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Margaret Atwood

Jacques Leclaire
Jean-Michel Lacroix

‘What's in a Name?’: Readers as both Pawns and Partners, or Margaret Atwood’s Strategy of Control

Marta Dvorak

Texte intégral

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 144).

1The narrator’s voice in this passage of The Handmaid’s Tale, although couched in the rhetoric of denial, echoes the author’s voice, notably in a critical essay entitled «An End to Audience?» published five years earlier:

By «political» I mean having to do with power: who’s got it, who wants it, how it operates; in a word, who’s allowed to do what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it and how. (Atwood, Second Words 353)

  • 1 «I see feminism as part of a large issue: human dignity. That’s what Canadian nationalism is about (...)

2In this essay, Margaret Atwood emphasizes, as she has in countless interviews, the connection between art and politics, claiming that the novel is «a moral instrument» (353) and that writing, presenting as it does a view of society at large, is never apolitical. Known for her firm, often satirical stances on power politics, in other words all paradigms of dominance and subservience, whether it be gender, ethnic, class, or (inter)national relations1, Atwood places the private sphere firmly within the public, and the personal within the political.

  • 2 In an interview granted in 1986, when it was suggested that at the centre of her work was «the pow (...)
  • 3 When asked about the ambivalent ending of Bodily Harm (similar to that of Handmaid), notably if th (...)
  • 4 Among those who have, we can cite Sharon Wilson, notably in Margaret Atwood’s Fairy Tale Sexual Po (...)

3Now if writing is a political, public act, the corollary is that reading is a similar one, and that the role of the reader is not a negligeable one. If the majority of critics and readers alike have been quick to point out the extent to which Atwood’s writing is socially committed, fewer have been sensitive to her use of discursive and narrative strategies to both control2 and to empower3 the reader. If many have been quick to label her writing feminist fiction, fewer have remarked4 that her use of unreliable, self-conscious narrators, intertextuality, metafiction, deconstruction through defamiliarization, recontextualization and displacement, as well as her use of irony and parody, place her work within a current that goes beyond the boundaries of nationality, political agenda, or artistic genre: the current of postmodernism. With the doubled discourse of irony that serves, as Linda Hutcheon has pointed out, to subvert the patterns and conventions of dominant culture from within, criticizing but all the while sustaining a certain complicity with the cultural dominants within which it functions, Atwood signals the fact that conventional patterns, whether they belong to narrative, myth, or the body of implicit maxims that constitutes our ideology or vision of the world, are socially constructed, and as such, may be transformed or reconstructed. Following in the steps of modernists like Joyce, T.S. Eliot, or Faulkner, whose works were already characterised by discontinuity and fragmentation, postmodern writing like Atwood’s puts into question the notions of authority and of constraint, including the authority of the narrator and the conventions of linearity, causality and closure.

  • 5 Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains that writing beyond the ending occurs «when authors or their close (...)
  • 6 The historians’ transcription and reassembling of the tapes is a reconstruction of the narrator’s (...)

4If Atwood, like her fellow Canadian writers Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, writes beyond the ending5, favours open-ended structures or ambivalent endings, if she displaces narratorial voice to disempowered characters with limited points of view, if she subverts pre-existing patterns expected by the reader, it is to serve a double function with respect to author and reader alike. Atwood’s recurrent intertextuality, syncretism, and self-reflexivity call attention to the fabricated, fictional nature of the text and engage us readers as active co-creators of meaning. Yet the gaps and blanks within a dislocated time sequence, the deliberate destruction of the expected seamlessness of the text, the constant reminders that the text is a (triple) reconstruction6, the multiple variants the narrator offers us of the same event, that disrupt artistic illusion in a distancing effect reminiscent of Brecht’s Verfremdung, simultaneously force us to acknowledge the writer’s absolute control over her fictional world.

