The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood

[I’m reading this book in three sections, and so far I have read two. I write about each section before reading on, so I don’t know what will be coming next.]

17 August 2019
Parts 1-6—Night, Shopping, Night, Waiting Room, Nap, Household
Since the TV series based on this 1985 novel appeared a couple of years ago, everybody knows its basic ‘what if’ premise. What would it be like if human fertility became so feeble that the men in power give themselves the right to force any fertile women to become the mothers of their children? I can imagine Atwood’s question to herself before she started creating her near-future dystopia—what would men do about having children if their wives couldn’t produce them?

She has always been fascinated by the balance (or imbalance) of power between men and women, and she had already been picking away at the issue for years. In Surfacing (1972), set in a realistic version of the present, the main female character has to deal with men who think they are liberal-minded and have no idea how sexist they are. (I re-read that novel fairly recently, and wrote about it here.) In The Handmaid’s Tale, those relationships have been stripped back to where they had been in a mythical pre-Christian era. Instead of the situation in Surfacing, the female narrator in the Handmaid’s Tale only has one role in life: to service the need of those powerful men to father children. One of the epigraphs is from the Old Testament, as though to cite biblical precedent. The men like to quote from the bible too, all the time.

When the novel first appeared, comparisons were made with aggressively patriarchal Muslim societies, as in post-revolutionary Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. But, people said, it couldn’t happen in the West. The turning back of the clock in Iran could only take place because the Patriarchy had never gone away, not like the West at all. My guess is that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale as a riposte to that kind of complacency. In a near-future scenario—it must be some time in the 1990s—a catastrophic social change has taken place. If the first-person narrator has got it right, this came to a head only three years earlier. Now everything in the new set-up is backward-looking. The powers that be, and only they, have access to state computers and the kinds of limousines favoured in Soviet Russia. Otherwise, think Founding Fathers historical recreations, fundamentalist American Christian sects, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Very, very quickly, Western freedoms have been gobbled up and spat out by a new theocracy.

I can’t imagine that the details of how this world came about are a priority for Atwood. There is war on the American continent and, in almost no time at all, the rights of all but the elites have been crushed by a bloodily repressive regime. Women have no role to play in society, except as wives, servants, and the new class of handmaids. The regime offers elite men the privilege—in fact, the joyless duty—of attempting to father children on the handmaids assigned to them for the purpose. The name derives from that Old Testament reference in the epigraph, in which the barren Rachel tells her husband Jacob what to do. ‘Behold my maid Bilhah. Go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’ And, more famously still, Christ’s mother Mary described herself as ‘the handmaid of the Lord.’ Ah. Soon, we get all the description we need of the cribbed, confined new world that Atwood has imagined…

…but for me, all the interest lies in the way this severely reined-in new world contrasts with the interior world of the first-person narrator. Her life has been reduced almost to zero—she isn’t even allowed to read, or to keep her former name—but, on every page, we are presented with her dreams and memories, and her perceptions of a reality of sensation and colour. Everything is forbidden to her. The convent-like, prisonlike ‘Centre’ where she was taught her new role sets the tone in the first chapter—the women aren’t even allowed to speak—but, in the next chapter, we can begin to see how she retains a sense of self.

It isn’t a promising start. ‘A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling…’ and we expect it to go on like this. Except no. This second sentence in the chapter takes us somewhere else: ‘a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it is a blank space, plastered over, like the place in the face where an eye has been taken out.’ The opening paragraph of the next chapter has this: ‘The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they have been cut and are beginning to heal there.’ I guess that these images have been placed so prominently in order to show how the everyday can morph unexpectedly into an image, or memory, of violence. Concealed and covered-up though she is—her dress is like a nun’s habit—something inside this hidden woman is alive and kicking. The images are physical, almost visceral, and I’ve just remembered another… which, I now see, is from the opening paragraph of the next chapter. ‘Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half-dead; flexible and pink, like lips.’ Again, a hint of misery and suffering underscoring the sensuality. Or vice versa.

