by Cathy N. Davidson
I once watched Margaret Atwood try to pass unnoticed through a crowded conference center where she was to be a keynote speaker. Her memorable whirl of curling hair was pulled tightly back into a bun, her collar was up, her head down. The intensity with which she attempted to appear unobtrusive was a dead giveaway. Even in disguise, she looked like someone you should know.
With The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is again conspicuously incognito. The novel marks a radical departure for the 46-year-old Canadian who has written more than 20 books that have been published in almost as many countries. Arguably her best work yet and unarguably her most controversial, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place sometime in the near future, perhaps the nineties, perhaps the turn of the century. It is set in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States of America.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative fiction in the tradition of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, but with important differences. First, Atwood’s future eerily resembles our present, and, second, unlike her predecessors, she concentrates on what happens to women, especially to one woman, Offred, in a fascist country controlled by a group strikingly similar to the Moral Majority. After a President’s Day massacre in Congress and the suspension of the Constitution, a junta seizes power. The new leaders promise free elections, but soon the U.S. borders are sealed, and potential rebels mysteriously disappear into the night.
Most of the novel consists of a transcript of 30 tapes, an oral diary left by Offred and discovered by archaeologists of the 22nd century who are trying to piece together the decline and fall of a once-powerful nation. Hers is one of the only extant eyewitness accounts of Gilead, a private record of a nation’s public march to fascism and self-destruction. She tells of the day when women were fired from their jobs and forbidden access to their credit cards or bank accounts. More poignantly, she recalls her attempt to flee to Canada with her family, being caught and waking up in a strange room, her husband and child gone. Not even shock treatments can erase the memory of her loss. And then daily, in a language both present and tense, she recounts the monotonous dangers of her life as a Handmaid, a woman with “viable ovaries” who has been forced to become a childbearer for Fred (from whence her name), a commander in the Gilead Regime. A latter-day Anne Frank, Olfred defiantly witnesses and records what she cannot overtly protest. Speaking freely in Gilead is a capital offense. Most things are.
A gripping suspense tale, The Handmaid’s Tale is an allegory of what results from a politics based on misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. What makes the novel so terrifying is that Gilead both is and is not the world we know. For example, Serena Joy, the Schlafly-like wife of the commander, is no longer the nation’s most famous proponent of female subordination, but has been taken at her word. A private housewife now, she bitterly resents her loss of status. As Atwood notes, “it’s a contradiction in terms for women to take a public position saying women shouldn’t take public positions.”
The depth and complexity of Atwood’s critique of contemporary society are stunning. She has obviously thought long and hard about these issues, and yet she admits that she resisted writing this novel. “Usually 1 have about three novels in my head concurrently,” hut “I avoided writing this one for four years. I think part of it was that I thought it was so zany. I’d never written anything set in the future before, and it’s not a conventional novel. For all those reasons, I just put it off. Then I started another book last year in England, and it wasn’t working properly. It kept wandering off into the subject matter of this one, and I felt that, all right, this is the book 1 should be writing.” The more she worked on it, the more she found it “a compelling story. I had to write this novel.”
But could it happen here? Some of it “is happening now,” she says. She is careful to distinguish her novel set in the future from futuristic fantasy. “It’s not science fiction. There are no spaceships, no Martians, nothing like that.” In fact, “there is nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the exception maybe of one scene, that has not happened at some point in history. I was quite careful about that. I didn’t invent a lot. I transposed to a different time and place, but the motifs are all historical motifs.”
A “Historical Note” affixed to the end of the novel provides more background information on the causes of the Gilead takeover. Prior to the coup, pollutants, radiation, and toxic wastes caused high rates of genetic mutation and sterility. (“There’s a high concentration of PCBs in mother’s milk. These things are already around. Why would it not have results?”) The AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases had spread throughout the population at large. Women’s freedom to control their reproduction also contributed to a serious decline in birthrates, especially among affluent whites. The Gilead Regime reacted to this demography with social conservatism, religious Fundamentalism, and a literal enactment of Genesis 30: 1-3, an epigraph to the novel: when Rachel saw’ she could not bear children, she ordered Jacob to “go in unto” Bil – hah, her maid, and “she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” As Atwood notes, “A new regime would never say, ‘we’re socialist; we’re fascist.’ They would say that they were serving God. . . . You can develop any set of beliefs by using the Bible.”
