Making poison

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 324 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 224 02348 9

‘Fear is a powerful stimulant,’ says Offred, the heroine of Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale of the near future. Trained at the Rachel and Leah Centre and habited in red, Offred belongs to a quasi-religious order of ‘sacred vessels’, ‘two-legged wombs’ whose task it is to produce the next generation of the ruling élite in the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a Puritan tyranny set up, after the assassination of the President and Congress of the United States, in breakaway New England; Offred herself is confined to the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the university is closed and the football stadium is used for public executions, now known as Salvagings.

The name Offred does not mean Offered or Offred, though in terms of the rhetoric of The Handmaid’s Tale a good case could be made for either signification. The overt, or offered, meaning of Offred is Of Fred, Fred being the Commander to whose household she has been assigned as sacred vessel or handmaid. But the real meaning of Offred, I believe, is Afraid; though since it is not her real name, she is also Not Afraid. Offred has had a predecessor, who bore the same name and who left behind a single message – Nolite te bastardes carborundum, a piece of familiar schoolboy dog-Latin – before hanging herself from her bedroom lampshade. Atwood’s narrator, however, is determined to prove a survivor if nothing else, and her tale at least has survived.

Margaret Atwood’s novels are not written to a formula. The Handmaid’s Tale, like its five predecessors, is an unrepeatable and starkly individual performance. At the same time, it is the Science Fiction fable that this author (who is at once a poet and a primarily realistic novelist) has long hinted that she intended to write. In The Edible Woman, first published in 1969, one of the characters looked forward to life after the next cataclysm, when ‘Birth would be essential again,’ and a new Venus Genetrix, the goddess of a new fertility cult, would arise. In a short story, ‘The Salt Garden’, Atwood created a protagonist suffering from periodic black-outs brought on by visions of the end of the world. One of her black-outs took place while she was making love, and, as she explained to her partner afterwards, ‘it was like a nuclear explosion.’ (‘He thought she was using a simile,’ we are told.) In Lady Oracle the narrator, a specialist in bodice-rippers or ‘costume Gothics’, confided that ‘maybe I’ll try some science fiction. The future doesn’t appeal to me as much as the past, but I’m sure it’s better for you.’ The future in literary fictions is always a simile or metaphor, never a straight prediction; and, for Atwood’s privileged white middle-class characters, it is a metaphor for fear. With The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood’s art can be seen, more clearly than before, to be based on the proposition that fear is good for you.

Though the structure and setting of each novel are different, there is a recognisable type of Atwood heroine. She is wry, observant, resourceful – and frightened. She is a determinedly free woman, a denizen of the permissive society who is agonisingly aware of finding herself trapped in the wrong place and with the wrong people. The residual puritanism of her upbringing, a ‘survival’ in the anthropological sense, turns out to be more relevant to her predicament than she or we ever suspected. In Atwood’s earlier novels this heroine was invariably a Canadian, often a young woman from an outlying settlement or small town who had come to live in Toronto. Offred, by contrast, is at once a New Englander and someone who no longer even thinks of herself as free. But her tale is entirely consonant with Atwood’s sense of her own tradition as set out in Survival (1972), her ‘Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature’. Survival is a necessarily bleaker and more Spartan counterpart to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel – a book which it rivals, however, in sheer momentum and intellectual buoyancy.

In Survival, Atwood argued that the standard pattern of realistic novels about ‘normal’ women – not just a Canadian pattern – was drawn from the fairy-tale of Rapunzel, as told by the brothers Grimm. The Rapunzel Syndrome consists of Rapunzel herself, the wicked witch or magician who has imprisoned her, the tower she is imprisoned in, and the Rescuer, a ‘handsome prince of little substantiality who provides momentary escape’. The Rapunzel Syndrome was doubtless present, though submerged in some very different story-material, in Atwood’s earlier fictions. In The Handmaid’s Tale it is dominant.

Offred is imprisoned by the Commander and his household, by the Republic of Gilead, and – more broadly – by the change in sexual power-relationships brought about by a catastrophic decline in the birth-rate. Earthquakes, nuclear pollution, Agent Orange, an AIDS epidemic and a new strain of venereal disease have combined to bring about a drastic reduction in human fertility (surely a disturbingly topical vision). The result is that a woman of child-bearing age, unsterilised and with a record of normal births, is necessarily treated as a national resource. Such a development is wholeheartedly welcomed by the born-again founders of Gilead, for whom, as Offred’s Commander puts it, ‘Nature’s norm’ has reasserted itself. Offred was allowed to choose between becoming a handmaid and joining the clean-up squads of slave labourers in the outlying regions made uninhabitable by nuclear waste. To someone set on survival, this was no choice at all. Thanks to her status as a sacred vessel she is protected while Catholics, Quakers, abortionists and fugitives who have tried to escape by stealing over the Canadian border are summarily put to death. Until the Rescuer arrives, Offred need suffer nothing worse than grotesque rituals of copulation and childbirth derived from the 19th-century Mormons and ultimately from the 30th chapter of Genesis.