Meanwhile, two things. The narrator introduces us to the realities of this new society—moral and political as well as literal; and, alongside her highly personal take on it all, she intersperses the events of the day with flashbacks and memories. They begin in the recent past, but move seamlessly back and forth in time. It takes a whole of Chapter 3 for her to move from one end of the garden to the other because it is mainly about her new master’s wife, or ‘Wife’—her first meeting with her, then the slowly dawning realisation of where she saw her in the time before everything changed. The Wife treats her with as much distaste as you would expect—and, when the narrator recognises her as a former darling of religious TV programmes before the cataclysm, becomes a focus of her interest. Not only does the narrator feel a certain sense of triumph, but she can belittle this faded former somebody—a small enough somebody at that—who now has to walk with a stick and has to suffer the tedious life of an elite wife in this world. She has almost literally nothing to do.

Her memories range far wider than that, back to her own childhood, her husband or partner Luke, the daughter they had and who she lost to the authorities when the girl was only five years old. Before that, there was her friend from college, Moira, who arrived at the Handmaid training centre after the narrator and tried to buck the system. She wasn’t walking properly after the punishment she’d received after trying to escape, and I’m hesitating to guess what they must have done to her. She didn’t try to escape again.

The world the narrator describes before this (not yet fully-explained) social upheaval is the one we recognise, with a few tweaks. The birth-rate is falling, and there are hints of religious sects rising up, with apocalyptic views on the moral decay that has clearly led to divine anger on a biblical scale. But there are also tweaks in the way things are now perceived by the narrator—we’ve picked up by now that she’s called Offred, as in ‘of Fred’, because the handmaids have names which denote only that they are the property of men—because you can’t live in a theocracy for three or more years without some of its pieties coming to seem normal. Yes, she thinks, women did display themselves shamelessly in public. And weren’t things just a little too free? I’m sure it’s a mindset that Atwood will have her narrator returning to.

So, a rich interior life, hidden beneath Offred’s identity-robbing Handmaid uniform. There’s nothing rich about the realities of everyday life, which she reveals piecemeal, over the course of a day or so. We witness the repressiveness of the regime before we really understand the handmaids’ role, as in the shopping trip that is one of her duties. Shopping is little more than a formalised exchange of tokens for food, during which the brief conversations are formed only of pious platitudes. On the way home, she sees the latest corpses, half a dozen executed men hanging on display from hooks fixed prominently for the purpose. The white coats worn by some of them suggest they were doctors—probably found guilty of activities before the regime-change, legal then, but punishable retrospectively now.

Everyone is scared. Nobody dares to talk, there are watchtowers and armed guards everywhere, and the handmaids have to visit the shops in pairs, supposedly for their own safety. Every man and woman has a demarcated role—even poor women, ‘econowives’, have dresses whose colours show that they are to fulfil all the main female roles. For them, no plain blue for wives, green for servants (or Marthas) or red for handmaids. Their cheap, state-issued clothing is striped in all the colours. This is the appalling reality, as Offred explicitly tells us, that has become ‘ordinary’ unimaginably quickly. It’s the new normal, and they try to deal with it.

We know these details by the end of the second section, Shopping, and other realities appear over time. Most of them are to do with the handmaids’ lives. Not just the monthly round of doctors’ examinations—we witness one of these, and the doctor offers his own impregnation service, there and then—and the ritual leading up to the sacred act…. There’s also the ambiguous status of the handmaids, their role carrying its own special stigma. They are disliked by most people, especially other women—theirs is a life without hard work, and nobody likes that—but this comes out only in the subtlest ways. The handmaids don’t see much—they wear big white head-dresses like nuns’ wimples that obscure their faces and, for them, block all but a narrow tunnel of vision. It’s almost as oppressively concealing as a burka, and it would be unbearable if they didn’t get used to it. But there’s no choice, and Offred’s thoughts about it are not straightforward.

