Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”: Echoes of Orwell

Virtually from its appear­ance in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale has announced its indebtedness to George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s nightmarish future is written all over Atwood’s similarly near-future vision of the misogynist theocracy of Gilead.

by Earl Ingersoll

Virtually from its appear­ance in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale has announced its indebtedness to George Orwell’s 1984. In his dustjacket “blurb,” E. L. Doctorow claims that Atwood’s novel “can be read as a companion volume to Orwell’s 1984.” And Amin Malak has begun the discussion of those elements in The Handmaid’s Tale that link it to other dystopic novels such as Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984. To Malak’s list of forerunners, we might legitimately add Jack London’s 1907 novel The Iron Heel. That discussion has contin­ued most recently with David Ketterer’s exploration of The Handmaid’s Tale as a “contextual dystopia” in which he notes “Orwellian rituals” (148).

Turning to the novel itself, we see that Orwell’s nightmarish future is written all over Atwood’s similarly near-future vision of the misogynist theocracy of Gilead. Atwood shares Orwell’s liberal-humanist anxieties about a future in which totalitarian states offer individuals the grim option of either freedom and anarchy or repression and security. Both Orwell and Atwood provide the liberal-humanist reader an opportunity for self-con­gratulation: thank God, they seem to agree, there are still a few of us willing to face death rather than relinquish the rights that make us human beings. One is reminded here of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in which F. Alexander lectures Alex on the struggle to preserve freedom when “the masses” have to be “prodded” to resist the temptation of selling out. All the time he’s talking about prodding the masses, he’s driving his fork into the wall until it’s bent out of shape (158-9). As readers of all three of these dystopic narratives, we are encouraged to identify ourselves with focal characters who seem the “last man” or “last woman” in their desperate struggles to preserve their humanness.

The struggles of Orwell’s Winston Smith and Atwood’s Offred, furthermore, are associated in varying degrees with the privacy of their “rooms,” those illusory refuges from the surveil­lance of a State alert to threats from within. It is in her reading of Orwell’s focus upon Winston as a writer in his room that Atwood’s narrative encourages us to see Offred as a “writer” of a kind, or at least as the generator of a “text,” in her room. If Virginia Woolf could look forward hopefully to a future in which a woman might become a writer, if she had at least 500 guineas a year and a “room of one’s own,” Gilead is clearly not that future. What makes 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale particularly interest­ing is the shaping of narrative by focal characters who are in their own ways “writers” and thus foreground textuality.

As a narrative, 1984 is clearly affected by Winston’s role as a writer. It is through writing that he earns his living. Indeed, his job is central to Oceania’s control of the present and future since he incessantly rewrites its past. It is a job that Winston relishes. He is stimulated by the intellectual challenges of cleverly making up the “truth,” at the very same time he finds such manipulation abhorrent when it is an activity of the State. It’s quite all right for him to do it as an intellectual game to demonstrate to himself how clever he can be. If he ever has a choice, in any meaningful sense of the term, he chooses to continue at his job, long after falling in love with Julia, even though he considers their escaping into the sort of “reservation,” in which the proles have been allowed to roam freely. Indeed, it could be argued that Winston’s “betrayal” of Julia comes as early as their falling in love when he immediately refuses to sacrifice the games he plays at his “Speakwrite” in order to join the proles. Blending in with “the masses” might be just that: a surrender of his precious individuality-with a name like Winston Smith!—risking the loss of self in the sea of love.

Winston is a more interesting writer, however, in his diary. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, it is the diary which justifies the narrative of 1984, since he begins to write it on the day the novel opens. His desire to write alone in his room, beyond the surveillance of the telescreen, or so he deludes himself, grows out of his radical isolation and his anxiety that no one shares his “humanness.” Winston feels that he may indeed be the Last Man, the last individual to have escaped transparency. Writing in a diary, even buying the blank book that becomes his diary, is a subversive act. Just as his impulse to recover privacy is the obverse of the radical isolation forced upon him as a party mem­ber, so too the desire to write for himself is the other side of his cherished occupation as a clever factionalizer of “history.” But he is writing what is less a diary than a writer’s journal, written in private but for later “publication.” It is Winston’s love letter to O’Brien in the present, while he deludes himself into believing O’Brien is a bloodbrother rather than, as it turns out, “Big Brother” in one of his bloodier manifestations. Even more, the diary is Winston’s letter to the future, a synecdoche for the dying Orwell’s desperate narrative itself.

