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Lire Margaret Atwood

Marta Dvorak

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Feminist Dystopia ?

Margaret Atwood

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1The question before us today is : “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist dystopia ?” In order to answer this question we will have to begin by asking “What is feminist ?” ; “What is a dystopia ?” and then we can decide.

2First, “what is feminist ?” “Feminist” is now like “Christian”, by which I mean it is one of those terms that has developed so many different meanings that we don’t know what we’re talking about unless we become more precise. For instance, is “Christian” the Pope or is it the interesting sect in the southern United States that handles poisonous snakes as a sign of grace, or is it perhaps the Quakers or is it the Baptists, or is it the sect of Druzes who live in the middle east ? Similarly, does “feminist” mean a person in overalls, boots and no make-up who would like to push all men off a cliff, or does it mean someone who thinks women should be able to read and write ?

3Going back into history, once upon a time, if you disagreed with the ancient Greek opinion that women were simply perambulating wombs you would have been a feminist. If you disagreed with the early Christian fathers’ point of view that women had no souls, you would have been a feminist. If you disagreed later on in the nineteenth century with the view that women ought not to be educated because it would cause their brains to enlarge at the expense of the rest of them – the more important rest of them – then you were a feminist. If you took the view that novel reading was not necessarily a destructive social activity, you might have been a feminist. This is open to question. If you entered the twentieth century and took the position that women had the right to their own property, which was certainly denied to them under nineteenth century English law, you would have been a feminist. In the nineteenth century women were considered adults from the point of view of responsibilities but children from the point of view of rights, and in a marriage a husband could, at will – as Charles Dickens did – remove the children from his wife, send her off to live by herself, and that was completely legal. You also had the right to commit your wife to an insane asylum on your word alone. There’s some interesting material on that but my point is that feminism is a general tendency rather than a set ideology, and if it were a set ideology we wouldn’t have so many fights going on. As for whether one is or is not such a person, I think you always have to ask first what the person asking you intends by the question. Is it one of these people in overalls and boots who push men off cliffs, or is it someone who thinks they ought to be able to have a job ? Take your choice. I’ve never been against lipstick – just as well in France. So feminism, you can say, is a general tendency and it is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is.

4What is a dystopia ? As a literary form, it’s the obverse of a utopia, and we really have to speak of both of them together. The utopia/ dystopia as a literary form treats of planned societies, arranged societies. Just a description of an awful place is not a dystopia. Just a description of an earthly paradise is not a utopia. My Hawaiian vacation does not count as a utopia. It has to be a planned society, deliberately arranged. The nineteenth century was the century which gave rise to a huge number of utopias, both literary utopias and what we may call sociological or economic utopian plans. People really did think then that society could be perfected and there were all kinds of people who thought they knew how to do it. It’s interesting for us that capitalism and the free market economy were first proposed as a utopian idea. This was going to be the thing that was going to make us all – all – very rich and very happy. It didn’t work out quite that way but then again neither did socialism, another one of the utopian ideas of the nineteenth century. A recent joke going around is : “Under capitalism man oppresses man, and under socialism it’s the other way around.”

5Anyway, as a form, the utopia/ dystopia must be planned. What then is planned ?

6First of all, money and material goods – how they are made and distributed – and this means all of those things involving work and also the environment. A lot of the nineteenth century utopias were linked with the perception that the industrial revolution was polluting rivers, cutting down forests etc., and some utopias were proposed as a counter-action to this trend.

7Another thing that is arranged : clothing – what is worn ? Utopias and dystopias both take a lot of pleasure in describing costume. What is worn and what is forbidden ? What cannot be worn, who can wear what and under what circumstances ? This is of course just an exaggerated variant on what goes on in society anyway. Prove me right by taking off all your clothes and walking down the Champs Élysées at noon. You will be arrested.

