Too Close for Comfort: Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale

This Month on Changing the Map

Last year’s announcement that Hulu was remaking Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale of religious fundamentalism and female oppression couldn’t have been more timely. Her imagining of a takeover of the government and its impact on one powerless woman affected readers deeply when it was first published in 1986. Worryingly, elements of Atwood’s fantastical story are now far less fantastical than they were 30 years ago.


About the Author

Born in Ottawa, Canada, to a nutritionist mother and entomologist father, Margaret Atwood (1939 –) was a voracious reader and autodidact in her youth. She began writing at 6 and decided to make literature her career at the age of 16. In addition to penning 17 novels, 10 short story collections, and countless poems, she’s written television scripts, stories for children, graphic novels, and operatic libretti.

She is an outspoken feminist, an ardent humanist, and a technological inventor.

The mother of one adult child, Ms. Atwood resides in Toronto with her longtime partner.


The Handmaid’s Tale (1986)
Written by: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Speculative Fiction/Dystopia
Pages: 311 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: First Anchor Books

Spoilers: I discuss everything but the ending. Read the book and watch the show!

Discussion: The ninth of Margaret Atwood’s many novels, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place near Boston in the new province of Gilead, formed after a takeover of the United States government. Much of what we learn about Gilead and what’s happened to the country comes as tantalizing drips of information, spread out throughout the novel. This draws us forward into the story, eager to find out how something like this could possibly have happened, and how our poor heroine could end up in her situation.

The heroine is Offred, a “Handmaid” in the service of a new government run on biblical principles instead of individual freedoms. She and other healthy young women have been trained by the repressive “Aunts” to be a vessel for conception based on a biblical story of surrogacy.

“And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (Genesis 30:3)

In this near-future America, nuclear meltdowns and toxic chemicals have reduced fertility. Wealthy men in power and their compliant wives are issued a “handmaid” — a young woman certified capable of conception. Offred has been proven fertile because she already bore a child, a daughter who was taken from her and given to a more “worthy” childless couple. This heartbreak of Offred’s is something she both tries to suppress and cling to, hoping she will one day be reunited with her daughter, or at least hear that she is alive.

Meanwhile Offred is kept in a hot attic in the home of a powerful couple — A Commander of the Faithful, who is a high-ranking official in the new religious government, and his wife Serena Joy, a former televangelist. It’s the Commander, whose first name is Fred, who gives Offred her name — of Fred. Throughout the novel, we never learn Offred’s true name.

Each Handmaid is given two years to conceive a child before they are placed with another couple. If they haven’t conceived after three placements, they’re sent to the desolate Colonies, where they’ll be deemed “Unwomen” and forced to clean up nuclear waste and toxic chemicals. Here their skin will “peel off like gloves” and they’ll die within a few years. Offred knows that removal to the Colonies is a death sentence. She endures the debasing Ceremony, hoping she will conceive, and hoping her conception will allow her to live.

The story is told in the style of a slave narrative, as Offred describes her daily life, who she was before her enslavement, and what she’s endured since. Women aren’t allowed to read or write, and Offred has no way of recording her experiences, leaving us to wonder what we’re reading and who she is speaking to, another device Atwood uses to engage the reader. Does the presence of a narrative mean that Offred survives her enslavement, or not?

The Handmaid’s Tale opens after Offred has been living in the home of the Commander and Serena Joy for some time. Serena Joy is desperate for a child, but resents Offred’s presence. The conception “Ceremony” is degrading to both women — to Offred for enduring the loveless and strange copulation, to Serena Joy for having to participate in the ritual, cradling Offred during the act to mimic the biblical story, but also to keeping anything intimate from occurring between the Handmaid and her husband. Although Serena Joy hates and oppresses Offred, Serena Joy is herself also oppressed by society and circumstance.

Intercut between descriptions of Offred’s lonely life in the house — I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig —  the horrors she sees on her walks to the market, and the unpleasant Ceremony, Offred describes her life before Gilead and her training as a Handmaid.

She reminisces about her old college friend Moira, a feminist and a rebel, who was assigned to Handmaid duty at the same time Offred was. But unlike Offred, who just wanted to survive, Moira wanted to escape. On her first attempt, she is severely beaten. On her second attempt, Moira succeeds. Offred stays put, fearing punishment and failure.

As the spring and summer drags on the clock continues to tick on Offred’s timeframe to conceive. Desperate to have a baby to care for and worried that the older Commander might himself be infertile, Serena Joy suggests Offred have sex with the family’s chauffer, Nick. Offred agrees.

Meanwhile, the Commander decides he isn’t satisfied with the cold and silent coupling of the Ceremony. He calls Offred to his office late at night when Serena Joy is asleep — meeting with him alone is itself a capital offense.