But even with this appeal to scripture, the regime cannot survive without some cooperation from women and, to secure this, the regime makes promises: an end to violence in the streets; no more rape, pornography, or disrespect for women. “Repressive regimes always have to offer up something in return.” Atwood says. But at what cost? In Gilead, the promises are traps. Or, at best, they are double binds, like the current debate over censorship and pornography. “Pornography is not particularly good for women. Neither is censorship. . . . Women are in the position of being asked to choose between two tilings, neither of which is good for them. Why can’t they have a third thing that is good for them . . . some kind of reasonable social milieu in which pornography would not be much of an issue because it would not be desired by men?” I ask if she thinks that is possible. “It’s possible,” she smiles, “but it’s not imminent.”
Is Gilead imminent? “The United States is where it’s going to happen first,” she answers. “Canada is very socially conservative. It’s more radical in other ways—socialized medicine, health care, and those things. But . . . people are much more skeptical about sudden change. It was never a revolutionary society. The United States was. It had its revolution in 1776 and from that it got the idea that you could change reality overnight. . . . The United States . . . is humanity’s testing ground. It’s like a teeming bacterial culture of everything you can imagine. It’s where very different ideas fight it out.” When Atwood discusses the novel, her low, steady voice goes even lower, becomes barely a murmur. It was not an easy book to write, to live with.
The author’s young daughter, Jess, briefly interrupts our conversation in order to arrange with her mother for a ride to meet with a friend. It is a simple action, one performed routinely by any parent, but in the context of our conversation it is not routine at all. I think again about Offred who lives in a perpetual state of not knowing: of not knowing what happened to her mother, her husband, her child, or of what will happen to herself. “It’s a lot more frightening, more intimidating not to know. Disappearance is more frightening than death.” And I recall Otfred’s lyrical, even rhapsodic memories of the most simple aspects of her pre- Gilead past: women’s magazines from the seventies and eighties, a store that sells several flavors of ice cream, a jumble of plastic garbage bags under the sink. Even hotel rooms take on new dimensions in a world where so much is forbidden. “Hotel rooms are very indulgent places— everything is just for you. Phone up and food appears. There’s soap in little wrappers, clean towels and sheets, stationery in the drawers.” The author speaks with real appreciation, like someone who has been to another place.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a stark, even gruesome book, but it does not yield to despair and neither does its author. “You have to notice in the book I don’t have everyone turning into a rhinoceros.” There is a massive uprising in Detroit; a civil war in the South is led by the Baptists; elsewhere Quakers and Catholics rebel. “The people who have taken over are not able to do so without resistance. And some of the groups who are resisting you might think would go along with this—but they wouldn’t. . . . Any monolithic structure tries to get rid of any opposition, any opposition. Look at Hitler’s Germany. Some of the people being very oppressed were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Repressive regimes never last forever,” she insists. “Look at the Puritans.” The book is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and parallels abound between the new Republic of Gilead and Colonial America. Atwood even dedicates the novel to the late historian of Puritan culture, Perry .Miller, her teacher at Harvard (“It was my first real view of American society”) and to Mary Webster, her Puritan forebear who was hanged as a witch, but survived it. “She had a very tough neck.” The writer notes, proudly, that her ancestors were “kicked out of one place or another because of their beliefs.”
Their conviction has been passed on into Atwood’s concerns as a writer. “Good writing takes place at intersections, at what you might call knots, at places where the society is snarled or knotted up. Something that has absolutely made up its mind one way or another is not very interesting writing. It’s polemical. And I’m not saying writing shouldn’t be political. It should encompass everything in life, and politics is part of life.”
Does Atwood think fiction can change lives? “I’m not that naive,” she answers. But like all social critics, she believes in the potential for change. “Speculative fiction is a logical extension of where we are now. I think this particular genre is a walking along of a potential road, and the reader as well as the writer can then decide if that is the road they wish to go on. Whether we go that way or not is going to be up to us.”
SOURCE: “A Feminist ‘1984,’” in Ms., Vol. XIV, No. 8, February, 1986, pp. 24-6.