8Next : sex. Who can have it, how often, under what circumstances and with whom ? In the utopia, proposed as the good society, free love tends to be a motif. Sex tends to get spread around quite a lot. In the dystopia, the bad form, it’s often eliminated, and always controlled, and in real life, dictatorships such as that in Romania before the fall of the Wall, do tend to take quite an interest in this area. In Nazi Germany there were laws as to who could have sex with whom. Linked to that is reproduction, which is not the same thing : who can reproduce and under what circumstances and with whom ? There was something called the eugenics movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century society which very much tried to control who could have babies and what kind of babies. So it’s a motif in real life and it’s also very much one in the literary form. In Brave New World, if you’ve read that book, you’ll recall that birth is obsolete, babies come from bottles, and if there’s something a bit strange about you it’s because somebody has put the wrong thing in your bottle.

9Next : power – who can hold it and how is it exercised ? In utopias this tends to be consensual ; in dystopias we tend to have dictatorships. Finally, what happens to those who violate the norms or laws of a society ? Both utopias and dystopias tend to be quite harsh in this direction. You’ll recall in Thomas More’s Utopia – the original one of that name – adultery is quite severely punished. I think you get assigned to slavery for the first or second offense, and if you keep on doing it they kill you.

10The thing about utopias and dystopias is that they very quickly change into their opposite, and whether it is a utopia or dystopia depends on the point of view of the narrator. So what may look like a utopia to someone who is favoured by the system may look like a dystopia to someone who isn’t. Marge Piercy in her feminist utopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, has arranged things so that men too can breast feed – some may not feel that this is their notion of the perfect society but that’s what she has going. A visitor from the past – there is always a visitor from the past in some form – says, “Well, what do you do with people who don’t agree with you ?” and the future society says, “We send them to reeducation camp.” And the visitor from the past says, “And if they still don’t agree with you after that ?” “Well, in that case we shoot them, because we don’t wish to spend money keeping them in prison, which could better be spent elsewhere.” So no fooling around, you’re either with us or that’s the end of you. And these planned societies do tend to work in that way, deal with dissidence in that way. Everyone has to be made to fit the pattern one way or the other. Both utopias and dystopias have the habit of cutting off the hands and feet and even heads of those who don’t fit in the scheme.

11So that is the nature of the utopia/ dystopia as a literary form. It’s a planned society and those are the kinds of things that get planned. There can be other details as well, such as the environment, concern with pollution and overpopulation – in other words, the preoccupations of any modern society, but those are, I would say, the main features, and all these themes are in The Handmaid’s Tale.

12The form by its nature almost always contains elements of social satire or at least playful social commentary, for the very good reason that the society described in such forms doesn’t actually exist. The utopia/ dystopia is always about contemporary social patterns, about our fantasies and desires, because “utopia” means “nowhere”. No one has really been to such a place and come back to tell us what it’s like. It’s like writing about heaven and hell : they are imagined forms – you can’t actually go there and look at them. The person doing the imagining is always someone from his or her own society, and therefore the book produced is always some form of distorted reflection or commentary or satire on the society of the author and by extension on that of the audience. The quote by Swift at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale is a satirical solution – the danger with such satire is that some might take it seriously !

13These books always have what I call “the tour of the sewage system” – some kind of speech or part of the narrative that explains to the visitor (who can be a character or else the reader) how the society functions. It can be very boring or tedious. It often comes with the “just-so story” somebody tells the stranger – really a historical overview of how things got that way, usually involving a breakdown, some social catastrophe. In 1984 you’ll remember it’s that pamphlet placed in the middle. In The Handmaid’s Tale I felt the sewage system tour was better integrated directly into the narrative, but I put the just-so story at the end, in the Historical Notes, so as not to disrupt the body of the text.

