patriarchy—is completely wrong. Instead, as the
patriarchal propaganda suggests, they should fully appreciate the present
state of affairs: “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.
Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.

78
Auerbach, Communities, 8–9.
79
Auerbach, Communities, 11.
80
Auerbach, Communities, 12.
81
Noakes and Reynolds, Margaret Atwood, 12.
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44 Chapter Two

Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”82 This is
made even more explicit during the film presentations, when handmaids-
to-be are shown pornographic images almost simultaneously with footage
from feminist marches, with such slogans as “TAKE BACK THE
NIGHT,” or “FREEDOM TO CHOOSE.”83 The obvious conclusion for
the handmaids is to link both these areas of experience, i.e. to connect the
humiliation of women as presented in the most perverse porn movies with
their desires to be emancipated and gain some sort of power. As an
alternative, the new propaganda teaches women that a better future is
ahead, where a sense of female community will gain its completely new
and proper meaning:

For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be much better.
The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be
the daughters to them. There can be bonds of real affection, she said,
blinking at us ingratiatingly, under such conditions. Women united for a
common end! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the
path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Your daughters
will have greater freedom. We are working towards the goal of a little
garden for each one, each one of you—the clasped hands again, the breathy
voice—and that’s just one for instance. The raised finger, wagging at us.
But we can’t be greedy pigs and demand too much before it’s ready, now
can we?84
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Surprisingly, on the surface this speech of Aunt Lydia’s corresponds with


the ideas of second-wave feminism, but actually it distorts them
completely. Instead of a community based on freedom and emphasis on
individuals, it offers a strange kind of existence restricted by the
regulations of the purely patriarchal system. In other words, it offers no
freedom at all, and no female community, either. To strengthen the
message, this caricature of freedom that women are given in Gilead is
presented as freedom itself: “where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as
Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.”85 It turns out that the
kind of freedom that Gilead gives women is just its reverse. Pretending to
liberate women, the misogynistic system puts them back in their cages,
distorting, at the same time, the assumptions of second-wave feminism.
It is also alarming that the main tool in the brainwashing practices that
the patriarchal state uses to reinforce its misogynistic system on the

82
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 34.
83
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 129.
84
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 171–72.
85
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 18.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 45

handmaids is the caste of Aunts, i.e. also women. Cleverly enough, Aunts
appear to propagate the idea of female community, both alluding to and
ironically distorting what was one of the main slogans of second-wave
feminism: “What we’re aiming for, says Aunt Lydia, of a spirit of camaraderie
among women. We must all pull together.”86 For the handmaids then,
Aunts act as the ultimate confirmation that the vision of female community
they promote and embody is the only proper option. Amin Malak calls
them “the spokesperson[s] of antifeminism.”87 To a great extent, Aunts
appear to exist both in and out of the system. Being women themselves
and simultaneously supporting a state where absolute power stays in men’s
hands, they are perfect examples of Gilead’s manipulative politics. Aunt
Lydia says: “Men are sex machines and not much more. They only want
one thing. You must learn to manipulate them, for your own good. Lead
them around by the nose; that is a metaphor. It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s
device. It’s the way things are.”88 Additionally, Aunts in disguise run the
Jezebel’s, a secret brothel for the government officials, which only
confirms their anti-women actions. Aunt Lydia’s deception is then multi-
layered. Manipulating the handmaids in a highly political way, she
encourages them to use their primitive charm to, hypothetically, gain some
pittance or illusion of power, but more veraciously, to accept their
traditionally female roles and functions in male-dominated society. “Love,
said Aunt Lydia with distaste. Don’t let me catch you at it. No mooning
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

and June-ing around here, girls. Wagging her finger at us. Love is not the
point.”89 This short teaching demonstrates at least two things about Aunts.
Firstly, how they are wrong; and secondly, how much pleasure they take
from the illusion of power they have, being “a vicious elite of collaborators
who conduct torture lectures.”90 Ultimately, Aunts act as the figurative
face of the system that “upholds the male supremist power structure of
Gilead with its hierarchical arrangement of the sexes, and they play an
active role in the state’s sexual enslavement of the Handmaids.”91 This
blind faith and active participation in the misogynistic system make them
its victims in a similar respect to the handmaids. Aunts seem to remain
completely unaware of their tragic situation only because they are more
successfully brainwashed.

86
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 234.
87
Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s,” 7.
88
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 153.
89
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 232.
90
Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s,” 6.
91
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 47.
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46 Chapter Two

In the discussion of the second-wave feminism and its legacy in the


new definitions of women’s communities as depicted in Atwood’s novel,
the figure of Offred’s mother, unknown by her name, plays a very
important role. This role seems to be of the utmost importance in reference
to their difficult mother–daughter relations; as Offred recalls:

I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were


never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to
vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live
my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the
incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your
justification for existence, I said to her once.92

These expectations of Offred’s mother are directly connected with the


fact that she is presented in the novel as an active feminist in pre-Gilead
times:

I remember also my mother, years before. I must have been fourteen,


fifteen, that age when daughters are most embarrassed by their mothers. I
remember her coming back to one of our many apartments, with a group of
other women, part of her ever-changing circle of friends. They’d been in a
march that day; it was during the time of porn riots, or was it the abortion
riots, they were close together.93
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The problem is that those times of numerous marches in support of gaining


more freedom by women, and the arising new definitions of female
communities, coincide with Offred’s formative years, the period in a
person’s life when one is prone to rebel against the values represented by
the older generations. In the case of the young Offred, this rebellion takes
the strange form of questioning her mother’s outlook on life, including that
associated with second-wave feminism. The narrator recalls one of their
conversations: “‘Now, Mother,’ I would say. ‘Let’s not get into an
argument about nothing.’—‘Nothing, she’d say bitterly. You call it
nothing. You don’t understand, do you. You don’t understand at all what
I’m talking about.’”94 In other words, Offred’s relations with her mother
are marked with either a lack of understanding, or a more or less conscious
unwillingness to apprehend her. Both of options are tragic because it is the
mother–daughter relationship that plays a very important part in the
process of female identity formation. That is why, although “both

92
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 132.
93
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 189.
94
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 131.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 47

physically and emotionally absent”95 from Offred’s reminiscences, the


mother’s influence on her daughter’s future life—in this case built around
this problematic absence—is something that becomes one of the main
factors in how Offred’s identity develops. Later on, when a handmaid,
Offred derides her mother: “Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can
you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It
isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.”96 This
irony is even more apt when her friend Moira informs her about her
mother’s subsequent doings under the Gilead regime:

I saw you mother, Moira said. Not in person, it was in that film they
showed us, about the Colonies. There was a close-up, it was her all right.
She was wrapped up in one of those grey things but I know it was her.
Thank God, I said.
Why, thank God? said Moira.
I thought she was dead.
She might as well be, said Moira. You should wish it for her.97

Moira expresses such a wish not because she detests Offred’s mother, but
because what Offred’s mother becomes is an Unwoman in the Colonies,
i.e. a crossbreed between a prisoner and a blue-collar worker dealing with
the most dangerous toxic waste (I analyse the notions of Unwoman and
Colonies elsewhere in the book). On the one hand, she is punished for her
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

feminism in the most severe way; on the other, she has a chance to spend
the last days of her life in a female community of sorts, since the
workers/prisoners are mostly women. Offred’s mother constitutes a kind
of a link between the two different visions of womanhood presented in the
novel: paradoxically, fighting for a spirit of female community, she finds
that this fundamental claim of second-wave feminism is distorted in a
highly misogynistic way, which altogether makes her “disillusioned and
defeated.”98
If Offred’s mother is “the good mother [that] is essentially absent from
the text,”99 Serena Joy could be called a bad mother, or a stepmother, who
is significantly present in Offred’s life. She belongs to the caste of the
Wives, i.e. the highest possible female social class in Gilead—at least
hypothetically. This means that being unable to give a child both to her
husband, the Commander, and the state of Gilead, she has to endure the

95
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 47.
96
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 137.
97
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 263–64.
98
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 167.
99
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 47.
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48 Chapter Two

highly difficult situation of sharing her spouse with Offred in her own
home. This, as well as the whole politics of the state, is even more
unbearable for her when one learns that in pre-Gilead years she was one of
the most recognisable faces and advocates of the changes to come. Offred
recounts:

Serena Joy was never her real name, not even then. Her real name was
Pam. I read that in a profile on her, in a news magazine, long after I’d first
watched her singing while my mother slept in on Sunday mornings. By
that time she was worthy of a profile: Times or Newsweek it was, it must
have been. She wasn’t singing any more by then, she was making
speeches. She was good at it, her speeches were about the sanctity at 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.100

This reminiscence also suggests that, at least to some extent and partly
unconsciously, Serena was present in Offred’s life long before her
handmaid years. The contrast between her previous function and her
present role of Wife indicates some kind of ambiguous discomfort
inscribed in her career. Having been an activist of the new religious
movement, her role is similar to that occupied by Offred’s mother, only in
a reversed version: “the societies that they envision—fundamental
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Christian and radical feminist—both necessitate a form of governance that


prescribes for its subjects.”101 Consequently, the juxtaposition of her pre-
Gilead function with her present situation can be described as tragically
binary. Making speeches in which she advocated the idea of femininity as
totally dependent on men, and the community of women as existing
mainly at home, in Gilead she basically gets what she prayed for. Now she
is one of these women forced to retreat to their domestic areas. This may
suggest that she made all those speeches—the very idea of them visibly
violating the principles of the teachings—mainly to gain some kind of
fame, i.e. to became a celebrity. The question of whether she really
believed in what she preached arises, making her situation in Gilead not
only tragic but also bitter-sweet.
This way or another, Serena Joy plunges into passivity, becoming one
of the most tragic victims of the system she advocated so piously. What is
more, she is forced to abandon her public speeches, losing the status of a
media personality: “she doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become

100
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 55.
101
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 154.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 49

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.”102 What
mutes her is a combination of the new political situation she finds herself
in and her conviction that she cannot criticise the system she used to fight
for so convincingly. Being a highly manipulative person then and now, in
the new role of the Wife she is forced to define herself anew. Characterised
by a kind of restless desperation, with the central role of the ambiguous
relation with Offred and all the previous handmaids at her home, she
becomes a highly dangerous person: “it’s not the husbands you have to
watch out for, said Aunt Lydia. It’s the Wives.”103 This also emphasises a
crucial role that Aunts play in Gilead: manipulating handmaids by setting
one group of women against the other. Aunts artificially create a web of
enemies that makes it impossible for women to approach one another
without any prejudice. This is very convenient for the system. All such
manipulations affect Serena as well. At some points she acts and
participates in the political games just like in old times, disregarding other
women. It is finally she who, taking care of her and her husband’s high
social position, arranges a sexual rendezvous between Offred and the
family’s chauffeur, Nick.104 Unconsciously, she legitimises the relationship
that has already started to develop between the two young people. More
importantly, she wants Offred—and in turn her and the Commander—to
have a child, which will strengthen their position in Gilead’s hierarchy.
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However, this controversial decision also adds one more layer of tragedy
to her character: “she symbolises her world’s sterility. Serena is trapped in
her role.”105 Detesting Offred for her part in the life of her family, she
eventually makes a kind of a deal with her, acknowledging a sort of female
camaraderie between them, although this relationship is forced on her by
the surrounding circumstances.
The notion of female camaraderie seems to be of the utmost importance
in the case of Moira, Offred’s closest friend both before Gilead and during
its regime. In the novel, Moira plays a number of roles that fascinate and,
at the same time, frighten Offred. First of all, during their brainwashing at
the Red Centre, she appears to be the only one still capable of rebelling
against the system. This makes her a kind of a symbolic reminder to the
other women about pre-Gilead freedom:

102
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 56.
103
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 56.
104
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 214–16.
105
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 70.
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50 Chapter Two

Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already
we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these wall
secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you’d come apart, you’d
vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together. Nevertheless
Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a
giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira,
the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd.106

Her unbreakable nature probably finds its most visible outcome in her first
spectacular escape from the centre. She tricks and overpowers one of the
aunts, an act almost impossible to imagine for the other handmaids. No
wonder, then, that although she is captured and sent back, Moira is
perceived as “one of the few Gilead women to still possess a mouth.”107
That is why it is only her who can afford to express her sarcasm towards
the political and religious state of affairs publically, exemplified by her
attitude to the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” sung by the
handmaids on numerous occasions, as well as—in more general terms—to
Gilead: “’There is a Bomb in Gilead,’ was what Moira used to call it.”108
What is more, as a declared lesbian, Moira belongs to the Gilead-coined
category of gender-traitors, one of the most despised and oppressed female
groups of the regime. Presented as an open adversary of the theocratic
state and a lesbian activist, she constitutes a major threat to Gilead’s
misogynist politics. Offred recounts: “she’d decided to prefer women, and
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

as far as I could see she had no scruples about stealing them or borrowing
them when she felt like it. She said it was different because the balance of
power was equal between women so sex was an even-steven transaction.”109
Her vision of a women’s society differs significantly from the one proposed
by Offred’s mother, more traditional at least in this respect. It is even
possible to describe this vision of hers as an attempt not only to form a
female community, but to establish a kind of a perfect women’s state,
where lesbianism appears to be the most important factor. However, “if
Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a woman-
only enclave, she was sadly mistaken,”110 as after one of her ultimately
unsuccessful attempts to escape, given a choice either to end her life
quickly in the radioactive Colonies or become a prostitute in the unofficial
state-run brothel Jezebel’s, she chooses the latter. She explains her
decision to Offred: “Well, shit, nobody but a nun would pick the Colonies.

106
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 143.
107
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 69.
108
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 230.
109
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 180.
110
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 181.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 51

I mean, I’m not a martyr.”111 Tragically enough, this decision seems to


break her rebellious character and make her “lose her volition and become
indifferent.”112 Even though she tries to rationalise her present situation,
saying “I’m still here, you can see it’s me. Anyway, look at it this way: it’s
not so bad, there’s lots of women around. Butch paradise, you might call
it,”113 it is difficult to believe in the preponderance of its advantages.
Ultimately, she becomes one more victim of the patriarchal system, in
which her idea of a female community realises itself in, possibly, the most
distorted way: “Moira comes to witness the realisation of her utopia in
Jezebel’s.”114
Another kind of female utopia, or at least a suggestion of its
possibility, is the organisation known as the Underground Femaleroad, or
Mayday. As Professor Pieixoto explains: “We know that this city [where
the Commander lived] was a prominent way-station on what our author
refers to as ‘The Underground Femaleroad.’”115 Its very name, bearing
visible similarities with the nineteenth-century Underground Railroad, a
network of slave escape routes in North America, clearly indicates its main
goal, which is to save women from Gilead by transferring them out of the
theocratic state. Being an organised network, it also realises some ideas of
second-wave feminism in reference to a female community. Offred
ironically recounts: “Networking, one of my mother’s old phrases, musty
slang of yesteryear. Even in her sixties she still did something she called
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

that, though as far as I could see all it meant was having lunch with some
women.”116 At the same time, when Offred learns about the existence of
the movement, this knowledge provides her with a kind of hope, a feeling
that she has missed so much: “’You can join us,’ [Ofglen] says. ‘Us?’ I
say. There is an us then, there’s a we. I knew it.”117 In other words, rescue
is still possible, and her mother’s ideas seem surprisingly relevant and
tempting. However, there are at least two factors that make the
Femaleroad different from Offred’s mother’s theoretical assumptions
regarding the olden days. The first of these is the fact that Mayday actually
works. Moira, one of the beneficiaries of the system, tells Offred:

111
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 261.
112
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 55–56.
113
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 261.
114
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 152.
115
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 313.
116
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 212–13.
117
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 177.
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52 Chapter Two

Each [station] was in contact with only one other one, always the next one
along. There were advantages to that—it was better if you were caught—
but disadvantages too, because if one station got busted the entire chain
backed up until they could make contact with one of the couriers, who
could set up an alternate route. They were better organised than you’d
think, though.118

The second difference is that Mayday is an organisation founded and


maintained by both men and women, which may suggest that only
cooperation of the two sexes can result in gender justice and equality. This
assumption proves right in the cases of both Moira and Offred, for it is
Nick, a secret member of the organisation, who rescues her. “It’s all right.
It’s Mayday,”119 as he explains to her, alluding to the classified password.
Nevertheless, the evaluation of the Underground Femaleroad has to be
multi-layered. It shows that hope still exists in Gilead, i.e. an alternative
women’s community is possible to achieve. Nonetheless, it also reveals
that the realisation of a feminist utopia is impossible without the help of
men. This can be both a positive project, because it emphasises the
peaceful coexistence of the two sexes, but also a negative one, because it
may suggest women’s dependence on men, a situation not that dissimilar
to the Gilead’s misogynistic politics. One more time, then, Atwood
remains ambiguous, mixing the possibility of hope with a clearly ironic
approach.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Finally, the ironic blend of hope and despair in reference to women’s


communities is visible in the relationship between Offred and her
predecessor in the Commander’s house. Although both women do not
know each other, there is a substitute for communication between them, or
at least this is something in which Offred strongly believes. This
communication is connected with the written message that she finds in her
room in the Commander’s home: “I knelt to examine the floor, and there it
was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe a
fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes
carborundorum.”120 Even though at first she does not understand, the fact
that it is linked to another woman in the same situation as her makes it
Offred’s mantra of hope. She repeats it to herself in her moments of
devastating despair and resignation: “I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes
carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it

118
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 258.
119
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 305.
120
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 62.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 53

will have to do.”121 It is only later, during one of her secret meetings with
the Commander, that she learns the true meaning of these words: “’Don’t
let the bastards grind you down.’”122 Tragically, it appears that this
sentence is written in dog Latin, not a proper register of the language,
because it simply mixes its grammatical patterns with foreign vocabulary:
“it is originally an ‘empty’ acoustic image, a signifier without a
signified.”123 At the same time, its elevated and serious message turns out
to be a practical joke, supported by the fact that it comes from the
Commander’s notes and is supposed to be understood between him and his
male friends. It reveals that the situation of the woman who wrote it was
not only similar to Offred’s, but exactly the same since as the
Commander’s handmaid she was also his secret lover, who, just like
Offred, had access to his petty writings. Even though it shows that
Offred’s belief in hope is groundless, the protagonist continues to cherish
the spiritual bond she feels she has with the other woman: “it pleases me to
ponder this message. It pleases me to think I’m communing with her, this
unknown woman. It pleases me to know that her taboo message made it
through.”124 Although originally intended to be a typical male joke, this
sentence—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”—becomes a kind of a
motto for Offred. Expressing a strong will to endure, not to yield to the
male-dominated world, these words also emphasise the need to be among
women, which, in Offred’s difficult condition at least, comprises a
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

perspective of happiness, no matter how bitter-sweet it could appear.


