Book Analysis: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale book cover

In 1984, Margaret Atwood penned one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time.  The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifying look at a patriarchal society run amok.  It tackles a range of important topics, including women’s rights, gender roles, religion, and tyranny.  These issues are even more present in our day and age; they are unlikely to ever be solved as no real solution likely exists.  But that’s how the greatest science fiction works: it postulates a solution or scenario and runs it through to a potential conclusion.  In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the conclusion serves as a cautionary tale for both women and men.

The book can be disturbing on a couple levels.  First is the novel’s setting: its society, characters, and events.  The society of Gilead has replaced what was once the United States (or at least the northeast portion of the United States).  Something has caused most people to become sterile, although whether both men and women are equally affected is left in doubt.  Women in Gilead are deprived of most of their freedom in exchange for protection from predatory men.  In particular, Handmaids are fertile women forced into sexual servitude to conceive offspring for the elite men known as Commanders.  The novel’s narrator is a Handmaid named Offred.  It is through Offred’s words that the reader experiences the world of Gilead.

A second disturbing aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale is the realization that everything within Gilead is based on some historical precedent.  As Professor James Darcy Pieixoto states in the “Historical Notes” that serve as an afterward for The Handmaid’s Tale: “There was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.

So let us break down some of the elements that form the synthesis that is Gilead.  This constitutes the “substance” of the novel.  Later we’ll look at the actual language and symbology that make up the “form” of the novel.

Substance

Margaret Atwood portraitPerhaps the best place to start with an examination of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s substance is consulting the author’s current thoughts on her own work.  Earlier this year, Margaret Atwood wrote an excellent New York Times essay, “What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump,” which deftly brings up three questions the author is often asked about The Handmaid’s Tale.  First is whether The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist.  Second is whether The Handmaid’s Tale is anti-religion.  And third is whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a prediction.  Atwood tackles each question separately but the questions are really very intertwined in Offred’s story.

The topic of feminism is directly discussed by Offred, Luke, and Offred’s mother, prior to the formation of Gilead.  The trio talks about gender roles and the evolution of women’s rights.  Offred’s mother represents a portrait of a classic feminist, one who views everything from the inequality women faced throughout most of history.  She expects all women to feel the same, and any woman that would deign to accept a classic female gender role is hurting the cause, since you have to consider “how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far.”  Offred resents her mother’s expectation that Offred “vindicate her [mother’s] life for her, and the choices she’d made” and doesn’t want “to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas.”  Luke resents the notion that once upon a time he wouldn’t have been allowed to cook else “they’d have called you queer.”

Of course, the society of Gilead places certain women above men, although in a very twisted way.  The Handmaids are held in high esteem for the simple fact they are fertile and thus capable of producing offspring.  And only other Handmaids are allowed to be present during one of the rare births, with the male doctors sequestered in a van outside and only called in when absolutely necessary.  Immediately after the birth of Janine’s baby, Offred thinks “Mother, I think.  Wherever you may be.  Can you hear me?  You wanted a women’s culture.  Well, now there is one.  It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.  Be thankful for small mercies.”  As Offred tells her friend Moira, “if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken.”  Gilead clearly isn’t what Offred’s mother or Moira had in mind for their female Utopias, but one rarely gets what one asks for in these cases.

Offred makes note of several instances of women betraying each other.  When she walks in on Rita and Cora furtively talking in the kitchen she notices the looks on their faces, “the way women’s faces are when they’ve been talking about you behind your back and they think you’ve heard: embarrassed, but also a little defiant, as if it were their right.”  When an obviously pregnant Janine walks through a market, Offred observes “‘Showoff,’ a voice hisses, and this is true… The voice behind me was right.  She’s come here to display herself.  She’s glowing, rosy, she’s enjoying every minute of this.”  This cattiness is stereotypical behavior for women, exhibited today by such practices as body shaming and mom shaming.  Of course, in Gilead this competitive attitude is practically encouraged with the limited time the Handmaids are allotted to conceive before they are shipped off to the Colonies.  The Handmaids are also required to walk in pairs to act as spies and keep each other in line.

