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Lire Margaret Atwood

Marta Dvorak

II. Trangression et subversion. Transgression and subversion

Subverting utopia: ambiguity in The Handmaid’s tale

Marta Dvorak

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  • 1 In More’s Utopia, notably, the mechanical rotation of tasks and of houses, the transfer of individu (...)

1Utopias are a topological representation of another space-time, and utopian works are a discourse describing the codification and standardisation of a social ideal. These utopias, urban antitheses of pastoral edenic spaces, are characterized by spatial and logical closure, for as Jean-Jacques Wunenburger has remarked, « la forme paradigmatique du paysage utopique implique l’inversion complète de la symbolique paradisiaque. L’homme se rêve dans un espace anti-naturel, construit techniquement autour d’une forme fermée, régulière, et fortifiée, contre un environnement menaçant » (62). The quest for symmetry and a certain equality in utopian works from Antiquity to the Renaissance, from Plato to Thomas More, Rabelais and Campanella, established patterns that were essentially those of constraint. In these imagined utopian societies, everything was programmed : work was collective and planified, and participation was compulsory. There was no private property, and no privacy. The family cell was broken up, and all spheres of human activity, even sexuality and procreation, were regulated1.

2For the Greeks of Antiquity, a rigid social structure reflected the order of the κοσμος (universe), a term which to them signified an arrangement or design of perfect regularity – harmonious precisely because it was orderly. Their horror of disorder and desire for stability was handed on to medieval and Renaissance societies and beyond, and is manifest in the artistic production of cultural giants like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. Utopians wanted to construct sublunar nature of which society is a part according to the model of this incorruptible cosmos, to re-compose nature as they would a machine and subject it to the human will. They were preoccupied by the division of the natural — a sphere containing people as well as landscapes – and the cultural, implying social constructs.

3Right up to our present day, as Gilles Lapouge has pointed out, all Utopians have followed the same pattern : they have attempted to inject massive doses of culture into nature, to transform the irrational into the rational, disorder into regularity, chance into logic, unpredictability into monotony, desire into need. The key to all utopian societies then, is planification, uniformity, standardisation, and regimentation. Their fear of instability and their love of structure and order, of laws and institutions, of uniformity and uniforms is the backdrop to, Orwell’s Oceania and its implacable stability, in which programmed, controlled, endless War is the equivalent of (endless) Peace. It is also the backdrop to the distinction made by Margaret Atwood’s Gilead regime and by its agent of social control :

[t]here is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (34, emphases mine unless stipulated otherwise).

4Utopians have always offered “freedom from” rather than “freedom to” : the former maintains a status quo, while the latter implies the possibility of transformation, change, and instability. They have always preferred the collective over the individual : the Gilead regime offers Offred freedom ‘from’ the dangers of our contemporary, violent, crime-ridden society in which women are never safe, in which they must never run “at night ; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads” (34). But it does not provide her with the freedom ‘to’ offered by vanished laundromats, apparently trivial, but in reality metaphors for mobility, autonomy, and individual choice :

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them : shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them : my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself I think about having such control. (34)

  • 2 Boethius’s influence is particularly visible in More’s explicit criticism of pride of ancestry in B (...)

5The original driving force of utopias such as Thomas More’s may indeed have been a quest for equality. The identical dress code may be revelatory of the medieval and Renaissance outrage at overdressing, in other words dressing in a style above one’s station in life, and may also demonstrate a Boethian refusal to perceive worth as emanating from birth or class2. Nevertheless, the rise and fall in the 20th century of many a repressive totalitarian regime has produced a shift in values, has altered our gaze. Today’s society is already so mechanised that the utopian model transforming individuals into cogs in a clockwork is only a blink away or right here on our doorsteps. We are uneasy with the normative dimension once synonymous with perfection, and the imaginary utopian cities of light strike modern eyes as being oppressive. The seeds of what we commonly call the dystopia are in the utopia. Twentieth-century writers of anti-utopias have simply been sensitive to the negative aspects of the utopian model, aware that it is the ancestor of totalitarianism.

