Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the nature of dystopian fiction

29th January 2004

I came to The Handmaid’s Tale for a model of dystopian fiction, as I write my own such novel.

The status of the principle character in dystopian fiction is something that begins to interest me. Writers are natural outsiders. I see how dystopian societies might be conjured from a writer’s sense of the world as being something alien. Accurate or not, the writer carries some sense of his / her own sensitivity, an extra-special quality. Usually sidelined in the ‘real world’, a witness from the margins, one likely projection for a writer is to fuel the hero / heroine of their novels with their own sensibilities. This heroic status is in itself unusual, and the heroism comes from maintaining sensitivity and personal values inside a world that has become increasingly bleak, sterile and technocratic. The dystopian future is a writer’s projection of how the world might turn out should what the writer considers to be its uncaring nature go unchecked. Such fiction at its strongest is deemed to be a powerful, near-omniscient prophetic warning about the state of the world. In fact it is as likely to be a personal fantasy, a solipsistic investigation of a writer’s sense of alienation.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a lot that is challenging and prescient to say. The fact that the values of its lead character, John, are not so much his own as borrowed ones from Shakespeare’s tends, however, to confirm this notion that the novel’s main theme is the writer’s sense of alienation.

So how does Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, fit into this notion of a writer projecting her own sense of alienation into a dystopian novel?

Offred is a woman, a mother, a lover, and now as a Handmaid on active service, a recipient womb – but above all else she is a creature of words. Her last job in life had been to work in a library, transferring words from books to discs. She is the embodiment of a being whose real worth and sensitivity are rejected by society. A short extract from the novel highlights this most clearly, a discussion of the garden in the house where she is stationed:

There is something subersive about the garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, as if to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently.

That last sentence, the silent clamouring when silenced, is a mission statement for an alienated writer seeking to be heard through words placed on paper. The passage continues:

A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid, the return of the word swoon … The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces, the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as in fever.

As with so much of the novel, this is a sensuous hymn to the power of words. It is also a harking back to distant days, most specifically Victorian days. House styles and furnishings come from that time, clothing is historic, and the societal values are some extreme and perverted version of a Protestantism or Calvanism from earlier times. Offred’s terms of reference are to Universities, to dormitories, to libraries. A surprising amount of the book is retrospective, Offred looking back to a time before the current state apparatus took power, before the population withered. Little is done to catalogue the reasons for environmental catastrophe, bar some lines cataloguing extremes of toxic pollution. Writing from 1985 Margaret Atwood was prescient about the loss of fish species (it was comforting if unlikely to see them restored in the postscript). The seizure of power in the US by a people who claim ownership of God, gunning down Congress while laying the blame on a fusion of Islamicists and terrorists, is also alarmingly on the ball and deserves a novel of its own.

The dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale is more an interpretation of the present, an alternative present pertaining to the mid 1980s, than it is a dystopian future. It is fixed clearly within that timeframe, and the cultural references are almost all to that period or earlier. It takes a woman’s knowledge of being sidelined by a society controlled by men, and conjures an alternative world around it.

I like the richness of the writing, the acuteness of the observations, and am convinced of the domestic prison that is Offred’s world. She’s good company. The grotesque is well delineated – bodies hanging in bright colours off the Wall, Commanders having sex with the Handmaids as they are pinned between the legs of the Commanders’ wives. The redolence of sex, of longing, and the loss of a child are powerful emotive forces well deployed. The book is lit with the brightness of an eternal summer, a mid-twentieth century Canadian academic’s world warped into an era akin to the Salem witch trials with flashes of twenty-first century environmental disaster, and I am happy to buy into it as a literary classic.

Technically one thing jars, and I am also happy to learn from this. In my own novel I had been wondering about including a passage by academics of some far distant future, sifting through the manuscript as though it were some ancient text of vast historical importance. Now I have seen this device deployed by Margaret Atwood, I know not to use it. The one narrative failure I found in the book was its inability to embrace the reason for its own existence – how did the narrator come to be writing this book? It is written not with the voice of Offred, but with the voice of Margaret Atwood, of a mid-20th century lady trained and enraptured by words. One of its main narrative devices involves rooting around in language for sustenance. I can let the narrative failure go and simply enjoy the voice and the achievement – but the postscript from 2195 and the conference of Gileadean Studies spoils that for me. This postscript is a trick that comes from outside of the thrust of the novel and purports to deal with the origin of the book, to make sense of its construction, but fails to do so. We hear that this work was recorded on tape at some time subsequent to the events as described in the book, and ‘research’ shows us some interesting extra snippets into the lives of the characters, but the chronological inconsistencies within the book are never ironed out. For example, near the opening of Chapter Three we hear:

We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when I arrived at this posting.

Clearly with this and ago, we are to understand that the book is being composed as the action progresses. The mixture of present and past tense narratives also supports this sense of the novel being narrated as the action progresses, and not till later do we get a sense of it being composed reflectively for an audience (most clearly in the tale of Moira). Margaret Atwood dislikes the notion that her work is science fiction, and she does indeed only ply the sci-fi components in a half-hearted way. Her book is an exquisite exploration of a fine woman writer’s sense of alienation from a world she considers gross.

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