Perhaps the biggest betrayal of other women, especially from a feminist’s point of view, was Serena Joy in her prior life as Pam.  Serena Joy’s “speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home.  Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.”

The Aunts promise women will eventually be able to get along.  Once the population level is back up they won’t need Handmaids and women can develop actual affection.  The competition over conception will disappear and women will be united for a common end.  “But,” Aunt Lydia says, “we can’t be greedy pigs and demand too much before it’s ready, now can we?”  Even when reminding the women about what they are theoretically striving for, the women in charge are sure to keep the other women in check and complacent.

All of this female infighting is best summed up by Luke: “Fraternize means to behave like a brother.  Luke told me that.  He said there was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister.  Sororize, it would have to be, he said.”  The mere fact the English language doesn’t even include a word for women getting along is extremely telling, especially since in reality such a word does exist (and has since at least the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary).  Thus, in the land of Gilead, the word has been removed, a result of how much control men have over shaping every language.  Still, the word fraternize is used much more often than its sister word.  Meanwhile, most people are as familiar with sororities as fraternities, but again sororities are largely viewed simply as the female version of the male institution.  Of course, the behavior of members of either are generally viewed in a negative light; the men in fraternities are stereotyped as boorish and predatory while the women in sororities are stereotyped as sluttish.

Those same gender roles are exhibited by the Commanders and Handmaids, with the Commanders’ behavior hidden behind a veil of rank.  In effect, the society of Gilead is a dignified rape culture.  There is nothing romantic about the act of copulation.  The participants don’t even fully remove their clothes, both to inhibit prurient interests and to enforce religious beliefs about sin.  The Handmaid’s training at the hands of the Aunts is essentially brainwashing the young women into accepting this culture.

Offred can still recall the time prior to being a Handmaid.  She recalls

My nakedness is strange to me already.  My body seems outdated.  Did I really wear bathing suits, at the beach?  I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen.  Shameful, immodest.  I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it.  I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.

The Aunts train the Handmaids to believe women were “shameful” and “immodest” by daring to dress in such outfits as bathing suits.  Of course, this is the classic argument that if a women doesn’t want to be viewed as a sexual object or attacked sexually, then she shouldn’t dress in a way that encourages it.  The old “she was asking for it” line of thinking.

One of Offred’s fellow Handmaid’s, Janine, eventually comes to blame herself completely for her own rape, a sad thread that continues throughout The Handmaid’s Tale until Janine meets her end.  Janine is so indoctrinated to blaming herself that she believes all her lost pregnancies are actually her own fault.  She has several relapses to her former life as a waitress, highlighting the mental instability created by this fracture of her psyche.  Her final breakdown in the closing chapters winds up being a natural progression to an unfortunate end.

In seeming contrast to a rape culture, the women of Gilead are protected much more stringently (with the obvious and painful exception of the Commanders’ intercourse with the Handmaids).  However, that protection has a steep price.  “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it.”  Society in The Handmaid’s Tale protects women, provides them freedom from predators, by removing women’s freedom to live, act, dress, and think how they want.  The freedom of choice was the downfall of society, according to the Aunts: “These women [Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn] could be undone; or not.  They seemed to be able to choose.  We seemed to be able to choose, then.  We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.”  This is a classic totalitarian argument: the only way to protect members of society is to strip those members of most freedom.

One twist to this rape culture aspect of Gilead, though, is that the men are also prohibited from even touching women, a fact in which Offred takes some enjoyment early in her tale.

They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me.  It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it, because none this is the fault of these men, they’re too young.  Then I find I’m no ashamed after all.  I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.  I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously.  They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds.  They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege.

The Commanders in Gilead have positioned themselves at the complete apex of society.  They rule the government which makes the rules for society.  As part of those rules they prohibit all other men from sexual release.  And as Offred states any attempt at an outlet is a sacrilege, which brings in the religious aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale.