5The destruction of artistic illusion is produced through metanarrative, with the selfconscious narrator repeatedly discussing the procedures of her narration:

I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened [...] There wasn’t any thunder though, I added that in (275),

6at times operating a sudden, disorienting shift in tense that disrupts as well the constructed, but only apparent, synchronicity:

I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.
In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction.
«All right,» I say. (150)

7Atwood’s control over her fictional world extends to us. Her narrator creates a narratee, and while the fictional narratee must not be confused with the flesh and blood reader, we readers inevitably identify with the implied receiver necessary to all acts of speech. The enunciation «I tell, therefore you are» (279) affirms the codependence of telling and listening, but the continuation, with its shift in the nature of «will», from mere auxiliary to dynamic verb of volition («So I will go on. So I will myself to go on» [.280]) places the narrator firmly in control of the story. And in a characteristic Atwoodian strategy of aporia, the receiver is conjured up and cancelled at the same time:

if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one. (49)

8Rather like a children’s audience at a puppet show, we identify with the «you» that «can mean more than one», that «can mean thousands», and we protest vigorously when the narrator ‘erases’ us:

I’ll pretend you can hear me.
But it’s no good, because I know you can’t. (50)

9At other times the narratorial voice appeals to her listener(s) as a partner or companion in story-telling, establishing a certain connivance: «I am coming to a part you will not like at all [...] you deserve whatever I have left [...] I told you it was bad» (280). In parallel with the large role the fictional narrator creates for the equally fictional narratee, on another level the author in her discursive and narrative strategy toys with the implied reader, playfully setting him/her down in a textual landscape «crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead [every]where» (153). When the author chooses her terms to describe Offred and Ofglen setting off on their daily route, comparing them to a «rat in a maze [...] free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze» (174), her metaphor effectively describes a narrative strategy, reminiscent of a manipulative Borges or Nabokov, in which the reader is the rat. And the textual maze is full of markers, of indicators, but also of pitfalls.

10Canadian critic George Woodcock has commented on Margaret Atwood’s skill at what he calls «the poetic booby trap» (90), the sharp ironic inversion which jolts readerly expectations and can transform a domestic vestimentary object, to take but one example from the opening poem of Power Politics, into a predatory instrument of torture which makes the reader wince:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye.(1)

11In The Handmaid’s Tale, too, Atwood invites readers to change tack, to backtrack, to travel back while moving forward. Through startling imagery and a temporal strategy in which we are «brought fast-forward» to the narrator’s «foray back» (Davidson, 114) in time, she demonstrates how our ideological preconceptions filter our interpretation of meaning. Readers are shocked by the fact that the handmaids lose their ‘real’ names, which are replaced by whichever man they ‘belong’ to, as if they were an appendage (Of/fred, Of/glen). But the alert reader, corresponding to the implied reader inscribed in the textual strategy, realizes that Gilead’s convention of the ‘possessive’ preposition tagged onto the man’s first name is but a variation of the widespread Western practice of women taking their husband’s name. Mrs. John Doe is a floating signifier, just as Ofglen is, and after a divorce and a remarriage, Mrs. John Doe is another woman. Readers find the substitution of one Ofglen for another chilling, but the lack of identity we equate with the lack of her ‘own’ name, in the disturbing passage

I am Ofglen», the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen. I never did know her real name. That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names. It wouldn’t be easy to find her, now. (295)

12is but a reflection of the generally unquestioned shedding of name and identity in our society. In a parallel passage of her following novel Cat’s Eye, Atwood will again call attention to the discardable nature of women’s identities, through the narrator’s fruitless quest for a long-lost friend/ tormentor:

Women are hard to keep track of, most of them. They slip into other names and sink without a trace. (243)

13A similar challenge to the way we construct meaning through the filter of social lenses can be found in the Jezebel narrative sequence. When the Commander secretly takes Offred out to the illicit brothel reserved for the powerful elite, she asks him, «Who are all these people?». The Commander promptly enumerates the professional categories to which the men belong, but Offred interrupts him: «’No’, I say, ‘I mean the women.» (249). Most of us real readers, just like the Commander, are taken up short, have fallen into the ‘poetic booby trap’ set for the projected reader of flawed vigilance that the author has foreseen in her scenario. (For as the implied reader is not necessarily a perfect or ideal reader, but merely the profile of the average reader the author expects to be in contact with the text through time, Linda Hutcheon’s term ‘projected reader’ (Poetics, 10) is more apt). Atwood has playfully signalled and challenged a commonplace in sexual politics: the fact that terms like ‘people’ or ‘man(kind)’ are often equated with males. We reader rats begin to see the maze differently, and tum back from false paths.

  • 7 The descriptions of the accoutrements are shot through with negative terms. The components of Offr (...)