Ultimately, in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood demonstrates that female
characters have two main objectives: preserving one’s identity and functioning
within women’s communities. In the case of the second notion, she tends
to emphasise the great potential that is hidden in such communities of
women, as well as the fact that the chief force that objects to their
emancipation is the patriarchal system dominating our world. It is always
patriarchy that constitutes a kind of a context for the communities of
women, in which point she seems to agree with Nina Auerbach. Auerbach
states: “though the communities gain substance and stature as we proceed,
their isolation has had from the first the self-sustaining power to repel or
incorporate the male-defined reality that excludes them.”125 Maybe that is
why Aunt Lydia calls the situation of Offred “being in the army.”126

121
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 101.
122
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 197.
123
Dvorak, “What is Real/Reel,” 150.
124
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 62.
125
Auerbach, Communities, 6.
126
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 17.
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54 Chapter Two

Although her idea of female community visibly opposes feminist notions,


and, consequently, the female army as presented in The Handmaid’s Tale
is both weak and artificial since misogynistic men stand behind it. It might
be so because of the still undiscovered and unrealised potential that could
be characterised as highly ambiguous and subversive. When one looks at
female communities using the cultural perspective elaborated and
reinforced by the dominant patriarchal system, such communities will
always appear a bit strange and uncertain. Auerbach comments: “Our
female communities are united by their necessary oddity as well as by
their corporate strength.”127 In other words, it is mainly due to this very
strangeness inscribed in women’s societies that they can define themselves
fully; the strangeness that takes its substance in the apparent difference
from men. These are both women themselves and men that constitute a
kind of a point of reference for femininity, or a mirror, to extend Virginia
Woolf’s concept, which can not only enlarge, but also reduce women.
Therefore, a women’s community is important in establishing and then
preserving female identity. These ideas are simply inseparable.

Between Theocratic Regime and Misogynistic Perversion


In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood discusses a multitude of
issues other than ecological degradation and the inferior position of
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

women in society. Nevertheless, I consider the problem of religion the


most crucial ingredient of the plot. Gilead is an openly religious state and
those in charge are ultra-orthodox, Puritan and patriarchal men who
degrade women in all spheres of life, both public and private. Dorota
Filipczak notes: “As every totalitarian regime, Gilead has its own ideology
that is corrupted version of the biblical way towards a better reality.”128 To
be more precise, the inspiration for Gilead’s religion is clearly defined, as
Atwood, criticising the 1980s American New Right, directly alludes to
seventeenth-century Puritanism with its literal interpretation of the Bible,
as the foundation of this ideology. The writer explains: “Puritan New
England was a theocracy, not a democracy; and the future society
proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the
principle that no society ever stays completely far from its roots. Also, the
most potent forms of dictatorship have always been those that have
imposed tyranny in the name of religion.”129 This Puritan foundation is

127
Auerbach, Communities, 32.
128
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 177.
129
Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” 97.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 55

also visible in the fact that Atwood dedicates her novel to Mary Webster,
“her own favourite ancestor, who was hanged as a witch in New England
in 1683 but who survived her hanging and went free,” and Perry Miller, “a
great scholar of the seventeenth-century Puritan history, [who] was
Atwood’s Director of American Studies at Harvard.”130 No wonder, then,
that Gilead is a theocratic country situated in the birthplace of both
American Puritanism and its statehood, i.e. in the New England area, with
today’s Massachusetts as its centre. However, apart from the historical
influences of Puritanism, in her novel Atwood underlines the connections
between religion and perverse sexuality as an outcome of the literal and
blind reading of the Bible. As a result, both the biased interpretation of the
Bible and using sexuality as a tool to maintain power strengthen the
superior position of men in contrast to the low status of women. Yet,
Gilead is a country with a huge underpopulation problem and, consequently,
women treated in openly biological terms seem indispensable, because only
women can get pregnant and give birth to children. In the Republic of
Gilead where in vitro fertilisation is out of the question for theological
reasons, this requires a sexual intercourse. The outcome of these two
interrelated conditions is a bizarre mixture of physicality and orthodox
religion that could be viewed as one of the most interesting aspects of the
novel.
Since Gilead is a theocracy, the ultimate core of its whole political
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

system, its corner stone, is the Bible, with the most crucial passages of the
Holy Book carefully selected by the privileged ones. In other words, there
is no free access to the Bible in Gilead. Offred ironically notes: “The Bible
is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants
wouldn’t steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make
of it, if we ever got our hands on it?”131 Dorota Filipczak comments:
“Locked in a special wooden box, [the Bible] becomes a totem of the
totalitarian system in every house. The Bible is a trapped text turned into a
lethal instrument because the regime makes it generate oppressive
laws.”132 It becomes clear that the Bible is a tool to maintain power, that it
is a device for the powerful to manipulate the powerless. Chris Ferns
states: “Religion serves as an effective instrument of control.”133 Religion
is used in Gilead in a way that is not only instrumental but also superficial
and false, as it actually “miserably lacks spirituality and benevolence.”134

130
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 97.
131
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 98.
132
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 171.
133
Ferns, Narrating, 130.
134
Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s,” 4.
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56 Chapter Two

This is symbolically represented by the mechanical, inhuman attitude to


religion illustrated by the aforementioned Soul Scrolls—machines that
print out prayers: “there are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a
death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then
punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch the
number of times you want the prayer repeated.”135 Filipczak understands
this dehumanised approach to religiousness in the following way: “The
absurd situation proves that the sacred is completely withdrawn from life
in Gilead.”136 When it comes to the Bible itself, such a dehumanised and
political treatment of religion is additionally emphasised by the fact that
the careful selection of material that can be read to simple people helps
retain the patriarchal status quo. J. Brooks Bouson comments: “’Blessed
are the silent,’ according to the revised Gileadean Bible. In Gilead, men
have the ‘word’ and women are rendered speechless.”137 Speechlessness,
then, becomes the obligation of all women, and there is a harsh
punishment—amputation of the hand—for those, particularly the
handmaids, who openly express themselves. That is why Gilead’s political
and moral system is actually based on those passages of the Bible that
clearly define men as superior to women, who, in turn, are presented only
as breeding machines.
Consequently, the male authorities of Gilead use the underpopulation
problem as an excuse for implementing the state’s utterly misogynistic
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

politics based on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Selecting the


excepts from the book, they choose the ones which openly propagate the
patriarchal system. That is why they make the story of Jacob, Rachel and
Leah the core of their politics:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her
sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s
anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who
hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my
maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may
have children by her.138

This passage Atwood quotes as one of the epigraphs for the novel is just
the beginning of the biblical story that shows the origins of the surrogate

135
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 176.
136
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 180.
137
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 52.
138
The Holy Bible. King James Version (Edinburgh: Collins, 1991), Genesis 30: 1–
3.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 57

motherhood precedent. Additionally, the choice of this particular extract


justifies Gilead’s very name: “Named for a region in ancient Palestine,
Gilead is the place where Jacob and Laban ‘made a deal’ about Laban’s
daughters.”139 Finally, to a great degree it also explains the origins of
female inferiority in Gilead, since “[the state’s name] is firmly anchored in
patriarchal history.”140 Atwood explains:

The text they chose as their cornerstone is the story of Rachel and Leah,
the two wives of Jacob, and their baby competition. When they themselves
ran out of babies, they pressed their handmaids into service and counted
the babies as their own, thus providing a biblical justification for surrogate
motherhood, should anyone need one. Woman’s place, in the Republic of
Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-
law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is
strictly in the home.141

It is this very passage from the Bible that seems central to the entire novel.
It enables men to have children with their maids when their legal wives are
sterile—a situation that is definitely degrading both for the wives and the
handmaids, but not for the husbands. Offred sarcastically recounts:

It’s the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be
fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Rachel and Leah stuff. Give me children or else I die. Am I in God’s stead,
who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid
Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by
her. And so on and so forth.142

What happens here is a shift of perspective. It is now the then-mute


handmaid’s point of view that we have a chance to see. Instead of “the
powerless Bilhah [and] her story [that] is written for her by the collusion
of her mistress with the patriarch,”143 the biblical tale is retold by the
handmaid herself. Only then is the feminine aspect of such an attitude to
religion clearly visible. Women are deprived of their dignity. They are to
participate in the public and definitely humiliating mating ritual, while
male supremacy is even more emphasised.
In the most explicit and outrageous way, the perverse mixture of
religion and sexuality reveals itself in the novel through a number of

139
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 66.
140
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 172.
141
Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” 99.
142
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 99.
143
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 66.
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58 Chapter Two

rituals, which, taking their roots directly from the religious practices,
emphasise human physicality as well as men’s dominance over women.
The most visible example of these is the one known under the official
name of the Ceremony, which is inspired by the biblical passage
containing the aforementioned story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. As in
most similar cases, the story is read by Gilead’s authorities not
figuratively, but literally as procreative intercourse, which all the more
underlines the repulsive mixture of sex and religion. As a political act, the
Ceremony involves not only the handmaid Offred playing the part of
Bilhah, her commander acting as a new version of Jacob, and the barren
wife Serena in the role of Rachel. Additionally, during the Ceremony, all
the other members of the Commander’s household have to be present, as
well. They include a chauffeur, a cook and a maid: “they need to be here,
they all need to be here. The Ceremony demands it. We are all obliged to
sit through this, one way or another.”144 The religious context is
underlined here: “intercourse ceremonies for Commanders and handmaids
can be termed ritualistic because they are sanctioned by the state, and are
normally preceded by a kind of religious service.”145 And still, the
Ceremony is an embarrassing and degrading occasion for all the unwilling
participants, but mostly for Offred and the Commander’s wife, Serena.
Occupying a higher position than Offred in the social hierarchy, Serena’s
dignity seems to suffer most. That is why the Commander’s very entrance
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

to the room where the ritual is going to take place changes into a kind of
an official procedure: “the Commander knocks at the door. The knock is
prescribed: the sitting room is supposed to be Serena Joy’s territory, he’s
supposed to ask permission to enter it. She likes to keep him waiting. It’s a
little thing, but in this household little things mean a lot.”146 What Serena
desperately performs here is an attempt to deprive this unbearably intimate
occurrence of any signs of intimacy and, consequently, emphasises its
public significance only: “the lights were on, as usual, since Serena Joy
always avoided anything that would have created an aura of romance or
eroticism. It was like being on an operating table, in the full glare; like
being on a stage.”147 It is a highly theatrical situation for both the women,
although they have to play completely different roles. Serena’s artificially
constructed image of a woman who considers herself better than others, as
well as her desperation to keep it, can be interpreted as a substitute for
dignity: something that she still believes she possesses. At the same time,

144
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 91.
145
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 176.
146
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 97.
147
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 169.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 59

it is the feature that distinguishes her from Offred, who, at least from the
public point of view, has been long deprived of any traces of it. Quite
surprisingly, then, it all proves to the advantage of Offred, who has
literally nothing to lose. In this peculiar way, it is Serena who can be read
as the greatest victim of the whole situation: “Serena has begun to cry.
She’s trying not to make a noise. She’s trying to preserve her dignity, in
front of us. The tension between her lack of control and her attempt to
supress it is horrible. It’s like a fart in church.”148
Unlike Serena, who tries to find some rudiments of comfort by
clinging to them hopelessly, this is impossible in the case of Offred. The
protagonist relates one of the Ceremonies:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the


Commander is fucking. 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. It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of
those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do
with sexual desire, at least for me.149

Distancing herself from the activity, Offred seems to seek help and
rationalisation in irony, but this is not enough. As she states on another
occasion: “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure,”150
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which makes the definition of Gilead’s sexual policy complete. At the


same time, her words demonstrate how profoundly Gilead’s male-
dominated system interferes in a woman’s privacy, for it is capable of
arousing such strong feelings of resignation and indifference. Offred
realises that she does not count as a human being, and it is only her body
that is of value in Gilead. What Gilead constitutes is a kind of an ultra-
macho state where only male needs are fulfilled, and where women are
there just to serve men in various degrading ways.
The Commander does not appear to feel comfortable during the
Ceremony, either. He somehow senses its awkwardness. The perverse
eroticism connected with the feeling of absolute power definitely enhances
his self-esteem. Nonetheless, the urge to fulfil this particular duty, both
intimate and public, intimidates him:

He look over us as if taking inventory. One kneeling woman in red, one


seated woman in blue, two in green, standing, a solitary man, thin-faced, in

148
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 101.
149
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 104–05.
150
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 83.
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60 Chapter Two

the background. He manages to appear puzzled, as if he can’t remember


how we all got in here. As if we are something he inherited, like a
Victorian pump organ, and he hasn’t figured out what to do with us.151

His supremacy over the women has its roots in the political and religious
system, which is symbolically emphasised by the fact that it is only the
Commander who, as a man, has free access to the Bible. Offred says: “He
has something we don’t have, he has the word.”152 Therefore, it is the
Commander who, as a part of the ritual, reads aloud the biblical story of
Jacob, Rachel and Leah to those he actually commands. He acts as a priest
in the old-new religion. Behind this façade of spirituality there hides a
combination of biology and culture, with the prolongation of the human
species and the confirmation of patriarchal superiority over women.
Nevertheless, his position, both political and personal, proves to be the
main source of his discomfort: “we watch him: every inch, every flicker.
To be a man, watched by women. It must be entirely strange. To have
them watching him all the time. To have them wondering, What’s he
going to do next? To have them sizing him up. To have them thinking, he
can’t do it, he won’t do it, he’ll have to do.”153 Offred’s words indicate
some kind of hidden power that she, as well as all the other females, have
over the Commander, and males in general. This is a power that does not
come from the Bible or religion. It is more sexual, physical, and it is this
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

kind of power that the Commander seems to subconsciously sense during


the Ceremony. Offred tries to convince her and her readers: “This state of
absence, of existing apart from the body, had been true of the Commander
too, I knew now.”154 However, no matter how distracting such thoughts
can be for the Commander, the female power that Offred refers to is still
vague and unreal in Gilead and its perverse politics.
Another religious ritual that contains in itself some elements of
sexuality is the Prayvaganza, which, additionally, serves the state’s
political purposes. Basically, the Prayvaganza is a ceremony of group
weddings among those who can get married in Gilead. It is a privilege
reserved only to the representatives of the highest classes of society, i.e.
those who deserve it: “during the Prayvaganza service, girls veiled in
white are given away to husbands appointed by the state.”155 The feeling
of love is not the point here because, as the Commander explains to

