by Catharine R. Stimpson
Politics, Margaret Atwood once said, means “who is entitled to do what to whom, with impunity; who profits by it; and who therefore eats what.” The Handmaid’s Tale proves that Atwood is among the most telling political writers in the West today. Simply put. The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist dystopia. Atwood transmogrifies the Cambridge, Massachusetts, of the late twentieth century into the capital of a monotheocracy, the Republic of Gilead, a nasty piece of work. Its fundamentalist founders have pulled off a bloody coup d’etat. They have replaced the Constitution with the overweening patriarchal principles of Genesis. Gilead expels Jews and blacks. It compels rigid gender roles. White women have no money, education or civil rights. However, ladies of the elite get to lord it over the household. They decide who watches what on television.
Like all dystopias, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a future. However, Atwood, famously a Canadian writer, is also returning to her American past. She acknowledges that history in her dedication—to Mary Webster, a rebellious colonial American ancestor, and to Perry Miller, the professor who taught her how to read national literatures when she was a graduate student at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Webster and Miller embody the best of the American past, while the Puritans, who longed for a “theocratic Utopia.” embody the worst. Their city upon a hill provides the moral and psychological blueprints for a Gilead—for the defeat of a Mary Webster, a Perry Miller or their descendant, a Margaret Atwood.
Like many modern totalitarians, Gilead’s patriarchs, the Commanders, mix the technology of computers and TV with older forms of social control. They wage war beyond their borders and impose strict order within. They flay the feet of spiritual bastards with steel cables. They hang the dead bodies of heretics and traitors, of abortionists and gays, from hooks in the outer wall of what was once Harvard Yard. Yet Gilead offers its obedient citizens some diversions. The Lyes, the secret police, carouse in Memorial Hall, where William James once lectured. Good women attend public executions and dismemberments in front of Widener Library. Commanders and affluent male foreigners have hard liquor and hardened prostitutes in their private club.
Due to disease and pollution, many of the men of Gilead are sterile, the women barren and the children mostly wretched mutants. Inevitably, Gilead is ferociously pro- natalist. Into each Commander’s home a fertile “handmaid” must fall, dressed in heavy red robes, her ankle tattooed. Atwood has a gift for the astringently grotesque image and event. Commanders, wives and handmaids endure “the ceremony”: As the handmaid lies between the wife’s legs, the Commander tries to impregnate her. If he succeeds, a red Birthmobile will pick up all the handmaids nine months later and deliver them to the virile Commander’s house, so that they can roll about and shriek in the rites of birth.
Atwood’s narrator, Offred, is such a handmaid. Before Gilead’s revolution, she was an ordinary sensual woman, with a college degree, a husband, a daughter, a job in a library. The family tried in vain to escape to Canada. Her husband was shot; her child taken and given to a Commander’s family. Because she is still young, Offred can “choose” re-education at the Rachel and Leah Center and take up her shaky career as a handmaid.
The name “Offred” signifies that she. is the possession “of Fred,” her Commander of the moment. A market researcher and packager of ideology, Fred has been the revolution’s Michael Deaver. Serena Joy, his wife, has been a songstress star of Christian broadcasting. Forced to obey both. Offred becomes involved in two dangerous affairs. One is with the Commander himself. He wants to play Scrabble kiss her on the lips, read tabooed issues of Vogue and Ms., and dress her in a prerevolutionary tart’s costume. The second relationship, arranged by Serena Joy, is with Nick, a chauffeur and a member of both the secret police and the underground. However, “Offred” also means “off-red” and although Offred lacks the courage of her mother a feminist, or of Moira, her lesbian friend, she wants to resist, to take off her red clothing.
A superb storyteller, Atwood riskily interweaves the narrative threads of the protest novel, the psychological novel and the bedroom farce. Offred’s tale is a scholarly reconstruction, assembled some two centuries later from tapes she dictated while living in a safe house in Bangor, Maine. History fails to record whether she ever reached freedom in Canada or England. Her stone in the graveyard of time is but half-inscribed.
Born in 1939, the formidable Atwood has now published more than twenty books: criticism, anthologies, stories, poems, six novels. Ten years ago, reviewing Marge Piercy’s utopia. Woman on the Edge of Time, Atwood compared reading that novel to reading Piercy’s poetry. She called the experience a turn from “an imagined world to an imagination, from a sense to a sensibility.” The same may be true of Atwood’s work. Although her novels are more finely attuned to natural and visionary realms than are those of Piercy. they too are imagined worlds. They share a geography, or, to steal from Annette Kolodny, a languagescape.
The central figure in Atwood’s territory is a woman. Atwood Woman is young, educated, white, middle class, invariably heterosexual. She has a job—as an illustrator, scientist, journalist. She has had her share of sexual experience. Her men are often weaker than she. She is urban, but the wilderness is usually the site of her most profound moral and psychological education. In flight from her day-to-day life, she discovers the meaning of survival, a key word in Atwood’s vocabulary. She is Marian in Atwood’s comedy of manners, The Edible Woman: the nameless narrator in the quest novel, Surfacing: Joan, the Gothic fraud, in that wonderful romp, luidy Oracle: Lesje and Elizabeth in the somber chamber piece. Life Before Man: Rennie in a second quest novel, set in the Caribbean rather than in Canada, Bodily Harm. Now she is Offred.