14The ‘booby traps’ continue to set up a poetic process of defamiliarization. Readerly expectations of an erotic evening are shattered, as the unreliable narrator’s ingenuous gaze deconstructs and deflates the components of glamour as dictated by contemporary American pop culture. What are the playthings called Playboy Bunnies after all but women «dressed for Easter, in rabbit suits», with tails that look like «a sanitary pad that’s been popped like a piece of popcorn» (251)? The imagery carries connotations of junk food, bodily secretions, and religious rites in a mixture so potently anti-erotic that the reader cannot help but join in the narrator’s art(ful)/less question: «why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men?» (251) The traced out path to voluptuousness reveals itself to be a dead end; the accoutrements conventionally meant to signal sensuality are subverted. The coded costumes of the prostitutes, equated with the «trimmings» (281) on a goose, are a pathetic, shabby7 travesty that incites readers to call into question the «meat market» (231) of contemporary Western society, underscored by the pre-Gileadean practice of «Feels on Wheels» and its punning association with that other form of distribution and consumption currently known as ‘Meals on Wheels’.

15Through poetic techniques of defamiliarization, displacement, and recontextualization, Atwood’s language jolts our perception. In the foregrounding vein of the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky, her writing makes objects and concepts lose their transparency and recover texture. To use her own visual arts metaphor, her language, by providing a new frame, gives us a fresh perspective and a new experience of depth. Rather than as with a hyperrealist canvas, living with our faces «squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, of close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face», our own skin «like a map [...] crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere» (153), we obtain a distanced, bird’s eye view of the labyrinth, allowing us to make connections.

16For the narrative fabric of The Handmaid’s Tale consists in a network of convoluted resonances that interconnect, and that the reader is invited to piece together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Atwood does indeed control the reader, but as with the «puzzles left by spiders» on the ceiling, that one can contemplate and interpret as being «funeral wreaths» or «angels» (233), she empowers him/her to construct meaning and to assume the role of a partner in the creative process. One of her techniques is through the narrator’s repeated punning and foregrounding of the polysemy of words. Offred notably contemplates the multiple meanings of the signifier «‘chair’, beyond that of the physical object in which she is sitting:

It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. (120)

17These elements in the signifying web underscore the latent themes of death and violence as well as those of sexuality and consumption. They reach out proleptically to the chair or ‘leader’ of the Symposium on Gileadean Studies, who in turn is compared or reduced, by her misogynistic male colleagues, to the flesh of an Arctic char, to be enjoyed in three distinct but not mutually exclusive senses (312). We shall see further on how this particular exploration of verbal polysemy adds to the polysemy of the text.

  • 8 The narrator proleptically calls attention to the fact that her narrative will travel to us with t (...)

18Many critics such as Joseph Andriano, Dorothy Jones or Taïna Tuhkunen-Couzic have drawn attention to the Scrabble game as synechdoche of Atwood’s textual strategy. The board game’s crossword patterns do reflect the crisscrossing of voices, leitmotivs, refrains, intertextual references and time sequences that make up the complex textual web. The crisscrossing is often layered or multi-tiered, as when Aunt Lydia’s disembodied voice, travelling across time and space8, and carrying in turn the voice of Christ in an authoritative intertextual reference, is interpolated into Offred’s voice and then contrapuntally covered by her exegetical comment on the rhetorical device of omission:

I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth. (74)

19On a simpler synechdochic level, Atwood confronts the reader with the playful sentences in dog Latin in the Commander’s old textbook, bawdy puns that ironically embody resistance, desacralisation: the Commander, too, once participated in subversive practices through language. By spelling out the basic conjugation of the Latin verb esse, Atwood gives the structural tools necessary for those of us who have forgotten our Latin to zigzag between the authentic model sumus estis sunt, and the subversive model of pimus pistis pants and to complete the ersatz verb cim cis cit (bearing in mind that North Americans are taught to pronounce the Latin ‘c’ as [k]). It is in just this way that readers are incited to construct meaning throughout the novel, to re-construct story.

20Co-creators then in the narrative process, we make connections between the proleptic and analeptic elements; we anticipate, we complete. Examining the tatoo on her ankle reminiscent of Nazi practices, Offred explains, parroting with ironic intent words that have been inculcated into her:

It’s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource. (75)

21This prolepsis allows us to correctly ‘translate’ the televised circumlocution further on in the narrative, and to construe that the Quakers who have been arrested for espionage, for «smuggling precious national resources over the border into Canada» (93) have in fact been rescuing women through the Underground (Rail)Femaleroad.