151
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 97.
152
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 99.
153
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 98.
154
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 169.
155
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 182.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 61

Offred: “This way [women] are protected, they can fulfil their biological
destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Arranged
marriages have always worked out as well, if not better.”156 This patriarchal
opinion about female destiny and inferiority has its roots in the Bible, too:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he
him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, Be fruitful,
and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”157 This is also the
passage that a commander leading the Prayvaganza refers to: “Let the
woman learn in silence with all subjection. For Adam was first formed,
then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived
was in transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing,
if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”158 Women’s
subordination is closely linked here with Gilead’s underpopulation problem.
Women are blamed for not giving birth to children, regardless of the
men’s procreative incapabilities. Dealing with underpopulation determines
all the state’s actions, even if at first sight they could be viewed as a
violation of past religious laws: “sometimes, though, for the women, [the
Prayvaganzas] are for a nun who recants. The old ones they send off to the
Colonies right away, but the young fertile ones they try to convert, and
when they succeed we all come here to watch them go through the
ceremony, renounce their celibacy, sacrifice it to the common good.”159
However, in this case, instead of a wedding, nuns undergo a kind of a
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

divorce ritual, whose central part is connected with annulling their vows of
chastity. Since “nuns are either deported or converted to serve as
handmaids,”160 their return to society never leads to an official marriage,
but means that they become handmaids and in this way contribute to the
wellbeing of the whole nation. The situation of nuns is another example of
Gilead’s attitude to religion. Everything is subordinated to politics,
whereas politics has its roots in religion. That is why Offred describes one
ceremony in the following way: “We’re off to the Prayvaganza, to
demonstrate how obedient and pious we are,”161 with the combination of
the words “obedient” and “pious” being very meaningful.
This male dominance as a direct representation of such politics seems
obvious during the less restricted conversations between Offred and the
Commander, when their relationship becomes more intimate, and when

156
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 232.
157
The Holy Bible, Genesis 1: 27–28.
158
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 233.
159
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 232.
160
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 177.
161
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 224.
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62 Chapter Two

Offred actually has no other choice but to be his lover. In a surprisingly


open way, the Commander explains the genesis of Gilead: “The problem
wasn’t only with the women. The main problem was with the men. There
was nothing for them any more. There was nothing for them to do. I mean
there was nothing for them to do with women.”162 His opinion corresponds
with what handmaids are taught during their preparation period in the Red
Centre: “Men are sex machines, said Aunt Lydia, and not much more.
They only want one thing. It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s device. It’s the
way things are.”163 According to Gilead’s authorities, the excessively
liberal times before the emergence of the Republic of Gilead—with their
open and free way with sexuality—were responsible for the return to
ultimate orthodoxy that constitutes the surface of Gilead’s patriarchy: “the
spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like
roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public,
and legs, not even stockings on them.”164 As Gilead’s politics seem to
suggest, women are partly responsible for their current situation, and the
way things are now is a punishment for their past lack of morality and
modesty. In fact, such rhetoric is just a way to retain power. “Gilead is
obsessed with the female body,”165 and only tries to hide behind the façade
of religiousness.
The next religious ritual whose aim is to humiliate and subordinate
women is the Salvaging, which can be described as a kind of a public
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

penance resulting in execution. Organised for women exclusively,


Salvagings are a political means to show the masses who is in power and,
consequently, to prevent any signs of disobedience. Offred bitterly notes:
“Women’s Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These
days we are so well behaved.”166 As Erika Gottlieb states: “Clearly, acts of
terror are no longer a means to an end; they have become the very
language in which the elite in power addresses the population.”167 This
political cause is even emphasised by the fact that not only handmaids are
forced to take part in this quasi-religious ritual, but all the women from a
given administrative area. However, even if the rite is carried out for
females who are inferior to men, there is still a visible hierarchy among
them: “we take our places in the standard order: Wives and their daughters
on the folding wooden chairs placed towards the back, Econowives and

162
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 221.
163
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 153.
164
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 65.
165
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 103.
166
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 285.
167
Gottlieb, Dystopian, 39.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 63

Marthas around the edges and on the library steps, and Handmaids at the
front, where everyone can keep an eye on us. We don’t sit on chairs, but
kneel.”168 The central part of the Salvaging resembles an Old Testament
trial over sinners, although in an improved form. Aware of the power of
imagination, the Gilead authorities do not reveal the offences of the
Salvagers—as the accused and sentenced handmaids are called—to the
general public. This additionally strengthens the feeling of terror. Aunt
Lydia explains:

In the past it has been a custom to precede the actual Salvagings with a
detailed account of the crimes of which the prisoners stand convicted.
However, we have found that such a public account, especially when
televised, is invariably followed by a rash, if I may call it that, an outbreak
I should say, of exactly similar crimes. So we have decided in the best
interests of all to discontinue this practice.169

Even though the official explanation points at the future well-being of the
whole nation, the seed of uncertainty is sowed among the handmaids. This
results in numerous speculations, mostly connected to the nature of the
Salvagers’ relations with their Commanders. What is comprehensible
given the basic assumptions of totalitarian and patriarchal Gilead, the
accused women are not given the right to speak last words and the
Salvaging ends with their public execution: “the white bag placed over the
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

head, the woman helped up onto the high stool as if she’s being helped up
the steps of a bus, steadied there, the noose adjusted delicately around the
neck, like a vestment, the stool kicked away.”170 According to the religious
authorities, although the female sinners have to pay for their wrongs, now
at least they are salvaged.
Sometimes, however, Salvagings are followed by a Particicution, a
ritual in which a mixture of politically inspired religiousness with perverse
sexuality is even more visible. As it is explained from the perspective of
Professor Pieixoto in the “Historical Notes” section, “it was not only a
particularly horrifying and effective way of ridding yourself of subversive
elements, but that it would also act as a steam value for the female
elements in Gilead.”171 Particicution, then, is another means of restoring
political order in Gilead, this time giving women—mostly handmaids—a
barbaric way to take revenge on a representative of the male sex. The

168
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 185.
169
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 287.
170
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 288.
171
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 320.
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64 Chapter Two

ritual’s whole idea has its roots from the Bible: “if a man find a betrothed
damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man
only that lay with her shall die.”172 The sexual element is very important,
as a Particicution is a chance given to women to release their long hidden
anxieties, frustrations and tensions. During the ceremony, cleverly
encouraged by the authorities, represented by Aunt Lydia, they all face a
man accused of rape, with whom they can do whatever they want, or to be
more precise, what has been intended by the state:

It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend. We jostle


forward, our heads turn from side to side, our nostrils flare, sniffing death,
we look at one another, seeing the hatred. There’s a surge forward, like a
crowd at a rock concert in the former times, when the doors opened, that
urgency coming like a wave through us. The air is bright with adrenaline,
we are permitted anything and this is freedom.173

Particicution is a substitute for freedom. It enables women to murder a


man who symbolically represents the whole detested sex in the most
outrageous way, by literarily tearing him apart: “he has become an it.”174
Nonetheless, it is not clear whether the men are actually rapists. Very
likely they could victims of the system, too. Pieixoto comments:
“Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must
have been most gratifying for these Handmaids, so rigidly controlled at
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

other times, to be able to tear a man apart with their hands every once in a
while.”175 Consequently, there is a clear political function: “the rite of
Particicution and other legalised murders that put an end to otherness mark
out Gilead’s way towards perfect uniformity.”176 The raw brutality of this
ritual, however, may suggest some animal instincts in the handmaids,
which are subdued by the regime in everyday situations and come to the
surface during the ceremony. By leading the ceremony in this particular
way, the authorities also point at bestiality as the reputedly innate feature
of all females, at the same time validating the need for patriarchy. What
they imply is that women are just animals driven by such a primitive
instinct as lust for sex and murder, unable to control themselves. It is then
religion that provides them with the opportunity to overcome these brutish
urges. Nevertheless, the real mechanism seems the reversal of the above
manipulation: Gilead’s male authorities treat religion in the most

172
The Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 22: 25.
173
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 291.
174
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 292.
175
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 320.
176
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 177.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 65

instrumental way, serving them only to retain power and the current state
of affairs, in which women are always subordinate.

***

Another representation of the tensions between religion and sexuality


in The Handmaid’s Tale are the relations between men and women, as
exemplified by Offred. In broader terms, it may seem that male superiority
in Gilead is ambiguous, because men’s preoccupation with the female
body can become a weapon in women’s hands. First of all, Gilead’s
patriarchy is politically unjust in the respect that only the privileged have
permission to marry (and consequently, to have legal sex), and only high
officials of the state can possess their handmaids—a rule that stems from
the religious roots of the state. This more or less limits the number of men
that can have sex with women, which somehow violates the sexual status
quo that the state tries to impose on its citizens (excluding women, who
are not considered citizens in the legal meaning of the word). This
situation, at least potentially, gives more power to women, who can use
their bodies, this forbidden fruit of sorts, to manipulate men to achieve
their goals. This fact also makes the privileged male sex afraid of the
females’ sexuality. This is how Offred narrates a meeting with the Angels,
young male guards who are not allowed to start relationships with women:
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

As we walk away I know they’re watching, these two men who aren’t yet
permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move
my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It’s like
thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held
out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of this
is the fault of these men, they’re too young. Then I find I’m not ashamed
after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.177

That is why, at least to some extent, women retain the power that they
used to have over men in pre-Gilead times. This “new liberty,” as Fiona
Tolan calls it,178 partly takes its optimistic meaning from the fact that the
patriarchal state of Gilead has officially got rid of sexually abusive
phenomena, such as pornography and prostitution. Paradoxically,
however, the prison-like life in Gilead helps women awaken their gender
consciousness and sexuality. This is especially true of the handmaids, who
are extraordinary representatives of the new society. They are both sacred,

177
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 32.
178
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 153.
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66 Chapter Two

because they can prolong the existence of the state and the nation by
giving birth to children, and dirty, because they do so by copulating with
other women’s husbands, committing the sin of adultery.
The way the handmaids, including Offred, look suggests their ambiguous
position in society. The most characteristic element of their outfit is the
colour red, associated with sexuality and eroticism: “I get up out of the
chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to
save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I
pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything
except the wings around my face is red.”179 Eroticism mixes here with a
kind of religious martyrdom. The handmaids are destined to play their
roles publically rather than in private: “the sexual object for male
consumption and the marginalised woman who is shunned and despised
by other women, the handmaid is the good/bad woman, the saintly
prostitute.”180 Such an interpretation finds its sophistically ironic reflection
when the Commander takes Offred on an illegal date to Jezebel’s: a top-
secret vintage brothel, established for the highest officials of patriarchal
Gilead. Here, Offred literally plays the role of a prostitute. She has to
disguise herself to match all the other women present there:

The women are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear.
Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie
nightgowns, baby-doll pyjamas, the occasional see-through negligee. Some
are in bathing suits, one-piece or bikini. It’s like a masquerade party.181

Indeed, a tragic masquerade it is, where men demonstrate the power they
have over women and their disregard for the political and religious system
they represent and constitute. Additionally, the biblical connotations of the
house’s name need explaining. Queen Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, king of
north Israel circa ninth century BC, was responsible for dispatching her
husband’s great enemy, Naboth. She also inspired her husband to abandon
the worship of Yahweh, because she was a follower of Baal, a minor
Semitic deity. For these deeds she was condemned: “And of Jezebel also
spake the Lord, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of
Jerusalem.”182 What is more, besides being viewed as a female
manipulator and false prophet, Jezebel is very often interpreted as an early

179
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 18.
180
Bouson, “The Misogyny,” 46.
181
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 246–47.
182
The Holy Bible, 1 Kings, 21: 23.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 67

incarnation of the femme fatale, a fallen woman, a symbol of sexual


promiscuity.183 However, the use of the name Jezebel in The Handmaid’s
Tale becomes even more significant with reference to Moira—a woman
who has no other choice but to become a prostitute—and Offred, a saintly
prostitute herself. Consequently, Offred and the Commander’s visit to the
brothel adds one more layer to the already complex interpretation of a
handmaid. She is a tragic saviour of humankind, and must occupy the
margins of society. The combination of sex and religion in her public
identity is too close to be fully understood.
No wonder that Offred, just like all the handmaids, embodies a
peculiar combination of the sacred and profane. The first notion can be
understood as a set of public and biological functions resulting in a
saviour-like quality of life-giving in underpopulated Gilead, whereas the
second one stands for the openly sexual nature of her vocation. Offred
appears to be fully aware of the embarrassing otherness that she
represents, which she gradually accepts and learns to use as an advantage.
This acceptance, in turn, leads her to question the actual religiousness of
the Republic, which is most visible in her own version of the Lord’s
Prayer:

My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.


I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

do as well as anything.
I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me get
through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for
an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.
Maybe I don’t really want to know what’s going on, maybe I’d rather
not know. Maybe I couldn’t bear to know. The Fall was a fall from
innocence to knowledge.
Deliver us from evil.
Then there’s Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in
those right now. But I’ll try it anyway. In Hope, as they say on the
gravestones.184

Based on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Offred’s version contains


a number of significant alterations, making it blasphemous. First of all, it

183
The character of Jezebel has entered pop culture as well—the figure appears in
the cinema (Jezebel from 1938, directed by William Wyler), and in music: e.g.
songs by Frankie Laine (a big hit in 1951, written by Wayne Shanklin), Sade
(Promise, 1985), Iron and Wine (Woman King EP, 2005), and Depeche Mode
(Sounds of the Universe, 2009), to enumerate just the most famous ones.
184
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 204–05.
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68 Chapter Two

changes the very beginning of the most canonical of all Christian prayers:
“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom
come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.”185 Unlike the original,
according to Offred God’s kingdom is not on earth but within her, as,
probably, within every human being. She rebels against viewing Gilead as
the earthly counterpart of heaven. Most importantly, she seems to refuse to
transform her intimate and private sphere of life into a public matter,
which in Gilead is the outcome of the perverse marriage of religion and
sexuality. This kind of disbelief in humanity mixes in her prayer with a
desire to believe in some kind of an absolute, no matter how much the
very idea of a god is distorted by people who consider themselves
righteous and divinely-inspired: “she refuses to give up hope in her
anguished version of the Lord’s Prayer.”186 At the same time, she treats the
concept of hope with a suspicion and an irony that clearly reflect her own
difficult situation as a prisoner incarcerated by both her sex and the state
religion.

