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Margaret Atwood’s Tale

The historical time of The Handmaid’s Tale would seem to be 2005, no longer our uneasily shared “future.” The novel in no way resembles science fiction but rather “speculative fiction”: a psychologically “realistic” and persuasive exploration of a counterworld bearing a significant if surreal relationship to reality. It takes place in what was once the US, now renamed the Republic of Gilead by its Christian fundamentalist government. Because of environmental pollution, the number of fertile women is low and those who can still bear children are effectively prisoners of the government. When the Christian fundamentalists took power they removed fertile women from their husbands and children and sent them to live with government leaders—or “Commanders”—and their infertile wives so that they could conceive and bear children who would then be raised by the Commanders and their wives as their own. The novel is narrated by one of these fertile women, called Handmaids. In essence a Gothic tale of a young woman’s cruel imprisonment, her shifting relationship with her captors, and her eventual escape, The Handmaid’s Tale differs from its classic dystopian predecessors in the intimacy of the protagonist’s voice and in the convincing domestic background Atwood has established for her.

The ominously named “Offred” (so named by her government captors because she is the daughter of a man named Fred) is rendered with the admirable attentiveness to detail and psychological nuance that is the province of the realistic novel, not the fable. Where the mostly male characters of H.G. Wells’s prophetic novels, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 are primarily functions of plot, Atwood’s character is distinct and individual, with sharp, painful memories of what she has lost (husband, daughter, radical feminist mother, college roommate). Narrated in the breathless present tense, like Surfacing, much of Alias Grace (another captive female novel), and The Blind Assassin as well as numerous short stories by Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale achieves the feat of rendering the bizarre, the ludicrous, and the improbable a new sort of quotidian as Offred moves through the prescribed routine of her essentially dull, housewifely day. She goes shopping for household items (“Our first stop is at a store with another wooden sign: three eggs, a bee, a cow. Milk and Honey. There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two”) and takes a stroll to the Wall, formerly the Harvard-Wall, now appropriated by the Republic of Gilead for displaying executed enemies of the state (“Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, their hands tied in front of them, their heads in white bags tipped sideways onto their shoulders. There must have been a Men’s Salvaging early this morning”).

Offred comments slyly on her sexual rival in the Commander’s household, the Commander’s middle-aged wife Serena Joy, who’d been a Christian-family-values stump-speaker before the Gilead overthrow of the federal government:

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.

She’s looking at the tulips. Her cane is beside her, on the grass. Her profile is towards me…. It’s no longer a flawless cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself….

Atwood’s greatest challenge in The Handmaid’s Tale is to make the ritual copulation ceremony something other than comical, if not slapstick, as the Handmaid lies, mostly clothed, between the spread legs of the Wife, fully clothed, to be subjected to sexual intercourse as performed by the Commander, also mostly clothed. Granted the absurdity of the physical situation, and the improbability of a middle-aged man’s sexual potency in such a situation, very likely this is how it might be:

Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who’s being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping…. It’s as if he’s somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits…. Why does he have to wear that stupid uniform? But would I like his white, tufted raw body any better?

But how eerily prescient that the Republic of Gilead was established by a coup when Christian fundamentalists, revulsed by an overly liberal, godless, and promiscuous society, assassinated the president, machine-gunned Congress, declared a national state of emergency, and laid blame to “Islamic fanatics.” As in Orwell’s 1984, the Republic consolidates its strength by maintaining continual wars against demonized “enemies.” Yet women beware women!—for the patriarchy has shrewdly conscripted categories of women to control and exploit other women: apart from the Handmaids, in the Gilead social hierarchy there are Wives, like Serena Joy; Aunts, who train Handmaids; and Marthas, household servants with grim, obligatory duties to perform. If they fail to bear children, or when they’re beyond the age of childbearing, Handmaids are likely to be shipped off to the dread Colonies with other rebellious, useless, or elderly women, where their fate is to clear away corpses after battles, to prevent the outbreak of plague, and to clean up toxic dumps and radiation spills: “They figure you’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves.”