It’s part of this novel’s subtlety. Whilst everything that has happened, and continues to happen, is vile—including the mock-religious set-up of the ritualistic sex act itself, timed perfectly with the ovulation cycle—Offred is also slowly revealing the aspects of her life that somehow let her carry on functioning as a human being. Things come to mind, like memories of a so-called ‘Aunt’ at the training facility she attended who, despite everything terrible about the situation, offered genuinely practical advice about how to tolerate the lifestyle. Or there are interactions with people, however rule-bound these are…

…and sometimes people bend the rules. There is conversation of sorts with the cook and housekeeper, although there’s no denying the dislike of one of them. There’s also the driver, a guard or ‘Guardian’ who, like all the other non-alpha males, is forced to live a celibate life and is happy to exchange an illicit word or two with her as she leaves the house. This is just how things are… and yet already, in these first chapters, we see how tiny acts seek to subvert the intolerable restrictions. On the way to the shops, Offred lets a young guard see her face, and is amused and touched by his embarrassment—a response, of sorts. She would like to have a conversation with the handmaiden she has to go shopping with… but in this case, she gets nowhere. Maybe the other woman, Ofglen, is simply afraid to overstep the guidelines about talking. Offred herself has never ventured anything beyond the usual platitudes, just in case.

The handmaids are like no other people in this new world. It’s a grey place, with men in black uniforms and only the primary blues and greens of other women’s dresses offering any mark of colour. But that red of the tulips, so redolent of blood, is also the colour chosen for the handmaids’ habits. I don’t think Atwood actually uses the word scarlet, because the implication is obvious anyway. These women are reserved for what is usually not only the most private of acts, but the most physically extraordinary act two people can do together. Those carefully-placed images in the early chapters echo the flagrancy of what she and the other handmaids do. And it governs how everyone sees them. People know what her job is, and it isn’t merely being a surrogate mother. She is sex on legs—so the doctor is able to suggest sex because, he says, the middle-aged Commander doesn’t seem to be having much success. And the household’s driver has made an approach too. In the night after the sex act they call ‘the Ceremony.’ When Offred goes alone into the forbidden sitting-room for the first time ever, just for the thrill of it, there he is, behind her. She rejects his offer of sex, as she had rejected the doctor’s. But, of course, they were both seeking to fulfil what would previously have been regarded as an unremarkable sexual need. The powers that be can do nothing about normal human behaviours.

It’s made impossibly complicated by the way the new rules fetishize women’s bodies—which is why the guard is embarrassed at even a glimpse below her bonnet. There are nearly exact parallels in the real world—I’ve already mentioned the burka—in which a culture represents women with a kind of awed reverence which in fact, masks a deep misogyny. Fine—but this isn’t a contentious point to make, and anyway, Margaret Atwood makes it much more interesting through her representation of a fully-rounded person with her own thoughts, feelings and memories. There’s the disappeared world she remembers, including her lover and daughter, and the sense of identity she retains in spite of the theocracy’s desire to eradicate every scrap of it.

Now, in case we hadn’t yet cottoned on to the horror of the implications in this future society, Atwood presents the mating ritual, the ‘Ceremony,’ in all its psychotic-seeming bizarreness. What was that verse from the Old Testament? She ‘shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’ Offred describes this strange scenario graphically. She and the Wife lie back on the marriage bed, fully clothed…. ‘Her legs apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. / My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are of one flesh….’ And so on, until: ‘My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it, the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower half of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing.’ It’s a sign of how psychotic the world has become that she feels the need to clarify this point. But she also tells us that it isn’t copulating either, because that implies an activity involving two people, and it isn’t rape: ‘nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.’

