My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near-future ruled by a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist regime, where fertility rates have plummeted. Crucially, women are blamed for being infertile, never the men for being sterile, resulting in a strict hierarchical system for women.
Sound inviting? No. This is a bleak book. All of this dystopian gloom can be a slog. It wears on you (and that’s the point), and I admit to taking a break for several months. But it’s also a book of powerful ideas, tied together by some remarkable language. I will give a brief outline of the story, but my focus will be on highlighting the images that Atwood is able to conjure, brilliant flashes of light in the enveloping gloom, which draws you back and which keeps you reading.
‘I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It’s supposed to be able to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national treasure.’
The narrator, Offred, is a ‘handmaid’, an indentured slave whose only role is to have surrogate babies with her ‘Commander’ on behalf of his barren wife. ‘Offred’ means ‘Of Fred’, i.e. belonging to Fred, her Commander.
‘I wait for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow.’
Offred is intended to be a ship, a carrier of precious cargo (a baby), the Commander’s cargo. But for the moment she is hollow (not pregnant). Atwood uses lots of clever double, even triple, meanings:
‘I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.’
Except that we as the reader know that it does. They all relate to Offred’s circumstances: she is a prisoner, vulnerable to execution, and at the mercy and charity of the leader, so long as her flesh remains useful.
‘It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President…’
We get some background as to what caused the rise in infertility and declining birth rates, which eventually led to totalitarian rule:
The air got too full once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies…Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Death watch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.
‘Sure death to shore birds’ is wonderful wordplay. And then the ‘death watch’ metaphor. It’s brilliant stuff, and typical of Atwood’s poetic insights which punch through the suffocating fabric of Offred’s existence.
Quite cleverly for a dystopian tale, the slide into totalitarian rule occurred within the lifetime of the characters. The book is as much about how quickly we can forget things, while at the same time the most innocuous things can remain embedded in our memories. The narrative constantly plays on this:
‘Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging by the necks…their heads in white bags tipped sideways onto their shoulders.
It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men look like dolls on which faces have not yet been painted, like scarecrows, which in a way they are, since they are meant to scare…Though if you look and look, as we are doing, you can see the outline of the features under the white cloth, like grey shadows. The heads are the heads of snowmen, with the coal eyes and the carrot nose fallen out. The heads are melting.’
It’s a horrifying image, but think about the metaphors she is using: dolls, scarecrows, snowmen – all images from a disappeared culture, her youth, and the freedom to make snowmen or walk freely in the countryside. It’s very subtle but powerful; essentially, this is a book of such symbolism.
Later, sitting in the Commander’s room, she sees an old women’s magazine and remembers them from her youth:
‘There they were again, the images of my childhood: bold, striding, confident, their arms flung out as if to claim space, their legs apart, feet planted squarely on the earth…Those candid eyes, shadowed with makeup, yes, but like the eyes of cats, ready to pounce. No quailing, no clinging there, not in those capes and rough tweeds, those boots that came to the knees. Pirates, these women, with their ladylike briefcases for the loot and their horsy, acquisitive teeth.’
‘Pirate’ women is an amusing image and adds some welcome levity. But Offred can’t entirely reconnect with the mindset of her youth, referring to a handbag by the masculine ‘briefcase’. Her lens is one of masculine power.
‘The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there.’
Atwood uses colour to great effect. Each of the castes within the hierarchical system has their own colour: the Handmaids in red, the Commanders’ Wives in blue, the ‘Aunts’ (Handmaid trainers) in brown and the ‘Marthas’ (domestic servants) in green.
Eventually, colours begin to represent words:
‘We reach the first barrier…a red hexagon which means stop.’
An effective way to control a population is to control their means of communication. Women are forbidden from reading or writing:
‘You can see the place…where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now places are known by their signs alone.’
Later, Offred finds a forbidden pen:
‘The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. “Pen is Envy”, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Centre motto, warning us away from such objects.’
Did you see it? ‘Pen is Envy’. Penis Envy. It’s clever wordplay, but perhaps a little cliched, once you see it. But then…the men do indeed have power: what’s not to envy? Because they can write. Words have power. Just as Atwood is demonstrating.
But it isn’t necessarily as simple as that. Here Offred fantasises recording her experiences if she ever gets out:
‘It is impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances, too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours in the air or on the tongue half-colours, too many.’
Atwood is here describing the difficulties and frustrations of the writing process.
Offred’s recollections of the descent into tyrannical rule – subtle and innocent at first - are particularly sobering. Further on in the book we get a look behind the curtain to see how this so-called puritanical world really functions. It reinforces one of the themes of the book, which is how people find a kind of freedom in the cracks of tyranny, and also perhaps Offred’s means of escape.
Offred soon begins to form an illegal bond with her Commander which lies outside the strict formalities of The Ceremony, the bizarre impregnation ritual where the Commander’s wife is present. They play Scrabble in his room:
‘Then followed the same two games, with the same smooth beige counters…My tongue felt thick with the effort of spelling. It was like using a language I had once known but nearly forgotten, a language that had to do with customs that had long before passed out of the world…It was like trying to walk without crutches, like those phony scenes in old TV movies…That was the way my mind lurched and stumbled, among the sharp r’s and t’s, sliding over the ovoid vowels as if on pebbles.’
Not only is ‘ovoid vowels’ nice assonance (repetition of the same vowel sounds), it’s also an unusual pairing, so that it makes us slow our thoughts and check our mental steps as we negotiate it’s contoured surface; we feel the same as Offred in her fumbling with rarely-encountered words.
In the end, it is Atwood’s extraordinary imagery which raises this book above the usual dystopian mire:
‘Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash…velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun…’
Wow. So much going on here, I don’t know which metaphor is better - but ‘black cat’s-ears in the sun’! You picture them in your mind – flower/ears - backlit, slightly transparent at the centre, the fine fur backlit and highlighted around the edges.
Here are some more:
‘…her transparent voice, her voice of raw egg white.’
‘…she was lava beneath the crust of her daily life.’
‘Late afternoon, the sky hazy, the sunlight diffuse but heavy and everywhere, like bronze dust.’
‘Bronze dust’ - think about that next time you’re driving into a hazy sunset.
One of the flaws in dystopian fiction are the endings: an upbeat ending seems twee and convenient, whilst a downbeat ending would seem like the whole experience has been a waste of time. Atwood avoids this with a very clever epilogue, which I won’t spoil. Though the book was written in 1985, and set around 2005, it’s remarkably prescient in its depiction of a world where women are subjugated. Think of the proposed caliphate of ISIS - it was only the religious denomination which Atwood got wrong. This could have been our future.
An interview with Margaret Atwood