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.

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