14Here are a few examples of the literary form, some of which you may know about already. Brave New World is either a utopia or a dystopia depending on your point of view. It’s a very controlled society. It does offer free sex, babies come from bottles, birth is viewed as disgusting, euthanasia takes place when you reach a certain age, everything is controlled. People are happy in it and they are well adjusted to it. They take hallucinogenic drugs periodically and have orgies dedicated to the new god whose name is Ford, after the motor car. 1984 is definitely a dystopia. Sex is very controlled. One of the rebellious acts that takes place in it is a clandestine affair between the hero, whose name is Winston Smith, and the heroine whose name is Julia, and it’s a very harsh Stalinist regime. The cigarettes are horrible, the chocolate tastes bad. What does this remind you of ? I guess you never were in East Germany before the Wall fell ! Then there’s Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a « real » dystopia – based on the failed attempt at utopia-making in the former USSR -, and Anatole France’s satirical Penguin Island. Thomas More’s Utopia provides for arranged marriages – I think people have to take their clothes off, don’t they, and parade around to make sure there’s nothing wrong with them. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a satire (end of the nineteenth century) in which sex is free but illness is a crime. You can be put in prison for being sick. Crime on the other hand is an illness – you get treated for being a criminal. There’s Bellamy’s rather boring utopia, called Looking Backwards (end of the nineteenth century, American), very interested in gadgets, with lots of different technologies in it. News from Nowhere is William Morris’s environmental, socialist utopia in which the problems of the world are solved because everybody has taken up weaving and the making of stained glass windows. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is a projection into the future based on class. The upper class have now become beautiful little butterfly people who flitter around and have parties and the working class live underground and have become quite ugly and cannibalistic and they run the whole thing with their machines, but they come up at night and kidnap the upper class and eat them. So it’s Night of the Living Dead before its time. One of the strangest ones is W. H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age in which the problems of the world are solved by removing sex completely. This is a society like ants in which there’s only one couple that has babies and the rest of the people have no interest in sex whatsoever. I suppose you might say that women’s lot is improved under it but it’s hard to tell.

15So are any of these feminist utopias ? I wouldn’t say so. Do I know of any feminist utopias ? I think there’s one you can call a feminist utopia : Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. You could call Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time a feminist utopia. She tries to make men and women not only equal but the same. This may not be your idea of how things should be arranged but she goes for the androgyny option, which is the same one as in A Crystal Age. The most obvious feminist utopia I know about is the short story by John Wyndham called “Consider her Ways”, in which there are no men because they have all died off due to a disease, and the women who remain have arranged their society along the line of ants. (Ants are quite a favourite motif in utopias – and if you want to go off and see another one – it’s the movie that just came out featuring the voice of Woody Allen). Anyway, these women have arranged one class of women who produce all of the babies. They clone, they produce eight at a time, they lie on beds all the time – they’re so fat they can’t walk, like queen ants. And there’s a little class of nurse people who come and feed them and give them home permanents and tidy them up, take care of the babies. Then there are Amazonian workers, like the worker ants, and they do the construction work ; then there’s a small group of people who are the intellectuals and they keep the records. Our visitor from the past finds herself suddenly in the body of one of these huge enormous mother people and her aim in life is to get back to her own society. She goes off to see one of the historians who says, “Well, all of this came about because the men died of a disease and the disease was spread by rats from a laboratory experiment.” Our heroine happens to know which rats and which laboratory, and when she does get back to her own time, she sets out to destroy the laboratory and the rats but she accidentally sets fire to it and the rats escape. So those are some possible feminist utopias.

16Are there any feminist dystopias ? In most utopias and dystopias a patriarchy, of some sort is envisaged – that is, some kind of men are usually in control at the very top, whether for better or for worse. What would a true feminist dystopia be ? Strictly speaking, it would have to be one arranged strictly on gender lines, where all men fare better than all women, and in which this arrangement of things is the driving force of the book. There are a few masculinist dystopias in this strict sense : that is all women fare better than all men and this is the driving force of the story. I recall from my days of reading trashy science fiction a particularly gripping story in which our heroes land on another planet which is populated by very beautiful women. And these women – very beautiful women – take our heroes and treat them very, very well, and feed them lots of wonderful meals. However, after they have become rather fat they find themselves put into a sort of sheep pen with some other men who are very, very thin. And these other very, very thin men say, “You must be out of your minds ! Why have you eaten all of this food ?” And our heroes say, “What’s going on ?” and the thin men say, “You will see !” And the next day all of the men are let out of the sheep pen and run for their lives and the thin ones have a much better chance. And our heroes are hunted down by these women who sink their fangs into their necks, paralyze them and lay eggs on them just like spiders… I said it was trashy science fiction. There is also a particularly amusing film called “Love Slaves of the Amazon” which was made on a very low budget. The Amazons wear potato sacks dyed green through which you can see their western-styled underwear and our heroes, going down the Amazon on one of those so useful archaeological expeditions, get captured and are turned into the “love slaves of the Amazon” and are involved in hallucinogenic orgies. It is evident if they have too much of this enforced sex, it is going to kill them because they get more and more old and tired as the days go by. It is obvious that they have to escape from this. The rest of the movie is about them escaping. Now it’s not clear whether these are dystopias or just masochistic fantasies or both.