As Margaret Atwood contends in her essay, The Handmaid’s Tale is not really anti-religion, but it is “against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.”  This affront to religion is obviously exhibited throughout all of history; it seems most major atrocities are performed in the name of some religion.  The Middle East in particular has been the stage for many battles based on religion, from the Crusades to the current conflicts.  It is easy to twist whatever meaning one wants out of a religious text, particularly the Bible.

Take the example of the Patricicution near the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.  A man is sentenced to death for rape, based on the Biblical verses Dueteronomy 22: 23 – 29.  The first six verses provide the justification for the death penalty in the case of rape.

23 If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry out in the city, and the man because he humbled his neighbor’s wife; so you shall put away the evil from among you.
25 But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. 27 For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her.

– https://www.bible.com/bible/114/DEU.22.nkjv

Interestingly, the referenced verses also include another provision, one that fits perfectly with the rape culture of Gilead:

28 If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.

– https://www.bible.com/bible/114/DEU.22.nkjv

Divorce is also outlawed in Gilead based on Biblical law, most likely including this verse.  We find out women’s Prayvaganzas are for group weddings.  Commanders and Wives are married by arrangement, not for something as silly and erstwhile as love.  This type marriage sounds very much like that described in Deuteronomy 22: 28-29, although to be fair the Wives are supposedly still virgins when they marry their respective Commanders.

As foreign as arranged marriage sounds to most of us, it does have plenty of historical precedent.  When Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids “love is not the point,” she is speaking truthfully for most of human history.  As the Commander tells Offred, “look at the stats, my dear.  Was it really worth it, falling in love?  Arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better.”  The added twist in Gilead is that the Commanders do not get to pick their Wives, so at least the lack of choice is equal for both genders in this instance.  But in the end, as Tina Turner asked, what’s love got to do with it?

Speaking of love, one of the best gradual revelations in The Handmaid’s Tale is the fact Offred started her relationship with Luke via an affair.  This experience influences Offred’s perceptions of all relationships.  Her reaction to the Commander’s complaint that he doesn’t have much in common with his wife is “That’s what I was there for, then.  The same old thing.  It was too banal to be true.”  Her reaction to the hotel room at Jezebel’s is “Everything is the same, the very same as it was, once upon a time.”  The usage of the phrase “once upon a time” highlights the fairy tale ideal of love juxtaposed with the sad, banal reality of relationships and marriage.

Which is good a place to switch to an examination of the novel’s form rather than its substance.

Form

The passage ending the second “Night” chapter beautifully encapsulates the entire novel’s writing style, use of language, and story telling:

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden.  But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.  You don’t tell a story only yourself.  There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter.  Dear You, I’ll say.  Just you, without a name.  Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours?  I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

Framing device

The entire novel is actually a recording recovered in Bangor, Maine, in a way station along the Female Underground that ferries women out of Gilead to Canada.  A section titled “Historical Notes” follows the story’s conclusion.  This section is fascinating.  It lays bare many of the discussion points of the novel.  The historical and Biblical precedents of Gilead are explained, along with the scientific justifications men might use when creating such a society.  The formulation of the names of the Handmaids and Aunts is revealed.  Atwood essentially holds a mini writer’s workshop in the final pages of her own novel, highlighting her though processes and sources.  When the speaker asks at the end “Are there any questions?” it almost feels like there couldn’t be anything left.  But of course any good piece of literature contains plenty of points for discussion, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a champion at generating contention.

This framing device provides the narration extra intimacy.  The “you” Offred references is actually the listener.  And she expected her tale to be heard, since writing is forbidden.  Writing can be personal, but hearing the person’s voice would seem to lend extra gravity.  Imagine hearing Offred’s voice catch as she recounts her experiences.  Think how much more painful the memories of her lost daughter would be as she struggles to hold back her tears.  Thankfully, given no actual original recording of The Handmaid’s Tale exists (it is fiction, after all), Atwood masterfully imparts all that emotion in the written language.

