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Lire Margaret Atwood

Marta Dvorak

I. Texte et témoignage. Text and testimony

Strategies for bearing witness: testimony as construct in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale1

Jagna Oltarzewska

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper modifies and develops ideas first put forward in an earlier, extended article published (...)
  • 2 In Margaret Atwood, Second Words : Selected Critical Prose, Toronto : Anansi, 1982, pp. 334-357.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 350.
  • 4 S. Felman in S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony : Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoan (...)

1In an essay dating from 1980, entitled “An End to Audience2”, Atwood invests the writer with conspicuous and unusual powers. Far from being a mere vehicle for self-expression or a passing distraction, writing has a distinctly moral purpose : it is an intervention, an event rather than a commentary, a privileged means of “bearing witness”, an attestation to “the disaster which is the world3”, As witness, the writer or narrator is faced with the task of securing belief in her fictional universe, establishing a communicational relay by means of which the addressee or reader of the tale is interpellated, in her turn, into the role of witness and forced to recognize the inescapably moral implications of her activity. Reading a literary text becomes, to borrow Shoshana Felman’s phrase, ‘an alignment between witnesses4. A glance at Atwood’s critical prose will confirm that reading, in her estimation, is anything but a passive spectator sport. The following extract from her essay sheds light on her conception of the uses of writing :

  • 5 M. Atwood, Second Words, op. cit., p. 348.

Writing is (…) a kind of sooth-saying, a truth-telling. It is a naming of the world, a reverse incarnation : the flesh becoming word. It’s also a witnessing. Come with me, the writer is saying to the reader. There is a story I have to tell you, there is something you need to know. The writer is both an eye [EYE]-witness and an I [personal pronoun]-witness, the one to whom personal experience happens, and the one who makes experience personal for others. The writer bears witness. Bearing witness is not the same as self-expression5.

  • 6 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethique et Infini : dialogues avec Philippe Nemo, Paris, Fayard, 1982.
  • 7 S. Felman and D. Laub, Testimony…, op. cit., p. 3.

2The emphasis placed by Atwood on witnessing as an activity or relationship binding writer and reader prompts us to investigate the semantics of the term. To grasp something of its weight and import in Atwood’s lexicon, we would do well to turn to the novels of Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, the poetry of Paul Celan, or the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Lévinas and Paul Ricoeur. As theorised by Lévinas in a series of interviews with Philippe Nemo, published under the title Éthique et Infini6, the witness is not an onlooker but an active participant and his/her testimony speaks for others and to others. The position of witness as speaking subject and the notion of text as testimony are predicated, at the very least, on the existence of a suffering other and of an addressee : writing is always already an intersubjective act, as far removed from the high modernist, postromantic aesthetic that styles the text as self-referring artefact as from a postmodern textual practice in which the functions of reference and communication are suspended or tangential. This does not mean that the literary text as testimony involves regression to a form of naïve realism : what is interesting about Atwood’s literary output is precisely its promotion of an existentially committed stance and its deployment of self-consciously postmodernist techniques, visible in the formal qualities of her novelistic prose : the juxtaposition of parallel, non-privileged narratives, the abundant use of dream sequences, flashbacks, obsessive signifiers which disrupt and destabilise meaning, the deliberate blurring of generic boundaries, all of which conspire to confound expectations and project the reader into an undecidable textual space. The Handmaid’s testimony displays most, if not all, of these formal qualities, but also, crucially, presupposes a referent — the event or series of events forming the object of witness – a referent whose credibility and relevance must be firmly established to insure the testimony against potential failure. The witness’s speech is necessarily referential or, to quote Felman once more, ‘one which, by its very definition, transcends the witness who is but its medium, the medium of realization of the testimony7.’ Testimony gestures beyond itself and its speaker towards a problematic reality which it constructs in the very process of its enunciation.

  • 8 Glenn Deer, “Rhetorical Strategies in The Handmaid’s Tale : Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power”, E (...)

3Offred’s testimony, in The Handmaid’s Tale, strives to transcend its witness in the creation and transmission of what one critic has called a “believable evil8” What is true of Atwood’s narrator is applicable to dystopian discourse in general : its effectiveness is a direct function of its power to project itself as testimony and convince the reader of the viability of the fictional world it evokes. The question I wish to raise and explore in this paper is the following : what are the enabling features that transform a given text into testimony ? How does the narrator attain the status of witness to our time or to a future age, and what special powers or authority does this status confer ? The Handmaid’s Tale, a testimony to dystopia, provides an excellent starting point for our investigations.

