The Handmaid’s Tale Brief Analysis
The Handmaid’s Tale seems to have two main characters that are able to hold its reader’s interest: Offred and the system (Gilead). The description of the surroundings is thought-provoking and no less vivid than heroin’s introspections. If the identification with Offred and the interest in her fate declines (which depends on the reader), there is still the system left to inspection for “holes” in it. There is a tension between these two appeals of the story, the rational challenge (search for the weaknesses of the system), and the emotional appeal (sympathy with the suffering of the main female character). At some point, the first one seems to prevail: as Offred is sentenced to some unhappy end, her main role is to be the eyewitness of cruelty. Yet after the first ending, Offred’s ending comes an overview of Gilead after its obvious end. If with regard to some structural and stylistic characteristics, the novel is considered dystopian fiction, this is an innovation: the system is presented from outside, not within its “impenetrable” boundaries. Admittedly, it remains impenetrable: the speaker named Pieixoto withdraws from any judgment or one-sided description of it. The only sure thing the reader is left with is the merely emotional impression: hence, Gilead is inside, it is a state of mind. This expands the ethical background of Atwood’s novel, making it the inquiry into individual values rather than merely feminist social criticism. This broad understanding of the significance of the book needs to be considered in the context of such processes of the 80s as the proliferation of Christian fundamentalism and the corresponding radicalization of the feminist movement, which seems to be seen by Atwood as depending on each other.
Most of the horror stories end with a detail (typically recurring throughout the narrative) that suggests the possibility of frightening continuation. Dystopias are close to horror stories in the sense that they exploit the psychology of fear, although with different aims (Malak, 1987, p. 10). So, The Handmaid’s Tale, a characteristically dystopian novel, should have some ending evidence of the unbroken condition of the vicious circle. It has such a structural element as two endings, both of them pessimistic and each mirroring another one. These interconnected endings move the story beyond the boundaries of the anti-fundamentalist narrative.
The novel was published in 1986, the time when the problem of fundamentalism was so acute that academicians discussed the implications of fundamentalism for family studies and governmental politics (Hanson, 1989). At the time, it offered attractive simplicity in the otherwise confusing questions of a family foundation and children’s upbringing: “personal and reachable”, it “provides a sense f psychological meaning and cognitive sureness” (Hanson, 1989, p. 352). As Atwood implies in her novel, fundamentalism was a direct response to the increasing complexity of social life and family problems: “an age of plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time”, the scientist remarks (Atwood, 2011, “Historical Notes…”). The narrator is nostalgic about her previous uncertainty concerning Luke’s “love” (“How was I to know he loved me? It might be just an affair. Why did we ever say just?”) (Atwood, Ch. 9). Atwood adds one more factor, namely, the lack of an organized public culture of resistance. The narrator, a representative of the middle class, is unconscious of the processes that are going on when Gilead is established: her response is smoking, drinking coffee, and, finally, an attempt to escape. She sees the “networking” as her mother’s “things of yesteryear” (Atwood, 2011, Ch. 31), and only later it appears to her that networking actually saved her and her friend Moira, at least for a time.
Like in dystopian fiction, Atwood takes the outspoken maxims and practices of fundamentalism and pushes the society in the corresponding direction to the extent that begins to seem unbelievable (Malak, 1987, p. 10). Her Aunt Lydia’s remarks resemble the phrasing of real fundamentalist leaders of the 80s: the dominance of men is seen as “freedom from” “false and misleading scriptural teaching” (Hanson, 1989, p. 351). Like real fundamentalists, Atwood’s ones practice state intrusion into family life and strict control over an individual; they prosecute homosexuals and the representatives of other confessions; finally, they assign to women a merely reproductive role (Hanson, 1989, p. 353). Interestingly, the novel reflects and problematizes also the feminist social movement of the time, such as cultural feminism represented by Offred’s mother and the emergent model of activism for lesbian sexual freedom represented by Moira (Faderman, 2012, pp. 249-250). The narrator seems to measure these outlooks against the yardstick of heterosexual desire, half-consciously: she tells Moira that the latter is living with her head in the sand and complains about lack of love from her mother. In this respect, cultural feminism is strangely related to fundamentalism: they are both ideological and “cold”, though they advocate the vital, “warm” values.
Atwood’s world is inescapable: the system suppresses the powerful characters (Malak, 1987, p. 10), there are external war and some environmental disaster, the existing alternatives are a bit reductionistic in terms of plot: it seems very unlikely that the only alternatives to hook for the elderly and the “gender traitors” is cleaning up nuclear waste somewhere in the “colonies”. The retrospections about the former state of affairs (the origin of Mayday or Offred’s “closet phrase”) are so intricately connected with the present as to suggest that there is some hidden logic behind this connection. The inescapability is strengthened with a structural element, the double ending. Still not knowing anything about the narrator’s circumstances, the reader discovers the same uncertainty about the processes in Gilead expressed by the subsequent generation. For those who are familiar with the academic jargon and presentational manner Atwood so aptly parodies, it would be not difficult to guess that the detached manner of the lector results from either lack of consciousness or the need to satisfy the dominated public culture of science, that is to say, some variant of censorship, Gilead’s long shadow. The narrative reveals its ambiguity from time to time, the one resulting from personal pain: “I don’t want to be telling this story” (Atwood, 2011, Ch. 34). All this suggests that the Empire exists primarily in human subjectivity, in current ethics.
This text structure implicates the ideology of freedom of choice. The main fear of the heroine is that the next generations will never know about any alternatives. In her hierarchy of values, the main one is love: this is the thing the Commandor’s regime overlooked (Atwood, 2011, Ch. 34). According to Atwood, love is only possible when it is chosen, not imposed: chronologically, this first occurs to heroin with Luke, when being made subordinate to him deprives her of sexual desire (Atwood, 2011, Ch. 28). For the cruelest actions, humans (Luke with a cat and handmaids with a convict) first assume that a subject with free will is just “it”. What is also important, this individual freedom is not limited to the soul, it is also related to the bodily, sensuous world: sexual life, even promiscuous, is shown as able to release the tension and make people more humane (Atwood, Ch. 41). This differentiates Atwood’s account of love from the first wave of feminism represented by Beauvoir, who, according to the interpreters, places transcendence above the obsolescence of the body (Morgan, 1986).
Atwood, M., 2011. The handmaid’s tale [e-book]. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Faderman, L., 2012. Odd girls and twilight lovers: A history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America. New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press.
Hanson, R. A., 1989. Religion and the family: The case of Christian fundamentalism. Family Science Review, 2(4), pp. 347-358.
Malak, A., 1987. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition. Canadian Literature, 112, spring issue, pp. 9-16.
Morgan, K. P., 1986. Romantic Love, Altruism, and Self Respect: An Analysis of Simone de Beauvoir. Hypatia, 1(1), pp. 117-48.