Lyrical language

While The Handmaid’s Tale is predominantly a prose novel, many instances of poetic language are included.  Several paragraphs are formed mostly of sentence fragments; even some paragraphs are only a few words long.  Atwood plays wonderfully with the English language, poking and prodding and forming sentences with the utmost care yet remaining whimsical at points.

Some of Offred’s phrases are simple yet powerful.  “The threshold of a new house is a lonely place” captures all the trepidation of transitions, both physical and metaphorical.  “We lived in the gaps between the stories” illustrates the banality of everyday existence that tricks people into forgetting how to live life, while “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it” shows how some people purposefully turn a blind eye to undesirable events.  “I too am a missing person” and “Better never means better for everyone; it always means worse, for some” remind people that there are multiple perspectives to everything in life and a shift in point of view can drastically change the outlook.

Sometimes Offred gets playful with the English language.  Her remarks about “quaint” idioms provide some welcome levity.  “I hear where you’re coming from, as if the voice itself were a traveler, arriving from a distant place.  Which it would be, which it is.”  “Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat.  Misfit as odor.”  The description of a single person’s apartment, “Separate entrance,” meant you could have sex unobserved.  A whole paragraph is centered around the wordplay of “Pen Is Envy” (e.g. “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost”).  And when Moira is unknowingly dressed as a Playboy bunny, Offred muses “why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men?”; probably because of the purported procreative power of rabbits.

A slight motif of the word “fall” the fifth “Night”: “Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn?  Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling.”  Soon after, during the conversation between the Commander and Offred about love and marriage, Offred says “Falling in love.  Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another.”  She recall phrases such as “I fell for him.”  At the end of her musings on falling in love, Offred remembers Luke’s apparent death, how he was “stopped dead in time, in midair, among the trees back there, in the act of falling.”  These three references to falling, all within a few pages of each other, bring together darkness, light, love, and death.  And as Offred tells us when thinking about the potential of Luke’s survival: “I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”  Does that mean there could be no love without death?  We certainly seem to pair love and death in our stories. (And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, and there can no more permanent absence than death, it would appear love follows death.  Just like Romeo and Juliet.)

The phrase “Praise be” is the standard response between Handmaids.  It is used many times for many purposes.  One of its uses is during an initial daily greeting.  The obvious origin of this usage is religious, as in “Beautiful day we’re having” followed by “Praise be to God for such beauty.”  This meaning is likely lost by the time of the story, though, just as prayers have been mechanized into the store Soul Scrolls.  But “Praise be” also serves as an ironic refrain for the Handmaids.  Certainly none of the women in Gilead have much to praise.  A similar phrase, “Mayday,” is used as the password to the network of women working against Gilead.  “Mayday” nicely parallels “Praise be” in rhythm and emphasis, but the link becomes even more powerful when Luke explains “Mayday” came from the French “m’aidez” which means “help me.”  One could easily replace all the uses of “Praise be” with “Help me” to reveal a new layer of communication between the Handmaids.

Back to You

Let’s focus again the use of “You” in Offred’s narration.  Early on she addresses her audience with “Dear You.”  Later she tells us “By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being.  Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence.  I tell, therefore you are.”  Offred’s conviction that her telling of the story creates the existence of the audience directly contradicts how stories work from the perspective of the reader or listener.  But as any writer will tell you, there is always an intended audience.  After all, why bother to tell a story if no one will hear it?  The obvious reference to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is put on its head.  Whereas Descartes contended the one sole thing he could believe in no matter what was his own existence because he can think about his own existence, Offred is convinced someone else exists because she believes in that person.