***

Another significant issue in the analysis of the way religion and


sexuality are interrelated in The Handmaid’s Tale are the relations
between Offred and the men who, for numerous reasons and in various
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

periods of her life, become important for her, determining her given public
and private status. These men include Luke, her partner in pre-Gilead
times, now dead; the Commander, with whom Gilead’s political system
forces her to have sex and coexist in a parody of a family unit; and Nick,
the Commander’s chauffer and bodyguard, who eventually becomes
Offred’s lover. Interestingly enough, all these men seem somehow
interrelated, with Offred as their common denominator: “all three men
merge, and this merging requires us to reassess supposed distinctions
among husbands, lovers, and commanders.”187 What is more, the number
is not accidental. It clearly refers to the Holy Trinity, at the same time
underlining the novel’s perverse and profane interplay with one of the
most important dogmas of Christianity. In Atwood’s re-reading of the
trinity, the Commander plays the role of God the Father, because he is the
oldest and he embodies the biblical concept of patriarchy in its fullest way.
Luke is interpreted as the Holy Ghost, now absent from Offred’s life in
Gilead, but in pre-Gilead times the father of her child. Finally, Nick takes

185
The Holy Bible, Luke, 11: 2.
186
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 99.
187
Miner, “Trust Me,” 26.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 69

the role of Jesus Christ, partly because of his quasi-parental connection to


the Commander, and partly because of the fact that he seems to act as
Offred’s saviour at the end of the novel. Additionally, in all these three
female–male relations, the idea of love, both physical and spiritual, seems
the most crucial issue, although it realises itself in different modes.
Chronologically, the first man in Offred’s life is Luke, her partner in
pre-Gilead times, the father of her daughter but also married to another
woman. After he dies during an unsuccessful attempt to escape from
Gilead, Offred tends to idealise him, considering Luke the greatest love of
her life, and even expecting him to miraculously reappear to rescue her.
Therefore, we can interpret Luke as Atwood’s blasphemous parody of the
Holy Ghost, where religion is as important as sexuality, because it is Luke
who is responsible for impregnating Offred, just like in the case of the
Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. Additionally, since Luke is no longer
alive, he does not take part in Offred’s life in Gilead, which makes him
appear mythical. This, in turn, has a major influence on the way he is
perceived by Offred, because her deep affection together with his absence
in her life seem to blind her. She continues to ignore Luke’s misogynistic
features, which other female characters in the pre-Gilead period notice.
For instance, her feminist mother openly calls Luke a “chauvinist pig.”188
Additionally, as women’s rights are being more and more limited and
violated, Offred loses her job and access to her credit card for the benefit
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of her male partner (now only he can dispose of her money). Luke does
not seem to encourage her to rebel against this degrading situation
actively. In a tricky way he takes advantage of the new situation, saying:
“you know I’ll always take care of you.”189 Sometimes Offred realises the
fact that real love means something completely different to her than it does
to Luke. In his case love is always connected to the sexist idea of power:

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he


even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.
So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I
right. Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that,
I was afraid to. I couldn’t afford to lose you.190

When it comes to Offred, then, in such moments of clarity she appears to


be the victim of her own delusions. She sacrifices her female individuality
for the sake of a peaceful relationship that seems utterly patriarchal. Luke,

188
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 131.
189
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 188.
190
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 191–92.
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70 Chapter Two

on the other hand, demonstrates a terrifying tendency, a hypothesis that the


urge to use patriarchal power over a woman can be too overwhelming and
tempting for a man to simply ignore it: “as we learn more about Luke, we
realise that he likes old ideas as well.”191 By staying passive and
discouraging, he takes advantage of Gilead’s religion and discriminatory
attitude to sexuality, which results in more or less open misogyny.
Madonne Miner thus likens Luke to the Commander, calling both of them
“two male characters who mirror [each other]; structurally, these two are
twins.”192
Technically speaking, the Commander is another married man that
Offred has sex with, even though the circumstances are quite different.
Although this perverse and degrading relationship is a direct outcome of
the sexual and religious politics of the state of Gilead, Offred admits
bitterly: “The fact is that I’m his mistress.”193 Besides various biblical and
religious resemblances—“The Commander is also Jacob, the father of
Israel, the false god, the anti-Christ, and, significantly, the dispenser of the
patriarchal ‘word,’”194—it is the parallel with the Holy Trinity that seems
of the greatest importance here. The Commander takes the position of God
the Father, the source of power, knowledge and intellectual supremacy.
This is symbolically displayed during the few private conversations Offred
has with him: “Women can’t add, he said once, jokingly. When I asked
him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don’t
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

make four. What do they make? I said, expecting five or three. Just one
and one and one and one, he said.”195 The ostensible female inability to
think logically becomes one of the cornerstones of Gilead, explaining at
the same time men’s absolute leadership, and women’s frailty. This is yet
another aspect that links the Commander with Luke, because: “like Luke,
the Commander has control over Offred’s life.”196 Nevertheless, in
comparison to Luke, the Commander seems to be sterile, no matter how
blasphemous it would sound, because according to the patriarchal policy
of Gilead, “there is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not
officially.”197 Additionally, with the gradual change of his attitude to
Offred, he tends to take the role of a father-like figure rather than a lover.
Consequently, in their relationship sexuality recedes into the background,

191
Miner, “Trust Me,” 29.
192
Miner, “Trust Me,” 33.
193
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 172.
194
Wilson, “Off the Path,” 74.
195
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 195.
196
Miner, “Trust Me,” 31.
197
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 70–71.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 71

and the first sign of this process is the game of Scrabble that the
Commander plays with Offred during their intimate encounter. Offred
recalls: “This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me,
ever;”198 and: “To be asked to play Scrabble, instead [of having sex], as if
we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the
extreme, a violation too in its own way.”199 The oddity of this activity is
emphasised by the fact that in Gilead reading, or dealing with letters/words
in any other way, is strictly prohibited for women, whereas females, or at
least handmaids, have relatively easy access to sex in excess, regardless of
the fact that it is forced intercourse. Therefore, the game of Scrabble
becomes a kind of forbidden fruit, the equivalent of what sex was in pre-
Gilead times, a severe violation of the state’s regulations. At the same
time—and it is also worth recalling here the aforementioned visit to a
state-run brothel—the Commander starts to appear as a pathetic little man,
overwhelmed by the official politics of religion and sexuality that he is
actually responsible for, but does not fully comprehend.
The last man in Offred’s life is Nick, the Commander’s chauffer and
bodyguard, but also a secret member of the resistance group called
Underground Femaleroad, which Offred learns only at the end of her
narration. As such, he is directly responsible for rescuing Offred from the
hands of the Commander, his wife, and Gilead’s political system. When
security forces appear to apprehend Offred, “he comes over, close to me,
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whispers. ‘It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them.’”200 At the same time,
he becomes her mythical and long awaited saviour, her own equivalent of
Jesus Christ: “unlike Luke and the Commander, Nick risks his own life to
save that of Offred.”201 Nick’s resemblance to Jesus is strengthened when
we realise that it is also Nick who Offred falls in love with, bringing an
imitation of happiness and hope to her miserable life. Therefore, he is the
one who substitutes for Luke in Offred’s pursuit for real love, and because
of this, she also tends to idealise him while living in a world of her own
fantasies. In other words, “Offred makes do with what is available, and
falls in love with Nick.”202 This is clearly visible in the numerous attempts
she makes to describe their first close encounter, all of them highly
unreliable. She ends with the simple conclusion that “this is a delusion, of
course.”203 More importantly, however, due to her feelings for Nick,

198
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 154.
199
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 163.
200
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 305–06.
201
Miner, “Trust Me,” 34.
202
Miner, “Trust Me,” 34.
203
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 281.
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72 Chapter Two

Offred again sinks into passivity—just like in Luke’s times, she relies on
her new lover absolutely, almost forgetting about her female personality.
She admits: “The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the
border of freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.”204
Like most people at the beginning of a love affair, but also like those
beguiled by religion with its miracles and illusions of eternal happiness,
she subconsciously decides to live on in the world of her own fantasies,
especially because the real world has so little to offer to her. Nick, then,
appears an ambivalent saviour since his sacrifice (never as full as in the
case of Jesus) stupefies Offred and results in her full submission to him.
This once again demonstrates that Gilead’s politics mixes sexuality with
religion in such a way that one of these factors is always used as a means
to achieve the other.
Altogether, Offred’s relationships with these three men, all of them
different and similar at the same time, show that love, real love, is a
dangerous thing, because it can easily become a device of manipulation,
especially when used simultaneously with religion. Love is also connected
with human fantasies, and as such can be used as a tool of exploitation,
too. This becomes especially true in the state of Gilead, where the male
authorities openly state that “love is not the point.”205 Women themselves
do not seem to be the point to them either, as the only choice women in
Gilead have is either to yield and accept their inferior position, or exist on
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the margins of the repressive society. Female destiny is to serve males,


because love—when cleverly manipulated—can also become a tool of the
state’s misogynistic politics. Therefore, Gilead’s politics are utterly based
on privileging one sex group at the cost of the other: “‘you can’t cheat
Nature,’ [the Commander] says. ‘Nature demands variety, for men. It
stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s
plan.’”206 Women, then, are treated as objects, mainly in the sexual and
biological sphere of life, and the background for such proceedings is
provided by religion, with the idea of patriarchy as its innate feature.

***

Sex and religion are definitely the two spheres of human existence that
constitute the core of the alarming dynamics as presented in The
Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s configuration of religion and sexuality
(though the role of environmental issues should not be underestimated) is

204
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 283.
205
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 232.
206
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 249.
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The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Republic of Men 73

perfectly illustrated by Dorota Filipczak. She states that “the barrenness of


people and the decay of nature are reflected in Atwood’s Gilead. Thus,
there is no external sign of divine blessing in the spurious paradise.”207
When combined in unreasonable proportions, religion and sexuality can
become dangerous devices in the strategies of gaining and maintaining
power. They turn into a political tool of repression, which is always
connected with the process of victimising one particular group of people at
the cost of another. Aware of such tendencies, Atwood demonstrates that
mixing sexuality with religion can have ambiguous outcomes, as it is most
visible in the case of the religion-inspired public rituals, as well as the
complicated relationships between men and women. Most importantly, she
knows that religion and sexuality constitute a highly explosive
combination. She states: “sexual relations in extreme Dystopias usually
exhibit some form of slavery or extreme sexual repression;”208 and:
“modern Dystopias have not been uninfluenced by various literary
versions of Hell, especially those of Dante and Milton, which in turn go
right back to the Bible, that indispensable sourcebook of Western
literature.”209 This explosive quality in reference to the mixture of religion
and sexuality can be perfectly summarised by Moira in the language game.
When forced to sing the popular spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” a
hymn that has even more significance in this theocratic state, she responds
by saying “There is a Bomb in Gilead.”210 It is this bomb, understood in
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social, cultural and civilizational terms, to which Atwood alludes. In the


situation depicted by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, i.e. when men use
religion to exploit women, there cannot be anything good for either men or
women. Both paradoxically and sadly, there are no victors there.
Technically speaking, each bomb’s destiny is to explode, therefore
Atwood proposes a warning, suggesting that political manipulations in
religion and human sexuality can result in tragedy.

207
Filipczak, “Is There No Balm,” 180.
208
Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” 95.
209
Atwood, “Writing Utopia,” 93–94.
210
Atwood, The Handmaid’s, 230.
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CHAPTER THREE

ORYX AND CRAKE,


OR THE CASTLE OF SCIENTISTS

we ran west

wanting
a place of absolute
unformed beginning

(Margaret Atwood, “Migration: C.P.R.,” Poems 1965–1975, 25)

***

In your pockets the thin women


hang on their hooks, dismembered
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Around my neck I wear


the head of the beloved, pressed
in the metal retina like a picked flower.

(Margaret Atwood, “Hesitations Outside the Door,” Eating Fire, 131)

***

You saunter beside me, talking


of the beauty of the morning,
not even knowing
that there has been a flood.

(Margaret Atwood, “After the Flood, We,” Eating Fire, 3)

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76 Chapter Three

Science and the Disregard for Morality


Oryx and Crake, the first instalment of the MaddAddam trilogy,1 is
Atwood’s first novel in which the scientific layer seems to play the most
important, even predominant role.2 Although the writer’s (anti)-scientific
and pro-environmental attitude is easily detectable in her earlier novels
(The Handmaid’s Tale discussed above), it is only in Oryx and Crake that
it finds its full realisation. After a few years of writing rather realistic
novels (focused on the present or the past), Atwood returns here to the
literary genre that seems to be naturally linked with the notion and critique
of science, i.e. dystopia, or speculative fiction. Being perfectly aware of
the book’s generic affinity with The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explains
the genesis of Oryx and Crake in the following way:

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a
science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no
teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, it invents
nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent. Every novel
begins with a what if and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx
and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we’re already on?
How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will
to stop us? Writers write about what worries them, and the world of Oryx
and Crake is what worries me now. It’s not a question of our inventions—
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all human inventions are merely tools—but of what might be done with
them; for no matter how high the tech, Homo sapiens sapiens remains at
heart what he’s been for tens of thousands of years—the same emotions,
the same preoccupations.3

Hence, it is clear that the same way as scientific inventions are just devices
in people’s hands, so is the genre of speculative dystopia for Atwood.
Moreover, a similar kind of thinking can be justifiably applied to her

1
The MaddAddam trilogy is the most common unofficial title of the collection of
the three novels (apart from Oryx and Crake, they are The Year of the Flood and
MaddAddam), although the Oryx and Crake trilogy is also in use.
2
An interesting pop-culture context appears here. The novel constitutes one of the
reference points for the album Shaking the Habitual, released in 2013 by the
Swedish avant-garde eletro-rock duo The Knife, e.g. it contains two songs—or
rather interludes—entitled “Crake” and “Oryx.” Thematically, the whole album
deals with the issues of feminism and queer theories mixed with environmentalism.
All of them, it is easy to notice, are close to Atwood’s interests.
3
Margaret Atwood, “Writing Oryx and Crake,” in Writing with Intent: Essays,
Reviews, Personal Prose 1983–2005 (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers,
2005), 285–86.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 77

interest in the topics of science: it is just a tool that can be used for good or
evil purposes. It can either advance human progress, or be responsible for
mankind’s annihilation. Human beings decide how to use it and, consequently,
are responsible for what can be done with it.
In Oryx and Crake, Atwood tells the story of Jimmy/Snowman, an
apocalypse survivor recounting the events of the years directly before the
biological catastrophe. In his teenage years in the Compounds, highly
modern and strictly guarded areas inhabited by the elite of the society (i.e.
scientists), Jimmy has a close friend, Glenn/Crake, a brilliant scientist-to-
be, disgusted by the decadent, corporate, brutality-driven and overpopulated
world in which he lives. Adult Crake, a literary incarnation of a
Frankenstein-like mad scientist, decides to put an end to all this mess by
destroying the old order of things and proposing a totally new version of
the world. In the Paradice Project, as he calls his grand enterprise, he
manages to achieve his goal by inventing a fatal virus that kills (almost) all
human beings, and creating a biologically enhanced human species—
noble savages perfect in every way—that are to replace the already
annihilated people. According to Crake’s concept, his clones, who are less
intelligent and speculative than mankind, are still better equipped to live in
the adverse circumstances of the post-apocalypse world thanks to their
biological modifications. For example, male urine prevents the attacks of
fierce animals. Thus, the process of urinating becomes a new type of a
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ritual undergone twice a day. Moreover, they can cure their physical
wounds by purring and they eat vegetables and caecotrophs “consisting as
they do of semi-digested herbage, discharged through the anus and re-
swallowed two or three times a week.”4 These are just a few examples of
the way they are carefully designed by Crake. As he says: “Woodworking,
hunting, high finance, war, and golf would no longer be options,”5
emphasising the fact that the Crakers—because that is what they are called
by Jimmy/Snowman—have to deal with a far more malevolent situation
that their predecessors. Atwood’s exploitation of dystopian fiction is then
double: her novel is set both before and after the man-made bio-ecological
apocalypse. The world before its ending is the world of the near,
unspecified future, although we can detect in it many objects and trends
that we are already familiar with: technology, mass consumerism,
degradation of the environment, experiments in bioengineering, etc.
Definitely, it is contemporary genetic engineering together with the
violation of the natural environment that constitute her most vital subject-

4
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 158.
5
Atwood, Oryx, 155.
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78 Chapter Three

matter: “in Oryx and Crake, questions of genetic predisposition and


cultural experience are examined more explicitly than in any other Atwood
novel.”6 In other words, the way bioengineering is envisioned in the novel
requires a closer investigation.
Probably the most striking realisation of the concept of bioengineering
can be seen in the various new transgenic beings created by the scientists
of Atwood’s future. The splices vary from an unimportant species of giant
butterflies—“the ones [Jimmy] was looking at had wings the size of
pancakes and were shocking pink, and were clustering all over one of the
purple shrubs,”7 pet-like rakunks (a hybrid of raccoons and skunks), and
rather dangerous wolvogs (vicious wolves that look like friendly, domestic
dogs), to more morally-disturbing pigoons—huge pigs with human-tissue
organs in their bodies:

The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof


human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host—organs that
transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off
attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more
strains every year. A rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon
kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were
perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a
host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than being
destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs.8
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As Atwood states in an interview with Danielle Groen: “As far as


inventing new animals, or using pigs to grow kidneys—that’s starting to
happen now. They’ve broken the code. Whereas when I wrote Oryx and
Crake, they hadn’t quite figured out how to get past the rejection factor.
So ‘What next?’ I say.”9 Additionally, what Atwood depicts in her novel is
the violation of the traditional/natural status quo, where the popular saying
“we are what we eat” gains a completely new meaning, both terrifying and
ironic (in gallows humour, also typical of Atwood), suggesting at the same
time that ours is a veiled quasi-cannibal culture that disregards both human
and animal genetic material. As Jimmy’s mother notes sarcastically:
“That’s all we need. More people with the brains of pigs. Don’t we have
enough of those already?”10 And the course of the novel shows that she is