6Like Zamyatin’s characters with no names but only numbers, or Huxley’s genetic caste system, Atwood’s society, with its colour-coded uniforms and interchangeability of people within categories highlights the dangers and absurdities inherent in the very concept of utopian society. Narratorial play thus involves subverting the reign of reductive control and re-establishing fertile disorder and ambiguity, and the doubly ambivalent ending of the novel, with the open-ended structures of both embedded tale and framing tale, is but one of the manifestations of this strategy.

7Orwell’s Oceania and Atwood’s Gilead control temporality and history, made up of public and private memory. Subversion in The Handmaid’s Tale consequently consists partly in the narrator’s resistance to utopian stasis and timelessness : “the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound.” (79). Refusing to be like the 19th century paintings of women reclining on divans, pictorial representations of “suspended animation”, of “waiting”, the narrator of Handmaid clearly links the issues of time and power. The women made to wait are “objects not in use” (79). Offred, confined to a territory which she dubs a “waiting room” when she waits and a “bedroom” when she goes to bed (60), is a time-traveller who breaks out of her temporal and spatial closure. Memory allows her to “step sideways out of [her] own time” (47), to turn stasis into movement through displacement and doubling back.

  • 3 Handmaids are highly visible yet invisible : contrast Offred’s fantasy of flight (“I could walk at (...)
  • 4 For an analysis of Atwood’s blurring of representation and reality, see Marta Dvorak, “What Is Real (...)

8In fact, rebellion against utopian closure and uniformity always takes some form of displacement or doubling. Both author and narrator deliberately cultivate uncertainty, blurring, ambiguity, flux — all threats to perfect regularity and normativity. Atwood foregrounds the permeability of borders to challenge the u/dys-topian obsession with classifying, categorizing. She generates ontological confusion by blurring the frontiers between sleeping and waking, dream and memory, consciousness and unconsciousness, madness and sanity, the oral and the written, the visible and the invisible3, natural states and socially constructed roles, representation and reality, life and death4. The opening paragraphs of chapter 19, both proleptic and analeptic, make up the passage that contains most concisely all the processes of blurring to be found elsewhere in a more dispersed manner. The narrator dreams that she is awake, then dreams that she is dreaming, and finally dreams that she wakes up. When she does awake, she feels “drugged” (119) — evoking the pills and needles of chapter 7, and the younger narrator’s emergence from induced unconsciousness “through a roaring and confusion, like surf boiling” (49). to find that time and her daughter have vanished. When in our passage in chapter 19 Offred considers the possiblity that her whole existence might simply be “a paranoid delusion”, this anticipates her later temptation to escape oppression through inward flight, into her body, into insanity, presented in spatial terms : “It’s possible to go so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out” (237). It also anticipates Janine’s double “slipping over the edge” (229, 292) to an apparent refuge in the space and time of her past youth. But death haunts the safe spaces of the mind : “You go too far away and they just take you up to the Chemistry Lab and shoot you. Then they burn you up with the garbage” (228). Is it surprising that Offred likens the curtains hemming her in to “drowned white hair” (119) ? Or that she is surrounded by revenants, by the images of her husband and daughter that flicker “like the images of saints (...) mirages only” (113), that “slip away from [her], like ghosts at daybreak” (203) ? The space of the text is invaded by a twilight zone of the living dead. “The little girl who is now dead sits in the back seat” (94), and the ghost of Offred’s predecessor hangs eternally from the absent chandelier, “a woman made into an angel”, or “a bird stopped in flight” (305).

  • 5 In her review of the novel, Atwood’s fellow Canadian writer Aritha van Herk astutely remarked that (...)

9Such animal imagery, along with the recurrent food imagery5, both so abundant that they cannot be developed within the scope of this essay, also serve to (con)fuse the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate, predator and prey. Suffice it for our purposes here to look at one example, the extended metaphor associating Aunt Lydia with a rodent :

her mouth trembled, around her front teeth, teeth that stuck out a little and were long and yellowish, and I thought about the dead mice we would find on our doorstep, when we lived in a house, all three of us, four counting our cat, who was the one making these offerings.
Aunt Lydia pressed her hand over her mouth of a dead rodent. After a minute she took her hand away. I wanted to cry too because she reminded me. If only he wouldn’t eat half of them first, I said to Luke.
Don’t think it’s easy for me either, said Aunt Lydia. (65)