17There are also a few role reversal books of the kind in which men are forced to wear girdles and do the housework and women wear suits, go to the office and smoke cigars. They aren’t terribly convincing but they do indicate a rather widespread fear that this may happen. I wouldn’t worry if I were you. The only real feminist dystopia in the strict sense that I know about is The Stepford Wives. I’m sure there are more, in fact somebody handed me a list of them yesterday which had a couple of ones in French on it. In The Stepford Wives, the women are being removed one by one and replaced by mechanical replicas of themselves which behave in a kind of Barbie doll way – just as somebody thinks men think women ought to behave. They serve lovely little dinners, they’re always nice, they take care of the children beautifully, they never scold, they have great sex, and they never get old. The horror part of it is that our heroine realizes this is happening. It’s a movie too, you can rent it. I’d say it’s an early sixties feminist dystopia, written by a man incidentally.

18This brings us to The Handmaid’s Tale. Here are the arguments for and against it being a feminist dystopia. For : women are disadvantaged. Against : but so are some men, and some of the men are more disadvantaged than some of the women. Some of the men are very privileged, but quite a few of them are just the bottom class, and some are fighting the regime. For : men are at the top of the class pyramid. Against : but there is a class pyramid – that is, gender is not the only determining factor. For : it’s true that men are privileged more than women. Against : but not many of these men are privileged more than women. The others have their activities severely restricted especially as regards sex : no pornography, no sex outside marriage, arranged marriages, no masturbation, no homosexuality, no marriage except as a reward for military service as among the Zulus. I wouldn’t say they’re having a popping good time. For : women are labelled and arranged according to their reproductive possibilities. Against : but that’s just the same as in most utopias/dystopias. So those are the arguments for and against – make up your own mind. Read The Stepford Wives to get an example of a strict version of such a form. Keep in mind that I did not use any details in this book that have not already occurred somewhere in history. In other words, this is not science fiction. There are no Martians. There is no space travel. We have all the technology that we need to put this system in place, and if I were you I would watch the credit cards. Keep a little cash tucked away somewhere. Sew a few diamonds into your corset and if you are ever on the run from the law don’t use your credit card because you can be traced instantly through it. If you’ve read enough John Grisham thrillers you will already know this.

19I would argue that strictly speaking, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a feminist dystopia but instead falls within the parameters of the dystopia as a form, although it is told from the point of view of a woman and though it subsumes some feminist patterns of the past (the heroine’s mother is a sixties/ seventies type of feminist). The real test is, if you told this story from the point of view of a non-dominant class man in it, it would still be a dystopia. That is, it describes a dictatorship that controls everything and among the things that it controls are women’s reproductive capacities. Like former Romania, it is not a society that exists for the sole motive, for the sole purpose of pestering women. Women are just one of the things that get pestered within it. The aim of its leaders is power. In the future society babies are scarce. Those in power always get more of whatever is scarce and therefore they get more babies – it’s simple. As in most dystopias and dictatorships in general, control over women is only part of that power and is also a symbol of it, but it’s not the whole thing.

20Is the protagonist a feminist heroine ? I don’t think so. I think she is an ordinary sort of person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. She proposes no solutions beyond escape. You can’t think of her as a person who given the chance, would set up a planned society of her own – that is, would set up her own attempt at utopia. She’s somebody who wants to just live her life. Nor is a-utopia envisaged as a possible future alternative to the dystopia in the story. Why not ? How come in the “Historical Notes” we seem to be back to more or less “normal life” ? I think because all dystopia begins in utopia. Utopia and dystopia are the obverse and reverse of the same thing. Most dystopias are attempts at planned societies that originally say they are going to make life better and then somehow go off the tracks. The longing for perfection has an unpleasant habit of producing tyranny. I will end my little speech with a quote from Wallace Stevens which is : “The imperfect is our paradise.” Thank you.