6
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 297.
7
Atwood, Oryx, 200.
8
Atwood, Oryx, 22.
9
Danielle Groen, “Margaret Atwood Gets Her Payback,” review of The Year of
the Flood, by Margaret Atwood, Chatelaine 82 (2009): 221.
10
Atwood, Oryx, 56.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 79

right, because in the post-apocalyptic world pigoons seem to be the


greatest danger to Snowman’s life, mainly due to their quasi-human
intelligence and insatiable appetite for food. In one episode Atwood
creates: “seven pigoons have materialised from nowhere. They’re staring
at him, ears forward. Are they the same as yesterday’s? As he watches,
they begin to amble in his direction.”11 The questionable morality of such
playful and irresponsible scientific processes—the “overlapping discourses
of power and ethics,” as Fiona Tolan terms this situation12—is visualised
in a conversation between Jimmy’s parents. Although they both work as
geneticists, it is only Jimmy’s mother who has some doubts that later on
force her to rebel against the whole system. She challenges her husband,
saying: “Be that as it may, there’s research and there’s research. What
you’re doing—this pig brain thing. You’re interfering with the building
blocks of life. It’s immoral. It’s sacrilegious.”13 The whole problem
obviously shows the contemporary tendency in genetic engineering that
could be characterised by the growing ethical disregard for both the source
and the outcome of the experiments. This finds its reflection in Jean
François Lyotard’s words when he defines postmodern science as a
phenomenon “producing not the known, but the unknown.”14 According to
Margaret Atwood: “science is really just a way of describing the world.
What it is not, is something that can give us the answer to essentially
metaphysical and religious questions, such as why are we here?”15 This
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statement clearly highlights the discrepancy between science itself—a


theoretical set of rules to understand the mechanics of the world—and
both its practical realisation as well as implementation in real life. Two
sides of the same coin, as one could say.
Science constitutes one of the grand subject-matters of Oryx and
Crake, but also its direct literary source. Atwood’s artistic vision of this
human field of activities is detailed and highly credible. The writer
describes the origin of her 2003 novel in a way that highlights not only the
thematic importance of science, but also the quasi-scientific technique of
her work:

11
Atwood, Oryx, 267.
12
Tolan, Margaret, 279.
13
Atwood, Oryx, 57.
14
Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1989), 60.
15
Christopher Bantick, Christopher, “Atwood Tackles Future Fears,” review of
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, Sunday Tasmanian, November 16, 2003,
accessed November 6, 2010, http://-web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail ED 11/2010.
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80 Chapter Three

I’d been clipping small items from the back pages of newspapers for years,
and noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid
fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities. The rules of biology are
as inexorable as those of physics: run out of food and water and you die.
No animal can exhaust its resource base and hope to survive. Human
civilizations are subject to the same law.16

Additionally, science seems to play a very important role in the two


opening epigraphs of the novel, where a kind of a dichotomy can be
noticed. The first epigram is a quotation from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s
Travels, the second one from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. This
choice of sources, besides contrasting a female point of view with a male
one, clearly emphasises the clash between Swift’s harsh critique of the age
of reason that stands behind the modern beginnings of science, with
Woolf’s emotionality and desperate human ethics. Consequently, the
novel’s reality consists of two separate realms that seem to contradict and
complement each other: dehumanised science vs. human morality, looking
into the future vs. dwelling in the past, Crake’s numbers vs. Jimmy’s
words. It is, then, the usage of the doubles that is the core of the novel’s
narrative, although the pairs she creates are not simple binary oppositions
where we can easily point at the positive one and discredit its reversal.
Atwood’s technique is far more ambiguous, which can be easily observed
in the way she deals in the book with, actually, two dystopias: the ironic
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

late capitalist world of today and the post-apocalyptic wilderness. Even


though such a treatment of the doubles enables the writer to remain
ostensibly objective and distanced from the described events, it appears
clear that she has her own opinion, which she wants not only to present,
but also to advocate.
First of all, the doubles technique realises itself on the level of
characterisation of the two male protagonists, especially visible in their
relation to science. Jimmy, representing the old world of ethics and the
power of the word, is contrasted with Crake, his complete alter ego, a man
of numbers deprived of any traditionally understood morality and
preoccupied with the possibilities of science: “in Jimmy’s world, scientists
act as God while ‘word people’ like Jimmy act as their preachers.”17
Jimmy stands for the dying realm of language and arts, for which there is
no room in the new reality: “‘when any civilization is dust and ashes,’

16
Atwood, “Writing Oryx,” 285.
17
Shannon Hengen, “Moral/Environmental Debt in Payback and Oryx and Crake,”
in Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride, The Bind Assassin, Oryx and Crake,
edited by J. Brooks Bouson (London: Continuum, 2010), 136.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 81

[Jimmy] said, ‘art is all that’s left over. Images, words, music. Imaginative
structures. Meaning—human meaning, that is—is defined by them. You
have to admit it.’”18 Perhaps a bit pathetically, Jimmy tries to defend the
old values. Crake’s opinion on the arts is cold, scientifically sober, and
sarcastic at the same time:

People can amuse themselves any way they like. If they want to play with
themselves in public, whack off over doodling, scribbling, and fiddling, it’s
fine with me. Anyway it serves a biological purpose. The male frog, in
mating season makes as much noise as it can. The females are attracted to
the male frog with the biggest, deepest voice because it suggests a more
powerful frog, one with superior genes. Small male frogs—it’s been
documented—discover that if they position themselves in empty
drainpipes, the pipe acts as a voice amplifier, and the small frog appears
much larger than it really is. So that’s what art is, for the artist. An empty
drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.”19

Jimmy does not want to—and cannot—agree fully with Crake, and thus he
endeavours to resist his friend’s approach, which seems unjustly degrading
to the arts and the whole of the humanities: “he compiled lists of old
words—words of a precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a
meaningful application in today’s world. He’d developed a strangely
tender feeling towards such words, as if they were children abandoned in
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the woods and it was his duty to rescue them.”20 In other words, it is in
language that Jimmy builds his passive resistance not only to Crake, but
also to the whole culture preoccupied with the prospects of science that he
despises. What Jimmy rebels against is this mechanistic view of humanity
that Crake supports, in which, “[the latter one] dismisses the value of
cultural production, tracing art and romance back through a biological
imperative to procreate.”21
Not surprisingly, it is Crake who becomes both the science-obsessed
perpetrator and the key factor of the future apocalypse: “a demonic figure
perhaps, like H. G. Wells’s Dr Moreau, but also a failed visionary like
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose utopian project results in the near
extinction of the human race.”22 The obvious similarities between Crake
and Doctor Frankenstein make Atwood’s character a kind of a variation on
Shelley’s famous protagonist: “both Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and

18
Atwood, Oryx, 167.
19
Atwood, Oryx, 167–68.
20
Atwood, Oryx, 195.
21
Tolan, Margaret, 294.
22
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 172.
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82 Chapter Three

Atwood’s Crake are brilliant and ambitious young men who are guilty of
pride and of dangerously misguided thinking, a split between reason or
abstract thinking and emotion. In each case disaster follows.”23 Richard
Gerber describes the notion of the mad scientist that finds its first
prominent literary representation in the character of Dr. Frankenstein in
the following way:

The sinister powerful insane scientist has become a favourite theme of


popular imagination, and the utopian fantasies are full of them. They may
not be insane from the ‘scientific’ point of view, of course, but from the
merely human one. Just like the devil, the sorcerer, and the witch in former
ages, nowadays the scientist, preferably the insane scientist, lurks behind
everything.24

That is who Crake really is: a great enemy of imagination, the arts, and
morality. However, at one point he departs from Gerber’s description. I
would not call him insane. His two grand ideas—annihilating human
beings and peopling the earth with a new human-like species—are logical,
carefully planned and painstakingly implemented. Nevertheless, he is a
mysterious figure whose black clothes correspond with his original
nickname: “Crake is dialect for crow and if, anywhere in fable and myth,
there are no stories that do this bird any credit, Atwood simply adds to its
discredit.”25 From the very moment he appears in the novel as a teenager,
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

he distinguishes himself from others: “Crake was different. More like an


adult; in fact more adult than a lot of adults. You could have an objective
conversation with him, a conversation in which events and hypotheses
were followed through to their logical conclusions.”26 Logical and
completely sane objectivity is one side of the coin, the other being an
insatiable appetite for knowledge of all kinds, which makes Crake a
character similar to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, a figure eager to
widen his horizons at any cost, and make science a morally-haphazard
territory.

23
Karen F. Stein, “Problematic Paradice in Oryx and Crake,” in Margaret Atwood:
The Robber Bride, The Bind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, edited by J. Brooks
Bouson (London: Continuum, 2010), 147.
24
Richard Gerber, Utopian Fantasy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.,
1973), 57.
25
Helen Elliott, “A Perverse Way Flays the Future,” review of Oryx and Crake, by
Margaret Atwood, The Australian, May 3, 2003, accessed November 6, 2010,
http://web.-ebscohost.com/ehost/detail ED 11/2010.
26
Atwood, Oryx, 69.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 83

Crake acts in the novel as both a model and an exaggeration of a


scientist, a leader of the social elite consisting of multitude of characters
representing this profession. First of all, these scientists are similar to the
aforementioned Dr. Faustus in the respect that in initially looking for
knowledge to improve the world, they end up with just unimportant games
and toys. This can be exemplified in the novel by their experiments with
genetic splices—new animals created just for their fun, just to prove their
ability to create such organisms. As Jimmy’s mother reminds her husband:
“Don’t you remember the way we used to talk, everything we wanted to
do? Making life better for people—not just people with money. You used
to be so you had ideals, then.”27 Another problem is that the scientists do
not seem to be interested in taking responsibility for their actions any
more. This only partly refers to Crake, at the same time, making him
different from Dr. Frankenstein. The playfulness is a visible part of
Crake’s grand scheme of annihilating human beings and replacing them
with his surrogates through the Paradice Project. Its very name does not
only refer to the Garden of Eden, but also includes elements of gambling,
proving that he actually does not know the outcome of the project and is
predominantly curious about the way it will evolve. It is just a game of
dice, as he seems to suggest, a game that he initiates. Such an approach
could be the result of Crake’s education at the Watson-Crick Institute, a
university for the most brilliant scientists, a place where silly playfulness
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

meets with the utopian aspirations of the scientists, not only Crake’s. In
the description of the premises, Atwood again reminds us of the potential
dangers and unknown outcomes of scientific procedures referring directly
to contemporary experiments in genetics quoted above: “at the
entranceway was a bronzed statue of the Institute’s mascot, the
spoat/gider—one of the first successful splices, done in Montreal at the
turn of the century, goat crossed with spider to produce high-tensile spider
silk filaments in the milk.”28 In the place named to commemorate two
geneticists responsible for the discovery of the DNA structure, all the
elements of reality appear to come from their experiments in genetics,
everything is artificially-created and thus fake:

First [Jimmy and Crake] went to Décor Botanicals, where a team of five
seniors was developing Smart Wallpaper that would change colour on the
walls of your room to complement your mood. This wallpaper—they told
Jimmy—had a modified form of Kirilian-energy-sensing algae embedded
in it, along with a sublayer of algae nutrients, but there were still some

27
Atwood, Oryx, 57.
28
Atwood, Oryx, 199.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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84 Chapter Three

glitches to be fixed. The wallpaper was short-lived in humid weather


because it ate up all the nutrients and then went grey; also it could not tell
the difference between drooling lust and murderous rage, and was likely to
turn your wallpaper an erotic pink when what you really needed was a
murky, capillary-bursting greenish red.29

This once again demonstrates that what the scientists do is waste their
energy and potential on unimportant, trivial experiments, mainly to show
that they are capable of creating such new things. Behaving like gods, they
are not interested in the actual outcome of their experiments but in the
experiments themselves—science for science’s sake. In this sense, Crake
is a typical scientist. However, at the same time he notices the degradation
of such reality, the wasteland that surrounds him, and decides to act. In
this respect he differs from other scientists in the novel because he realises
what Jayne Glover describes as the belief that “science has been employed
to try to control and even change the damage being done to the earth.”30
His solution is an ultimate and risky one, demonstrating that he treats
science—with its almost unlimited possibilities—just as a toy in his hands,
actually taking no responsibility for what the future generated by him
holds.

***
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Science also plays a crucial role when it comes to power, becoming a


very important tool in the hands of the technocratic regime. Technological
inventions help the totalitarian state control the masses and, thus, retain its
power. First of all, this is realized on the most basic, mechanical level of
the system maintenance, i.e. its secret police forces. In Oryx and Crake,
however, the state-run officers are replaced by the CorpSeCorps, a quasi-
police that have evolved from the private corporate guard companies.
Using high-tech gadgets, such as spray-guns, is one thing, but their
procedures are not restricted just to safeguarding the Compounds and
bugging people’s phones and e-mails. The CorpSeCorps are mainly
responsible for maintaining the existing political status quo, which
requires such activities as getting rid of those citizens who endanger it.
One of the victims of the system is Crake’s father, once a highly situated
official who dies in unexplained circumstances, although it is hinted that
he was executed just for knowing too much. The way Atwood pictures the

29
Atwood, Oryx, 201.
30
Jayne Glover, “Human/Nature: Ecological Philosophy in Margaret Atwood’s
Oryx and Crake,” English Studies in Africa 52 (2009): 52.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 85

totalitarian state also shows that sometimes the most traditional techniques
are the most effective ones: “shooting was for treason. Otherwise it was
gas, or hanging, or the big brainfrizz.”31 Atwood seems to openly mock
state-of-the-art technology, opting for more vintage solutions, which only
emphasises the old truth that the best ways to control the masses are the
most traditional ones. Additionally, it ironically underlines Atwood’s
standpoint that the tools of manipulating and maintaining power are just
simple tools, that human beings actually decide how to use them.
Moreover, in Oryx and Crake science and its inventions interact with the
culture of consumerism, without which the totalitarian rules probably
would not be possible: “double-entry on-screen bookkeeping, banking by
fingertip, using a microwave without nuking your eggs, filling out housing
applications for this or that Module and job applications for this or that
Compound, family heredity research, negotiating your own marriage-and-
divorce contracts, wise genetic match-making.”32 By providing more and
more convenient products, consumer society becomes even more addicted
to and dependent on the science that is responsible for the excess of such
goods, which in turn helps the regime to control the consumers/citizens.
This is a culture of ultimate overabundance in which science turns into
mere technology, and plays the most crucial role providing in the masses
with never-ending numbers of products, thus accelerating the need to
purchase and possess.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

The most extreme and cruellest example of such procedures is the case
of the HelthWyzer, a corporation responsible for producing new and better
drugs for new diseases. The only problem, at least from an ethical point of
view, is that this corporation also creates those new illnesses, providing a
basic capitalistic demand for their products. Crake soberly and sarcastically
notes:

They’re creating them. They’ve been doing it for years. Naturally they
develop the antidotes at the same time as they’re customizing the bugs, but
they hold those in reserve, they practice the economics of scarcity, so
they’re guaranteed high profits. The best diseases, from a business point of
view, would be those that cause lingering illnesses. Ideally—that is, for
maximum profit—the patient should either get well or die just before all of
his or her money runs out. It’s a fine calculation.33

31
Atwood, Oryx, 258.
32
Atwood, Oryx, 42.
33
Atwood, Oryx, 211.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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86 Chapter Three

Again, what Atwood suggests here is that the advantages that applied
science provides us can be easily misused in the hands of the corrupt
representatives of our kind. Here the reference to Michel Foucault’s notion
of biopower as a highly developed and self-conscious form of governing
people seems interesting. The French philosopher states that the aim of the
power understood in modern terms is:

to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces


under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and
ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them
submit, or destroying them. There has been a parallel shift in the right of
death, or at least a tendency to align itself with the exigencies of a life-
administering power and to define itself accordingly. This death that was
based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse
of the right, of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life.34

In other words, modern regimes like the one depicted in Oryx and Crake
operate on a definitely more sophisticated and indirect level than the old
power. They realise that it is the life of an individual that is to be colonized
and taken over, not their death. Life becomes then the focus of biopower:
“power of death now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that
exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize,
and multiply it, subjecting to precise controls and comprehensive
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

regulations.”35 Atwood’s novel is a perfect illustration of Foucault’s ideas


because the post-capitalistic technocracy envisioned in it seems to realize
the philosopher’s idea. What is more, the picture of gadget-driven
capitalism in Oryx and Crake is the system in its exhaustion phase, where
science only seems to keep it alive in an artificial way. What Atwood
depicts here are her harsh views on capitalism and its mechanism, the
critique of which finds its most direct outcome in her 2008 collection of
essays, Payback, where, juxtaposing nature with our scientific and
corporate civilization, she states: “Mankind made a Faustian bargain as
soon as he invented his first technologies, including the bow and arrow.”36
Now we are following the same old path, she seems to suggest, a path that
leads directly to our extinction—as her protagonist Crake fully realises and
implements in his Paradice Project.

