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Margaret Atwood

Jacques Leclaire
Jean-Michel Lacroix

Expected and Inverted Response: Righteousness and Fallibility in The Handmaid's Tale

Rowland Smith

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1The inventiveness of her fiction has made Margaret Atwood a favourite source of academic commentary. Since she herself shows an abiding interest in fictional form and mythic pattern, the formal elements in her work have provided fertile ground for investigation. Even more popular sources of commentary have been found in the topics she deals with: in particular, her concern with the predicament of women in late twentieth-century society, and her constant feeling-out of the relations between those with political and economic power and those who lack those powers.

2There are obvious problems entailed in commenting on Atwood's work, however. One is that the compelling intelligence with which she presents “issues” can lead commentators to ignore the ironie thrust of so much of what she does with her words, her characters and her situations, and concentrate on the issues themselves. Since many of those issues lend themselves to self-righteous or earnest explication, there is a fair amount of Atwood criticism which does not avoid the very qualities — earnestness and self-righteousness — that are often the butt of her irony.

3Because she is so at ease in presenting the social and verbal conventions of North-American/Canadian life, the ironie resonance of Atwood's fiction can be particularly elusive. Her wit frequently lies in the capacity to present the banal or the absurd or even the vicious as mere surface details of a recognizable world. Without comment, the verisimilitude is itself destabilising, and the narrator's poker face can be as crucial as Swift's in clinching a satirical or ironie point.

4To illustrate the problems entailed in isolating social issues when commenting on The Handmaid's Tale, let me turn to a few passages from a recent volume. Approaches to Teaching The Handmaid's Tale and Other Works, edited by Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, was published by the Modem Language Association of America in 1996. It provides a useful discussion of problems associated with Atwood's texts, a brief summary of Atwood criticism, and — in the main part of the text — a series of essays outlining various approaches to teaching Atwood's work in a wide range of courses and institutions. It is here that the limitations of doctrinaire, or at least doctrine-dominated approaches become most apparent. The Handmaid's Tale can indeed be used to illustrate what theorists mean by sexual politics or feminist psychoanalytic approaches to literature, but in each case such studies have as their focus an illumination of the theory — using the text as example — rather than on Atwood's text itself. The result is usually monochromatic, in contrast with the rich play of light and shadow, gloom and humour in the novel itself. Above all, the earnestness of those who proclaim political correctness in Gilead and those who analyze its customs in the concluding “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” can become part of the manner of those commenting on the novel. At its most obvious and banal there is the following passage from an essay illustrating “A Feminist and Psychoanalytic Approach”:

The Handmaid's Tale reveals that what lies behind the benevolent paternalism of the Commander [sic!] and the culturally conservative ideal of protected womanhood is a rigid belief in male authority and in the hierarchical arrangement of the sexes. In Gilead, women are stripped of their individual identities and transformed into replaceable objects in a phallocentric economy (Brooks Bouson, Approaches, 125).

5It is the certainty with which such belaboured comments are made that informs the satire on academic debate in the concluding, symposium, section of the novel. The self-importance and cliquishness of the historians of Gilead distance the human agony of Offred's tale in a dispassionate act of showing off. The clash of tone between her puzzled and pain-ridden narrative (as a procreative object) and that of the academics discussing her as an historical object is one of the final ironies of the novel — as is the location of the Gileadan symposium in the frozen Arctic wastes of the North American continent (Arctic Char and all) after the collapse of the Bostonian power-state.

6Without any recognition of that irony, a postcolonial comment on the symposium from the Approaches volume is equally discordant:

Rewriting history from the point of view of the conqueror is bad enough. Mistaking the postcolonial recognition that all judgments are culture-specific as an authorization for refusing moral judgment entirely is much worse (Brydon, Approaches, 53).

7The hectoring tone of moral judgments themselves — like this one — is always part of the texture of Atwood's writing and of her presentation of the complexity of human certainty and doubt. The author of the last passage is less strident when she quotes Atwood herself:

Oppression in volves a failure of the imagination; the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings (Brydon, Approaches, 53; Atwood, “Disneyland”, 131-2).

8It is the complexity of “full humanity,” and the ways in which dogmatic certainty ignores that complexity, which Atwood investigates throughout The Handmaid's Tale. Her satiric strategies usually involve a deadpan representation of the inversions of puritanical dogma — both from the pre-Gilead days and in the Gileadan future-present — and their constant oversimplification of human needs.