For those of you who didn’t hear, the question is : why is the main character in the story a woman, and why is it not just any woman but a mother, and why is it not just any mother but the mother of a daughter ?

22Let me quote a football coach in the United States who said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Why is that absurd ? Because you can’t take a fork in the road – you have to take one road or the other. A lot of things that happen in novels happen because the author has come to a fork in the road and has had to take one of those roads, and that eliminates the other one. Okay, so she could have been the mother of triplets – there are such people – but you can’t just put things in novels and then throw them away. If she had been a mother of triplets, each triplet would have had to have been followed and that would have made much more plot. Unless I could have just shoved a couple of them off a bridge and have them squashed by a train. You are responsible for the characters you put in books, you have to do something with them. First of all, if she hadn’t been a woman she would have had to have been a man, a dog, a chicken, a pig, William Shakespeare’s ghost, something else, you know. She would have had to have been something else, so I chose a woman because that’s basically what the book is about. It’s about that aspect of that society. Anyway, I’m lazy – it’s easier for me to do women. When I do men I have to work a lot harder. I have to go and interview a bunch of men, make sure I got things right. I had a man in another one of my novels and luckily I know some men. And when I was writing about dinosaurs I went to a dinosaur expert and when I was writing this man, I went off to my pal, the man, and said, “Could you read my manuscript and tell me if I made any awful mistakes ?” And it’s always the little things that ruin you. He said, “Well, you have this man shaving his beard off with an electric razor, you see this wouldn’t happen.” You know, if it’s a man writing about women, what they get wrong is always the things like how do you put on pantyhose ? So let’s just say that I’m lazy.

23What was the other part of the question ? Not just anyone but a mother, because it’s the mothers who are valuable in this society. We envisage a future in which reproduction rates have gone down due to… well actually, they’re going down now. They’re going down due to a number of factors but among the factors decreasing natural fertility rates are the things in your drinking water. So in Western societies, that’s already happening. I didn’t make it up. So babies are becoming scarcer and scarcer. I wrote the novel before surrogate mothers had hit the news. Right after that, they did and there have now been lots of cases of surrogate mothers who have been hired, and lawsuits from those who have wanted to keep the child once they had it. This is now something that is going on in society as we speak. So the narrator is a mother, because it’s evident that she has reproductive potential. Let me just point out to you also that in most societies that we know about in the world, among all of the societies that we know about in the world, polygamist arrangements are much more common than monogamist ones and it’s usually the kind of arrangement that I depict in which the chief has more wives, okay ? The more wives you have, the more important you are. The Muslims allow four if you can afford them. The only indigenous American religion – that is, the only religion that actually began in the United States – was Mormonism, and it was in origin a polygamist society. Why do people choose polygamy rather than polyandry ? Polyandry is when the woman gets more than one husband. The only one I know about is Tibet. The reason for that was the land was so poor that you needed more than one man to basically work the farm and all the children call their fathers “uncle”. So why is polygamy of interest ? Because if you’re dominant alpha, top dog male, you get to spread your genetic material around a lot more. That would be the socio-biological explanation. So there you go, those are the answers, those are the forks in the road that I took.

Are forgiveness and forgetfulness one and the same thing ? Or is the inability to forgive, the imperfection that I refer to as part of paradise ?

24I think what Wallace Stevens was saying was that we’re never actually going to get paradise, so settle for the small perfections around you rather than the idea of a very large perfection. So the first part of the question – are forgiveness and forgetfulness the same thing ? No. That’s the short answer. Can anybody tell another person to forgive or when to forgive ? No. Do saints forgive ? Yes. Is everyone a saint ? No. Can I tell you who to forgive ? No. You tell yourself. It is however a large issue in human life. The mystics will all tell you that it’s preferable to non-forgiveness – and better for the digestion. But on the other hand, each individual has to come to it or not on his or her time, or not. And there is something to be said also for vengeance.