Flanking Atwood Woman are two other sorts of women, both of whom mlhience her. One is her contemporary, often more raucous or audacious than she. The second sort of woman is older. She is Atwood Woman’s landlady, employer, aunt, mother, neighbor. Reactionary and manipulative, she strips the world of sensuality and spontaneity. Terrified of the naked, she nevertheless denudes her environment. Her ideals are decency, respectability. Acting on them, she commits moral indecency after moral indecency. She enjoys watching the wormings and turnings of another’s submission. Frequently these toughies, in their hats, gloves and woolen underwear, represent provincial Anglo- Canadian society. In Bodily Harm, Rennie says sardonically of Griswold, Ontario, her hometown: “In Griswold everyone gets what they deserve. In Griswold everyone deserves the worst.”
Gilead is Griswold gone wild. The Aunts, who pump iron (but never irony) into the body politic of technological Calvinism, represent Atwood’s most disdainful depiction of the petty female boss. Wearing electric cattle prods on leather belts, they control, reward and punish other women. Like certain of Brecht’s characters, they are at once sinister and funny. Atwood achieves a triple effect—she makes her dystopic state even more frightening because it issues cattle prods to such ordinary figures. Yet she also manages to domesticate totalitarianism, because she shows it peopled by such ordinary figures. The state becomes even more frightening, because its monstrosity seems normally absurd, absurdly normal. Finally, Atwood reminds her reader of the political function of satire: to weaken the grip of the cruel and foolish by sending them up witless.
In one of her most original maneuvers, Atwood links the morality of the Aunts to that of radical feminists. The Aunts are repressive. Radical feminists can be repressive too. In the active syllogism of power, the premises of repression lead to conclusions of oppression.
This association of Gilead’s police-women with some radical feminist sects reveals Atwood’s boldness and her political vision. Since the 1960s she has exposed two patterns of domination: of men over women, and of the United States over the North American continent. Her Canada is a colony in which England has been replaced by the United States. Surfacing eloquently and adroitly mapped (another key word in Atwood’s vocabulary) the ways in which those two patterns of economic, cultural and psychological abuse reinforce and double back on each other.
Atwood has explored the process through which the powerless come to resist their masters, create alternative identities and arrive at self-mastery. Survival (her brilliant analysis of Canadian literature) and Surfacing, both written in the early 1970s, are companion texts about a victim’s repudiation of the victim’s role. One of the most famous passages in Surfacing is the narrator’s declaration: “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing.” Women’s collective repudiation is feminism; a colony’s is nationalism.
Atwood is careful to discriminate between freedom and psychological atomism; between self-mastery and mastery over others. Since the mid-1970s she has become increasingly skeptical of the appetite for domination. Modifying her nationalism, she is now suspicious of the patriarchal state. The colonized Canada of Surfacing has become a wimpish political actor, at once philanthropic and timorous. Fugitives from Gilead escape to the north, but the Canadian government periodically rounds them up for return to the muscular nation to the south.
The figure of the torturer now fires Atwood’s anger and contempt. She spurns’the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian states—both torture. The “symbolic cannibalism” of The Edible Woman has become the far more violent and bloody cannibalism of die electrode and the first. In 1981, in a lecture titled “Canadian-American Relations,” Atwood codified the politics of Bodily Harm and The Handmaid’s Tale:
The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not. Terrorism of the hijacking and assassination variety is now international; so is the kind practiced by governments against their own citizens. The most important field of study at the moment is . . . human aggression.
The Handmaid Tale asks the question that is at the heart of morality: “How can the tortured forgive the torturer? The prisoner the jailor? The mother the kidnapper and killer of her child?”
As Atwood’s politics have deepened, her ideas about language have altered. Her writing still has the energy and clarity of a swift river. It is limpid without being limp; clever without being silly; controlled without being stilted; precise without being pedantic. She is a rhetorical marvel. In 1975, praising Adrienne Rich, Atwood might have been describing her own style: “mercilessness, of a desirable kind. . . . Language is honed down, decoration trimmed off.” She is equally capable of showing the shore of a northern wilderness lake, its fronds and waves and rootlets, and of skewering a frivolity or booby. In Life Before Man an Atwood Woman, Elizabeth, goes to bed with William. His devotion to the environment does not redeem his dull devotion to himself. The experience is “like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese.”
Paradoxically, like Rich, Atwood also distrusts language. In part she pays an obligatory homage to the weary modem awareness of the gaps between the word and the thing; sign and meaning; culture and nature. Welcoming the death of syntax, Atwood is also paying the now equally obligatory homage to a distrustful postmodern awareness of the ability of the powerful to control discourse. The surprising end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a parody of academic style. Atwood invents the partial transcript of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in June 2195. The transcript contains the major paper about the handmaid’s tale, which reassures us that Gilead has fallen. However, the transcript does nothing to dispel the fear that pompous, sniggering academics will still be labeling reality in centuries to come.
Yet, Atwood’s politics demand that the writer use language to say who is doing what to whom, with impunity. In “Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written,” Atwood insists that the writer see “clearly and without flinching”; that the writer bear “witness.” She must speak for the woman “on the wet cement floor” who herself is “silent and fingerless.” That woman’s death must become another woman’s syntax. Atwood’s most recent characters accept that burden. In Bodily Harm, Rennie returns to Canada to report on the vileness she has seen on the Caribbean island to which the had fled for a holiday. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred talks into her tape recorder, to an unknown audience. Of course, her story is not true. It is, though imaginatively plausible. For Atwood, no one can ignore that plausibility with impunity.
SOURCE: “Atwood Woman,” in Nation, May 31, 1986, pp. 764-7.