As in pre-Gilead America, or Victorian England, men of the privileged class have access to brothels, in which, in secret, the hypocritical “family values” of their society are cheerfully flouted; the Commander takes Offred, in ludicrous sexpot costume, to Jezebel’s, a Playboy-fantasy bordello exclusively for the use of officers and “trade delegations, of course.” And, as in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” ordinary, repressed individuals in Gilead, in this case women, are regularly forced to, or allowed to, participate in bloody Dionysian murders called Participutations, in which a man, said to be a “rapist,” is literally torn into pieces: “The air is bright with adrenaline, we are permitted anything and this is freedom.” Offred, who has no wish to participate in such bloodshed, finds herself ravenously hungry after the ceremony: “This is monstrous, but nevertheless it’s true. Death makes me hungry.”

In the startling appendix to the novel, titled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” we learn that Offred has not been writing her story but recording it in a sequence of secret tapes, to be discovered long after her death in the ruins of what was once the city of Bangor, Maine. Abruptly the reader is catapulted into a more conventionally science-fiction future, provided with a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies…held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195”; our narrator Offred has long since vanished, like the nightmare Republic of Gilead, preserved two hundred years later in historical archives under the supervision of pompous (male) academics like Professor Pieixoto, “Director, Twentieth- and Twenty-first Century Archives, Cambridge University, England.”

As the Handmaid’s Tale is an urgent, personal, “female” document, so the academics’ “male” commentary on it is glib, condescending, fatuous, and self-serving. Atwood has said in interviews that she wanted to end The Handmaid’s Tale on an optimistic note,2 to indicate that the Republic of Gilead did not last forever, and to provide the reader with “historical” information unavailable to Offred, yet how deflating is this heavily ironic coda, how much more appropriate to that most perishable of literary genres, the academic satire, than to a work of such raw, urgent power as the Handmaid’s Tale within The Handmaid’s Tale. The appendix makes of the novel an astute, provocative social commentary, where its absence would have made the novel an abiding work of art ending with Offred’s hopeful voice (“And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light”).

The strikingly titled Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s other notable work of speculative fiction, is a yet more ambitious and darkly prophetic work than The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a near-future, post-apocalyptic terrain that is reverting to wilderness after a plague deliberately induced by the deranged scientist-genius called Crake has wiped out most of mankind. The madman/ idealist Crake, self-named for the red-necked crake, a rare Australian bird extinct by the era of Oryx and Crake, is a credible descendant of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and a younger variant of the genocidal-minded idealist of “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by James Tiptree Jr.

Narrated from the perspective of Crake’s childhood friend Jimmy, or Snowman, as he calls himself, Oryx and Crake is an ambitiously concerned, skillfully executed performance by a writer clearly impassioned by her subject: our endangered environment, and our endangered species. By turns tragic, seriocomic, farcical, and blackly satiric, the novel suggests such classic films as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Australian-set Mad Max films of George Miller; its literary predecessors run from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (“The Voyage to Laputa”) to Huxley’s Brave New World.

In the nightmare world recalled by Jimmy, before Crake’s plague-apocalypse, governments have effectively been replaced by gigantic global corporations (“HelthWyzer,” “CorpSeCorps”) whose control over individuals is invisible and near absolute; and whose financing of science is chillingly utilitarian and unprincipled. In this all-too-credible variant of Huxley’s narcotized utopia, “demi-autistic” young scientists like Crake of the Watson-Crick Institute are developing drugs like BlyssPluss, a super-Viagra with, as Crake says enthusiastically, the power to “protect the user against all known sexually transmitted diseases” as well as simultaneously “provide an unlimited supply of libido and sexual prowess, coupled with a generalized sense of energy and well-being”—all this, and it prolongs youth. A fourth capability, Crake says, would not be advertised:

The BlyssPluss Pill would also act as a sure-fire one-time-does-it-all birth-control pill, for male and female alike, thus automatically lowering the population level….

So basically you’re going to sterilize people without them knowing it under the guise of giving them the ultra in orgies” [Jimmy said].

That’s a crude way of putting it,” said Crake.

Yet more diabolically, pharmaceutical companies are researching new diseases for which expensive medical technologies and drugs will be required: “The best diseases,” said Crake, “would be those that cause lingering illnesses.”

Crake is the deranged idealist who wants to rid the world of human cruelty and destructiveness, though he doesn’t himself believe in either God or Nature and would appear to be wholly amoral. In place of Homo sapiens Crake has created his new species of humanity: simple, placid, dull-normal creatures lacking any sense of ego, or humor, for whom sex is a routine physiological function and who are programmed by their creator to die suddenly at the age of thirty, in the prime of life. The Children of Crake, as Jimmy calls them, are physically beautiful, perfectly proportioned, of no more human interest than “animated statues.” When Crake spreads his plague through the whole world, these super-humans, along with Jimmy, are the only ones to survive it. They remember almost nothing of the old civilization and Jimmy must create new myths for them.