I love this. Offred is a narrator we have come to trust, and she has thought this through as fully as the appalling circumstances will allow…. But the circumstances are just too harsh for logic. I said before that I suspect that one of Atwood’s motives for writing this novel is as a riposte to the complacency of the West in the late 20th Century—and here is a woman, forced to be a sex slave and mother telling us that this was a choice she made. We don’t know what the alternatives were, but I expect they were even more intolerable than what a handmaid has to go through. In our own world, countless women have described their terrible experiences of married life and, like Offred, insist that they stand by the choice they made. Yes. But it doesn’t make it any better—and it’s why I love Margaret Atwood. There are resonances and ambiguities on every page.

And that’s as far as I’ve got. I feel I’ve hardly begun to describe the richness of this novel, but it’s time to read on.

2 September
Parts 7-11—Night, Birth Day, Night, Soul Scrolls, Night
Having spent the first hundred or so pages establishing the emptiness and powerlessness of a handmaid’s existence, Atwood changes tack in this middle third of the novel. As spring turns to summer, Offred doesn’t exactly become an active participant, but something seems to be happening on almost every page. Two different people in her sequestered life strongly acknowledge her value, while flashbacks offer a far fuller picture both of life before the catastrophe, and the way the sudden change came about. Both of these seem part of the same strand, to do with the relationships that make us human. Previously, the worst aspect of Offred’s new life was the loss of every one of these connections. Now they are being made, however tenuously, whilst the often problematic nature of relationships in her former life is being held up for examination. It feels as if there’s quite a lot going on.

Really, there are two parallel narratives now. There always were, with the continuous present of her life as a handmaid being interwoven with fragments of a past-tense narrative made up of dreams and memories. But now the back-story is coming in a much more systematic way—and Offred herself is foregrounding her own role as the teller of an important story. I don’t think I mentioned before that she can be self-conscious about her place in it, that she is the one experiencing these horrors, she is the one forced back into herself in order to make some sense of what on earth is going on. The focus on the inner life is a big part of what attracts me to the book, as I’ve mentioned, and this carries on. But now, she makes herself link the fragments together to make sense of it all.

Just under half-way through the novel, she makes it explicit in a key passage. Chapter 23 (of 46) opens like this: ‘This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I like flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If ever I get out of here— / Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever…’ and so on. A paragraph further on: ‘When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove.’ And she goes on to describe the imperfectability of any story—‘what you say can never be exact’ and the rest—before coming to an absolutely key idea….

I said right at the start that it’s relations between men and women that Margaret Atwood is interested in, and here is Offred: ‘if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future, and you’ve made it this far, please remember: you will never be subjected to the temptation of feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. It’s difficult to resist, believe me.’ It’s one of the most explicit statements I’ve ever read by a serious writer that really, really, men will never be able to get it. And it doesn’t stop there. ‘But remember too that forgiveness is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.’

This is big, and it’s what this novel really seems to be about. Offred has come as close as it’s possible to come to breaking the fourth wall without actually doing it. But the reader knows, and Atwood is doing nothing to hide the fact, that this imagined future is a warning to us in the present day. And Offred’s warning to any man reading this—’if you’ve made it this far’ in her narrative—is that he has absolutely no idea what it’s about. It’s what I was saying at the start about Surfacing and its self-congratulatory men—and it’s what Atwood has Offred remembering about the effect on Luke, her partner, when women’s rights are suddenly amputated. I’ll come back to that, because it’s part of the critique that I mentioned about life before the catastrophe. The signs are there….

But I need to tell you what’s been happening, both in Offred’s present and her not entirely satisfactory past. We start with a ‘Night’ section, Atwood’s way of punctuating the routine and allowing Offred some time for reflection. Not that she doesn’t reflect and look back all the time anyway, but ‘Night’ usually lets her add to a particular thread. This one is about living with the uncertainty of what might have happened to Luke. He’s dead, obviously. Or he’s alive. All she knows is, ‘Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it. / This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue.’ Yep.