34
Michel Foucault, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” in The Foucault
Reader, edited by Paul Rainbow, translated by Robert Hurle (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1984), 259.
35
Foucault, “Right of Death,” 260.
36
Atwood, Payback, 201.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 87

Science also influences the way society is organised in Oryx and


Crake, because it directly determines which people have power
(representatives of post-capitalistic corporations, but also scientists who are
useful to the authorities), and which do not. The seemingly privileged
ones, namely scientists, live in closed and strictly guarded areas called
Compounds; all the rest dwell in what is left of the twentieth-century big
cities, here named pleeblands. In a far too optimistic and child-like way,
this division can be explained the way Jimmy’s father, a scientist himself,
describes it to his then young son:

Long time ago, in the days of knights and dragons, the kings and dukes
had lived in castles, with high walls and drawbridges and slots on the
ramparts so you could pour hot pitch on your enemies, and the Compounds
were the same idea. Castles for keeping you and your buddies nice and safe
inside, and for keeping everybody else outside.
“So are we the kings and dukes?” asked Jimmy.
“Oh, absolutely,” said his father, laughing.37

This is only partly true. The safety and well-being of the Compounds’
inhabitants are strictly connected with their utility in genetic engineering
processes. The dangerous and contaminated pleeblands offer their dwellers
(as well as amazed visitors from the better world, and it must be
remembered that the novel is narrated from the perspective of such
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

protagonists) definitely more freedom and sometimes brutal truth: “real


musicians on the street corners, real bands of street urchins. Asymmetries,
deformities: the faces here [in pleeblands] were a far cry from the regularity
of the Compounds. There were even bad teeth;”38 and: “everything in the
pleeblands seemed so boundless, so porous, so penetrable, so wide-open.
So subject to change.”39 However, that is only one side to the coin. The
other constitutes a completely reversed picture: “vacant warehouses,
burnt-out tenements, empty parking lots. Here and there were sheds and
huts put together from scavenged materials—sheets of tin, slabs of
plywood—and inhabited no doubt by squatters. How did such people
exist?”40
The Compounds’ dwellers are relatively safer and wealthier, that is
true, but their freedom is also limited. They generally do not have access
to the truth outside the walls. Moreover, they are deprived of the privilege
to choose their way of life, for it is not possible for them to cross the

37
Atwood, Oryx, 28.
38
Atwood, Oryx, 228.
39
Atwood, Oryx, 196.
40
Atwood, Oryx, 185.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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88 Chapter Three

border between the Compounds and pleeblands freely. What Atwood


ironically adds to this typically dystopian picture is her conscious
ecological way of thinking. Jayne Glover notes: “As a type of eco-science
fiction, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake demonstrates how the tensions between
idealistic and apocalyptic trends within the genre are able to question the
assumptions of current ecological thinking by alerting us to the
subterranean complexities of such philosophies.”41 It is then the prison of
the Compounds that provides its dwellers with clean air and water, healthy
(or at least healthier) food, longer life expectancy, etc. On the other hand,
pleeblands dwellers live in overpopulated and extremely polluted areas
that visibly represent the world’s final phase. As Howells says:

It is a world of accelerating environmental degeneration, where devastating


droughts and floods have wiped out much of the east coast of America as
well as the orchards and the Everglades in Florida within one generation.
Human beings have become radically separated from their natural
environment, and that condition of alienation finds its parallel in patterns
of social breakdown.42

Paradoxically, this separation from nature is justifiable both in the case of


the pleeblands and the Compounds. The lower classes of the society live
their miserable lives mainly to survive all those seemingly adverse
circumstances. In order to forget their situation they delve into the
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

capitalistic mode of existence: “accepted wisdom in the Compounds said


that nothing of interest went on in the pleeblands, apart from buying and
selling: there was no life of the mind. Buying and selling, plus a lot of
criminal activity.”43 The privileged ones appear to exist in a kind of an
unrealistic, heavenly state (e.g. the aforementioned Watson-Crick Institute),
which contradicts the obvious truth. Both, consciously or unconsciously,
seem to reject the truth.
For the Compounds’ inhabitants like Jimmy, the pleeblands represent a
sort of forbidden fruit, some kind of missing reality. A reality that, if not
acquired physically can be only experienced virtually, i.e. on-line. In other
words, virtual reality becomes the most obvious way to circumvent all the
safety-freedom restrictions of the dystopian world. Carol Ann Howells
describes it as one of the most important areas in Atwood’s fiction, stating:
“Though Atwood does not venture into the cyberspace territory, she does
explore the psychological effects of living in a high-tech world of

41
Glover, “Human/Nature,” 51.
42
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 174.
43
Atwood, Oryx, 196.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 89

artificially constructed reality.”44 Such a standpoint is clearly visible in


Oryx and Crake. When young, Crake and Jimmy play computer games
almost all the time, not only exploring cyberspace, but primarily delving
into the illusion of freedom it offers. Surfing the Net they find such sites as
hedsoff.com, “which played live coverage of executions in Asia,”
alibooboo.com, “with various supposed thieves having their hands cut off
and adulterers and lipstick-wearers being stoned to death by howling
crowds, in dusty enclaves that purported to be in fundamentalist countries
in the Middle East,”45 sites showing assisted suicides, and the like:
“shortcircuit.com, brainfrizz.com, and deathrowlive.com were the best;
they showed electrocutions and lethal injections.”46 The relatively easy
access to such explicit content of grotesque but terrifying violence is
possible by means of science and technology. Hence, it is science that
constitutes a vital part of the boys’ lives. Virtual brutality watched on a
computer screen appears to be more distanced and unreal, and thus
provides Crake with some extreme ideas, such as the total eradication of
humankind. Cyberspace influences the boys’ adult actions, which, at least
in the case of Crake, seem equally fatal as the virtual stimulus.47
Definitely, for Crake and Jimmy, the representatives of the future
intelligentsia as we may assume, science—with all its possibilities raging
from cyberspace to hi-tech gadgets—constitutes a reality that is both
dangerous and alluring. Consequently, the question of moral indifference
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

as an outcome of the processes of science arises here; or, as Glover calls it:
“[t]he lack of ethical philosophising over the positives and negatives of
living in such a deeply technological world.”48 Howells, referring to Jean
Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, comments: “In Atwood’s satirical
version of a world where everything is a reproduction of a vanished
original, human beings are alienated not only from their environment but
also from themselves.”49 What Atwood pictures here is the last possible
phase of the decadence, “globalisation’s endgame,”50 a stage that cannot
have any possible continuations, because it is the very end itself. This can
be easily noticed in the descriptions of the world after Crake’s generated
apocalypse, where the natural environment becomes absolutely unpredictable

44
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 175.
45
Atwood, Oryx, 82.
46
Atwood, Oryx, 83.
47
Teenage Jimmy and Crake also surf pornography sites, but I discuss this issue
elsewhere in the book.
48
Glover, “Human/Nature,” 53.
49
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 176.
50
Tolan, Margaret, 277.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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90 Chapter Three

and highly dangerous: “[Snowman] awakes to thunder and to a sudden


wind: the afternoon storm is upon him. Those howlers can come on very
fast, and a metal bed frame in a thunderstorm is no place to be. Sometimes
there are hailstones as big as golf balls.”51 However, to state that according
to Atwood science has simply lost its credibility would be too simple an
explanation. Of course, in a highly polluted and contaminated reality of
pre-apocalypse Oryx and Crake, it is science that, being the most powerful
tool in people’s hands, has the potential to change the state of things.
Nevertheless, as Snowman comments: “the whole world is now one vast
uncontrolled experiment and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in
full spate.”52 These are people who, in charge of this device, fail to do
anything except commercialise science in the corporate civilization. In
such a case, as Crake’s fatal project of the total apocalypse demonstrates,
science becomes the ultimate tool in the process of human beings’
annihilation. Stephen Dunning notes: “while Oryx and Crake may not
offer much by way of substantial hope, it stands as a clear warning of what
we must hope to avoid. Science, freed in the novel from all restraints,
threatens human survival, even without Crake’s radical intervention.”53

Between Male Fantasy and Female Manipulation


Discussing the role of women in Oryx and Crake, we come across an
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

unexpected obstacle, at least at first sight. The novel seems surprisingly


male. Although one of the eponymous protagonists, Oryx, is female, the
book concentrates on Jimmy/Snowman and Crake, as well as the issues of
science and morality, where the differentiation between sexes appears
unimportant and irrelevant. With this book Atwood definitely expands the
borders of her feminist discourse to what one might call humanism or
culture in general. However, she still has a lot to say on the subject of
women in Oryx and Crake. This fact realises itself in a number of layers,
sometimes covering territories that the writer has never visited before. For
example, it is this novel in which for the first time Atwood draws
extensively from third-wave feminism. Also known as postfeminism, this
movement was initiated at the end of the 1990s. Postfeminism criticises
the achievements of second-wave feminism, with its emphasis on and
preoccupation with Western, white, middle-class women. It also proposes

51
Atwood, Oryx, 44.
52
Atwood, Oryx, 228.
53
Stephen Dunning, “Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the
Therapeutic,” Canadian Literature 186 (2005): 98.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 91

a kind of extension of the then-inadequate definition of the female, where


the interdependence between the private and the public becomes the most
important issue. Consequently, criticising the false universalism of the
previous feminisms, postfeminism opts for plurality, where the category of
women finds its full realisation not only in terms of sex and gender, but
also culture, race, and origin, with the emphasis on difference. Reusing
this theoretical base, Atwood adds to this multi-layered discourse her very
original point of view. The category of women is also approached from
more male perspectives, since it is from Jimmy/Snowman’s point of view
that the whole story of Oryx and Crake is narrated.
Importantly enough, the male narrative perspective marks an interesting
example when comparing Oryx and Crake with Atwood’s other novels.
Coral Ann Howells states: “for the first time [she] has chosen a male
narrator, for the story is told not in the first person but through third-
person indirect interior monologue, which shifts restlessly between the
narrative present and Jimmy/Snowman’s memories.”54 As a consequence,
Atwood employs a great deal of irony. On the surface this irony enables
her to draw attention to the female points of view, which now can be
presented in a more neutral, distanced manner. Nevertheless, she actually
seems to criticise the corpus of male literature, which pretends to present
women from an objective viewpoint while actually manipulating readers by
suggesting a distorted image. A more pluralist and thus post-feminist
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

reading of this manoeuvre proposes an even more radical interpretation:


“Oryx and Crake depicts a much more negative scenario for feminism,
signalled by the loss of the female voice, in which Atwood’s protagonists
inhabit a future that is not only postfeminist, but posthuman.”55
Moreover, besides Jimmy, there is another equally important male
protagonist, Crake, who does not speak in the novel as a narrator because
he does not have to. His actions—destroying mankind and engineering the
perfect species to replace the old and corrupt one—constitute the very core
of the plot, and speak for him. Crake also does not have a share in the
narrative because of the differences between him and Jimmy/Snowman.
The first is a man of numbers, whereas the second describes himself as a
man of letters. What we see here is Atwood’s further step in exploring the
already-mentioned theme of the double, “the most striking feature of Oryx
and Crake,”56 here applied to masculinity. Howells reads this curious
relationship in a way that emphasises the gender ambiguity of the
protagonists: “the Crake-Jimmy double act complicates stereotypes of

54
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 173.
55
Tolan, Margaret, 273.
56
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 171.
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92 Chapter Three

gender and of the artist, for both protagonists are split within themselves,
illustrating the contradictory impulses within human nature.”57 In that case
Jimmy, who represents the pre-technological past, and Crake, an Übermensch
questioning the traditionally understood ethics with well-defined differences
between good and evil, complete each other like two antitheses of the
same phenomenon, providing a kind of a background to decode the female
protagonist in the novel, Oryx.
The additional context for Oryx’s interpretation is the pornographic
factor so frequently criticised by Atwood, which obviously corresponds
with the post-feminist discourse she has been undertaking in recent years.
Postfeminism is visible in the most explicit correlation between the private
and the public spheres of life, because pornography always realises itself
in the exploitation of the former in the latter. No wonder that Oryx
becomes the key figure, for “she articulates significant tensions
surrounding the notions of sexual liberation, free will, exploitation,
commercialism, race, exoticism and ethnicity that congregate around the
theme of pornography.”58 In the novel’s reality, virtual pornography,
together with cyber violence, constitute the main area of interest for
teenage Jimmy and Crake. They not only watch—the mechanics of
voyeurism being used here deliberately—but they also have a chance to
participate, which is a possibility that state-of-the-art technology enables.
The way Atwood handles the pornographic images in the novel may shock
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

when we consider her distant, cold way of describing them, and the almost
absurd amount of pervasive details, including sites with child pornography:

Then they went to HottTotts, a global sex-trotting site. “The next best thing
to being there,” was how it was advertised. It claimed to show real sex
tourists, filmed while doing things they’d be put in jail for back in their
home countries. Their faces weren’t visible, their names weren’t used. The
locations were supposed to be countries where life was cheap and kids
were plentiful, and where you could buy anything you wanted. The act
involved whipped cream and a lot of licking. The effect was both innocent
and obscene: the three [of the girls] were going over the guy with their
kittenish tongues and their tiny fingers, giving him a thorough workout to
the sounds of moans and giggles. The giggles must have been recorded,
because they weren’t coming from the three girls: they all looked
frightened, and one of them was crying.59

57
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 177.
58
Tolan, Margaret, 286.
59
Atwood, Oryx, 89–90.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 93

What we see here is a caricature of the stereotypical way women are seen
by men, simply as sexual objects deprived of any traces of personality.
Consequently, these explicit images help Atwood show the mechanisms of
male-oriented society, where women have to perform men’s various
fantasies, because they are forced to do so.
At the same time, women, and this is clearly visible in the position of
Oryx, resist surrendering their identity. They just pretend, and by doing so,
take part in the great mystification that is not only a part of virtual reality,
but also seems to be a part of this male game. The typically male
interaction of virtual violence with pornography seems equally shocking.
It once again shows that the society that Atwood depicts is one of cultural
excess, where “the real thing” is replaced by its meaningless equivalent:

So they’d rolled a few joints and smoke them while watching the
executions and the porn—the body parts moving around on the screen in
slow motion, an underwater ballet of flesh and blood under stress, hard and
soft joining and separating, groans and screams, close-ups of clenched eyes
and clenched teeth, spurts of this or that. If you switched back and forth
fast, it all came to look like the same event. Sometimes they’d have both
things on at once, each on a different screen.60

However, behind the veil of cold-blooded distance, Atwood hides the


bitterest pessimism possible, stating: “the body had its own cultural forms.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its
romance.”61 Atwood, then, seems totally disillusioned with contemporary
culture, which she hyperbolically defines as a mixture of violence and
pornography. As Fiona Tolan notes, “in Oryx and Crake, violence and
pornography have been entirely normalised within popular culture.”62
Furthermore, they are the symbols of the power that men still have over
women. They are also typically male sexual fantasies that normalise
themselves in contemporary civilisation. This is even more apparent in the
case of Oryx, who is, to some extent, the hyperbolised and consciously
exaggerated realisation of such fantasies.
Therefore, although Oryx and Crake is surprisingly full of male
protagonists and is narrated from the viewpoint of one of them, it would be
too simple a solution to describe it as a male-oriented novel, the
justification of which can be visible in the very title of the book: besides
Crake there is this mysterious, female Oryx (who is properly introduced

60
Atwood, Oryx, 86.
61
Atwood, Oryx, 85.
62
Tolan, Margaret, 285.
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94 Chapter Three

only in the sixth chapter of the novel), and no place for Jimmy. The
nickname Oryx means “the ancient name of an African antelope.”63 The
first appearance of Oryx in the novel is strictly connected with virtual
reality and porn sites. Jimmy and Crake come across her searching for
pornographic material:

This was how the two of them first saw Oryx. She was only about eight, or
she looked eight. They could never find out for certain how old she’d been
then. Her name wasn’t Oryx, she didn’t have a name. She was just another
little girl on a porn site. None of those little girls seemed real to Jimmy—
they’d always struck him as digital clones—but for some reason Oryx was
three-dimensional from the start.64

