Many readers are surprised to hear Atwood’s novel labeled science fiction, but it belongs squarely in the long tradition of near-future dystopias which has made up a large part of SF since the early50s. SF need not involve technological innovation: it has been a long-standing principle that social change can provide the basis for SF just as well as technical change. The Handmaid’s Tale is partly an extrapolation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, attempting to imagine what kind of values might evolve if environmental pollution rendered most of the human race sterile. It is also the product of debates within the feminist movement in the 70s and early 80s.
Atwood has been very much a part of that movement, but she has never been a mere mouthpiece for any group, always insisting on her individual perspectives. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the religious right, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash (mostly hugely misinformed) against the women’s movement led writers like Atwood to fear that the antifeminist tide could not only prevent further gains for women, but turn back the clock.
Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain social trends and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities. They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking of the religious right and which she finds particularly threatening.
But another social controversy also underlies this novel. During the early 80s a debate raged (and continues to rage, on a lower level) about feminist attitudes toward sexuality and pornography in particular. Outspoken feminists have taken all kinds of positions: that all erotica depicting women as sexual objects is demeaning, that pornography was bad though erotica can be good, that although most pornography is demeaning the protection of civil liberties is a greater good which requires the toleration of freedom for pornographers, however distasteful, even that such a thing as feminist pornography can and should be created.
The sub-theme of this tangled debate which seems to have particularly interested and alarmed Atwood is the tendency of some feminist anti-porn groups to ally themselves with religious anti-porn zealots who oppose the feminists on almost every other issue. The language of “protection of women” could slip from a demand for more freedom into a retreat from freedom, to a kind of neo-Victorianism.
After all, it was the need to protect “good” women from sex that justified all manner of repression in the 19th century, including confining them to the home, barring them from participating in the arts, and voting. Contemporary Islamic women sometimes argue that assuming the veil and traditional all-enveloping clothing is aimed at dealing with sexual harassment and sexual objectification. The language is feminist, but the result can be deeply patriarchal, as in this novel.
Without some sense of the varying agendas of mid-20th-century feminists and the debates among those agendas this novel will not make much sense. Women who participated in the movement from the late sixties and early seventies responded to this novel strongly, often finding it extremely alarming. Younger women lacking the same background often found it baffling. Ask yourself as you read not whether events such as it depict s are likely to take place, but whether the attitudes and values it conveys are present in today’s society.
Atwood’s strong point is satire, often hilarious, often very pointed. Humor is in short supply in this novel, but it is a satire nonetheless. Atwood’s love for language play (apparent in the anagram of her name she uses for her private business “O. W. Toad”) is a major feature of the protagonist of this novel. Her jokes are dark and bitter, but they are pervasive.
There are numerous biblical references in the following notes. You shouldprovide yourself with a Bible, preferably a King James Version, which is whatAtwood uses most of the time. Or use a great searchable tuna.uchicago.edu/homes/BIBLES.html.reductio ad absurdum, a theoretical exercise designed to stimulate thought about social issues ratherthan a realistic portrait of a probable future by comparing herself to JonathanSwift, who in A Modest Proposal highlighted the hard-heartednessof the English in allowing the Irish masses to starve by satirically proposingthat they should be encouraged to eat their own children. It is not so obviouswhat the application of the third epigraph is to this novel. It seems to saythat no one needs to forbid what is undesirable. Can you interpret it anyfurther?
Section I: Night
Read the first sentence. What can you tell about the period just from this sentence? People generally sleep in gymnasiums only in emergencies, after disasters. But this “had once” been a gymnasium, which implies that it was converted to its present use a long time ago. Some major change has taken place, probably not for the good. A “palimpsest” was created when a medieval scribe tried to scrape clean a parchment in order to reuse it. Sometimes the scraping process was not complete enough to obliterate all traces of the original text, which could be read faintly underneath the new one. What is suggested by the fact that the immediate supervisors of the girls are women but these women are not allowed guns? What is suggested by the fact that the girls have to read lips to learn each others’ names?
Section II Shopping
The setting has shifted. It is now much later. What is suggested by the factthat the narrator observes “they’ve removed anything you could tie a ropeto?” Note the play on the proverb “Waste not, want not.” What isimplied by the sentence, “Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or nosleep”? “Ladies in reduced circumstances” is a 19th-centuryexpression usually applied to impoverished widows. How does the narrator pun onit? In the gospels, Martha was one of two sisters. She devoted herself tohousework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus. The irony here isthat Jesus praised Mary, not Martha; but the new patriarchy has chosen Martha asthe ideal. What is suggested by the existence of “Colonies” where”Unwomen” live? What are the crimes the Martha’s gossip about in their”private conversations”?
What evidence is there on the second page of this chapter that the revolution which inaugurated this bizarre society is relatively recent? What evidence to reinforce that idea was presented in the opening chapter? Note that Serena Joy bears more than a passing resemblance to Tammy Fay Bakker.