22Many passages in the novel project us simultaneously forward and backward. When the narrator evokes her preparations for escape with her husband Luke, which aborted, she remarks on how before disposing of the cat, Luke significantly referred to the animal as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’:

because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. (202)

23This sequence is proleptic, preparing us for the later Particicution, when Offred becomes part of a mob that kills, a mob that has reified a human being in an identical fashion: «He has become an it» (292).

24In the same sequence, the narrator alludes to whoever betrayed them and caused their capture in a society surrounded by high surveillance, in which the spy corps or Eyes, have informants everywhere. Offred speculates as to whether it was a neighbour who denounced them or the man who obtained their false passports, and makes the ironic remark, «The Eyes of God run over all the earth» (203). This remark is analeptic, projecting us back to the ritual Bible reading and prayer session which the Commander closes with the quotation from the Biblical Proverbs: «the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth» (103). The ironic shift in the signified (the divine Law, the Supreme Being has been replaced by a police State of informants), shows to what extent religious texts have been/can be corrupted, perverted, for political ends and social control.

  • 9 The Commander reminds us: «Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind (...)

25The interconnections the reader is incited to make are thus vital to Atwood’s double-edged satire. A key example of how the satiric web functions is the graphic description of the pornographic films projected at the re-education centre, reminiscent of the ‘therapeutic’ viewings in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The relentless piling up of binary and ternary structures, separated only by commas or a single repeated coordinator, devoid of any qualifiers signalling emotion or a value judgment, foregrounds the ideology behind pornography (we note the equivalence implicit in the pairing of «penises or guns»), (128; emphasis mine), deconstructs and underscores the mechanical dimension of pornography as System, and invites the reader to evaluate its degrading reduction of humans to animals («women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks») objects, or meat («hanging from trees»). The passage is a key element in Atwood’s satire, doser here to the moral earnestness and denunciation of Juvenalian satire than to the amused benevolence of Horatian satire. Its target is our present, ‘real’ society and its underlying misogyny, rather than on the reductively specific issue of pornographical production, for Atwood’s writing positions itself firmly against any form of censorship, and textual parallels reveal that the commodification and even mutilation of women underlies current mainstream culture and its esthetic values9).

26But the network of resonances the alert reader picks up links our ‘real’ present practices with the future, more openly fictional world of the dystopia, in an exegetical convolution. The connections show that far from having abolished such misogynistic practices, Gilead has actually institutionalized them. The women «kneeling» evoke the sitting room rituals preceding the Ceremony, a sitting room where Offred is not allowed to sit but must kneel; the women «chained or with dog collars around their necks» evoke the pet/master relationship the Commander establishes with Offred after the death of her predecessor («If your dog dies, get another» [197]); the women «hanging from trees» evoke the bodies of the executed women hanging from hooks on the Wall, «like chickens strung up by the necks in a meatshop window» (289), or the hanged body of Offred’s predecessor, compared to a child «hanging by [her] hands from a tree branch» (223); the women «with their legs held apart [...] being raped» evoke the Ceremony which, in spite of or rather because of the narrator’s qualified rhetoric of denial (105), we interpret as the institutionalization and ritualization of rape; the description of a woman «being slowly cut into pieces» evokes Gilead’s punishment of amputation for the crime of reading, and the torture of Moira and other rebellious handmaids resulting at times in permanent mutilation (102).

  • 10 Katherine Govier, «There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened», Quill and Quire 51, (...)

27The exegetical connections between the present and the future, between the ‘real’ and the fictional, work in a double direction, extending «like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point» (165). For as the well-travelled Atwood has pointed out in countless interviews, with a scrapbook of newspaper clippings to back up her claim, the novel is but «a logical extension of current trends10», and there is nothing in her dystopia that has not already happened, from bastinada (whipping feet with Steel cables), practised in Khomeini’s Iran, and salvagings practised in the Philippines, to re-education centres in Cambodia or Vietnam, or the women buried alive behind their veils in Afghanistan, not to mention the spread of religious fundamentalism, the anti-feminist backlash, and bomb attacks by right-to-lifers. Faithful to the genre of dystopia, Atwood’s novel is didactic, meant to be a warning to us readers who live, as the narrator used to do, «in the blank white spaces at the edges of print» (66), and who, by choosing to ignore the horrific stories, might end up like Offred, no longer «in the gaps between the stories» (67), but firmly in the centre, as protagonists. And as a cautionary tale, it has a central question and a central message, a sententia, sense or moral expected by listeners/ readers of Chaucer’s time, and as signalled by the intertextual title and ribald references to the author of The Canterbury Tales in the «Historical Notes», inscribed into the novel.