Then, ‘Birth Day.’ The act of giving birth is a ritualised as the ‘Ceremony’ of sex. Handmaidens are bussed and Wives are taxied to the lucky Wife’s house, this one clearly belonging to a more high-status Commander. You can imagine the details, with the ‘Breath, breath, breath!’ and the rest becoming chants. This is exhausting in itself, and it’s deeply involving on a level that feels physical. It’s as though Offred herself—and all the others clearly feel it too—is the one giving birth. She needs to rest when she eventually gets home, but can’t possibly sleep…. And the day isn’t over yet. Because, reader, this is the evening when the Commander decides to break the rules. He asks her to come to his private office. She wonders at first whether it might be a test, decides it’s worth the risk—she could be exiled, literally, if he feels so inclined—and what he wants is almost laughably innocent. He wants to play Scrabble, wants to watch her leaf through an illicit old copy of Vogue—and shyly asks for a single kiss.

It’s how humanity makes itself felt. He, a man with duties and prestige in this new regime, is as bored with the closing-down of everything as she is. He just wants to—what? Pretend a few innocent things are as they always were. Not that we find this out on the first evening, with the Wife still out celebrating the successful birth in the approved alcohol-fuelled way. This is the first of regular evenings, whenever it’s safe. Nick, the driver who once suggested sex with her now has the job of tilting his hat in a particular way to let her know the Commander is waiting for her, in the temple of masculinity that is his office. It’s just an office—but it has books, easy chairs, things.

eanwhile, throughout this long ‘Birth Day’ section, we get the fullest account yet of what led to the terrible upheaval. The mid-1980s that Atwood describes are an alternative reality, with the birth rate already falling catastrophically. The reasons will be familiar to anyone who knows her environmental concerns. (Surfacing, too, is as much about the terrible damage already taking place in the 1970s, and it’s at the core of the more recent Maddaddam trilogy.) Offred considers the body of a woman at the time, now with only a 25% chance of conceiving: ‘a cradle of life, made of bones; and within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystals jagged as glass. Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers.’ Ah.

There’s a social context too. Offred—I still can’t remember her real name, if she’s mentioned it—was surrounded by the conventional enough norms of 70s and 80s feminism. Her own mother was proud to be more radicalised than her daughter, and Moira, always a friend, was at the leading edge. She was lesbian by then and mocks, if not too unkindly, Luke’s attempts to be right-on. ‘I like cooking,’ he claims…. It’s kind of comfortable, except Moira and her more radical friends are highly suspicious of the way the Patriarchy is raising its ugly head. However… absolutely nobody is prepared for the way, overnight, all woman’s rights are suddenly taken away. It’s like a speeded-up version of the Anschluss in 1930s Germany, with women as shocked by the unannounced changes as the Jews were then. Bank accounts are closed, and her boss is clearly terrified as he announces to her and her women colleagues that he’s having to let them all go—a phrase he insists is how he is to put it. The army are in the building—except they aren’t the army. And reader, there’s been a coup. The President is dead, and men with machine-guns have done their worst inside Congress.

Atwood is having to make some credible links between the world as we know it and the world Offred lives in. And, just in case we’re finding these hard to take, she loads things in her own favour. All along Offred, as so often in first-person-narrated thought-pieces like this, can be a spokesperson for the author. That passage I quoted about any men reading her account in the future is one example. Another is the way she shows how in former times even feminist-leaning men like Luke can’t easily move beyond the accident of their birth gender. He’s a man, and… how does it go, his reaction to what she is going through on that terrible first day? ‘We still have… he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.’ Then, further on, ‘He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s any more. Instead, I am his. / Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But his is what happened.’