In the end, the Rescuer comes and Offred escapes – though the evidence is that the freedom she sought remains elusive. Her tale takes the form of a diary preserved on tapes unearthed in the ruins of what was once a ‘safe house’ used by the resistance in Bangor, Maine, a station on the Underground Female-road to Canada and freedom. The recordings can be dated, on internal evidence, somewhere around the second decade of the 21st century – about thirty years from now. An epilogue consists of a pompous academic monologue (some things never change) spoken by their discoverer, a specialist in Gileadean archaeology working shortly before the year 2200. He finds no difficulty in drawing parallels with the situation in late 20th-century Iran, while Offred herself is aware of the relevance of Nazi Germany. (In place of the Free French operating from Britain, Gileadeans can tune in to the broadcasts of Radio Free America emanating from Cuba.) In a telling scene Offred and her companion, each of whom views the other as a possible spy, are accosted by a group of Japanese tourists who stare incredulously at their red habits and veils and want to know if they are happy. Naturally they reply in the affirmative; they have to say something. A hundred and fifty years later the archaeologist comfortably contrasts The Handmaid’s Tale with diaries produced in revolutionary Iran: we are more likely to think of it as a science-fictional Diary of Anne Frank.

The stylistic challenge of the tale of the future was defined long ago by H.G. Wells. It is the challenge of knowing when to be vague and when to be precise. ‘So soon as the hypothesis has been launched,’ Wells said of his scientific romances, ‘the whole interest becomes the interest of looking at human feelings and human ways, from the new angle that has been acquired.’ In the experience of a modern Rapunzel imprisoned in her tower there are likely to be short bursts of action and long stretches of boredom in which nothing happens and there is nothing to be done except to sit and brood. There was a comparable situation less vividly developed in Atwood’s last novel, Bodily Harm; here it was possible to overlook the fact that the formal situation framing the whole narrative was that of two women confined to a prison cell in a politically turbulent Caribbean island. In The Handmaid’s Tale, as in Bodily Harm, the heroine has to wait in fear while her destiny is decided by processes she is powerless to control.

Atwood’s triumph in her latest novel is to capture the eerily static, minute-by-minute quality of Offred’s sensations, in a life reduced to a meagre sequence of small incidents and stifled and impoverished human contacts, and seen through a consciousness heightened by waiting and fear. Offred is a subdued and even at times a cowed narrator: ‘I don’t want to be telling this story,’ she tells us. Some readers may regret the toning-down of the humorous strain in Atwood’s work, seen at its best in the withering ironies and controlled surrealist farce of a novel such as The Edible Woman. But the people and things which make up Off-red’s world are as sharply-etched as ever – who can forget the Commander’s black shoes, hard as the ‘shells of beetles’? – and like all Atwood’s novels this one is full of subtle but irrepressible verbal play. Offred has a delightfully nostalgic digression on ‘falling in love’, a 20th-century ideology which she is old enough to remember and have taken part in. The Republic of Gilead has set its face steadfastly against ‘falling women’; love, sexual love, is the last thing that is needed once human reproduction has become the central focus of social anxiety.

Ironically – and perhaps controversially – this Anti-Sex League society contains certain features which are seen as fulfilling the objectives of the contemporary Women’s Movement. Whatever else Offred may fear, she can walk the streets unthreatened by rape or pornography or unauthorised violence and sexual harassment. Though a masculine tyranny, Gilead has carefully-demarcated and well-policed areas of separatist culture and female autonomy. ‘You wanted a women’s culture,’ thinks Offred when she is mentally browbeating her mother, a former feminist activist. ‘Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.’ In Gilead there are male soldiers and secret police, but also female authority-figures, the ‘Aunts’, armed with steel cables and electric cattle-prods. Success in childbirth and reproduction is more essential to the society than technological or economic progress.

When Offred remembers the past, she remembers her lost lover and her child – back in the innocent and difficult days of ‘falling in love’ – and she remembers a little of her mother. Most of her memories, however, are of the Rachel and Leah Centre in which she was indoctrinated and made ready for her duties as a handmaid. The Centre, a sort of futuristic boarding-school run by sadistic Aunts, fills the gap in her recollections that would normally be occupied by the experiences of childhood and youth. It is as if she had been successfully brainwashed there (though she retains her will to resist), and as if the more distant memories had been wiped out. This serves the science-fictional purpose of the story, but it is also notable that the authoritarian Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale stand in much the same relationship to the heroine as do the puritanical parents and parent-substitutes in some of Atwood’s previous novels (the closest analogy is with the sinister Auntie Muriel in Life before Man). There is an element in all these fictions of an inverted Freudian family romance in which the child is taken away from its home and handed over to cruel and life-denying foster-parents, who are the bearers of the Puritan tradition. The theme of the child herself reaching the threshold of parenthood, and negotiating the ordeal of young adulthood with its self-deceptions and illusory freedoms, is not an innocent one in Atwood’s earlier novels: on the contrary, it seems to release the underlying Puritan strain in her imagination.