  • 9 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, London : Vintage, 1996, pp. 66-7
  • 10 T. G. Pavel, Fictional Worlds, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 1986, pp. 92-3.

4The question of reference is a crucial one in this context and it is here that I would like to begin. Testimony, as mentioned above, is a discourse gesturing beyond itself to an event or experience in the phenomenal world – a referential discourse. Underpinning every successful testimony is a credible referent. If the referent fails to generate readerly belief, dystopia is transformed into fantasy narrative and the storyteller into a spinner of tales who must forsake any claim to the moral authority of witness. Offred’s narrative attempts to construct a plausible referent : its near-future world is continuous with the Western reader’s : its timeframe dips into the reader’s present and recent past. The narrative’s power of conviction is enhanced by evocation of non-fictional events – the 70s feminist movement with its early fervour, the pro and anti-abortion rallies, the puritanical anti-pornography book burnings – and the portrayal of the hedonistic, consumerist culture of the 1980s and 90s, profoundly alienated from the political process (Offred remembers that in pre-Gilead days ‘we lived, as usual, by ignoring’ and that newspaper stories were ‘like dreams to us’9). Further increasing what the critic Thomas G. Pavel calls the ‘referential density’10 of the narrative are allusions to imbalances in the global eco-system, forming the sinister backdrop to Gilead’s policy of enforced breeding – sterility is the by-product of decades of systematic devastation of the environment, viable ovaries are coerced into procreative activity, the women attached to them demoted to the status of exchange objects. Offred’s tale communicates itself as testimony largely because the past it refers to so clearly and recognizably informs our own present. Yet the imaginary Republic of Gilead, with its conspicuously brutal machinery of repression, its virulently patriarchal character, its strict, colour-coded gender demarcations, its mix of radical Puritanism and prurience is an extrapolation of contemporary realities which clearly challenges any straightforward suspension of disbelief. In order to retain its pragmatic status of convincing testimony, the text deploys strategies that aim to deflect readerly attention from obvious barriers to belief, and it is these strategies I propose to examine in what follows.

5First-person narration – the dominant voice in The Handmaid’s Tale is Offred’s — triggers reader identification with the narrator-witness and privileges the psychology of the individual as opposed to the historical plausibility of her world. We experience Gilead from the perspective of a suffering and traumatised consciousness whose vision is severely restricted, literally and metaphorically, by the four walls of her room, the confines of the Commander’s house, and the bonnet she is forced to wear on her short forays into the outside world. The witness’s memories of Gilead’s beginnings are confused, fragmented, and incomplete, as befits those of a trauma victim. The first-person, confessional form, of the narrative inevitably shifts the focus from the material and historical conditions preceding and underlying Gilead to its effects on a female subjectivity constrained into the rôle of subservient surrogate mother. Identification with Offred – the suffering ‘I’ is, after all, the privileged support of readerly identifications – makes the reader less likely to question the plausibility of Gilead and its radical politics as it places the emphasis on effect rather than cause : The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds as a case study in the consequences of severe repression on the female psyche rather than as a convincing depiction of the genesis of dystopia.

6The reader’s attention is further deflected from the questionable origins and likelihood of Gilead by the Handmaid’s metafictional insistence on her tale as ‘reconstruction’. I quote one passage among many :

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. (…). When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s 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…’ (144)

7The narrator’s emphasis on ‘reconstruction’ is a tactical masterstroke, appealing to postmodern readerly sensibilities (the contemporary reader knows that there is no such thing as unmediated access to ‘reality’) and once again diverting attention from the fictional world onto the sheer difficulty of recording experience. The signifier ‘reconstruction’ allows the narrator to safeguard the referent, which is presupposed – a reconstruction is haunted, however faintly, by the spectre of an ‘original’ event – while at the same time implying that access to the referent (the raw event), relying as it does on the intercession of the word, can only ever be textual and approximate. The emphasis on reconstruction and storytelling give Offred’s testimony a distinctly postmodern slant. Linda Hutcheon points out that postmodern narrative problematises but retains the referent – this is certainly true of Offred’s testimony, which draws attention to its own textuality and the impossibility of accurate witness while never allowing the reader to question the authenticity of the witness’s experience.