At another point, Offred offers up a prayer.  She initially addresses it to “My God.  Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  But then she tacks on “which is within” right after “Kingdom of Heaven.”  She continues with “I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean.  But You will do as well as anything.”  The rest of the prayer is addressed simply to “You.”  One could take this literally and assume Offred is referring to God.  But based on her other uses of the word “you” to directly reference the audience, one could also assume the statements in this prayer are directed at the reader.  That provides a new level of meaning to her statements such as “If I were You I’d be fed up.  I’d really be sick of it.  I guess that’s the difference between us.”  Either Offred gets very sacrilegious in her exhortations to God or she’s offering her commentary on society for letting Gilead come into existence.

Dystopias

It feels like kismet that Margaret Atwood would write a classic dystopia novel in 1984.  After all, the most famous dystopia of all time, Orsen Welles’ 1984, takes places in the year 1984.  The Handmaid’s Tale, while certainly standing on its own in the anti-Utopia genre, appears to include some references to its classic forebear.  Early on we learn real coffee is a commodity, since only “in the houses of the Commanders there is still real coffee.”  Cigarettes are also verboten and relegated to the black market.  The drink of choice is gin, although Offred only gets to partake at the hotel Jezebel’s.  The concern over fake news is the same; when Serena Joy turns on the news Offred wonders “who knows if any of it is true?  It could be old clips, it could be faked.  But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it.  Any news, now, is better than none.”  And the government’s use of torture to make detractors say whatever the investigator wants is similar to what 1984’s protagonist is subjected to.

Dystopias have come into vogue in the past decade, mostly thanks to the super popular Hunger Games trilogy and to a lesser extent the Divergent trilogy.  Two common aspects of those trilogies are very telling in light of The Handmaid’s Tale.  First, both series are targeted at young adults.  As Offred says about the young guards at one of the gates: “The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns.  They haven’t yet learned about existence through time.”  Young adults have not experienced enough of life to truly grasp the horrible potential in real life, yet they seem to devour dystopian fiction.  This is likely due to the power common to all science fiction; the ability to “test out” a different version of reality that is still connected enough to our reality to make the fiction plausible.  In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the predictive power has felt all too real in the past year or so.  The other aspect of Hunger Games and Divergent that flows from The Handmaid’s Tale is the female protagonist.  All three are also written by females, which might itself be the reason for a female first person point of view in each.  The modern novels likely attempt to use the female character to entice the large female audience for young adult fiction.  But it’s also more powerful to present a dystopia from the perspective of one of the oppressed; in fact that’s practically a prerequisite.  Most dystopias tend to cast a strong male as the antagonist: Big Brother in 1984, the Commanders in The Handmaid’s Tale, or President Snow in Hunger Games.  So while men are certainly subjected to tyranny in these novels, it’s the women that have the most to fight against and fight for.  (It’s also probably why some other modern dystopias, such as The Maze Runner, failed to grab my attention to the level of Hunger GamesDivergent, or The Handmaid’s Tale).

In Closing

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a monumental novel.  It’s harrowing view of Gilead’s society has become even more shocking in the three decades since its publication.  The rise of terrorism makes documents such as “Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies, as Seen through Diaries” more relevant, as well as showing how the more things change the more they stay the same.  Realizing that the racist fears that “provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed” are the same fears boiling over in race riots and protests today must give the reader pause.  And the fact scientific thinking, such as Darwinism, is still shunned today makes it too plausible that a “sociobiological theory of natural polygamy” could be used as “a scientific justification for some of the odder practices” in Gilead.  The unknown stew of causes for the wave of sterility that led to Gilead’s practices include many threats still prevalent today, including diseases, toxic chemicals, and lifestyle choices (e.g. birth control, remaining childless).

One can take heart that we are likely far removed from Gilead in practice.  But one must worry our society’s mentality and attitude doesn’t stray too close to that path.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Don’t let the bastards grind you down

Praise be, dear reader.

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Travis Hudson
Chief Editorial Officer at Rampant Discourse

Software developer by day. Member of the literati by night. Full time father of one son and one daughter. Music enthusiast. Comic book defender. Cultural deconstructionist. Aspirant philosopher. Zen but not Zen.


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