9The opening pages of The Handmaid's Tale set the tone insistently; a matter-of-fact, almost wooden acceptance that absolutism brings tyranny or at least authoritarianism. When she first meets the wife of her new Commander, Offred has wild hopes that human fallibility will be implicitly understood in the new house and with that understanding will come the possibility of human exchange. The wife smokes:

The cigarettes must have come from the black market, I thought, and this gave me hope. Even now that there is no real money any more, there's still a black market. There's always a black market, there's always something that can be exchanged. She then was a woman who might bend the rules. But what did I have to trade? (14).

10Of course Offred's need to trade anything of herself in order to “bend the rules” indicates an undesirable regime, but the movement in the passage is one of longing for just such a compromised, recognizable world. And the reader is enlisted in that longing for conventional corruptibility. The austere terror of the handmaid's existence without access to such fallibility is ever-present. The possibility of “exchange” — which can be read negatively as enforced commercial/sexual exchange or positively as enriching human exchange — is eliminated in Offred's mind when she recognizes the commander's wife as a former gospel hour singer in a fundamentalist religious television program which she used to watch as a child in the pre-Gilead days:.

..they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead soprano... She could smile and cry at the same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on cue, as her voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous, effortless. It was after that she went on to other things.
The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once. So it was worse than I thought. (16).

11It is the absolutism of the fundamentalist position as well as its hypocrisy (smiling and crying on cue — effortlessly) which is most frightening; and Offred recognizes the inevitable intransigence in one such as Serena Joy in whatever regime she happens to find herself.

12Normal corruptibility — that is normal to contemporary, materialist, western, capitalist culture — is constantly seen with nostalgia by Offred, trapped in the austere absolutism of Gilead. And to assert this is not for a moment to overlook the sins and horrors of contemporary materialist society, frequently pointed out by the teachers of Gilead as evils from which Gilead offers freedom. But the Gileadan blotting out of those who transgress — whether in thought or deed — supplies the ever-present antidote to official self-satisfaction at the saving graces of a regime that offers freedom from rather than freedom to.

13Because we experience Gilead through Offred's narrative — in whatever form it occurs — readers inevitably align themselves with her needs and anguish. Her vulnerability, her boredom, her solitude are the most pervasive elements in her presentation of herself. In that context, with all the minute details of a life circumscribed by the features of her room and the passageways of the house around it, her musings, hopes and pitifully few pleasures are immediate to the reader and usually given assent. The inevitability of Offred's need for some form of intimacy, some kind of personal recognition and identity — given the deliberately depersonalizing focus of the regime — makes natural her nostalgia for the most banal and commonplace trappings of the old world — which is the world we know. The fact that no one would point to these ordinary experiences as triumphs (or even positive elements) of late twentieth-century culture is one of the central ironies of The Handmaid's Tale.

14The petty restrictions and trivia of a normally circumscribed female life can be thought-of as liberating in an absolute world that aspires to eliminate non-rational human fallibility. In the first few pages of the novel, Offred comes on two kitchen maids in her new Commander's house, and she yearns for the kitchen culture of the old world — a culture that could, in those days, have been taken as typical of the patriarchally-imposed limits of female existence.

“I would like to stay here, in the kitchen,” muses Offred, we would sit at Rita's kitchen table... and we would talk, about aches and pains, illnesses, our feet, our backs, all the different kinds of mischief that our bodies, like unruly children, can get up to....We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries...” (10). At one level this is almost a caricature of the banality of kitchen talk; it could be a scene from a Pinter comedy. But in the terror-filled austerity of the Commander's house it is seductively comforting. And Offred supplies the choric comment”:

How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange [that word again] of sorts (11).

15The unexpected assent readers find themselves giving to Offred's banal yearnings is of a piece with the Commander's illicit interest in playing a board game — domestically — with Offred when all he is officially allowed to do to her is penetrate her and attempt to impregnate her in the presence of his wife. So, too, is the recognition, implicit in the text, that fanatics and absolutists of the past — even when apparently bent on liberating women from the restrictions of their culture — are of a kind with the absolutists of the Gileadan present; both types ignore the attraction of shabby, unreliable human interchange and the impossibility of eliminating those fallible human pleasures.

16The triviality of Offred's response — in her pre-Gilead life as a student — to a “recognized” societal problem like date rape is presented with a sense of nostalgia for a world in which non-serious, and above all non-earnest, responses were natural. “The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet” (35) muses Offred in her bed in the Commander's house. “[T]he night,” she reflects, “is my time out. Where should I go?” (35). The answer, “Somewhere good” explicitly signals the tone with which the reminiscence is to be understood. Her student friend Moira has dropped into her room to ask her out for a beer.

In half an hour, I said. I had a paper due the next day. What was it? Psychology, English, Economics. We studied things like that, then. On the floor of the room there were books, open face down, this way and that, extravagantly.
Now, said Moira. You don't need to paint your face, ifs only me. What's your paper on? I just did one on date rape.
Date râpe, I said. You're so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date Rapé. (35).