10The disorienting shifts in diegetic time, from recent past to older pre-Gilead past and back again, the complex counterpoint weaving the subjective voices of the narrating and of the younger narrated I, with the reported voice of Aunt Lydia, produce a layered, palimpsestic structure with multiple resonances that deny a simplistic Manichean opposition : Aunt Lydia the rat, the rodent, the repulsive vermin, is not merely a predator. She is also a victim, a prey, a half-eaten “offer-ing”, like Off(e)red. The sequence that follows is a flash forward in time. But the continuation of the extended metaphor bridges the typographical and temporal break, and suggests proleptically that the predator that will get the better of this rodent, or rather of its identical twin, Aunt Elizabeth, is Moira, who is “like a cat that crawls onto the page when you’re trying to read” (66), and who will momentarily have it in her power to “kill or mutilate” the Aunt (142).

11The blurring generated by the animal imagery is reinforced in this same passage, as it is throughout the novel, by the use of food imagery. Aunt Lydia herself has emphasized the link between alimentary and sexual consumption, pointing out euphemistically how women in pre-Gilead society (ie. our contemporary society) oiled their bare bodies “like roast meat on a spit”, and that it was “no wonder those things used to happen” (65). The Commander later refers explicitly to this “meat market” (231) as an evil that the Gilead regime has done away with, but Atwood makes it particularly clear in the sequences set in the brothel that women in the post-Revolutionary, allegedly utopian society, are still ‘meat’. The narrator notably chooses to use the term ‘flesh’ to refer to herself instead of using an unessential but emphatic reflexive pronoun in the closing sentences of the section “Jezebel”, in which she submits to sex with the Commander : “Bestir yourself Move your flesh around” (267).

12But Atwood also uses food on yet another plane to subvert the order of the Gilead regime. Her narrator contrasts the hotel food ordered and eaten in pre-Revolutionary times with the food served her in Gilead. Food is a metaphor for freedom on a first, obvious level because selecting and ordering the meals are acts of individual free choice :

I could lift the telephone and food would appear on a tray, food I had chosen. Food that was bad for me, no doubt, and drink too. (61)

13But we remark that this food is not nourishment : it is junk food that is “bad” for her. This is contrasted in a seemingly paradoxical fashion with the wholesome, nourishing food served Offred in the Red Centre and in the Commander’s household : “good enough food, though bland. Healthy food”, containing all the needed “vitamins and minerals” (75). If ambiguity reigns, if the unwholesome food carries positive connotations while the healthful food carries negative connotations, it is to underscore the fact that food is the vehicle for utopian normativity and regimentation. The planified menus are synechdoches of Gilead’s directive, over-regulated regime. We can note the recurrent signs of prescription and prohibition :

You have to get your vitamins and minerals, said Aunt Lydia coyly. You must be a worthy vessel. No coffee or tea though, no alcohol. Studies have been done (75).

  • 6 We can note that even the preparation of the food is restricted in scope : the chicken is served in (...)

14In spite of the scientific rationalisation (“studies”), the vitamins and minerals, the Gilead food in Offred’s stomach is ersatz food : it “balls itself together, a handful of damp cardboard, squeezed” (76). What prevents it from being genuine nourishment is the predictability, the standardisation6, the absence of concepts anathema to utopian societies – pleasure, impulse, whim.

15The junk food ordered in the hotel is a challenge to utopian order precisely because it forms a part of a general dis-order, along with the towels “ready for spoilage” and the waste paper baskets full of “careless junk” (61). Waste is not rational and consequently, within a context of resistance to utopian system, it is infinitely desirable. The text reinforces the paradox that grants value to junk by highlighting the term “careless”, used three times in the space of one line, even given a sentence to itself :

beckoning in the careless junk. Careless. I was careless, in those rooms. (61)

16What is apparently careless, in apparently random reminiscences, is actually a combat against the spatial and logical closure of the u/dys-topian system. When Offred first ‘steps sideways’ into another space-time, she chooses the setting of her college residence, her old room strewn with books. It is not only the presence of the now forbidden books that is significant, but also the carelessness and random disorder of their positioning, reinforced by the unmade bed. The narrator multiplies the affronts to order, specifying that the books are on the floor, that they are open although not being read, that they are lying face down, that they are not aligned but lying “this way and that, extravagantly” (47). The adverb ‘extravagantly’ is particularly significant : it carries connotations of excess, immoderation, and implies going beyond reserved bounds.

