by Paul Gray
Canadian Author Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel will remind most readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That can hardly be helped. Any new fictional account of how things might go horribly wrong risks comparisons either with George Orwell’s classic or with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. To a remarkable degree, these two books have staked out the turf of contemporary antiutopias. Which punishment is it to be this time? Relentless, inescapable totalitarianism or the mindless, synthetic stupors of technology? As it turns out. Atwood’s look at the future takes place under conditions that Orwell would recognize. Repression is the order of the new day in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the villains in this piece are not the ones that Orwell accused, and the most prominent victim and hero is a woman.
She is also the narrator, and the events that led to her current condition must be pieced together from memories she has been conditioned to forget. The United States of America is now the Republic of Gilead, a Fundamentalist Christian theocracy that arose after “they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” The current regime is militantly opposed to the recent past, especially all traces of the moral permissiveness that arose in the U.S. during the waning decades of the 20th century. The embattled state must also try to reverse a disastrously declining birthrate, which began to slide with the growing acceptance of abortion and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the bad old days. It grew worse after the toxic effects of various ecological disasters.
Hence women like the narrator who are of childbearing age and still possess “viable ovaries” have been forcibly recruited into the ranks of Handmaids. After a period of indoctrination, they are assigned to two-year tours of duty with the important men, the Commanders of the Faithful, whose wives are barren. Handmaids are slaves to their own biological possibilities and derive their identity solely from their Commanders. The narrator’s new name, Off red, really identifies her owner; she belongs for the time being to a man named Fred. She explains the duties of her station: “We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us.”
Yet Offred’s narrative is beguiling in the extreme. Imprisoned in “a pampered life,” her own survival hanging on her ability to obey and reproduce, she surreptitiously reveals the play of intelligence and curiosity that has been forbidden to her sex. She has a keen eye for daily routines in the old Victorian house, located in what was apparently once Cambridge, Mass. She notes the costume she must wear, a Handmaid’s uniform, when she is allowed to go out shopping: “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a Hat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full.” The image of a scarlet nun seems appropriate to her role in this strange new society. Once a month, during the Ceremony, Offred has sex with her Commander. She lies between the legs of the Commander’s wife, “my head on her stomach, her public bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me.” All three participants in this ritual are fully clothed. Offred knows that if a child is conceived and bom healthy, not an Unbaby or a “shredder,” the wife will raise it. She endures these ordeals as best she can: “One detaches oneself. One describes.” And she ponders constantly the possibilities of escape.
The Handmaid’s Tale will be taken in some quarters as a feminist parable or rallying cry. What is Offred, after all, if not an embodiment of woman subjugated to the power of men? In truth. Atwood’s vision is considerably more complex than that. For the Republic of Gilead has come about, in part, with the help of women. Offred’s memories of childhood include the time that her mother, an ardent feminist, took her to a ceremonial burning of pornographic magazines.
Later, at the indoctrination center, Offred sees her mother again, this time in a newsreel approvingly shown by the authorities: “She’s in a group of other women, dressed in the same fashion; she’s holding a stick, no, it’s part of a banner, the handle. The camera pans up and we see the writing, in paint, on what must have been a bed sheet: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.” Now there are no sleazy districts in Gilead. A woman can walk in public without being whistled at or worse. Offred wonders what her mother, if still alive, thinks about the new Puritanism: “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.”
As a cautionary tale, Atwood’s novel lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. It warns against too much: heedless sex, excessive morality, chemical and nuclear pollution. All of these may be worthwhile targets, but such a future seems more complicated than dramatic. But Offred’s narrative is fascinating in a way that transcends tense and time: the record of an observant soul struggling against a harsh, mysterious world.
SOURCE: “Repressions of a New Day,” in Time, February, 1986, p. 84.