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale problematizes Orwell’s use of Winston’s diary. Nowhere in the narrative “proper,” that is, be­fore the “Historical Notes,” do we have any confirmation of how Offred’s story as “text” exists. Offred foregrounds her preoccupa­tion with narrating by telling us how much she needs “to believe this is a story I’m telling,” because “then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it” (39). At best, it’s a story that she’s “telling,” she indicates, “because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden” (39). She is compelled by this telling, even if it’s going on only in her head, because a story is like a letter, and therefore there must be someone out there, even an anonymous someone, who will receive her “letter.”

It is crucial that Offred foregrounds here the ambiguous nature of this text; it is a story she is telling, even though it appears before the reader as a writing. While Winston’s job is to fiction­alize history, Offred’s job is to make babies. Her ability to record experience is limited to speaking, or storytelling, which the reader eventually discovers never did become a written record in Offred’s lifetime, but only in a further future in which patriarchy has lost its dominance and women can write. It is appropriate that she is sending her “letter” to an anonymous “addressee” in the future, since she herself is literally unnamed: her given name was taken away when she was forced to accept the gift of her Commander’s name. Thus, she exists only as her Commander’s name, appropriately, in the possessive. Her former being has been eradicated-more than once in fact, since she has changed Commanders—just as Winston’s was erased when he entered the Ministry of Love and became a number.

Winston and Offred are quite different “writers” in large part because their relations to their rooms are radically different. Indeed, the whole notion of outer and inner in Winston’s experi­ence gets problematized in Offred’s. Much of the drama of 1984 fits into a tragic peripeteia, or reversal. We recall the irony of Winston’s discovery that friend is foe, but even more his recogni­tion that inner has been outer all along. In the Ministry of Love, he finds out what he already knew—that O’Brien is Big Brother— but also that he has been under the surveillance of Big Brother’s eye for years. Thus, his room and the bedroom over Charrington’s shop have never really been inner sanctums but as transparent as the glass paperweight smashed by the Thought Police when they break into what turns out to be his womb with a transparent wall. Offred’s consciousness, on the other hand, is less clearly divided between the illusory “safety” of her room and outer, more clearly public spaces. In the first public space of the gymnasium-dormitory for handmaids in training there is still opportunity for touching hands across the beds and whispered exchanges of “real” names. It is interesting that in 1984 O’Brien plays upon the boyish notion of a brotherhood conspiring against the State, and we never know whether Oceania has a “Brother­hood,” an underground movement; in The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a “sisterhood” from the outset. Nick’s probable member­ship in that underground becomes apparent only after he proves his commitment to Offred and sheds his mask as the pawn of patriarchy.

Offred does have a room of her own in the Commander’s house, but no key for the door. One might speculate that Winston as a man persists in the illusion of mastery; that is, he relates to his room as his “castle,” an expression of his power and indepen­dence. Offred, on the other hand, has no illusions of inner sanctums or refuges from the State, or patriarchy, an inner world distinct from the outer. Ironically, one of the most public rooms is the “master” bedroom, where she must submit to the Commander’s futile efforts to impregnate her, a potential surro­gate mother of his child, under the watchful eyes of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife. In a context of chronic infertility, sexual­ity is even more puritanically repressed than in Oceania, where Big Brother channels it into worship of power. Here sex is repressed so that its fragile force can be channeled into propaga­tion of a diminishing race or class. The leaders assume that reducing the frequency of sexual intercourse will concentrate the man’s power to fertilize his mate. Consequently masturbation is not only a “sin” for men but a “crime” against the State, since onanism robs the future of progeny.