17Other elements of the description challenge the utopian principles of symmetry, of geometrical harmony and balance. Moira significantly wears only one dangly earring, and one gold fingernail to be e(x)centric, and her fingers are “yellow-ended” (47). In direct opposition to Gilead’s dress code, classifying all citizens into clear-cut categories based on gender and function, Moira’s purple overalls not only contrast with the rigid codification, but actually blur their boundaries. The sequence is quite exemplary of Atwood’s practice of ambiguity, of (con)fusion. Just as the flashback blends narration and dialogue, and blends different varieties of free direct and free indirect speech, enhancing the polyvocality of the text and bending the modes of genre, so too does the vestimentary motif create that other form of blending and blurring contained in the dynamics of androgyny, that bend the modes of gender.

  • 7 In Campanula’s 17th century utopian model too, sodomy was punished with progressive severity-lightl (...)

18North American overalls, trousers with shoulderstraps, are by definition ‘unisex’, and Moira’s body position (“legs crossed, ankle on knee”) enhances the masculine dimension of her appearance. The contrast is obvious with the Handmaids’ regulation uniform, resembling nuns’ habits, and even referred to by the term that designates monastic apparel (34). The sexual ambivalence is reinforced on a double level by the colour purple. Purple is a blend of two primary colours – red and blue. This would imply that the wearer rejects being restricted either to the role of Handmaid (red) or Wife (blue). She is what Off-red would like to be – unconfined to any implacable gender role classifications. The colour purple moreover produces further confusion, as it is the colour of crossdressing, the emblem chosen by the Gilead regime itself to symbolize deviance from accepted norms, notably what it terms “Gender Treachery” (53) and that it punishes by death7. Just as purple is neither red nor blue, or rather both red and blue, homosexuals and the shifting, hazy, indistinct ground that their sexual orientation occupies are sites of slippage, challenges to utopian system and its obsession with classification.

  • 8 To understand why so many categories of the Gilead regime are kept forcibly chaste, it is helpful t (...)

19Sociologist Wilhelm Reich was among the first to argue that the regulation of people’s sexual activities is at the root of all social and economic control8. The undercurrent of transsexuality and androgyny in The Handmaid’s Tale is therefore fundamental to Atwood’s strategy of subversion. If we consider that Moira, the embodiment of rebellion, prefers women, we can better understand the significance of the detail revealed in “The Historical Notes”, that the narrator chose to record her tale on tapes of pop stars such as Boy George and Twisted Sister, along with those of the young Elvis Presley, known for his provocatively erotic body language during performance. If Elvis already represented a challenge to. ‘tame’ sexuality, the stars of popular culture in the 80’s (the present of the novel’s original readers) are sites of further slippage. Boy George cultivated his androgynous image through crossdressing, heavy makeup, and a treble voice, while the lead singer of the rock group Twisted Sister would notably dress in women’s clothes. The recurrent use of ambivalence with respect to sexual roles and orientation seems to be a deliberate, even political act, serving to disrupt the rigid preconceived notions and ruthless classifications of utopian models.

20Having perceived the narrative strategy consisting in cultivating ambiguity and dis-order so as to challenge a system of values, a certain vision of the world, we readers can better grasp the rationale behind the fact that the tapes on which the narrator recorded her tale “were arranged in no particular order (...) nor were they numbered”. The apparent carelessness that obliged the historians to reconstruct the sequences of narration “in the order in which they appeared to go”, to discard scientific method for “guesswork” and that resulted in a product that is “approximate” (314), is also a political act replacing the reign of logic and reason with that of randomness and chance. The random order of the tapes is a disorder, ie. an order in reverse, a deliberate de(con)struction of the orderly u/dystopian model.