  • 11 The equation «I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued» (108) is not gratuitous. Fu (...)

28The central question is put into words, ironically enough, by the Commander: «What did we overlook?» (231), which the reader must transform into ‘What mustn’t we overlook if we don’t want to turn into this?’. The answer, the moral of the dystopic fantasy, is not only supplied by Offred, but also coded into the text, notably through the dues scattered throughout, as in a treasure hunt, that enable us to divine the narrator’s real, secret name. Emblem of a purloined identity, of lost individual worth11, the forbidden name is confided as a love token (282) and given as a pledge of faith (305), but concealed from the reader. The narrator keeps the knowledge of her lost name «hidden», comparing it to buried treasure that she will «come back to dig up, one day» (94). Instead, Atwood invites the implied reader to find and dig up the precious treasure. We readers try to conform/ perform to authorly expectation, and as both pawns and partners, we find ourselves directed, guided, lured, teased.

  • 12 The name evokes the novel Moïra by Julien Greene, also concerned with Puritan values, and the film (...)

29Atwood first transmits the importance of the name by specifying that the illicit exchange of names in the re-education centre was an act of resistance, replacing the women’s silenced voices. Then, through onomastics, she foregrounds the fact that the name(s) are vehicles of significance, representing past bliss, present pain, or future fate. ‘Alma’ notably signifies ‘nurture’ or ‘bounty’, ‘Dolores’ signifies suffering and more specifically, through the Pieta or suffering mother of Christ, a mother’s pain at the loss of her child, while ‘Moira’ is the Greek word for destiny (and furthermore engages us in a spiral of intertextuality12). Thirdly, as critics such as Constance Rooke and Harriet Bergmann have pointed out, all the names enumerated at the end of chapter one crop up at some point in the narrative, except for one. The very last one.

30The reader thus begins painstakingly to account for the female protagonists on the list, one by one. Meanwhile Atwood, faithful to her strategy of playful parody, particularly of genres like the folk tale as Sharon Wilson has demonstrated, throws out further markers in the manner of a Tom Thumb leaving small white pebbles in the forest to mark his trail. A connection is set up between the narrator’s secret name and light. Offred first evokes her real name as having «an aura about it, like an amulet», and when she recalls her escape attempt, specifies that she was «wearing [her] shining name» (94). Her name shines like a shield, or rather, as indicated by the other descriptive elements of the sequence, like a heavenly body:

I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark. (94; emphasis mine)

31Our noses to the trail, we begin to suspect that the narrator’s identity has something to do with the moon. Certainly we have noticed teasing references that set up such an association, as with the simile: «I wish to be totally clean, germless, without bacteria, like the surface of the moon» (74), or the equivalence drawn by the narrator: «I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there’s no moon» (222; emphasis mine), or yet by the clin d’oeil «I tell time by the moon» (209). In the same section as the above quotation, when the narrator is once more in bed at night, she wonders if the aura of light is cast by a searchlight or by the moon, and, before declaring, «I want to be held and told my name [...] I repeat my former name», in the space of seven lines the word ‘moon’ is mentioned five times:

in the obscured sky a moon does float, newly, a wishing moon, a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink. (108)

  • 13 S. Wilson notably points out that the moon mother is associated with figures as varied as Eve, the (...)

32Leaving aside the reference to «a goddess», for Sharon Wilson has already developed a sophisticated reading of the mythological dimensions of Atwood’s work13, we prick up our ears at the term «wink». The author is winking at us, playing with us; the moon imagery is a game, a challenge. «The «sliver of ancient rock» anticipates another wink, which is that of the name of the Chairperson of the Symposium on Gileadean Studies. Her name is Professor Crescent Moon, and the symposium, we note, is held in June.

33If Atwood situates the beginning of the story in May, it is to set up in our minds the multiple associations of the term, only one of which is the distress signal Mayday. Like May(day), the opening sentence «It's almost like June» (53) is a sign(al): it is almost June just as Offred is almost red. If by chapter 22, or less than half-way through the novel, all the names of the women in the Red Centre have been accounted for, we can make the equation between «I» and the absent «June» in the heavily clue-laden sentence «Part of [the story of what happened to Moira] I can fill in myself, part of it I heard from Alma, who heard it from Dolores, who heard it from Janine». (139) But if we have succeeded in digging up the buried treasure, we are still ignorant as to its value. How does June’s name relate to the central message? Is the moon imagery the key to the enigma?

