In the following review, Tom O’Brien cites flaws in the plausibility of Atwood’s dystopia as depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale.
by Tom O’Brien
I like Margaret Atwood very much, but her new novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, less. It’s an ambitious recasting of 1984, from a woman’s point of view, positing a takeover of the United States by right-wing religious fanatics who establish a monotheocracy. Atwood sets this in the near future, time enough, she imagines, for a crisis in fertility caused by AIDS, new strains of syphilis, and poisoning by environmental and toxic hazards. As a result, the male oligarchy that runs Gilead turns all available women (divorcees, anyone married to a divorced man, or women who have lived with men) into second wives, handmaids, as long as they have “viable ovaries.” A police slate enforces this polygamy and general policy with ruthless terror.
It’s not exactly the outlandishness of this that bothers me. As Atwood notes, most of the things she depicts here have their parallel in contemporary events: in the attack on women’s rights by some Protestant evangelicals and Islamic fanatics, and in the practice of government terror that she is all too familiar with as a member of Amnesty International.
Atwood even includes small topical terms like “salvagings”—the Philippine expression for state-sponsored murder—to describe Gilead’s executions, and “re-education centers”—from the Cambodian and Vietnam takeovers— where “handmaids” are taught to accept the benefits of their new lot. In a historical note at the end of the book (notes from a literary conference after the fell of Gilead) one professor points out that Gilead “invented nothing.” In Atwood’s view, it represents a “synthesis” or “extrapolation” of current trends, which, if unchecked, could make Gilead happen here. At this level, as dire warning, The Handmaid’s Tale is valuable.
It is also well executed. Atwood, who began as a poet, has always been able to infuse the sense of the spoken voice into her novels, a power which makes the fantastic acceptable; at all times you feel as if you’re in the presence of a real person. Her narrator is “Offred,” a handmaid whose name suggests possession by one of the male commanders of Gilead (one “Fred”) and also provides an Anglo-Saxon, early medieval echo. Offred remembers what life was like before the takeover, and recalls fondly her friendship with a boyfriend and their child. Alternating between lyrical memory and a laconic repressed tone, Atwood makes us feel keenly Offred’s conflict and suffering.
As in all Atwood novels, humor aids survival. At times the comedy emerges only in thin strokes of mordant wit as Offred scans her drab options. But as the plot thickens, Atwood stages a few uproarious incongruities. The commander informs Offred that he wants to see her privately, something forbidden except for prescribed loveless mating sessions. She wonders what he intends, imagining something even more gothic than her imprisoned status. But all he wants is to play Scrabble, a game charged with eroticism since his wife won’t talk to him and all women are forbidden to read. Soon, he starts passing Offred old copies of Vogue (what Atwood calls the “subversive literature of the future”) and taking her out to a secret club. In effect, he not only likes her, but even gets up the courage to ask for a date. As Offred comments, “it was too banal to be true.”
Nevertheless, these pleasures of The Handmaid’s Tale are offset by weaknesses. Although one accepts Atwood’s point about the flexibility of history, and although there is the whiff of religious war around today, it is hard to take her dystopia too seriously. She imagines that Gilead occupies most of the United States, with various regions rebelling or simply encircled (the major cities). But the portrait of the national situation is skimpy, the international almost nonexistent. Moreover, there is little reference to industry. I don’t mean technology: as in all futuristic fantasy, The Handmaid’s Tale is filled with gadgets, especially computers (one franchise in Gilead is a street corner operation called Soul Scrolls, which provides computerized printout prayers). But Atwood skips on most business, thereby making her fantasy that much more fantastic.
This is not only Atwood’s defect. It is a problem with most writers in the utopian genre who are never strong on the culture of production—probably because so few writers have real experience with what it means to shape production, design, and market commodities. Of course, business culture can include coercion, and of course it has been complicit in so many right-wing authoritarian dictatorships around the world. But it also includes vast numbers of people in this country whom it would be difficult to tame into cooperative roles in any planned economy. The texture of that culture, which surrounds us in most major urban centers in the United States, is entirely missing in The Handmaid’s Tale. It is perhaps no accident that Atwood’s main location is Cambridge. Massachusetts, a one-industry town.
The Handmaid’s Tale marks another attempt by Atwood to expand her range. She has been eager, in her last works, to escape some of the restrictions on the realistic novel (usually concerned with the problems of young women) that she mastered so well in The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1972) and Surfacing (1976)—although in the last a quasi-stream of consciousness at the close modified the realism considerably in Life Before Man (1980), Atwood experimented even more: the novel has three narrators, one a man, and begins with a suicide, moving the focus away from realistic character study to more explosive action. In Bodily Harm (1983), Atwood went further, positioning her heroine, a journalist on vacation, in the middle of a Caribbean coup d’etat. The Handmaid’s Tale fulfills this pattern of development and feeds on Atwood’s strong political interests. The idea of writing a political novel and fusing rich character presentation and real action is compelling—almost a Promethean defiance of conventional vapid definitions of high art. But for me, The Handmaid’s Tale just doesn’t match Atwood’s ambition.
Atwood is above all a moralist, albeit of a novel kind. Atwood hates villainy, to be sure, and vividly protests it. But she is also concerned about self-victimization, about the denial of self that she feels makes good people easy prey for bad. Toward the end of Surfacing, her heroine realizes that she has too long accepted bullying from others, most often in the subtle form of inculcations to humility and passivity. “This above all,” she resolves about her future life, “to refuse to be a victim.” Such wisdom is difficult to put into practice. It doesn’t, for example, neatly square with a tone in traditional moral teaching, particularly Christian. But I remember reading the line and being stunned by its aptness. By a sad process of psychological elision we often equate, or are encouraged to equate, goodness and niceness. But self-depreciating, or self-destructive niceness is immoral. It demeans a part of God’s creation that we must respect—if not, how can we honestly respect anything else? The choices are not victimization or villainy, Atwood suggests; goodness and strength might be near allies.
Delineating that wisdom has been Atwood’s life work. The Handmaid’s Tale is a nightmarish exclusion of its possibility. Perhaps that is what most makes me uncomfortable. Or perhaps Atwood has not yet found the way to apply such wisdom beyond interpersonal relations and on the broader stage of politics.
SOURCE: “Siren’s Wail,” in Commonweal, April 25, 1986, pp. 251-3.