Atwood’s problematizing, from the outset, of Winston’s confidence in the separation of the outer and the inner indicates her response to sexual repression in Oceania in relation to textuality. Beneath such puritanical repressiveness in both dys­topias is a fostering of prostitution and pornography, in Oceania—among the proles—and in Gilead—as a vacation from virtue for its leaders. Thus, when the Commander “fraternizes” with Offred in his inner sanctum, he offers her the “pornography” of banned women’s magazines and later takes her to the “Club” where the powerful can enjoy illicit sex. Even Offred’s affair with Nick, the chauffeur, which parallels Winston’s relationship with Julia, is problematic. She goes to his room above the garage but with Serena Joy’s knowing complicity so that she may be impregnated by someone whose child can be passed off as the Commander’s. Serena Joy seems to be subverting patriarchy by even intimating that infertility could be a man’s fault. More important, she may be introducing the major threat to patriarchy, since not even this repressive government can insure that its commanders are actu­ally fathering the children of their handmaids. Offred’s limited knowledge as narrator keeps us from ever finding out whether the Commander also knew that his chauffeur had been turned into the household stud.

In one sense the love scenes more exactly parallel the bedroom scenes of 1984 which we eventually discover were never really “private,” since Big Brother has been “all ears” while Win­ston and Julia have been making love. Similarly, although Offred suggests the power of Eros in Nick’s room, we “see” and “feel” as little as in the more restrained Orwell text. These secret trysts of central figures in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale may owe a debt to Jack London’s The Iron Heel. In his introduction to London’s novel, Max Lerner asserts that “a love story” seems appropriate to “a political tract by a novelist” (vii). Finally, as Michael Ross has indicated, the strategy of lovers fighting politi­cal oppression in a novel like 1984 owes a debt to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in which Connie and Mellors stand alone against a system which seems bent upon destroying their humanity.

Interestingly, when Offred first goes to the Commander’s room for what she assumes will be perverse sex, she discovers that his tastes are even kinkier than she had imagined: he wants to play Scrabble. Once she discovers the Commander’s penchant for word games, she muses about Nick’s fantasies, stimulated by his knowledge that she has been summoned to the Commander’s room when Nick gave her the signal. She speculates that Nick may wonder what goes on in the Commander’s inner sanctum “among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint” (181). In this foregrounding of textuality, Offred’s story calls attention to itself as text, even though we must wait until the end to discover in what sense this text is a text.

That perception of intertextuality persists as a dominant feature of Offred’s consciousness. When she whispers conspiratorially with Ofglen, she learns of the password within the under­ground movement-“Mayday.” As she knows, “Mayday” is an Englishing of the French M’aidez. Passwords take Offred back to memories of girlhood; they seem part of a “girl’s club, like secrets at school. Or like the spy novels I used to read, on weekends, when I should have been finishing my homework…” (202). Similarly, when the Commander takes her to Jezebel’s, Offred finds a realization or literalizing of the fantasy elements in pornographic texts. The prostitutes offer dramatizations of fantasized acts already written in print or dramatized as film representations.

As we approach the end of Offred’s narrative, we readers begin to feel anxiety about the end of her “story.” It is an end like death that we both dread—because after it is nothingness—and long for, because it is only the end which can affirm meaning. Offred herself expresses this anxiety about the end of her telling, especially as she foregrounds her own inability to change this story. At Jezebel’s she encounters her pre-Gilead friend Moira whom she had cheered on for escaping from handmaidenhood; now Moira is a sort of temple prostitute. Offred indicates how she would “like to tell a story about how Moira escaped,” or “blew up Jezebel’s, with fifty Commanders inside it” (250). Ironically, Offred cannot, but it is just such a melodramatic ending that the 1990 film version imposed on the action of The Handmaid’s Tale.

In a sense, Offred is preparing herself and us readers for her end. In these last pages we have more sense of her as narrator, as a storyteller playing with the text of her tale, even at one point depicting three separate renditions of the first love scene with Nick; she begins the second rendition by saying, “I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened” (261). And she begins the third with “It didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate” (263).

The last major section is “Salvaging,” the Gilead term for a ritualized purging of sin. Since many of these proclaimed sinners have probably confessed their sins, this section of the narrative has the element of confession, appropriate to first-person narra­tion and parallel to Winston’s brainwashing in the Ministry of Love. Offred confesses to sins against humanism like her willing­ness to sacrifice Nick to save her daughter and herself as well as her participation in the mutilation of the supposed rapist in the Particicution. Offred records the pain of telling her story “over again.” “But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are” (267-8). This last is the postmodern version of the Cartesian cogito: its logic is, because I tell stories you exist as listener/reader and I exist as teller/writer. Existence is finally textual.