The Edible Woman is the story of two flatmates, one of whom escapes at the last moment from the wicked enchantment of an impending marriage, while the other sets up as a witch launching ruthlessly and deliberately into single parenthood. Which is on the side of the ‘Creative Life Force’? the narrator asks – which is on the road to salvation? It seems that it must be one or the other. (Before The Edible Woman there was an unpublished first novel, of which the author has said: ‘It ended with the heroine deciding whether or not to push the male protagonist off a roof.’ I would lay a small bet that she was pregnant at the time.) In Surfacing, a ‘ghost story’ in which the sophisticated heroine returns to the Canadian outback to investigate the disappearance of her father, the resolution takes the form of a solitary and primitivist reversion to biological existence, with the heroine re-entering the imaginative world of her childhood only to emerge as an expectant, and single, mother. One of the twin female protagonists of Life before Man is a paleontologist and museum assistant who has freed herself from family life and lives for much of the time in a dream-world of proliferating dinosaurs; by the end she, too, is pregnant, and seems unperturbed by the prospect of being sacked from her job at the museum. The Handmaid’s Tale does not fit in with this pattern, and if childbirth were offered as a resolution we should certainly have seen it as false. Nevertheless, the spread of sexual diseases and other causes of near-universal infertility serves on this occasion as both the cue and the excuse (insofar as it can be excused) for the inception of a puritan tyranny.

It seems inevitable that The Handmaid’s Tale will be discussed, to some extent, in political terms. Bodily Harm was a political novel, a portrayal of brutality and electoral intrigue in the Caribbean which invited – and vigorously sustained – the inevitable comparisons with Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul. In Bodily Harm there was a political moral directed at Atwood’s immediate public, the ‘sweet Canadians’ with their readiness to come forward with food aid, tourist traffic and diplomatic support, for a newly-independent Commonwealth country, with no questions asked. The Handmaid’s Tale is also bound to be scrutinised for its political message, though the choice of an epigraph from Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ suggests how backhanded this message is likely to be. After the excitement generated a few years ago by the feminist utopias of Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ, the appearance of a female dystopia by a writer as eminent as Margaret Atwood will itself be seen as a literary-political event, perhaps even as a breaking of the ranks. Certainly it is not hard to point to the questions left unanswered by Atwood’s imaginative vision – the author herself is probably well aware of these. The story of exactly how and when Gilead came into being is left as vague as in most utopias whether positive or negative. Biology has taken precedence over economics in the new society, but it seems that trade relations with countries such as England and Japan are still of some importance. How are they carried on? We would, as the pompous archaeologist puts it, give a good deal for the chance of seeing some of the print-outs from Offred’s Commander’s desk computer; it is too bad she never thought of salvaging a few sheets. Have capitalism and the multinational corporations really been so easily demolished, and if not what sort of residual existence do they have? The Commander, we are told, was once in market research – what exactly does he do now? The Handmaid’s Tale remains true to contemporary women’s fiction in the sense that it is self-consciously a tale of the oppressed and not of the oppressors; and the oppressed, though hungry for knowledge, are necessarily denied it.

A narrowly political reading of The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly possible, but it is likely to be a bad reading. In her study of Canadian literature Atwood concluded that her country’s literary tradition was ‘undeniably sombre and negative’. ‘It’s a fairly tough tradition to be saddled with,’ she observed. It was not until Bodily Harm and The Handmaid’s Tale that, in her own work, we could begin to see just what that might have meant. In the early novels fear itself was a tonic and almost pleasurable experience, part of the Creative Life Force. It is the later and darker novels which speak more intimately to certain late 20th-century obsessions, though they are not for that reason any less absorbing and exhilarating to read. As Atwood wrote in ‘Making poison’, published in her recent collection of short fictions and prose poems Murder in the Dark, ‘making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison.’ And is poison, in small doses, good for survival? ‘Those who can believe that such stories are only stories,’ as Offred puts it, ‘have a better chance.’

We do not need writers now (if we ever did) to lull us with promises of immortality. Advertising and the glossy magazines do quite adequately what the churches once did. Margaret Atwood’s novels speak to us of death and survival, of poison and its possible antidotes, and these subjects are inextricably linked in her work with the themes of puritanism and Canadian identity, as well as with feminism and its prospects. She has been fortunate in her loyal constituencies of readers and publishers – whether the small presses of Toronto or the olive-green livery of Virago Press – but the popularity she has gained from them now seems of the too easily categorisable sort. The Handmaid’s Tale is, quite simply, the work of the most distinguished novelist under fifty currently writing in English. What poison tale will she tell us next?