21The disorder of the tapes can be set in parallel with the disorder of the narrative process, with its sudden shifts in place and time as well as its disorienting shifts in tense. Tense is dislocated from its habitual connection with diegetic time or time of narration — the present tense is used indiscriminately for the diegetic past and for the (pseudo) present of narration. The author’s textual strategies thus include fragmentation, dislocation, flashbacks and fast forwards, embedding, and specularity. Her mode is the indirect one of irony, a trope consisting in the simultaneous actualization of two levels of meaning, a trope that, as Linda Hutcheon has pointed out, subverts because it inverts the usual semantic levels, and that addresses the dominant culture from within all the while signalling a position of difference.

22Atwood furthermore resorts to other rhetorical devices generating ambivalence, such as syllepsis and zeugma. These figures blur borders by fusing through common lexical elements the abstract and the concrete, the elevated and the trivial : “I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance” (153), says the narrator, with a chilling shift that ruthlessly links survival to conception and evokes the spectre of death. Criticism of the utopian model is equally close at hand with the zeugma parodying the brainwashing at the Red Centre by yoking comically disparate elements : “What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled : with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies” (204). Similarly, when the narrator evokes the moralizing speeches at the Red Centre, notably the Biblical justification of having women suffer during childbirth, she says, “At lunch we got that, brown bread and lettuce sandwiches” (124). The ternary structure places the parallel elements into a relationship of equivalence, which trivializes the ‘serious’ message and puts it on the same plane as the rest of the apparently wholesome but rather meager menu.

23The author makes use of these various strategies to create double or multiple meanings, to further consolidate ambiguity at the expense of certitude, often as in the examples above blending her own voice, her own ironic intention, with those of her fictional creature, the narrator. This narrator in turn constantly calls attention to her own unreliability, to the lack of accuracy of her story. When for instance she relates Moira’s tale through Moira’s own voice, she first warns her addressee(s) that what follows is a merely approximate reconstruction. We can note the multiple use of negatives and of qualifiers fomenting doubt, suggesting uncertainty :

This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can’t remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down. I’ve filled it out for her as much as I can : we didn’t have much time so she just gave the outlines. Also she told me this in two sessions (...) I’ve tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. (255-256).

  • 9 The link between repression and pretentions to absolute, objective truth underlies much of Atwood’s (...)
  • 10 That the text as we read it might not be ‘accurate’, even irrespective of chronological considerati (...)

24In the same vein, she constantly signals the fabricated nature of her story, an approximate re-construct-ion, and lays no pretentions to truth9, sowing further confusion by pretending that the narration is synchronous with the unfolding of events. She begins chapter 23 with the warning : “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head” (144). Two paragraphs later, we are given temporal and conditional indications that we identify later as false (“When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down”), for the “Historical Notes” transform the future and the hypothetical into an actualized past. The narrator does caution us, even though it is through a temporally distorted filter that does not take into account the final reconstruction/ distortion10 of the transcription, that the actual setting down of the story will be a reconstruction “at yet another remove” (144), in other words the reconstruction of a reconstruction. She goes on to discuss the unreliability of language itself, explaining that it is

impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances ; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many. (144)

25There are several layers of significance to this passage. First of all, it signals the fertile flux of existence itself. In total opposition to the utopian conception of the cosmos, the text posits the universe as an abundant chaos, an infinite process of becoming — foregrounded by the repetition of “too many”, five times in four lines. The multiplicity of things to be grasped by language is reinforced by references to the multitudinous nature of the whole, the infinite number and range of components, of variants, of shades, that can never be entirely apprehended, let alone accounted for. The corollary to the heady richness of reality is the inadequacy of language to name it. We remark the triple use of negatives that underscore the imprecision of language, its failure to perform adequately. And yet, paradoxically, the imprecision of language reveals itself to be the very source of its richness and power. Atwood, through her self-conscious narrator, examines linguistic slippage, and demontrates throughout the novel that language as system, unlike the twisted, reductive utopian model, is marvellously chaotic.