Offred’s story ends with her stepping into the black van, escorted by Nick who calls her by her “real name” and tells her it’s “Mayday.” Still, he may be one of the Eyes, a “private Eye” whose special case she may have been. We turn the page to learn of her future, since there is a handful of pages left in the text, and we discover that Atwood has played an elaborate artistic joke on her readers, for we are in an even more distant future and Offred indeed exists now only as text, the box of her audiotapes. Atwood has violated the basic tenet of the reader’s faith in first-person narrative, i.e., our illusory assurance that the teller must survive the end of the action long enough to tell the story. We end the novel at a conference in the midst of witty and sophisticated discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood no doubt anticipated a future in which her Handmaid’s Tale would become the subject of conference papers, just as Offred’s tapes have become at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies. Thus, she provides another facet of self-reflexivity and intertextuality.

It is in the “Historical Notes” section, a kind of appendix, that we see the clearest evidence of Atwood’s reading of Orwell. As she has indicated in her interview with Geoff Hancock (217), she reads 1984‘s “Appendix”—”The Principles of Newspeak”—as an integral part of Orwell’s prophetic vision. Speaking of Orwell’s “Appendix” in relation to her “Historical Notes,” she claims that Orwell “did the same thing. He has a text at the end of 1984.” She adds:

In fact, Orwell is much more optimistic than people give him credit for…. Most people think the book ends when Winston comes to love Big Brother. But it doesn’t. It ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in the past tense, in standard English—which means that, at the time of writing the note, Newspeak is a thing of the past (217).

Much as they might want to, few readers would follow Atwood’s line of reasoning that the use of the past tense indicates an end of Oceania. The narrator of this appendix refers to a text which had just been completed, but the pastness of the text does not necessarily indicate that the conditions represented by that text no longer exist. It is clear, however, that Atwood sees Orwell’s “Appendix” and her own “Historical Notes” as indicative of a future in which Oceania and Gilead are no more. In this regard, she sees 1984 as a bleak but not hopeless vision of the future, much more in line with London’s The Iron Heel with its promise of a future “Brotherhood of Man.” As David Ketterer demonstrates in his case for The Handmaid’s Tale as a “contextual dystopia,” Atwood is less interested in the linear time of Oceania than in a time which may swing like a pendulum or even move cyclically so that Gileads can recur.

Atwood’s reading of Orwell’s “Appendix” underlines the kinship of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. Both narratives have writers/speakers/narrators, that is, producers of texts, at their centers—Winston with his diary and Offred with her tape- recorder. Winston and Offred are both defined through their efforts to affirm a subjective “truth” as a legacy for future gener­ations to whom they look for validation of their noble struggles to survive as humans, rather than as creatures of an overbearing patriarchal state exacting a kind of castration as the price of citizenship. Orwell’s “Appendix” may not soften the blow of 1984’s devastating annihilation of liberal humanism, but Atwood’s “Historical Notes” section certainly offers a somewhat brighter future when Gilead and patriarchal repression for a time have come to an end.


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. NY: Norton, 1987.

Hancock, Geoff. “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls.” Margaret Atwood: Conversations. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review P, 1990: 191-220.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “The Decentering of Tragic Narrative in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Studies in the Humanities 16.2 (Dec. 1989): 69-83.

Ketterer, David. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Contextual Dystopia.” Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, by David Ketterer. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.

London, Jack. The Iron Heel. Ed. Max Lerner. NY: Hill and Wang, 1957.

Malak, Amin. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition.” Canadian Literature 112 (Spring 1987): 9-16.

Orwell, George. 1984. NY: New American Library, 1961.

Ross, Michael. “‘Carrying on the Human Heritage’: From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Nineteen Eighty-Four.” D. H. Lawrence Review 17 (1984): 5-28.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Hogarth P, 1929.

SOURCE: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 5, No. 4 (20) (1993), pp. 64-72 (9 pages). Published by: International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts


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