17The “extravagant” mess of books is as liberating a memory as the recollected “need” to paint one's face if the occasion might entail social/sexual contact (of course the combination of the social and the sexual is forbidden in Gilead). And the brushing aside of the date rape topic as “trendy” implies a world where not only can one refuse to be earnest about serious topics, but also one can recognize the trendiness inherent in the pro forma scrutiny of social issues that are approved as weighty. As the only form of travel allowed her, Offred's remembered voyage is both pathetic in its yearning for the commonplace elements of the past, and also a recollection of “Somewhere good” to which the reader can give assent.

18Immediately after this recollection, Offred remembers a discordant scene from her childhood. Instead of going to feed the ducks, she has been taken by her mother to a book-burning. Again, there is an explicit pointing to Offred's own evaluation of the memory; troubled: “she'd lied to me, Saturdays were supposed to be my day” (36). The child's sense of betrayal contrasts vividly with the pleasure of the burners, “[t]heir faces were happy, ecstatic almost” (36), and the sense of the illicit is heightened when one of the women invites Offred to “throw one on,” and her mother insists that she should not see the magazine involved, with its picture of a chained and naked woman.

19Even in this uneasy recollection of something inappropriately gleeful, Offred's memory of her own unconcerned reaction to the image sets the tone of uncomplicated normality for which she is most nostalgic in all her journeys into the past: “I looked at it with interest. It didn't frighten me” (36).

20The book-burners of pre-Gilead are, in their own way, as absolute as the lawgivers of Gilead, which is situated in Boston, the heart of puritanical New England. Most of Gilead's culture is an inverted elaboration of puritanism. If puritan sexual experience is doctrinally limited to the sanctity of marriage and child-raising, the elimination of a concept of sex for pleasure is merely a Gileadan extension of a puritanical view. With fertility threatened in the State of Gilead, sexual activity is legislated to be solely the act of fertilisation, dressed up as a family affair with the ovary-donor “assisted” by the sterile wife in the seed-implanting process. All the rules and propaganda of Gilead grow out of a kind of puritanical austerity in which bodily pleasures are suspect, and the excesses and crimes growing from the pursuit of pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, are pointed-to as hideous warnings from the past.

21Offred is aware of the dangers inherent in the laissez-faire past for which she longs; she can recite — and that is the tone with which she remembers — the conventional risks facing women in the world of freedom to. But the variety of that world, its unpredictability, and its openness to the contradictory nature of human experience are all part of her nostalgia.

22The attraction of the banal and the obvious does surface in Gilead outside Offred's thoughts and recollections. The Commander's attempts at some kind of domesticity with her are typical, as is his schoolboy pleasure in the anachronistic pleasures of “the club” and the dated, tarty dress he procures for Offred to wear there. The banality of his comment on the club — “everyone's human, after all” (222) — is both an echo of a self-satisfied remark from an earlier woman's man and a choric comment on the impossibility of any absolutist regime stifling permanently “the full humanity of other human beings,” with all its contradictory desires and fears.

23Offred's own unpredictability — her unforeseen lust for Nick and desperate need to be in a relationship that somehow involves her as a person, as well as her involuntary memories of the most trivial and humanly flawed incidents of her past — is presented as part of her plight. The strange alliance between reader and the ordinariness of the pleasures Offred remembers regularly unbalances that reader's expectation. What we are, ironically, left with is a painful vision of the complexity of human desires, the folly of attempts to control those desires, and the unsatisfactory nature of attempts to analyze them — even in a learned symposium.


Works cited

Atwood, Margaret. “A Disneyland of the Soul,” The Writer and Human Rights. Ed. Toronto Arts Group for Human Rights. Toronto: Lester, 1983. 129-32.
—. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: Seal-McLelland-Bantam, 1986. First published Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Bouson, J. Brooks. “A Feminist and Psychoanalytic Approach in a Women's College,” Approaches to Teaching Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Other Works. Ed. Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen. New York: Modern Language Association, 1996. 122-27.

Brydon, Diana. “Beyond Violent Dualities: Atwood in Postcolonial Contexts”, Approaches to Teaching Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Other Works. Ed. Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen. New York: Modem Language Association, 1996. 49-54.


Vice-President: Academic and Professor of English at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, since 1994. From 1967 to 1994 he was at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was - variously - McCulloch Professor in English, Director of African Studies, and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences. He is the current President of CACLALS (Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies). He has written widely on Twentieth-century British literature and the «new» literatures. His publications include: Lyric and Polemic: The Literary Personality of Roy Campbell (1972), and as editor, Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature (1976), and Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer (1990).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998

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