26As Hutcheon points out, Atwood, like many other postmodern Canadian writers, uses irony “as a primary linguistic and structural device to point beyond the slippery nature of language to the incongruities of our culture and our society at large” (in this case to our perhaps excessively permissive society’s paradoxical tendencies towards dogmatism, fundamentalism). But, also like many other Canadian artists, she furthermore exploits “the inherent slippage that is part of language and its usage, the instability of the relationship between sign and referent” (28). No alert reader can fail to notice how through her constant play with words, the narrator underlines the duplicity of language, the gap that exists between the signifier and its arbitrary and multiple signifieds. In a recurrent contrapuntal technique, the voice of Aunt Lydia emerging from the past crisscrosses with the narrator’s ‘present’ discourse, in which her ironic comments call attention to the manipulative linguistic practices of the regime. In The Handmaid’s Tale, as in Animal Farm and in 1984, the control of language makes it possible to control reality, and the method used by the totalitarian systems is invariably that of reduction and omission. Just as the pigs ultimately reduce the seven original commandments to one alone, and just as Newspeak makes dissident thought impossible by stripping words of their secondary meanings, so too does Gilead set up its logical closure by modifying, distorting, and reducing the multiple meanings of words. Words are shackled, made monosemic, controlled as vehicles of ideology : Labour Day in Gilead still exists but its significance has shifted. The meaning of the term ‘labour’ has been reduced to that of giving birth, just as women have been reduced to being “two-legged wombs” (146).

  • 11 For Saussure, the linguistic sign unites a concept and an acoustical image (98).

27The Gilead regime drains language of its substance not only by reducing signifiers to one signified, but even by emptying them of all meaning. At the Salvaging, the stock phrases endlessly reiterated at endlessly repeated rituals communicate nothing, have become empty acoustic images11 :

I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before : the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases : the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. (286)

  • 12 To take but one example, the term ‘habits’ to designate the Handmaids’ apparel already generates re (...)

28We can notice that the empty formulas rely on dead metaphors — those images in a language that have been so overused that they have ceased to function. To challenge this policy forcing language to close in on itself, symptomatic of Gilead’s monolithic ideology, the narrator sets language loose. She does this on several levels : by reviving dead metaphors, inventing startling new ones, reestablishing semantic pluralism, celebrating the incantatory nature of the acoustic image and the arbitrariness of the relationship between signifier and signified, as well as through her punning12 and metalinguistic discourse.

29Inert language comes alive, becomes concrete, even palpable, as we can see in two of the abundant occurrences of elaborate play with dead metaphors, triggering resonances that generate ontological confusion, or that carry social criticism :

You’re as white as a sheet, he says.
That is how I feel : white, flat, thin. I feel transparent. Surely they will be able to see through me. Worse, how will I be able to hold on to Luke, to her, when I’m so flat, so white ? (95)
Steel yourself, my mother used to say (...) I never thought much at the time about what the phrase meant, but it had something to do with metal, with armour (169).
God knows what he’s wearing. God knows what they’ve put him in. God isn’t the only one who knows, so maybe there could be some way of finding out. (114)

30In addition to subverting tired, trite imagery, the narrator creates startlingly new, vibrant imagery that grows and ramifies under our eyes, setting up a network of echoes. We see in the following example how metaphor leads to simile which turns into metaphor, which in turn is extended :

I too [likethe dry white sheets] am dry and white, hard, granular ; it’s like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice ; it’s like snow. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor. (114)

31In other sequences in which self-reflexivity or the metalinguistic process generate the discourse, such as the narrator’s musings at the household’s prayer meeting,

I wait, for the household to assemble. Household : that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part.
The hold of a ship. Hollow. (91 ; emphasis in the text),

32the linguistic slippage is the source of fertile creativity, creating ramifications that lead outwards towards a complex textual web.

33Under the power of polysemy the walls of u/ dys-topia crumble, and the world of closure explodes outwards. Moira, the rebel, is compared to a dizzying “elevator with open sides”, while the other women “were finding these walls secure” (143). She is the very incarnation of linguistic subversion, her voice crisscrossing over Gilead’s voices of dogmatism and countering them in a constant process of displacement and distortion : the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” becomes the homophonie “There is a Bomb in Gilead” (230), auguring dissidence. The narrator too, empowers herself by setting language loose just as Moira sets herself loose : “Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman” (143). In this passage, the narrator’s fantasy about Moira who is “out there”, who is “at large”, is a metaphor for her own narrative and discursive process, in which lies her resistance, and thanks to which at

any moment there might be a shattering explosion, the glass of the windows would fall inwards, the doors would swing open. (143)



ATWOOD, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1985.

