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books The Book Beneath the Noise

In these early days of the Age of Trump, there is an upsurge of interest in Margaret Atwood's 1985 harrowing dystopian novel. Jennifer Helinek reminds us why this book has become a modern classic.

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood
ISBN 9780385490818

Forgive people for renewing their obsession with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 feminist dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Given the release of a special edition audiobook at the beginning of April, a Hulu TV adaptation premiering at the end of April, and the book’s anticipation of Trump-era surrealism, a glut of Handmaid’s Tale articles has been inevitable. The book’s narrator, Offred, tells the story of the first generation of a society called Gilead, built from the ashes of the state once known as America. In Gilead, absolute political, economic, and social misogyny becomes the law of the land, and each woman is given a specific role – housemaid, wife, or breeder. Like all breeders (called “handmaids”), Offred has been renamed for her owner; she now belongs to a powerful man named Fred (but whom the book refers to simply as “the Commander”), and her job is to provide the Commander and his barren wife with a baby.

Offred leads a regimented, tedious existence that barely distracts her from the bittersweet, tormenting influence of memory. She reflects on how Christian extremists massacred the president and Congress, froze women’s bank accounts, and outlawed female employment before completely remolding society. Her thoughts on the transition process offer some of the book’s most prescient lines, like, “They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time,” and, “The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipassses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.”

Having read The Handmaid’s Tale nine years ago, at some point I’d stopped thinking about it as a book. Over the years it became a mere cultural reference, a de facto comparison point for all subsequent novels about gender dynamics. In my growing awareness of its symbolic significance, I forgot about its quirks – the elements of the writing that make it a novel with a specific artistic vision, instead of an extended essay about the possible consequences of misogyny. Of course, it’s impossible (and naïve) to separate art and politics – Atwood poses political questions, and leaves readers wrestling with a range of potential messages. But how she asks her questions and offers her messages has often been overlooked in recent discussions, to the point where the majority of current articles reference only the book’s basic plot, leaving readers with no sense of Atwood’s individual style.

One aspect that’s rarely discussed now is The Handmaid’s Tale’s remarkable lack of subtlety, a lack that produces both positive and negative effects. On the positive end, the narrative mirrors the regime’s ludicrously simplistic views on morality, relationships, and human psychology. There’s nothing remotely subtle about the foundational misogyny of Gilead. Women wear heavy, shapeless dresses in colors that denote their roles (green, blue, or red), and white bonnets with wings that “are to keep [them] from seeing, but also from being seen.” During compulsory handmaid training, women are instructed to pray “for emptiness” so they can become “worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.” And in a shift that would please the likes of Henry VIII, the word “sterile” is forbidden in connection with men: “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” By treating misogyny as an obvious fact of life, not a complicated, hidden phenomenon, Atwood forces readers to confront similarly blatant signs of misogyny in our own societies.

On the negative end of the subtlety spectrum, the details of Offred’s memories often fall flat. Superficially, the names for things seem implausibly uncreative: cash registers are called “Compubanks,” and identification numbers, “Compunumbers;” sex shops go by “Pornomarts” and “Feels on Wheels;” and a network that helps women escape Gilead refers to itself, cringingly, as “The Underground Femaleroad.” These tacky details don’t help raise either the old American or the new Gileadean societies above the level of the surreal. Gilead might be a chaotic quilt of biblical, puritanical, and ultra-conservative ideologies, but the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.

On a deeper level, Offred’s memories of her relationships also have a lazy ring to them, focusing on a suspiciously small cast of characters who almost never move beyond stereotypes. We meet her tough, outspoken best friend, Moira; her mother, a strong-willed, lifelong feminist who’s disappointed by Offred’s lack of activist passion; and her husband and daughter, who have no discernible personalities in her flashbacks, but represent the loss of partner intimacy and maternal love. Offred occasionally expresses that it’s painful for her to relive the full details of her past, which partly explains the shallow quality of her memory. But her grief doesn’t fully justify how nebulously she portrays her loved ones. For example, when she thinks about her daughter, she only recalls the kind of clichéd moments any mother could share with a daughter. When she sees dandelions on her lawn in Gilead, Offred remembers:

Rings, [my daughter and I] would make from them, and crowns and necklaces, stains from the bitter milk on our fingers. Or I’d hold one under her chin: Do you like butter? Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose. Or was that buttercups? Or gone to seed: I can see her, running across the lawn, that lawn just there in front of me, at two, three years old, waving one like a sparkler, a small wand of white fire, the air filling with tiny parachutes.

Although often moving, these reflections are a missed opportunity. Atwood attempts to contrast the richness of Offred’s past with the monotony of her present, but Offred’s sitcom-sized cast of loved ones, and the formulaic way she describes them, hardly contribute to that impression. And though The Handmaid’s Tale largely functions as a parable, perhaps side-stepping the need for thorough character development, Atwood claims she resisted the limits of the speculative fiction form when she set out to write her novel. In an article for The New York Times in March of this year, she discusses her hesitation to begin a dystopian tale:

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Was I up to it? The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonize, a veering into allegory and a lack of plausibility. If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.

If The Handmaid’s Tale attempts to incorporate more realism than the average dystopian novel, Offred’s streamlined version of her past impedes this goal, and her cookie-cutter relationships fail to emphasize that the women in her society once functioned as people instead of symbols.