And I realise it isn’t just about men being men. It’s about how betrayals of this magnitude immediately put an end to every last shred of trust. Which means, perhaps, that there was never enough trust in the first place. Women can’t move beyond the accident of their birth gender any more than men can—they, like men, have had a lifetime within a mindset that precludes them from truly understanding the other. Is it any accident that trust is the first casualty? This from the final paragraph of this difficult chapter: ‘So Luke, what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right?’ She didn’t dare to ask the question at the time—‘I was afraid to lose you’—so it remains unanswered. And we shouldn’t pretend that it’s only being asked by an imaginary character speaking from an imaginary future. This is Atwood asking us now.

This is in a much later chapter, and we’ve got to know about the innocent enough evenings Offred shares with the Commander. (‘So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn’t understand hm. … The same old thing. It was too banal to be true.’) There are other developments too, in connection with the rest of the population, trapped in a world nobody would ever want. The Commander doesn’t want it, and it’s clear from the start that the Wife doesn’t either. Nick the driver, a normal young man, stands for millions like him. A life without sex? What?? It’s no wonder he’s prepared to risk his life propositioning a handmaid.

But the real interest comes in relation to the women in Offred’s life. From the start, we’ve seen how the normal business of jealousies and rivalries has by no means been purified out of existence—Atwood presents an unidealised version of how women behave towards each other. The handmaid giving birth, Janine—always referred to by that name since her blousy, petulant behaviour at the training centre, is the same as she always was—and the other handmaids’ bitchiness about her is clear from their secret looks and Offred’s scorn. These are ordinary women, ordinary people, in a situation that is extraordinary in its total phoniness. Nobody believes in this nonsense, and Atwood is letting us know it bit by bit….

One day, Ofglen, the handmaid that Offred always walks with on her dull little shopping trips—it’s the law—is able to bypass the blinkered view of one another they usually get. She stares straight into the reflection of Offred’s eyes as they look at the laughably pointless automated prayer-printing machines in ‘Souls and Scrolls.’ It’s another of the clunkily-named stores in this clunkily set-up society—but, as they only pretend to look inside, Ofglen can quietly ask Offred a question. ‘Do you think God listens to these machines?’ Offred is beyond astonishment. After some seconds of thinking through the possible crimes being committed—‘Subversion, sedition, blasphemy, heresy, all rolled into one’—what can she do? ‘I steel myself. “No,” I say,’ and the whispered conversation goes on….

There is a resistance movement—but Ofglen had delayed saying anything for months because she couldn’t be sure of Offred. Tyrannies are always like this, nobody daring to say what some spy might report them for—as the two see on their way back to the checkpoint, as a man is violently arrested and thrown ‘like a mailsack’ into one of the regime’s black vans. Openness is impossible, but that frank look in the shop window has opened something up for both of them. For Offred, it goes beyond mere relief. It represents a kind of confirmation too, because she has never given up hope that Luke might be alive, possibly—she knows it’s unlikely—fighting for all their freedoms. But, more plausibly, Moira might be out there. Following her failed escape attempt from the ‘Centre’, she later formulated a better plan. She threatened one of the aunts with a pointed shaft from a toilet cistern, took her clothes, and left the place with only the most cursory of checks from the guards. Offred has heard nothing of her since—but might she be a part of the resistance?

She might—and that makes all the difference. It could all come to nothing, but what can’t be taken from Offred now is the knowledge, as she was saying before, that the current state of affairs can’t last forever. All those encounters she’s had confirm that however much a regime might to squeeze out the humanity from society, humanity never disappears. It’s seen in those unglamorous, everyday rivalries and jealousies, and in the utterly commonplace—but unstoppable—need for ordinary respect and love. Early on, long before the illicit evening meetings, Offred had been wondering whether there might ever be love between her and the man who has sex with her whenever she ovulates. The idea had seemed bizarre at the time, but now it seems completely understandable. Of course she hasn’t stopped looking for what human beings can’t live without.

Meanwhile, there’s this more tangible hope. This situation can’t last, Offred has been thinking, but for it to come to an end there will have to be a struggle. And, if Ofglen is to be trusted, it seems that there are people willing to take it on.