8This authenticity is also a function of Offred’s self-portrayal as a trauma victim. Any account of traumatic experience, whether it be written or spoken, fictional or non-fictional, attests to the impossibility of accurate and comprehensive witness. Just as the concept of trauma blurs the boundaries between external agency and internal, subjective ‘reaction’ (Freud emphasises that it is impossible to ascertain whether trauma comes from the inside or the outside), so it subverts any notion of a directly knowable referent as discrete entity, separable from the subject’s experience. This holds true as much for “real” traumatic events as for “imaginary” or “fictional” accounts of trauma and so tends to erase or neutralise the boundary thought to separate them. The psychoanalyst Dori Laub has put forward a cogent definition of the nature of trauma :

  • 11 S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony…, op. cit., p. 69.

The traumatic event, although real, [takes] place outside the parameters of “normal” reality, such as causality, sequence, place and time. The trauma is thus an event that has no beginning, no ending, no before, no during, and no after. This absence of categories (…) lends it a quality of “otherness”, a salience, a timelessness and an ubiquity that puts it outside the range of associatively linked experiences, outside the range of comprehension, of recounting, and of mastery11.

9We read Offred’s account as authentic testimony largely because her speech displays the discursive hallmarks of the traumatised subject’s : she is haunted by nightmares, her memories of the past are contradictory and confused, she has thoughts of suicide and experiences dissociative states bordering, at times, on the psychotic. Time separates out into a sluggish, monotonous present and what is referred to as the ‘time before’ ; between them lies a ‘marker’, a moment out of time which is unbridgeable, indescribable and involves an irreparable sense of loss :

But then what happens, but then what happens ?
I know I lost time.
There must have been needles, pills, something like that. I couldn’t have lost that much time without help. You have had a shock, they said.
I would come up through a roaring and confusion, like surf boiling. I can remember feeling quite calm. I can remember screaming… (49)

  • 12 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery : from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992), London : (...)

10Many trauma victims, as pointed out by Judith Lewis Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery12, display a marked tendency to dissociate mind and body, object and affect, distinguishing an abject, wronged and victimised self and a self determined to survive and testify. Offred displays each of these behavioural traits : pressed into the services of a State which sees her only as a reproductive machine, she turns to recorded speech as an antidote to the vegetative and humiliating existence imposed on her by the routine of the Commander’s household. During the monthly Ceremony, Offred takes refuge in a mind/ body split which echoes the self-protective doubling resorted to by victims of sexual abuse :

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it, the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor would rape cover it… (104)

11Subjected to ritual violation, Offred seeks comfort and distance in an alternative psychical reality as her consciousness takes refuge in description and ironic play with language.

12The tendency to dissociate areas of experience, the constant struggle with the inadequacy of language to capture the event, the failure of memory, the radical gaps or breaks in time, the sense of irretrievable loss are common to all victims of trauma and instrumental in lending Offred’s speech an undeniable power of conviction as testimony. First-person narration intensifies the force of the utterance by encouraging readerly identification with a suffering speaker. Offred’s speech persuades because it attests to the nature of traumatic change as that which exceeds cognitive and linguistic boundaries. Shoshana Felman’s comments on this aspect of testimony are illuminating and pertinent to an understanding of Offred’s account :

  • 13 S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony…, op. cit., p. 5.

As a relation to events, testimony seems to be composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that cannot be constructed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition, events in excess of our frames of reference. (…) As a performative speech act, testimony in effect addresses what in history is action that exceeds any substantialized significance, and what in happenings is impact that dynamically explodes any conceptual reifications and any constative delimitations13.

13Testimony is related by a witness who is also, necessarily, a survivor. The strategic portrayal of Offred as survivor does much to increase the impact of her testimony. A lone survivor who bears witness cannot fail to command the attention and respect of her interlocutor. Atwood herself alludes to the singular force of a survivor’s utterance :

  • 14 M. Atwood, Second Words, op. cit., p. 350.

The Book of Job begins with a series of catastrophes, but for each there is a survivor. Storytelling at its most drastic is the story of the disaster which is the world ; it is done by Job’s messengers, whom God saved alive because someone had to tell the story. I only am escaped alone to tell thee ; when a story, “true” or not, begins like this, we must listen14.