BOETHIUS. The Consolation of Philosophy. Transl. Richard Green. Indianapolis, New York : The Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1962.

HUTCHEON, Linda. Splitting Images : Contemporary Canadian Ironies. Toronto, Oxford, New York : Oxford UP, 1991.

LAPOUGE, Gilles. Utopie et civilisations. Paris : Weber, 1973.

MORE, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Trans, and ed. Robert M. Adams. New York : Norton, 1992.

MUCHIELI, R. Le Mythe de la cité idéale. Paris : PU de France, 1960.

REICH, Wilhelm. The Sexual Revolution. 1945. Trans. Theodore P. Wolfe. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

SAUSSURE, Ferdinand de. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris : Payot, 1969.

VAN SPANCKEREN, Kathryn, and Jan G. Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood : Vision and Forms. Carbondale, S. Illinois UP, 1988.

WUNENBURGER, Jean-Jacques. L’Utopie ou la crise de l’imaginaire. Paris : Jean-Pierre Delarge, Éditions Universitaires, 1979.


1 In More’s Utopia, notably, the mechanical rotation of tasks and of houses, the transfer of individuals and of whole populations from one place to another, destroys any distinctiveness and produces complete interchangeability. The artificial incubators for chickens, a revolutionary concept in the 16th century, is evocative of the desire to control human sexuality and even foetal life. Premarital sex is severely punished, and adulterers are reduced to slavery, and for a second offence, even put to death. Similarly, Plato’s selective coupling and Campanella’s selective breeding predate Huxley’s eugenics by centuries.

2 Boethius’s influence is particularly visible in More’s explicit criticism of pride of ancestry in Book II, p. 53 of Utopia. Compare with Lady Philosophy’s declarations in Book III, Prose 6 and Poem 6 of The Consolation of Philosophy.

3 Handmaids are highly visible yet invisible : contrast Offred’s fantasy of flight (“I could walk at a steady pace (...) and see how far I could get. Red is so visible”), with her realization that they will forever be absent from family albums and thus from “the point of view of future history (...) we’ll be invisible” (pp. 304 and 240 respectively.)

4 For an analysis of Atwood’s blurring of representation and reality, see Marta Dvorak, “What Is Real/ Reel ? Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rearrangement of Shapes on a Flat Surface’, or Narrative as Collage”, Études anglaises 51-4 (1998) : 448-460.

5 In her review of the novel, Atwood’s fellow Canadian writer Aritha van Herk astutely remarked that the central metaphor in The Handmaid’s Tale was hunger (“Atwood Cuts Through Ice of Contemporary Society”, Calgary Herald, 9 October 1988, F7.)

6 We can note that even the preparation of the food is restricted in scope : the chicken is served in one of two ways - “overcooked” or “bloody, which is the other way she does it” (75).

7 In Campanula’s 17th century utopian model too, sodomy was punished with progressive severity-lightly for a first offense, and ending with the death penalty.

8 To understand why so many categories of the Gilead regime are kept forcibly chaste, it is helpful to keep in mind, as Reich pointed out, that “authoritarian social order and social sexual suppression go hand in hand”, and that “sexual repression forms the basis of a certain culture, a patriarchal authoritarian one” (Preface to second edition, xxix ; 10 respectively).

9 The link between repression and pretentions to absolute, objective truth underlies much of Atwood’s fiction. The writer notably declared in an interview with Jan Castro : “The truth is composite, and that’s a cheering thought. It mitigates tendencies towards autocracy.” (Margaret Atwood : Vision and Forms, 232).

10 That the text as we read it might not be ‘accurate’, even irrespective of chronological considerations, is suggested by Professor Pieixoto’s confessing to the “difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, and archaisms” (314).

11 For Saussure, the linguistic sign unites a concept and an acoustical image (98).

12 To take but one example, the term ‘habits’ to designate the Handmaids’ apparel already generates resonances of a regulated life of monastic discipline, but the narrator moreover reinforces the appropriateness of the term by punning on the alternate significance implying the constraint of established practice : “Habits are hard to break” (34-35).


Université Rennes 2

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