Offred’s story is one of transition. She witnessed the shift from the United States of America to the Republic of Gilead, and her main job as a member of Gildeadean society is to forget her past and honor the rituals of the present. When her narrative begins, she’s still adjusting to her position in a new household: she ingratiates herself with the cooks and housemaids (called “Marthas”), who scorn handmaids; she avoids the wife of the house, an imposing, bitter woman (whose pre-Gilead name was, unfortunately, Serena Joy); and she only occasionally sees the Commander, the head of the house and one of the most powerful politicians in all of Gilead. When she does meet with him, it’s for the sole purpose of having sex.

These riveting, bizarre scenes of state-sanctioned sex are where the novel most succeeds in confronting symbolism. The word “chilling” makes a frequent appearance in both past and current reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s an accurate description to some extent. After all, this is a regime that combines medieval punishments (leaving the hanged bodies of “criminals” on a public wall) with elements of the KGB (abducting people in black vans). But an overlooked element of Atwood’s presentation is her undercurrent of ridicule. Take the new “ceremony” of sex in Gilead:

Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body….the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he’s humming; like a man who has other things on his mind. It’s as if he’s somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits. There’s an impatience to his rhythm now. But isn’t this everyone’s wet dream, two women at once? They used to say that. Exciting, they used to say.

A subsequent birth scene presents the same female positions – the handmaid giving birth sits on a chair, with her Commander’s wife sitting behind her and holding her hands, pretending that her own body is the one producing the baby. Such scenes hardly come across as chilling – in fact, there’s something blackly comedic about this society’s willingness to sacrifice dignity for crude symbolism. When the Commander leaves the room “with exaggerated care” after sex, Offred herself comments, “There’s something hilarious about this, but I don’t dare laugh.” This is what happens when men take the ideals of female behavior and force them into corporeality. These experiences are traumatic for Offred, Serena Joy, and all the women performing their new roles, but it’s the men that wrote these scripts in the first place who appear truly pathetic.

And despite its lack of subtlety, The Handmaid’s Tale is superbly restrained. It avoids adventure or melodrama, even though Offred’s growing interactions with the Commander give her opportunities to spy for the resistance. Part of the uppermost echelon of the regime, the Commander can have absolutely anything he wants – and what he wants is to play Scrabble with Offred. He begins inviting her to his study for clandestine meetings where they always start with Scrabble, eventually adding other forbidden pleasures like reading old magazines and using skin lotion. Having first imagined that she was being summoned for wild sex, Offred keeps her face studiously straight when he tells her what he really desires, confessing to the reader, “I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair.”

A lesser novelist would have used these illicit meetings as a way for the Commander to expound on the philosophies and principles of Gilead, or to become complacent and accidentally divulge secret information. But Atwood respects the constraints she’s placed on her characters, and both the Commander and Offred remain cordial and reticent. In their most open communication, the Commander asks Offred what she thinks about their new society:

Come now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I’m interested in your opinion. You’re intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.
About what? I say.
What we’ve done, he says. How things have worked out.
I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there’s no moon. I have no opinion, I say.
He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.
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.

In the context of a more histrionic plot, these lines would become heavy-handed. But Atwood’s reserve keeps the Commander’s delivery simple and organic.

Perhaps Atwood’s boldest decision is to make this book positively glacial. We follow Offred as she eats, shops, walks in the garden, and lies awake at night. Barred from all forms of productivity and creativity, Offred finds herself unprepared for “the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound.” To keep her mind occupied, she studies everything around her to an almost neurotic degree. Take a scene where she prepares to eat breakfast:

In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an eggcup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm. The eggcup is white china with a blue stripe.
The first egg is white. I move the eggcup a little, so it’s now in the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again, on the tray. The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.

(Several more paragraphs pass before Offred eats this egg.)

The book’s languid pacing might surprise first-time readers expecting a heart-pumping dystopian ride – it certainly surprised me all over again during my re-read – but Offred’s narration brilliantly captures how slow the days pass now that she’s an object. She lives like something that’s been tucked away for later, to be taken out of her cubby when she’s needed to buy chicken or spread her legs. In this state of drowsy suspension, she strives to keep the variety of her past alive through metaphor and association, relating almost every object she passes to multiple other things. The moon is “a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink.” White curtains blowing across her face make her “a cocoon, a spook, face enshrouded…It’s like being in a cloud.” Irises bend in the wind “like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape.” Beyond the beauty of these passages lies a mundane functionality – Offred is exercising her brain in the only way she can, and the astonishing range of her thoughts stands as a constant, elegant indictment of the society that sees her as a walking womb.

By the time Offred’s story reaches its inconclusive end, readers have become so accustomed to the cadence of her voice that the book’s ending, which introduces entirely different voices and contexts, abruptly replaces reverie with wider reflection. In the recent special edition of the audiobook, Atwood expands her original framing device, including a newly imagined academic Q & A session on the historical contours of Gilead. Maybe those who listen to this section without knowing it’s new will see more value in it, freeing themselves from potential biases against updates to published work. But for me, the Q & A, while interesting, seems to work against the heart of the novel. The original framing device worked because of its brevity; even though it closed the book, it failed to overpower the specificity of Offred’s own narrative. The additions read as Atwood clumsily inserting her opinions about our current political climate, remarking on the dangers of false news, wealth gaps, and trading “what we think of as ‘liberty’ for what we think of as ‘safety.’” Noteworthy thoughts for a newspaper editorial – but I think her novel stands stronger without further distractions from her particular, poetic handmaid.

Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer living in Russia.