The question is : the book is dedicated to Perry Miller and Mary Webster – our questioner called them “a witch lady and a historian Do I feel that has something to do with what follows and does it connect with the Historical Notes in which we have another woman or “lunatic ladywith a rather suspicious kind of name, namely “Crescent Moon”, and a male historian, who gives the lecture ?

25Perry Miller and Mary Webster weren’t just any old witch and historian. Number one, Mary Webster wasn’t a witch, she was someone accused of witchcraft and this is quite a different thing. She was a Puritan woman living towards the end of the seventeenth century. Now my grandmother’s maiden name was Webster, and on Mondays when she was feeling frisky, she used to say Mary was one of our ancestors, but on Thursdays when she was feeling respectable, she would deny this. So it’s one of those ambiguous, ancestral figures. She was accused of witchcraft because a man who was very ill had hallucinations of her sitting on the end of his bed sticking pins in him, making him ill in other words. She was hauled off to Boston – this was just before the Salem witch trials – put on trial and exonerated. She went back to her hometown. The townspeople were not pleased with the verdict ; they lynched her anyway. They had not at that time invented the drop. The drop is that trap door that later came into use when you drop quite suddenly and your neck breaks. Or if the executioner has miscalculated your weight, your head comes off. (This was one of the factors in the banning of public executions. People began to feel that this was in bad taste and you know how the Anglos feel about bad taste.) So they strung her up more or less just like a flag and let her dangle around and when they came to cut down the body in the morning, she was still alive. So she’s someone accused of witchcraft, but the attempted illegal execution of her failed, and if people thought that she was a witch before this event, they were convinced of it afterwards and they let her alone. She lived another fourteen years ; the man doing the accusation, however, died.

26Perry Miller was one of the group of professors at Harvard who almost single-handedly brought the study of American Literature into universities and gave it academic respectability. Before this time it didn’t happen ; so it was these people who for instance, resurrected Moby Dick, which had been neglected for many years. He was a sort of pioneer in the field. It’s through him that I knew what I did about seventeenth century Puritan America, a theocratic, oppressive regime not to be confused with the happy democratic fathers of America that some people are sometimes taught about in school. Nathaniel Hawthorne pointed out that one of the first things they built in Puritan New England was a prison, and the second thing was the gallows. These were not people who were interested in religious freedom. They were interested in freedom from the kind of traditional Anglicanism that was happening in England at the time. But they wanted to set up their own regime, which they thought of as God’s kingdom on earth. What does that make it ? A utopia. It was a utopian plan. It was to be “a city upon a hill, a light to all nations” – a quote from the Bible, which they used and which appears over and over again in speeches made by presidents of the United States. Despite everything, despite Bill Clinton and his goings-on, they still see themselves as a model society after all these years. So drink your Coca-Cola like good people. The Bill Clinton thing by the way, is just a replay of the kind of Puritanism which has been there from the beginning and which has always been much more interested in sin than in crime. Criminals have always been heroes – you know, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde. Besides, crime involves only punishment ; sin involves repentance and redemption. What they would really like is for Bill Clinton to fall on his knees, get saved and become an itinerant preacher. It’d be the good solution. So what was the question ? I’ve answered it. Oh yes, the part at the end that’s interesting… why not… her name, Crescent Moon, is not a witch. Her name is Crescent Moon because she’s a native Indian but it’s a nice witchy kind of name all the same.

The question is : in American society today people, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, tend to identify themselves by category, – like black or white, homosexual or heterosexual, man or woman…

27Yes, it’s called identity politics. This hadn’t happened when I was writing the book to the extent that it has now, but let us say that the United States from the beginning has had categories to which people were assigned, often arbitrarily. As anyone who has followed the history of slavery in the south knows, there were some people who indeed had many more white ancestors than black ones who were nevertheless arbitrarily categorized as black because of the wish to make these categories. The motive behind this was economic. A group of people existed who could be treated very badly from an economic point of view, which made lots of money for the people who were doing that, so that kind of categorization was very convenient for those in power. I think what we have now is people choosing to identify themselves that way because if you do that you have a group and you can be part of that group and you can use that group to put pressure on other groups or to advance the status of the group you are in. Let us talk about the word “choice”. Now there is a very big difference between choosing to do that and being assigned by someone else to a category. Another place where this assigning to category happened was in Nazi Germany, when people had their grandfathers and grandmothers and ancestors of various kinds investigated and were assigned to “Jewish” or “not Jewish” by other people, not by themselves – by other people. So you might see a kind of parallel, but I think it’s a really different thing to be put in a group by somebody else or to choose to identify yourself as part of a group. There’s a lot of uproar going on around the subject of who is a First Nations person in Canada – who’s really an Indian, because certain rights and privileges come with that status and ironically there are people clamouring to be identified as indigenous, Native Canadian Indians and other people trying to keep them out, denying them that status. So there’s a lot of action around those kinds of issues right now but in The Handmaid’s Tale you are assigned.