It is exactly then that the typical scenario of such virtual broadcasts is


broken, reversing this male fantasy and making it visible that Oryx is a
female character who manipulates male spectators, rather than being just a
tool in their hands:

Oryx paused in her activities. She smiled a little hard smile that made her
appear much older, and wiped the whipped cream from her mouth, then
she looked over her shoulder and right into the eyes of the viewer—right
into Jimmy’s eyes, into the secret person inside him. I see you, that look
said. I see you watching. I know you. I know what you want.65
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

From that breakthrough moment, she seems to influence both Jimmy and
Crake. She haunts their teenage dreams, as well as defines their artificial
ideal of a woman who becomes a kind of a feminist caricature—a
distortion of the original that remains unidentifiable, a degrading male
fantasy, an artificially generated construct rather than true essence. Thus,
Oryx actually functions as a catalyst. She provides a kind of a mirror in
which the two protagonists’ masculinity is both reflected and distorted.
This seems an open reference to and an ironic interplay with Virginia
Woolf’s passage from A Room of One’s Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the


magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man twice its natural
size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and
jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be
scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and
bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our

63
Elliott, “A Perverse Way.”
64
Atwood, Oryx, 90.
65
Atwood, Oryx, 90–91.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 95

unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have


existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost
them. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are
essential to all violent and heroic action.66

The situation does not change much when Oryx reappears a few years
later, becoming the partner of one of them (Crake), and the lover of the
other one (Jimmy): “With Crake and Jimmy, Oryx is always performing
her role as fantasy object, making love with both of them in turn in what
looks like a parody of those male fantasies of the eroticised female
body.”67 Oryx synthesises the stereotypical and compound male vision of
a woman. The fact that she acts as an object becomes Atwood’s tool of
harsh criticism pointed at the male-dominated world: a world in which
women lose their subjectivity and become constantly exploited, becoming
the victims of male dominance.
Besides representing the pornographic realm in its most high-tech and
outrageous form, Oryx’s story is also full of details connected to the third-
world child trade, extreme poverty, sex slavery, paedophilia and
prostitution—to enumerate only the most striking ones. Therefore, the
character of Oryx embodies the mixture of postcolonial and postfeminist
contexts. She does not represent a Western, middle-class, white woman,
and hence is subjected to the violent processes of multiple marginalisation.
Her story begins in some third-world village in a poverty-stricken family,
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

which adds to her representation a truly postfeminist context: “the mother


of Oryx sold two of her children at the same time, not because she was
hard up. She thought the two might keep each other company, look out for
each other. Oryx took this double sale as evidence that her mother had
loved her.”68 Then she continues as a child labourer, which also includes
prostitution. It is not a surprise that she re-enters Crake’s life during his
university years as an employee of Student Services, i.e. a sexual agency
created to provide the most brilliant scientists with carnal pleasures.69
Fiona Tolan states: “Oryx is enigma. Constructed from disparate scraps of
information, the proliferation of details about her life and her past only
serve to perversely further obscure her from the reader. The more we learn
about Oryx, the less real she becomes.”70 During her relatively short life
she experiences an unbelievably great number of various types of

66
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Vintage, 2001), 29.
67
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 180.
68
Atwood, Oryx, 121.
69
Atwood, Oryx, 309.
70
Tolan, Margaret Atwood, 286.
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96 Chapter Three

exploitation, both physical and mental. However, to limit Oryx just to the
sum of male fantasies would be far too superficial. Her ability to distance
herself from the hardships she has to endure makes her one of the most
intriguing character in the novel. She objectively tells shocked Jimmy
commenting on the child trade: “You don’t understand. Many people did
it. It was the custom.”71
This peculiar distancing of hers is also true when it comes to the two
male protagonists of the novel and their attitude to Oryx. When Jimmy’s
obsession with her virtually drives him mad, for Crake she becomes a
great source of influence in his Paradice Project. At the same time, she
constantly escapes any categorisation, actively resisting all male attempts
to possess her self: “although Jimmy wants Oryx to fit nicely into his
romantic idea that she is a woman who has been saved from the evils of
the world, Oryx thwarts his desire to rewrite her past as the story of lost
innocence and colonial victimisation.”72 This can be illustrated by the
conversation between her and Jimmy, when he shows her a pornographic
picture, presumably of her, which was downloaded by him and Crake:

“I don’t think this is me,” was what she’d said at first.


“It has to be!” said Jimmy. “Look! It’s your eyes!”
“A lot of girls have eyes,” she said. “A lot of girls did these things.
Very many.” Then, seeing his disappointment, she said, “It might be me.
Maybe it is. Would that make you happy, Jimmy?”73
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

What is more, when Jimmy, trying to tame and textualise her stories of
exploitation, says: “none of it was your fault”, the only thing she answers
is: “none of what, Jimmy?,”74 proving that it is actually Jimmy who has
problems dealing with her past, not her. Clearly, Oryx plays out her game
in the most ambiguous way, manipulating the male protagonists—not only
Jimmy—into believing that they have power over her. In other words,
despite being “the most uncanny figure in the novel, as with her multiple
shifting identities she shimmers on the borders between fantasy and
reality,”75 Oryx plays the role of the most important linkage between
Jimmy and Crake. Stephen Dunning notes: “Oryx’s role in the work is
much more enigmatic. She emerges as the oppressed, exploited ‘Other,’

71
Atwood, Oryx, 119.
72
Mark S.J. Bosco, “The Apocalyptic Imagination in Oryx and Crake,” in
Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride, The Bind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, edited
by J. Brooks Bouson (London: Continuum, 2010), 167–68.
73
Atwood, Oryx, 91.
74
Atwood, Oryx, 114.
75
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 181.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 97

incarnating possibilities of communion and love that neither Snowman nor


Crake can fully grasp.”76
Furthermore, Oryx’s role is not limited to complex sexual games with
Jimmy and Crake. She also takes an active part in Crake’s apocalypse
project, becoming a marketing director for the BlyssPluss Pill. Crake’s
means to achieve his ultimate goals, the pills, include the fatal virus
responsible for annihilating mankind. The pill itself is a drug whose
hedonistic advantages, so tightly linked with the commercialised and
corporate civilization Atwood depicts, seem to surpass the adverse side-
effects:

The aim was to produce a single pill, that, at one and the same time:
a) would protect the user against all known sexually transmitted diseases,
fatal, inconvenient, or merely unsightly;
b) would provide an unlimited supply of libido and sexual prowess,
coupled with a generalized sense of energy and well-being, thus
reducing the frustration and blocked testosterone that led to jealousy
and violence, and eliminating feelings of low self-worth;
c) would prolong youth.77

These are only three characteristics of the pill that the customers are aware
of, the other two being the sterilising nature of the drug (a both sexes
birth-control pill, as we could call it), and the very annihilating factor that
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

activates a few weeks after launching the product on the market. In other
words, the notion of the Paradice Project has to reappear: “they were
inextricably linked—the Pill and the Project. The Pill would put a stop to
haphazard reproduction, the Project would replace it with a superior
method. They were two stages of a single plan, you might say.”78 This
hidden quality, programmed by Crake, becomes the direct cause of the
pandemic that in a short time wipes away almost the whole population of
the earth. Oryx is either completely unaware of the pill’s fatal feature, or
she cowardly and unconsciously denies some basic knowledge of it: “Oh
Jimmy. I am so sorry. I did not know. It was in the pills I was giving away,
the ones I was selling. It’s all the same cities, I went there,” as she realises
just after the apocalypse unleashes.79 Oryx, then, becomes a catalyst for all
the tendencies that Atwood writes about and criticises: from unrestricted
carnal pleasures illustrated by the mechanical cyber-pornography, to the
civilisation in which everything has its price and market.

76
Dunning, “Margaret Atwood’s,” 89.
77
Atwood, Oryx, 294.
78
Atwood, Oryx, 304.
79
Atwood, Oryx, 325.
Kunicki, Sawomir. <i>Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction : Fire Is Being Eaten</i>, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2017.
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98 Chapter Three

Oryx is also directly connected with the female clones Crake


engineers, which are designed to resemble her physically. As well, she
becomes both their teacher and, later on, a kind of a deity. However, the
most important resemblance seems to be linked with their relation to the
typically male fantasies that Oryx as well as the female Crakers embody
and deconstruct. On the one hand, the bodies of the women of the future
are perfect in every detail; on the other, they are not convincing enough to
treat them as real creatures:

They’re every known colour from deepest black to whitest white,


they’re various heights, but each one of them is admirably proportioned.
Each is sound of tooth, smooth of skin. No ripples of fat around their
waists, no bulges, no dimpled orange-skin cellulite on their thighs. No
body hair, no bushiness. They look like retouched fashion photos, or ads
for a high-priced workout program.
Maybe this is the reason that these women arouse in Snowman not
even the faintest stirrings of lust.80

Hence, perfection kills emotions. As an example of Baudrillard’s simulacra,


female Crakers simply lack authenticity, whereas it is the very genuineness
that usually arouses male desire. It seems that the whole concept of the
emotionless Crakers inscribes itself in Atwood’s criticism of the current
culture with its preoccupation with perfect, stainless, and thus fake images.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Additionally, Crake programs the clones to diminish, if not get rid of,
extreme emotions, which constitute what human beings are, but which
also—according to him—are completely irrelevant to the enhanced
species. Its realisation is clearly visible in Crake’s idea of sex and mating,
here designed to be a poorly technical act of reproduction, a seasonal ritual
involving one woman and four men: “there’s no more unrequited love
these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and
the act. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling
over, no pimps, no sex scandals. No more rape.”81 What Crake seems to
misunderstand here is the false equation between the feeling of love and
the dangers that can derive from it when it is exploited and violated. His
only solution is then to get rid of love, which would consequently make all
the problems connected with emotions disappear. At the same time, such a
solution would give more power to women, since the female Crakers seem
to be the final step in evolution, following and extending post-feminist
Oryx with the inseparable mixture of her political position and private

80
Atwood, Oryx, 100.
81
Atwood, Oryx, 165.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 99

decisions. In other words, where Oryx had to consciously manipulate, the


women of the future behave in their most natural way, at the same time
being liberated from the numerous exploitations their prototype has to
endure. However, this picture is highly ironic because it displays where
the typically sexist male point of view can and actually does lead us: to the
world of perfection where this very perfection ceases to have any profound
meaning, a civilisation of sexual meaninglessness. It would be completely
inappropriate to hail Crake as a champion of the women’s liberation
movement, as what he proposes is just a veiled prolongation of a typically
male point of view, where the exploitation of the sexes, both female and
male, does not cease to exist, bringing real liberty to none of them.

***

Jimmy’s mother is another very important female character, although


she seems to remain in a secondary capacity. Besides Oryx, she influences
Jimmy in the most profound way, making it clear that masculine
consciousness cannot exist without its female counterpart. However, the
relationship between her and Jimmy is characterised by ambiguity:
“maybe she had loved Jimmy. In her own manner. Though he hadn’t
believed it at the time. Maybe, on the other hand, she hadn’t loved him.
She must have had some sort of positive emotion about him though.”82
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

What is most important for teenage Jimmy’s growing consciousness is that


she is the only person around him who expresses her open dissatisfaction
with the world they are living in, with its biogenetics that she considers
unethical. Not so surprisingly, then, she also leaves her teenage son, taking
with her his favourite pet rakunk (a spliced skunk) named Killer. She
states: “I have taken Killer with me to liberate her.”83 What she does
seems a cruel act with a deliberate intention to hurt her son. However, she
just intends Jimmy to remember this painful situation that will,
consequently, lead him to awaken a critical way of thinking and to
question the world in which he has to function. Still, her feelings towards
Jimmy seem quite ambiguous. She concentrates her actions concerning her
son on the hard lessons she wants him to learn, and not on a warm kind of
a feeling that, at least in theory, constitutes much of the definition of
motherly love. She chooses the difficult path of a parent. Disillusioned
with the surrounding world, she attempts to shape her son’s personality
using extreme methods, even risking breaking the emotional bond between

82
Atwood, Oryx, 61.
83
Atwood, Oryx, 61.
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100 Chapter Three

them. This is why when she reappears in Jimmy’s life on the TV screen as
a member of the underground resistance movement, she seems to give her
son a kind of a moral pattern to follow, something that Jimmy initially
understands only subconsciously. Only a few years later does he learn
about her crimes against the corporate state, which according to the police
are: “inciting to violence, membership in a banned organisation, hampering
the dissemination of commercial products, treasonable acts against the
society.”84 Finally, Jimmy learns about her death watching footage of her
execution: “the woman was looking right at him, right out of the frame: a
blue-eyed look, direct, defiant, patient, wounded. But no tears. Then the
sound came suddenly up. Goodbye. Remember Killer. Don’t let me
down.”85 Her last words are directed to her son. The name of the pet
animal triggers the painful memories deep inside him and acts as a code
understood only by him: “Jimmy’s conscience is formed by his mother.
Her resistance to the status quo evokes a lost ethics and a courage born of
spiritual resistance that Jimmy desperately wishes he could access.”86
Jimmy’s mother makes him re-evaluate his system of beliefs, regardless of
the fact that this process is still highly subconscious. To a great extent,
Jimmy owes his ironic attitude to life to his mother. This attitude realises
itself mainly on the linguistic level: “he compiled lists of old words too—
words of precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a meaningful
application in today’s world, or toady’s world, as Jimmy sometimes
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

deliberately misspelled it on his term papers.”87 In this sense, through his


mother Jimmy represents what Atwood has been advocating in her
writings since the beginning of her career. A writer has some strict
obligations to the world and language is one of the most powerful weapons
in their implementation. Importantly enough, all these values are both
expressed and initiated by a woman, showing one more time that women
possess great power, maybe even greater than male characters can realise:
i.e. the power to influence and manipulate.
Feminism and female characters are also very important to Jimmy—
often in surprising ways—during his university years. He studies
humanities at the Martha Graham Academy, an educational institution that
is in a dilapidated state—both when it comes to the condition of the
facilities and the level of teaching. These facts are even more visible when
one compares Jimmy’s school with the state-of-the-art Watson-Crick

84
Atwood, Oryx, 286.
85
Atwood, Oryx, 258.
86
Bosco, “The Apocalyptic Imagination,” 167.
87
Atwood, Oryx, 195.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 101

Institute, where Crake studies. However, what is most important in the


context of female influence on Jimmy is the patron of the institution:

The Martha Graham Academy was named after some gory old dance
goddess of the twentieth century who’d apparently mowed quite a swath in
her day. There was a gruesome statue of her in front of the administration
building, in her role—said the bronze plaque—as Judith, cutting off the
head of a guy in a historical robe outfit called Holofernes. Retro feminist
shit, was the general student opinion.88

The choice of such a patron for the humanities institution, disrespected in


technocratic times, helps Atwood to display the huge discrepancy between
this branch of knowledge and sciences. She also seems to point to the
linkage between femininity and the humanities, both inferior to men and
science respectively, and thus occupying a similar cultural and historic
position. Additionally, it shows how much Jimmy—this old-fashioned
man of words—owes to women, who, besides Crake, are mainly
responsible for his growing cultural and political consciousness. This is
also true in reference to Amanda Payne, Jimmy’s girlfriend during his
university years, a postmodern visual artist known for her vulture
sculptures, or simply vulturising:

The idea was to take a truckload of large dead-animal parts to vacant fields
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

or the parking lots of abandoned factories and arrange them in the shapes
of words, wait until the vultures had descended and were tearing them
apart, then photograph the whole scene from a helicopter. So far she’d
done PAIN and WHOM, and then GUTS.89

To link a female artist with the vulturising technique does not seem to be a
coincidence, as again, this character of Atwood’s demonstrates that to
realise oneself fully in a contemporary, male-dominated world, a woman
has to manipulate, this time with words. This is even truer in reference to
Amanda Payne, when one learns that this is not the real name of Jimmy’s
girlfriend: “this name was an invention, like much about her. She’d had to
reinvent herself, she told Jimmy.”90 Superficially, it is Amanda’s art in
which she tries to stab the balloon of fantasy to get to the real thing. Being
an image person, she contrasts with Jimmy-a-man-of-words, and Crake-a-
man-of-numbers. In images she seeks the truth. Fed up with Jimmy’s
passivity and mediocrity, at some point she surprises him with another of