14Survival and witnessing are, in fact, reciprocal acts related through the rhetorical figure known as chiasmus : Offred recounts in order to survive, and survives in order to record her experiences for posterity. The mere fact of her survival confers an unusual degree of moral authority to her story, whatever its objective truth value. This authority is increased by the Handmaid’s insistence on her own weakness and complicities with the system that holds her body in thrall. It is the admission of her own inadequacy and lack of political will that, perhaps more than any other single tactic, make Offred a supremely convincing witness.

  • 15 S. Felman and D. Laub, Testimony…, op. cit., p. 107.

15It is to this strategy of “total condemnation” that I wish to devote the final section of my argument. The concept of total condemnation is explored by Felman in her study of Camus’ The Plague and sheds light on the power of conviction generated by Offred’s testimony. Felman explains that the idea of total condemnation has a double meaning : total as in unstinted and unequivocal (Offred’s condemnation of Gilead), and total ‘in the sense that the condemnation implicates its bearer, contaminates the witness, includes the onlooker15.’ The peculiar force of Offred’s testimony resides in her recognition of the fact that she is, to quote a phrase much used in Bodily Harm, ‘not exempt’ : that she colludes, in fact, with the workings of an ideology which maintains her in a state of abject servitude. Offred’s dreams of resistance and escape are short-lived, sabotaged by the affair with Nick which plunges her into a state of euphoric inertia and emotional dependence :

The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him. (283)

16Fear of Gilead’s savage repressive practices make her realize the extent of her humiliation :

I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. (298)

  • 16 J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), London, Virago, 1996, p. 232.

17The witness’s self-condemnation, her acknowledgement of her contamination by the system she so eloquently describes and repudiates makes hers a uniquely persuasive testimony. Offred is not immune to what Jacqueline Rose has called ‘the pull of victimisation16’ and her attitude to the Commander and his bizarre attemps at seduction is at best ambivalent :

I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn’t what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don’t know what to call it. It isn’t love. (68)

18And she confesses later :

I don’t love the Commander or anything like it, but he’s of interest to me, he occupies space, he is more than a shadow. (172)

19The disturbing attraction of the fascist father testifies to the complexity of the master/ slave relationship. The witness’s awareness of her emotional implication in the system she condemns grants her testimony a rare degree of authenticity. The accuracy of her insight into the psychology of patriarchal totalitarianism more than compensates for the implausibilities and inconsistencies we may perceive in her imaginary world.

  • 17 J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath…, op. cit., p. 5.

20I have attempted to analyse a number of features that transform narrative into testimony : the use of first-person narration, in conjunction with metafictional insistence on the impossibility of accurate witness in the face of traumatic events, the portrayal of narrator as survivor and the extent of her self-condemnation generate, in my view, a power of conviction that the openly ‘fictional’ status of Gilead does little to undermine. As a powerful attestion to, and denunciation of the psychological effects of extreme oppression, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves be added to that growing collection of texts which has prompted suggestions that testimony is ‘the literary (…) mode par excellence of our times17’.


1 This paper modifies and develops ideas first put forward in an earlier, extended article published in Q/W/E/R/T/Y 8, octobre 1998, entitled “Trauma and Testimony : the Status of Witnessing in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (pp. 195-202).

2 In Margaret Atwood, Second Words : Selected Critical Prose, Toronto : Anansi, 1982, pp. 334-357.

3 Ibid., p. 350.

4 S. Felman in S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony : Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, Routledge, 1992.

5 M. Atwood, Second Words, op. cit., p. 348.

6 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethique et Infini : dialogues avec Philippe Nemo, Paris, Fayard, 1982.

7 S. Felman and D. Laub, Testimony…, op. cit., p. 3.

8 Glenn Deer, “Rhetorical Strategies in The Handmaid’s Tale : Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power”, English Studies in Canada 18 (June 1992), p. 215.

9 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, London : Vintage, 1996, pp. 66-7

10 T. G. Pavel, Fictional Worlds, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 1986, pp. 92-3.

11 S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony…, op. cit., p. 69.

12 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery : from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992), London : Pandora, 1994.

13 S. Felman and D. Laub, M. D., Testimony…, op. cit., p. 5.

14 M. Atwood, Second Words, op. cit., p. 350.

15 S. Felman and D. Laub, Testimony…, op. cit., p. 107.

16 J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), London, Virago, 1996, p. 232.

17 J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath…, op. cit., p. 5.

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