“My presence here is illegal. It’s forbidden for us to be alone with the Commanders. We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary, everything possible has been done to remove us from that category … We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” (pg. 136)

Offred suspects she’s been summoned to satisfy a kink, but finds out that what the Commander wants is even kinkier — to play scrabble, to talk about fashion magazines, and worse, to question Offred about her life under the new government. Does she prefer the Gilead regime to her old life? Does she feel safer, happier?

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” is what he says. “We thought we could do better.”
“Better?” I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
“Better never means better for everyone,” he says. “It always means worse, for some.” (pg. 210)

Offred knows the Commander was one of the primary architects of Gilead. She can’t tell him that truth. She can’t reveal that every time she sees a kitchen knife she wants to steal it so she can free herself or kill herself, depending on the day. During these illicit meetings with the Commander she discovers what happened to the previous Handmaid. The discovery haunts her, literally and figuratively.

As the summer drags on, Offred’s silent, obedient service as a Handmaid changes rapidly. She begins engaging in act after forbidden act — fraternization with her Commander, reading and drinking, nightly couplings with Nick the chauffeur, and under the cover of darkness, a visit to a whorehouse called Jezebel’s. Shocked that such a place would exist in ultra-conservative Gilead, the Commander explains why he feels it’s permissible.

“Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” (pg. 237)

As time passes, Offred feels lulled into complacency by her perceived power over the Commander and by the sheer pleasure of having a satisfying — and normal — sexual relationship with Nick. She’s conscious that she’s complacent, that she’s dropping her guard. She begins to suspect that she’s pregnant, a possibility that will ensure her survival in Gilead.

But when Offred’s fellow handmaid Ofglen, a member of a secretive resistance movement, disappears, Offred realizes how much danger she might be in, baby or no baby.

How it Changed the Map

Readers and feminists have sometimes critiqued Atwood for her choice of heroine. They feel that the often passive Offred lacks agency, and perhaps wasn’t a suitably active or empowered female character. It’s true that Offred is not an ideological feminist. Her mother is. Her gay best friend Moira certainly is. But before the coup, Offred was simply a wife and a mother with an ordinary job who viewed the political leanings of her friends and family with a little amusement. In my opinion this makes her the perfect narrator — swept up in a tide of religious fervor and societal upheaval, she sees the world from one moment to the next as she tries to survive. She’s a bubble on the waves, affected by forces more powerful than herself. Her smallness and vulnerability help us feel the enormity of the novel’s horror. Atwood’s choice of a politically uninvolved woman is also a warning to readers: this could happen to you if you don’t become aware and active.

“There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped.” (Pg. 180)

Another interesting aspect of the story as feminist literature — Atwood doesn’t flinch from including female characters that oppress other women.

“The best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves … In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called “traditional values” or for the benefits they might therefore acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.” (pg. 308)

When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in the mid-eighties, religious fundamentalism existed, but in a more toothless and powerless form than it does today. Atwood wrote her novel before conservative churches urged their members to run for office and return the country to a Christian nation through political takeover. This also meant a push to return women to a more traditional and circumscribed role in society, deferring to their husband’s wishes and judgement. Often, it’s women themselves who choose to take on this subservient role, another way Atwood’s portrayal of women oppressing women rings true.

Today those people are a powerful and majority force in American politics and it’s this that makes The Handmaid’s Tale freshly important. Atwood even imagined with eerie prescience how such a coup of our government might take place.

“They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control … That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” (pg. 174)

Sound familiar?


Next Month: This column welcomes guest blogger Ronya F. McCool with her review of Octavia Butler’s stunning sci-fi tale of slavery and time travel — Kindred.

7 Comments

  • mjpichette March 14, 2017 at 8:17 am

    Thank you for sharing this frighteningly timely novel.

    Reply
  • Kelly McCarty March 14, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    I’ve always found The Handmaid’s Tale far more frightening than the dystopian novels about alien invasions or zombie apocalypses because it feels so chilling possible. I’m curious to see how the show handles the ending of the book.

    Reply
  • Sharon March 14, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    That’s a really good point! Atwood balks when people call The Handmaid’s Tale science fiction. She prefers “speculative fiction” because it could really happen.

    Reply
  • Shara White March 14, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    I wish I had the time to re-read this. I read this for the FIRST time at 26 (OMG it’s been ten years!) and I had all kinds of thinky-pretentious thoughts back then if you’re interested: http://calico-reaction.livejournal.com/7255.html

    Reply
    • Sharon March 14, 2017 at 9:54 pm

      Great review! You make an excellent point about the vague handwaving she did regarding the nature of the religious wars, which seemed to stretch planet-wide. I would have liked to hear more.

      Reply
  • Lane Robins March 15, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    This was a really good review. It made me want to revisit the book, but I think once might be enough for my stress levels. 🙂

    Reply
    • Sharon March 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      That’s true! My stress level was much higher this time around.

      Reply

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