  • 14 We have but to look at the cover designs Atwood selected for the Canadian editions of Bluebeard’s (...)

34To answer this, it is useful to examine two key passages which revolve around a recurrent motiv in Atwood’s work, the egg, connected to fertility and sexual politics14. The first passage, an exploration of the interconnections in (s)(t)extuality that make up much of what we call écriture féminine, reduces the narrator’s universe to the boundaries of her body, more specifically the womb: she is «congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear» which is «more real» than she is (and there is more than a touch of irony in Atwood’s use of the celebratory écriture féminine, for have not the handmaids been reduced to «two-legged wombs» [146]?). In the play between anatomy and astronomy, micro and macro, inside and outside, the tides are Offred’s menstrual flow and the monthly egg is «a moon, gigantic, round, heavy as an omen» (84). To this passage in which the unfertilised egg is June/a moon, we can juxtapose the passage in which the narrator contemplates a soft-boiled egg that she is about to eat:

The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect [...] The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside. (120)

35Offred, who cannot conceive, is theoretically barren like the moon. This egg is the moon, yet this egg is also Offred, the body to which her whole self has been reduced: we note how the egg-cup is «the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt» and that the egg is «under the skirt». Offred’s body is food offer-ed, consumed, devoured by herself as society devours her.

36The (self)destruction of the narrator in the apparently anodine egg-eating scene is emblematic of what is wrong with this dystopic society. The association moon/ June inscribed into the text empowers us to answer the key question of what has been overlooked, or rather banned in Gilead. And in a typically ironic use of poetic virtuosity, Atwood the poet presents the solution to her enigma and transmits the sententia or lesson of her cautionary tale through an allusion to bad verse:

Love, said Aunt Lydia with distaste. Don’t let me catch you at it. No moon-ing and June-ing around here, girls. Wagging her finger at us. Love is not the point. (232)

  • 15 Coral Ann Howells reminds us of the success of verse and song containing these uninspired rhymes: (...)

37But love is exactly the point. Aunt Lydia’s reference to moon-ing and June-ing evokes the conventional end rhymes of amateurish love poetry and popular culture: moon/ spoon/ June—easy, but effective15. (The missing ‘spoon’, in a tongue-in-cheek hommage to kitsch, is included and reunited with the other two rhyming machines in the egg scene when June slices «the top off the egg with the spoon» [121]). What’s in a name indeed? The name ‘June’, the romantic associations it generates when paired with ‘moon’, is the very ‘heart’ of the matter. It foregrounds the cause of the dystopia that is also evoked in differed, fragmented sequences of fugue-like echoes:

What did we overlook?
Love, I said.
Love? said the Commander. What kind of love?
Falling in love, I said. (231-32)
Love? said the Commander.
That’s better. That’s something I know about. We can talk about that.
Falling in love, I said. (237)

38in turn echoing other sequences also tantalizingly fragmented and differed:

I want you to kiss me, said the Commander.
Well, of course something came before that. (145)
Then he says, «I want you to kiss me.»
[...]. «Not like that,» he says. «As if you meant it.» (150)

39The narrator qualifies the facile (?) notion that love is the solution. She points out that our society has reversed/ subverted the traditional ‘God is love’ to worship love (eros) as an end in itself, as a perversion of the incarnation: «[t]hat word, made flesh» (237; my emphasis). We recall once more June’s musings over the multiple meanings of the signifier ‘chair’: «It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh» (120). Although the narrator protests, in another illustration of the rhetoric of denial, that «none of these facts has any connection with the others», Atwood has trained us to make connections, and we do find them. The ultimate form of love, caritas, is what we must not overlook, if we do not want to live in a Gilead where hope and charity are absent, like the two missing cushions embroidered with the virtues from Corinthians. The lesson is perhaps not a very original one, but what is original is the way the writer has empowered us to construct it for ourselves. As Atwood remarks in «Happy Endings», one of her short fictions,

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why. (Murder in the Dark, 40)



Andriano, Joseph. «The Handmaid’s Tale as Scrabble Game», Essays on Canadian Writing 48, Winter 1992-93.