The constraining mantle of post-apocalyptic genre is borne lightly by Atwood in Oryx and Crake, but such cautionary fantasies have become so popular in recent decades that revitalizing the form is a considerable challenge. Where there is an apocalypse, there must be an apocalypse-catalyst, or causer: the monomaniac Mad Scientist. Where there is such a villain, there must be a foil: the sensitive witness, the survivor who, like Ishmael, lives to tell the tale. There may even be a third person, a love object, for whom the two contend, in this case the former prostitute Oryx, whom Crake hires to educated the new breed of humans. She becomes for the Children of Crake the truly female figure. How to humanly register, still more feel any emotional involvement with characters like Jimmy/Snowman and the elusive Oryx when, as the novel hopes to persuade us, the earth’s entire population, billions of men, women, children, are dying? Such vast cataclysms leave us unmoved no matter how skillfully rendered by so trenchant and committed a writer as Atwood, though visual dramatizations, as in Steven Spielberg’s recent remake of The War of the Worlds, can rouse the viewer to a visceral horror that might seem to substitute for an emotional engagement. With its plethora of freaky forms, Oryx and Crake suggests one of those unnerving Saul Steinberg drawings in which recognizable human figures are surrounded by bizarre cartoon characters, human and animal and geometrical, some of them here stick figures.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale and Surfacing, Oryx and Crake is tantalizingly open-ended. Jimmy/Snowman discovers that he isn’t the last specimen of Homo sapiens left on earth after all—but will he, can he, dare he approach the other survivors? In a moment that replicates that of Atwood’s unnamed protagonist in Surfacing, who contemplates her lover at a distance, undecided whether to answer his calls to her, Jimmy/Snowman contemplates his fellow human beings at a similar distance and withdraws: “Zero hour, Snowman thinks. Time to go.”

3.

Where Atwood’s recent novels Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, like Oryx and Crake, have been ambitiously high-concept fiction buttressed by a considerable amount of research, Moral Disorder, Atwood’s newest gathering of short stories, is domestic realism at its most convincing: eleven sharply focused, intensely personal stories that function like chapters in an elliptical novel. In the seemingly artless, anecdotal prose of such previous stories of Atwood’s as “Rape Fantasies,” “Hair Jewellery,” “Giving Birth,” and the beautifully rendered “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” Atwood takes us through the life of her protagonist Nell from the age of eleven, when her sister is born, to late middle age when Nell’s children are grown and gone and she and her husband Tig are living in an age of “bad news”: “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.” As Nell’s life is inextricably entwined with the lives of others—family, friends, lovers, her husband and his family, even an assortment of wonderfully individualized farm animals—we come to know her small, concentrated world as if it were our own.

Moral Disorder is likely to be read, perhaps misread, as Margaret Atwood’s most explicitly autobiographical fiction, though Nell is not a writer, or even a creative artist, but, simply, a decent, morally responsible, and astute person upon whom nothing is lost. As Nell thinks at the end of the title story:

Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but knowledge. She would turn into a woman others came to for advice. She would be called in emergencies. She would roll up her sleeves and dispense with sentimentality, and do whatever blood-soaked, bad-smelling thing had to be done. She would become adept with axes.

Early in Moral Disorder, in the ironically titled “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” we return another time to the wilderness setting of Surfacing, except that the focus isn’t now on an adult daughter who has lost both her parents but on an eleven-year-old girl anxiously caught up in the mystery and dread of her middle-aged mother’s pregnancy. Warned by her father that her mother could become “very ill” unless the daughter takes over the most strenuous household tasks, the girl thinks: “He always thought I knew more than I knew, and that I was bigger than I was, and older, and hardier. What he mistook for calmness and competence was actually fright.” Only after the baby’s birth, when the family has returned to the city, and the girl is older, does she rebel against her mother and the household duties that have shadowed her; at the cusp of adolescence, Atwood’s yet unnamed narrator is alert to “seductive and tawdry and frightening pleasures” of her own.