The question is about the Sufi proverb in my epigraphs.

28There are no signs in the desert that say “don’t eat the stones”. In other words, the things which we are forbidden to do are usually things we might like to do. Nobody would eat stones anyway, so you don’t have to be told not to do it. Prohibitions are about things that we very well might do, such as killing – you know, “Do not kill”, or coveting your neighbour’s wife – you know lots of people do that. But they don’t go out and sit down and have a meal of stones unless there are a few screws loose. There are stories of people lost in the Canadian wilderness who make stone soup but that’s the last resort. So there is a suggestion that there are other ways of thinking, but I think the main import of that proverb is that we aren’t forbidden to do things unless we have a tendency as human beings to do them. Actually, somebody recently said something quite funny to me : “The difference between the French and the Germans is that in France everything is permitted unless it is expressly forbidden, and in Germany everything is forbidden unless it is expressly permitted.” And that’s why there are signs in the Paris metro saying, “you can’t bring your flock of sheep on the metro”, because if there weren’t those signs, people would do it.

The question has to do with listening and telling ; it has to do with Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, the fact that there is an absent listener in both novels, and is it to build up identity ?

29In Cat’s Eye there is an implied listener which is Cordelia, and in The Handmaid’s Tale there is an implied audience for the narrator, a “you” which can be Luke, the dead husband, but the audience for the text is the historians, and the audience for the entire novel, the book itself, is the reader of course. The implied audience for any book is the reader – an act of faith on the part of the writer. The question is : could I talk about the need for a listener in order for the narrator to establish an identity ? I don’t even think it’s a question of identity ; I think it’s a question of narration. What are novels anyway ? Novels are stories ; unlike poems they always involve time. Leon Edel said, “You know it’s a novel when there’s a clock in it.” A lyric poem can be a timeless moment but a novel always has a clock in it because it narrates events and events involve time. The easiest way, although a very sad way, of finding this out is to go and talk to somebody who has had the kind of stroke that removes your short term memory. Such people cannot listen to stories because they can’t remember the beginning – therefore the middle has no meaning ; the end has no meaning. They cannot listen to operas and make any sense of them because operas narrate.

30The thing about narration is, there’s always a teller but there’s always a listener – whether for an oral narration or for a written one, and the two interact. The nature of the listener changes the nature of the narration, or it influences the nature of the narration. Put another way – and this comes back to your identity question – every human being who hasn’t lost his or her memory is always telling and retelling the story of his or her life. In that case the storyteller is you and the listener is also you. There’s a lot of rewriting that goes on throughout your life. There are a lot of changes of point of view. The person that you’d thought was your most beloved when you were twenty, you may think is an absolute demon when you are thirty, and by forty you may think the whole thing is hilarious and you wonder what you ever saw in such a person. And by sixty you may have forgotten most of it. The very best example of that kind of retelling that I know of is Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape. As a study in narration and a retelling oneself the story of one’s life, you can’t do better than that. So the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is telling ; she is narrating ; she is in a tight spot, and I think the tighter the spot you are in, the more important these stories become to you because they validate your existence. There’s a moment in the Duchess of Malfi where this woman who is being imprisoned and threatened with death etc. says, “I am the Duchess of Malfi still.” In other words, despite all of these things that have happened to me, I remain who I am. And this is an important affirmation for anyone in really bad circumstances. Some people might call it “not losing your nerve” – especially useful during exams !


Rennes, 17 November 1998

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999

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