Atwood, Margaret. Power Politics, New York, Harper & Row, 1973.
—. Second Words; Selected Critical Prose, Toronto, Anansi, 1982.
—. Murder in the Dark, Toronto, Coach House Press, 1983.
—. The Handmaid’s Tale, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
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1 «I see feminism as part of a large issue: human dignity. That’s what Canadian nationalism is about, and what black power is about. They’re all part of the same vision», declared Margaret Atwood to Karla Hammond in a 1978 interview, «Defying Distinctions» (Ingersoll, 102)

2 In an interview granted in 1986, when it was suggested that at the centre of her work was «the power of language to transform our perception of how the world works», Atwood enthusiastically acquiesced: «I’ll buy that, I’ll endorse that one! I’ve got to endorse something in this interview. Whoever said that, it’s true!». Cf. Geoff Hancock, «Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls», Ingersoll 214.

3 When asked about the ambivalent ending of Bodily Harm (similar to that of Handmaid), notably if the heroine ever gets out of prison or not, Atwood answered: «Your choice, reader’s choice. I like the reader to participate in writing the book». Cf Bonnie Lyons, «Using Other People’s Dreadful Childhoods; Ingersoll 227.

4 Among those who have, we can cite Sharon Wilson, notably in Margaret Atwood’s Fairy Tale Sexual Politics.

5 Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains that writing beyond the ending occurs «when authors or their close surrogates, discover that they are in fact outside the terms of this novel’s script, marginal to it» (6).

6 The historians’ transcription and reassembling of the tapes is a reconstruction of the narrator’s recorded reconstruction, later in time and elsewhere in space, of the pseudo-synchronous reconstruction of events that she allegedly spins in her head as she goes along, in an eternally shifting «now»: «This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat in my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn't have said [...] If I ever get out of here-» (144).

7 The descriptions of the accoutrements are shot through with negative terms. The components of Offred’s get-up are either «too big or «too tight», the heels «absurdly high» (242), while Moira’s outfit is made of «once-shiny satin that looks the worse for wear», that «doesn’t quite fit,» because «it’s too large» (250-251; emphasis mine). The grotesque quality of the travesty signalled by the failed symmetry, «one breast is plumped out and the other one isn’t» (251), has been prepared by the description of the motley crew of prostitutes, that insists on the incongruous variegation of the costumes, ranging from baby-doll pyjamas and bikinis to crocheted scallop shells and even cheerleader costumes (seemingly anticipating Atom Egoyan’s parodic representation in Exotica). The grotesque dimension of the masquerade is made explicit by pejorative terms such as «scrounge», «salvage» and «clownish» (247).

8 The narrator proleptically calls attention to the fact that her narrative will travel to us with the metaphor «as if the voice itself were a traveller, arriving from a distant place. Which it would be. Which it is». (21)

9 The Commander reminds us: «Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Some of [those who couldn’t get a man] starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off» (231).

10 Katherine Govier, «There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened», Quill and Quire 51, no9, Sept. 1985, p. 66.

11 The equation «I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued» (108) is not gratuitous. Furthermore, we note that the narrator, whose opinion has no value, as has just been made clear, is «buried» (223) just like her name, and her bed is a coffin: «I lie flat, the damp air above me like a lid. Like earth» (222).

12 The name evokes the novel Moïra by Julien Greene, also concerned with Puritan values, and the film actress Moira Shearer who starred in the 1948 adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Red Shoes, which in turn, with its female protagonist doomed to dance herself to death, is a recurrent motiv in the novel).

13 S. Wilson notably points out that the moon mother is associated with figures as varied as Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Kali (380), and that in one of the Persephone myths, Demeter is reaped with her own moon-shaped sickle (273).

14 We have but to look at the cover designs Atwood selected for the Canadian editions of Bluebeard’s Egg and True Stories (the latter consisting in one of her own watercolours, associating the heart and the egg).

15 Coral Ann Howells reminds us of the success of verse and song containing these uninspired rhymes: «By the Light of the Silvery Moon», introduced by the Ziegfield Follies in 1909, was popular for half a century.


Marta DVORAK est Maître de Conférences ainsi que fondatrice et directrice du Centre d'Etudes Canadiennes à l'Université de Rennes II. Sa recherche porte essentiellement sur la littérature contemporaine et les arts du spectacle au Canada, mais elle s'intéresse également aux questions de culture et de société. Ses articles ont été publiés dans des revues françaises et canadiennes, et trois ouvrages ont paru sous sa direction : La Création biographique (Collection AFEC, 1997), et Canada et bilinguisme, (PU de Rennes, 1997), ainsi que The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (Ellipses, 1998).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998

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