Subsequent linked stories—“The Headless Horseman,” “My Last Duchess”—follow the girl through a relatively conventional middle-class adolescence, distinguished by an uncommon interior life:

I hadn’t yet discovered that I lived in a sort of transparent balloon, drifting over the world without making much contact with it, and that the people I knew appeared to me at a different angle from the one at which they appeared to themselves; and that the reverse was also true. I was a lot smaller to others, up there in my balloon, than I was to myself. I was also blurrier.

In flash-forwards we learn that the younger sister, imagined as a “menace” before her birth, has turned out to be in fact a menace of a kind: she is an emotionally unstable, chronically depressed girl for whom Atwood’s narrator feels a helpless sort of sisterly responsibility. The depressed sister speaks obsessively of “leaving”: “I should just check out. I’m useless here. It’s too much effort,” which the narrator interprets as:

She doesn’t mean my house. She means her body. She means the planet Earth. I can see the same thing she’s seeing: it’s a cliff edge, it’s a bridge with a steep drop, it’s the end. That’s what she wants: The End. Like the end of a story.

As Moral Disorder moves forward in time, out of the relatively staid 1950s and into the “moral disorder” of the 1960s, Atwood’s unnamed narrator acquires the no-nonsense name of Nell. She also acquires a very nice man named Tig, and Tig’s two sons for whom she must care, as a responsible (if unmarried) stepmother. Belatedly Nell realizes that Tig’s first wife, Oona, has arranged for her to become Tig’s lover. So that Oona could be free to pursue her own interests:

She was being interviewed, in a way: Oona had her fingered for the position of second wife, or if not a second wife exactly, something second. Something secondary. Something controllable. A sort of concubine. She was to serve as Tig’s other company, so that Oona could get on with the life of her own she was so determined to lead.

Poor Nell, who doesn’t even cheat at solitaire! In the heady 1960s, where “all games had changed at once and earlier structures had fallen apart and everyone had begun pretending that the very notion of rules was obsolete,” Nell finds herself in approximately the position she’d been boxed into at eleven: caretaker.

In the linked stories “Moral Disorder” and “The White Horse” Atwood ventures into the rural Ontario that has been Alice Munro’s literary province, as into a canny, often very funny dissection of the sexual politics of the era. These are poignant stories crammed with richly nostalgic detail, rueful, wise, elegiac; years later, Nell drives past the farm where she’d lived so crowded and tumultuous a life, seeing how “the farmhouse itself had lost its ramshackle appearance. It looked serene and welcoming, and somewhat suburban.”

The story that ends the collection, “The Boys at the Lab,” returns us to Atwood’s unnamed narrator, now a middle-aged woman caring for her elderly parents. The story is essentially a portrait of the narrator’s mother that will evoke, to readers familiar with Atwood’s fiction, similar portraits of strong yet elusive maternal figures, including the ghostly mother of Surfacing. Now the mother is bedridden, near-blind, and near-deaf:

Talking into her ear is like talking into the end of a long narrow tunnel that leads through the darkness to a place I can’t really imagine. What does she do in there all day? All day, and all night. What does she think about? Is she bored, is she sad, what’s really going on?

Atwood’s narrator understands that her function at her mother’s bedside is to tell stories; to make “legendary” what was once, decades ago at the summer wilderness camp, the stuff of ordinary life: “The stories she most wants to hear are about herself, herself when younger; herself when much younger.” When the mother’s memory at last fades, the narrator must evoke, out of her own imagination, an ending to the final story she has told her mother. What more eloquent and heartrending ending to this work of fiction published nearly thirty-five years after Surfacing, a final evocation of the wilderness site in northern Quebec to which Atwood’s father brought his family each summer: “Then they all climb up the hill, toward the Lab, and vanish among the trees.”

Letters

Corrections November 30, 2006

  1. 2

    As Atwood remarked in an interview with Geoff Hancock in 1986:

    I’m an optimist. I like to show that the Third Reich, the Fourth Reich, the Fifth Reich did not last forever.

    In fact, Orwell is much more optimistic than people give him credit for…. He has a text at the end of 1984. Most people think the book ends when Winston Smith comes to love Big Brother. But it doesn’t. It ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in the past tense, in standard English—which means that, at the time of writing the note, Newspeak is a thing of the past.

    From Waltzing Again: New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll (Ontario Review Press, 2006), p. 116.

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