88
Atwood, Oryx, 186.
89
Atwood, Oryx, 244.
90
Atwood, Oryx, 241.
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102 Chapter Three

her vulturising plans. This time, using an animal carcass, she attempts to
depict the word LOVE.91 To combine dead tissue with such an elaborate
feeling seems shocking even to Jimmy, showing his inferiority in the area
of emotions. More universally, Jimmy and Amanda’s relationship is more
evidence of the power that lurks in women, as well as their great potential
to judge and manipulate: all as a means to undermine male dominance and
patriarchal culture.
Male fantasy and overcoming it with the help of the art of manipulation
is then the surface on which Atwood projects her (post)feminism in Oryx
and Crake. Despite appearances, the novel is female-oriented. By
employing the male point of view to some extent, Atwood is a manipulator
herself, which she, as a novelist, has the ultimate right to be. Aware of the
contemporary position of feminist thought, i.e. fully realising the
importance of the (post)feminist discourse in the broad field of humanism,
she tries to fight the patriarchal rules on which our society is based with
the tenacity that characterises her literary output. To present a woman as a
manipulator, then, is quite typical of her irony. In manipulation we can
easily detect the will and power that make it possible, but also the
underlying necessity that stands behind this urgency, namely the need that
forces women to struggle against patriarchy and to redefine themselves in
the anticipated circumstances of complete equality of the sexes.
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

Post-Religion and the Pursuit of Spirituality


In contrast to The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is not
preoccupied with religion. What Atwood deals with here is the more
universal issue of spirituality in human life and culture. Drawing a picture
of a future society in which access to the absolute in any form is replaced
by the overwhelmingly consumerist desires fuelled by state-of-the-art
technological inventions, she asks whether human beings can actually
function without a spiritual side. She demonstrates her point of view on
various levels of the plot, where materialistic reality as well as the main
characters of the novel and the clones generated by Crake seem most
important. Additionally, picturing the complex relations between nihilistic
Crake, humanistic Jimmy and Oryx (who escapes any definitive label),
Atwood enters an intertextual game with stories and language typically
associated with the literary world of the Holy Bible. She indicates the
cultural importance of this most fundamental text of the western religions,
and uses Christianity as her main point of reference. Atwood suggests that

91
Atwood, Oryx, 247.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 103

in post-religious times, there is actually nothing to replace people’s desire


for spirituality. What she tries to show, then, is an assumption that without
religion-related spirituality people would lose a great deal of humanity.
Instead of who we are, we become simply biology-driven animals not able
to create any form of culture.
The phenomenon of consumerist reality conditioning the terms of
human existence constitutes an interesting background to the way
spirituality is approached in Oryx and Crake. Although the society of
Atwood’s dystopia is clearly polarised into the privileged, who live in the
technologically advanced Compounds, and all the rest dwelling in the
dilapidated pleeblands, there seems to be little difference regarding their
life prospects. In the post-religious reality dominated by technological
progress and all the opportunities it enables, people concentrate on the
materialistic side of life, always wanting more: “cosmetic creams, workout
equipment, Joltbars to build your muscle-scape into a breathtaking marvel
of sculpted granite. Pills to make you fatter, thinner, hairier, balder, whiter,
browner, blacker, yellower, sexier, and happier.”92 The society of
Atwood’s novel is the society of the late or even final phase of capitalism,
where all needs are craftily reinforced by clever slogans, frequently
involving vocabulary characteristic of the changing times, at the same time
emphasising the sensation of novelty. More importantly, this is also a
society that openly rejects any kind of religion or spirituality, replacing the
Copyright © 2017. Cambridge Scholars Publisher. All rights reserved.

concepts with goods and services that provide citizens with a false
sensation of transcendental fulfilment. Concentrating on physical beauty
and the ways to retain it, people forget that it is just a poor substitute for
“the real thing,” i.e. something definitely above and beyond their everyday
existence. Such a picture of reality has a considerable influence on Jimmy
and Crake and their actions. They are brought up “in a soulless,
materialistic world that is cut off from the spiritual wisdom of the past.”93
When triggering his project of human clones, Crake openly responds to,
exploits and mocks the needs of the ultra-materialistic society. Officially,
the perfect clones that he works on in the Paradice project are to fulfil
people’s desire for a better, more comfortable life. As such, they are
presented simply as products or goods that one can purchase in a shop and
then throw away: “they were naked, but not like the Noodie News: there
was no self-consciousness, none at all. At first he couldn’t believe them,
they were so beautiful. Black, yellow, white, brown, all available skin
colours. Each individual was exquisite.”94 People’s attitude to the clones is

92
Atwood, Oryx, 248.
93
Hengen, “Moral/Environmental,” 138.
94
Atwood, Oryx, 302.
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104 Chapter Three

deprived of any typically human reactions, and instead, is driven only by


the consumerist desire to buy and possess, and thus to enhance their life in
an artificial way. The spiritual level of this endeavour is definitely absent.
The second important element of the future post-religious society that
functions as the counterpoint to Crake’s actions is the omnipresent virtual
reality, which is strictly connected with consumerist existence in the high-
tech world, and yet, provides the protagonist with an interesting kind of
inspiration. When young, besides visiting explicitly violent and
pornographic internet sites, Crake and Jimmy play an on-line interactive
game called Extinctathon, whose main goal is to challenge other players
by enumerating the greatest possible number of extinct species: “Adam
named the living animals, MaddAddam names the dead ones do you want
to play?”95 However challenging such a game is, it is not impossible to
play it. In Atwood’s vision of the future, killing (and eating) endangered
species is one of the most trendy crazes. When it comes to religion and
spirituality, the Extinctathon carries a number of Christian connotations.
First of all, there is the very idea of the end of the world. The name of the
game is an innovative combination of two words: “extinct” with
“marathon,” a blend suggesting a long process with a rather obvious result.
The idea of the game openly corresponds with the Bible’s Book of
Revelation: “the introduction of the Extinctathon game heightens the
apocalyptic tenor of Atwood’s narrative, for Adam, the first human being,
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is now the crazed, mad Adam of the end of time.”96 It becomes clear only
years later that the Extinctathon’s administrators actually form a kind of an
alterglobalist sabotage group, whose main goal is to destroy the world in
its highly materialistic form. Crake describes them: “I thought at first they
were just another crazy Animal Liberation org. but there’s more to it than
that. I think they’re after the machinery. They’re after the whole system,
they want to shut it down. So far they haven’t done any people numbers,
but it’s obvious they could.”97
Additionally, the Extinctathon draws directly from and ridicules the
name-giving passage from the Bible: “And Adam gave names to all cattle,
and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.”98 The nickname
of the game’s grandmaster is then connected with the religious sphere of
human life, at the same time being its sinister reversal. Adam was the first
man who gave names to animals and thus symbolically brought them to
life. MaddAddam is his complete opposite. It annihilates the whole species

95
Atwood, Oryx, 80.
96
Bosco, “The Apocalyptic Imagination,” 168.
97
Atwood, Oryx, 217.
98
The Holy Bible, Genesis 2: 20.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 105

by taking away their names, at least on a metaphorical level. Furthermore,


MaddAddam presents the logical prediction that the process of annihilation
will not be restricted to animals only, but will continue until it reaches the
human species. As one watches the fatal epidemic bringing the old world
to its end from Jimmy’s point of view: “the end of a species was taking
place before his very eyes. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family,
Genus, Species. How many legs does it have? Homo sapiens sapiens,
joining the polar bear, the beluga whale, the onager, the burrowing owl,
the long, long list. Oh, big points, Grandmaster.”99 Such a bleak scenario
is something that the human species has to anticipate. Atwood states in
Payback, the novel’s quasi-companion book of non-fiction, deliberately
using the financial-like rhetoric: “Maybe a pandemic plague is part of
Nature’s cost-benefit analysis. A way of wiping the slate clean and
balancing the accounts. When Mankind becomes too irritating—too
numerous, too filthy, too destructive to the Earth—a plague results.”100
The Extinctathon hence becomes one of Crake’s greatest sources of
inspiration. It provides him with concrete ideas about the total annihilation
of the whole species in the manner of the biblical apocalypse, with Crake
himself playing the role of MaddAddam. Additionally, it demonstrates that
the ultimate corruption of human beings triggers his nihilistic way of
thinking. In one of the conversations with him, his friend states: “‘I
thought you didn’t believe in God,’ said Jimmy. ‘I don’t believe in Nature
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either,’ said Crake.”101 We could add to this list Crake’s obvious


disillusionment with human beings who express their unjustified
pretensions to spirituality.
When it comes to Crake’s grand plan to improve the world through
apocalypse-like measures, it assumes two stages. Firstly, he wants to get
rid of all human beings to make room for his creatures. He achieves this
goal by inventing the irresistible BlyssPluss Pill. This medicine, however,
is also directly responsible for the fatal virus known as JUVE, Jetspeed
Ultra Virus Extraordinary. The scientist explains: “All it takes is the
elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees,
microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time
between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”102 In his
view, a complete annihilation of our species and its replacement by the
enhanced version, version 2.0, is an instant and ultimate remedy for
mankind. He states: “As a species we’re in deep trouble, worse than

99
Atwood, Oryx, 344.
100
Atwood, Oryx, 187.
101
Atwood, Oryx, 206.
102
Atwood, Oryx, 178.
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106 Chapter Three

anyone’s saying. Take it from me, we’re running out of space-time.”103


Secondly, he wishes to substitute mankind with the clones created
according to his own formula of humanity. The whole novel, then, is about
transferring his words into actions. The Paradice project can be described
in Jean François Lyotard’s terms as something both paradoxical and
catastrophic.104 It is about the end of the old world, and about a new
beginning at the same time. The new human beings seem to be better
equipped to deal with the hardships of post-apocalypse life, and, at the
same time, definitely lack, at least initially, the spirituality that seems to be
inscribed in human nature and is thus inalienable.
It appears that Crake’s idea of human perfection is limited only to
biology, which enables the Crakers to survive in the post-apocalyptic
world. They feed on vegetables and caecotrophs: “semi-digested herbage,
discharged through the anus and re-swallowed two or three times a
week.”105 Animal-like mating is restored, thanks to which “there’s no
more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow
between the desire and the act.”106 They are endowed with the ability to
cure themselves by purring.107 Finally, their most rudimentary bodily
functions can ensure their safety:

The men are performing their morning ritual, standing six feet apart in a
long line curving off into the trees at either side. They’re facing outward as
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in pictures of muskoxen, pissing along the invisible line that marks their
territory. The chemicals programmed into the men’s urine are effective
against wolvogs and rakunks, and to a lesser extent against bobkittens and
pigoons.108

What Crake plans and, at least hypothetically, succeeds in generating, is a


breed of clones, quasi-people deprived of typically human vices, but
emotionally barren, with neither vivid imaginations, nor artistic drive. At
least at the beginning, the Crakers are creatures stripped of the drive
towards any form of spirituality, including both imaginative thinking and
religious symbolism. As such, they clearly stand for Crake’s success.
However, the multitude of his plans are still in the sphere of theory. Since
just the first generation of the Crakers exists, there still remains the
question how these theoretical prospects will operate in practice. For

103
Atwood, Oryx, 295.
104
Lyotard, The Postmodern, 60.
105
Atwood, Oryx, 158.
106
Atwood, Oryx, 165.
107
Atwood, Oryx, 156.
108
Atwood, Oryx, 154.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 107

example, although it seems that the repellent characteristic of the male


Crakers’ urine works, it would be highly speculative to say anything about
the way they will handle death among their group when it occurs.
Additionally, the urinating habit, though inspired by similar behaviours
characteristic of numerous animals and thus emphasising the importance
of biology, openly functions in the novel as a kind of a ritual, a word
equally associated with the sphere of religion and culture. This can
illustrate that Crake is wrong. It also shows that eventually he is going to
lose because his vision of humanity deprived of any manifestations of
spiritual and religious thinking is impossible to imagine, and thus doomed.
Consequently, Crake’s project for a new type of humanity seems
wrong both from the civilizational and biological perspectives. What the
nihilistic scientist, whom Coral Ann Howells calls “double dealer who
gets millions of dollars for his biological research because he promises to
deliver modern miracles,”109 proposes is a revolution instead of evolution,
where the laws of nature and culture are equally violated. In many ways
the Crakers may be perfect, but this perfection makes them inhuman,
which openly corresponds with his basic assumption that “extreme
emotions could be lethal.”110 Undervaluing the long history of human
civilisation that has always been connected with some kind of spirituality,
he decides to change all people radically and, as a consequence, improve
them. This resembles a similar process he undergoes himself. In his
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formative years, seemingly parodying the biblical act of name-giving, he


changes his original name, Glenn, to a completely new one: “there was
never any real Glenn; Glenn was only a disguise. Crake is never Glenn.
And never Glenn-alias-Crake or Crake/Glenn, or Glenn, later Crake. He
is always just Crake, pure and simple.”111 Crake prefers extreme solutions,
and the idea of annihilation is just one of them. The ethical ambiguity of
such an endeavour seems to be inscribed in the definition of revolution.
When we realise that the outcome of the project is not only to get rid of
humankind but also its diverse cultures, the moral judgment on Crake’s
actions is negative.
Interestingly enough, there is one more thing strictly associated with
spirituality that Crake would like to redefine in his vision of humanity:
immortality. However, the way he approaches the idea is highly
problematic. He says: “’Immortality’ is a concept. If you take ‘mortality’
as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then
‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the

109
Howells, Margaret Atwood, 178.
110
Atwood, Oryx, 166.
111
Atwood, Oryx, 71.
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108 Chapter Three

fear, and you’ll be…’”112 Besides presenting Crake as a dangerous


character determined to achieve his goal, this unfinished sentence shows
his rational way of thinking. He links immortality with the body instead of
the soul, at the same time depriving it of the spirituality that seems to be
inscribed in the concept. Therefore, his idea of immortality is based on
lack of knowledge about mortality as such. He makes the Crakers die
painlessly and without any cause at the age of thirty-five, which is,
hypothetically, to eliminate the fear of death in them. Additionally,
emphasising the importance of physicality in his vision, Crake
concentrates only on the process of bodily reproduction and multiplication,
i.e. cloning, which actually distorts the very idea of immortality. Jean
Baudrillard states:

Cloning is the last stage of the history and modelling of the body, the one
at which, reduced to its abstract and genetic formula, the individual is
destined to serial propaganda. What is lost in the work that is serially
reproduced, is the aura, its singular quality of the here and now. What is
lost is the original, which only a history itself nostalgic and retrospective
can reconstitute as “authentic.”113

It appears that Crake simply confuses Baudrillard’s aura, in which the


sensation of the present is most important, with some biological quality
that is supposed to replace spirituality. He tries to achieve something
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impossible, i.e. to replace the soul with the body, to create a new definition
of immortality, in which the continuity of the bodily sameness as an
outcome of the process of cloning is to substitute human’s dreams of
eternal life. However, just as in the case of the Crakers, bodily perfection,
no matter how frequently multiplied, is not enough to replace something
that is irreplaceable. Being too perfect, too overwhelmingly exquisite, the
Crakers seem to be unreal and artificial. They symbolise both their
creator’s unlimited ambition and his ultimate defeat. Crake’s decision to
deprive the clones of the elementary human desire for immortality seems
to be a serious violation of humanity as such, of what makes us human
beings. All revolutions assume radical actions explicite, but here we could
ask whether his idea of a change is too radical and too finite.
The final failure of Crake’s concept of humanity is connected with the
two other protagonists in the novel, Oryx and Jimmy/Snowman, who more
or less consciously serve as his assistants in the Paradice Project.

112
Atwood, Oryx, 303.
113
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser
(Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 99.
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Oryx and Crake, or the Castle of Scientists 109

Altogether, similarly to The Handmaid’s Tale, this trio of characters also


helps Atwood enter an intertextual game with the Christian idea of God
and Christianity in general. Stephen Dunning states: “The relationship
between Crake, Snowman, and Oryx unmistakably suggests the Christian
Trinity whose authority science has effectively displaced.”114 In such a
reading of the novel, Oryx, the Crakers’ first teacher, represents the Holy
Ghost, the only part of the Trinity that is not male. However, it is also
worth mentioning that as Crake’s life partner and Jimmy’s lover, she can
mock Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ closest female friend and a former prostitute,
as well: “she is virgin and whore.”115 This second characteristic of hers
could be justified by the fact that adult Crake meets Oryx through Student
Services, which is a high-class brothel for scientific geniuses, but is also
linked with her mysterious past involvement in child prostitution. In the
case of Crake, the interpretative possibilities are more important and even
more multi-layered. First of all, he can function as God the Father, the
Crakers’ creator who then stands in the centre of Snowman’s mythology.
That is why after his death, the humano