The automobile names are all biblical. Can you guess from the context what an “Eye” is? “Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns:” see Mark 4:1-9. We will learn eventually that the narrator’s name is “Offred.” Her partner is named “Ofglen.” How do the names of Handmaids seem to be formed? How are we informed that this society (called “Gilead” after a Biblical place name) is under attack? Baptists have a long-standing tradition of local control and individualism. Can you guess at the function of the black-painted vans? What power does Offred have over men, powerless as she is? How traditional is this kind of power? Has the elimination of pornography stopped women from being regarded as sex objects?
What is Gilead’s attitude toward higher education? Why is it ominous that the number of widows has diminished. Examine the passage that begins “Women were not protected then.” This is the heart of the ideology that underlies the founding of Gilead. What is its essential rationale? Analyze the narrator’s attitude toward the freedoms of which she speaks. Analyze the play on words in “Habits are hard to break.” The clothing store name “Lilies” is derived from Matthew 6:28. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is a common biblical phrase, often used to describe Canaan, the “Promised Land.” What is the women’s reaction to the pregnant woman? “All flesh” originally means “all of humanity” (see Isaiah 40:5) but here is given a more literal sense as the name for butcher shops. How are the Japanese women different from the women of Gilead? Is Atwood idealizing them? What do you think the point of the contrast is?
What is the function of the Wall? Why have the doctors been executed? The rule that the evidence of one single woman is not adequate is based on Islamic tradition. What is significant about the shift to the present tense in this passage, “Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t”?
Section III: Night
To what time can Offred travel in her imagination that can be called “good”? The narrator’s pun on “date rape” depends on the fact that “rap ” means “grated” or “shredded” in French; a date is a fruit, of course. Be careful not to leap to the conclusion that Atwood is mocking the concept of date rape; her attitude is far more complex than that. But why is this reference especially appropriate to the present context? What was the narrator’s reaction as a little girl to her mother’s participation in the burning of pornographic magazines? What relevance does this memory have to her present situation? The next passage is too fragmented to make much sense now, though more context will be provided later. What can you guess about its meaning now’stories are rarely told in the present tense, as this one is. If a narrator speaks in the past tense, we can be fairly confident that she knows the end of her own story, and that she has survived to tell it. Note how much more open-ended and suspenseful Offred’s narrative is.
Section IV: Waiting Room
What is “Gender Treachery?” The passage on the etymology of the term “Mayday” is correct. During World War II, the opening rhythmic pattern from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was interpreted as the Morse code for “v” (dot dot dot dash), and used to symbolize “victory”. What do we learn about Offred’s family in this passage? If a miscarried fetus may or may not be an “Unbaby” what would an “Unbaby” seem to be? “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6) is a quotation from the Bible meaning that all humans are mortal.
Why does Aunt Lydia use instead the saying “all flesh is weak?” Does she really mean all humans? How about women? How is Offred’s silent correction a reply to her comment’serena Joy’s speechmaking on behalf of housewifery is a clear satire on the career of Phyllis Shlafley, lawyer, right-wing activist, and cofounder of the Eagle Forum, who put most of her energy for many years into leading the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment while admonishing other women to stay home and raise their children. The Shape of Things to Come is the title of one of H. G. Well’s novels, alluded to ironically at the end of the paragraph beginning “She’s looking at the tulips.” Why does Offred envy Rita her access to the knife? Why is she startled at the end of the chapter when she realizes she has called the room “mine”?
What feelings does she have as she looks back on the early days of her affair with Luke? Nolite te bastardes carborundorum will be explained in Chapter 29. Note that a posting lasts two years. This will be important later.
Why are the words to the hymn Amazing Grace now considered subversive? Who did Aunt Lydia blame for the “things” that used to happen to women? What sorts of memories does she keep returning to in this chapter?
What do we learn about the Handmaid system during the scene at the doctor’s office? “Give me children, or else I die.” (Genesis 30:1). Deuteronomy 17:6 requires that for a couple to be stoned to death on account of adultery there has to be two witnesses to the act.
To what were women vulnerable in bathrooms “before they got all the bugs ironed out”? For Paul on hair, see 1 Corinthians 11:6-15. What does this mean: “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely”? The old sexist society was said to reduce women to mere physical objects. Has this changed? What does Offred suggest by saying of the attempted kidnapping of her daughter “I thought it was an isolated incident, at the time”? “Inheriting the Earth”: see Matthew 5.5. If Offred was parted from her daughter when she was five and she is eight now, the separation must have happened three years ago.
Since at eighteen months the pattern of change was not clear to Offred, the revolution which established Gilead must have been quite recent. It is difficult to believe that such a thorough transformation of society in such a short time, but it is important to remember that this is not a realistic novel, but a satirical dystopia. What associations are aroused by the tattoo on Offred’s ankle’she is remembering scenes from the end of World War II, in which women who dated the Nazi occ upiers had their heads shaved in public. What two meanings of the word “compose” is she playing with in the last paragraph?
Section V: Nap
What do you think about her comments on boredom as erotic? Offred lets herself go back in time to when she was in training with Moira. Does anyone blame women for being raped today? How has Offred’s attitude toward her body changed? What do her dreams about her husband and daughter have in common? What does she mean by saying at the end of the chapter “Of all the dreams this is the worst”?