Margaret's Atwood The Handmaid's Tale is a famous anti-utopian novel, which is perhaps destined to become a classic in the context of foreign language teaching. In the following article a systematic approach is being developed to deal with this work in the foreign language classroom. For convenience’s sake it has been divided into two parts.
Foreign Language Teaching (FLT)
Part One: Textual Analysis
THT is not an easy novel for foreign language learners; on the contrary, it is a work which is both comprehensive and unusually complex. Yet there exist many advantages if this novel is chosen for foreign language teaching. First of all, it is an authentic text in which, apart from a few variants of American spelling such as color, center, or mustache, no deviations from the norms of Standard English occur, and, in addition to that, it is not very complicated in syntactical respect. Although the percentage of unknown words is not likely to be very low even for advanced learners, the difficulties of understanding are mainly caused by the apparent lack of coherence which exists between the individual elements at first sight. Whether this obstacle is overcome, depends both on the students' imagination and their sensitivity to literary texts rather than on their recognition vocabulary and their command of English syntax. And there are many literary, cultural and historical allusions in the work which call for a comment: in this context two easily available publications may be recommended to the learners(1).
Once interest in Atwood's novel has been raised, it offers a lot of ground for discovery reading, which, in itself, may become a fascinating process. It is true that the narrator is not of the same age as the learners (actually she is 33 years old: cf. p. 186; all page references follow the Fawcett Crest pocket book edition, New York, 1985) and therefore may not be a figure for easy identification; however, her destiny may appeal to adolescent readers in many respects. This may start from the fact that, in accordance with the demand made by Atticus in Harper Lee's famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the reader is asked to slip into somebody else's shoes in order to understand and to evaluate the narrator protagonist. As one critic puts it: "Atwood's writing seeks to create in her readers an ability to imagine themselves into the lives of others in a way that creates respect for their differences."(2) This is a principle which is also put forward in the most recent Guidelines for North Rhine Westphalia, in which the adolescent learners of English are asked to develop empathy.(3)
Out of the narrator's account the picture of a tyrannical regime is gradually formed, in which state control is the general rule, with particular focus on the discrimination of women and overrregulation of social and sexual activities. Moreover, life in this society is threatened by environmental pollution, and very often the oppression of the individual is committed in the name of religion. Thus the book may also be understood as a warning against totalitarian and fundamentalist tendencies. Unfortunately, in some countries like Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan for example, this is still a very topical theme, which directly concerns the interests of adolescent readers.
In telling her story the narrator reflects a lot on her reduced living conditions. Strictly speaking, in the society depicted by Margaret Atwood, a handmaid's role is to be invisible, interchangeable and voiceless: a handmaid is not allowed to make use of language as a means of communication, and any creative use of language is outlawed. It is true that Margaret Atwood's narrator is no open rebel; however, she is no conformist either. It becomes clear in the course of the novel that she undergoes a very particular process of ordeals and that she even risks her life by telling her tale.(4) Thus the narrator is both trustworthy and able to keep her own integrity. Generally speaking, the narrator is a very enduring heroine whose account is full of tension until the very end. Moreover, it has justly been called a strength of the novel that all basic characteristics of the system have been turned into fictional life.(5)
By telling her story, by giving expression to her fate she tries to define herself. Since a handmaid is expected to be silent, for the narrator constructing her tale means a personal act of resistance against the authority of the state, which implies that her identity is affirmed.(6) At the same time she has to reflect on her personality as well as on the creative process of her report. In other words: when giving a rather systematic account of her life, she is also developing an elementary theory of story-telling so that within the text of the novel, there is also a meta-literary level, which adds another dimension to it.
THT, then, is a novel which contains a large potential for discussion, which is open to many approaches and which is eminently appropriate for the foreign language classroom. Once the link between the text and the adolescent learners has been established, it will provide an educational experience which is both fascinating and enjoyable in foreign language teaching.
The novel takes place in the fundamentalist republic of Gilead, which is named after a place in the Old Testament, a mountainous region east of the Jordan. In Hebrew the name means 'heap of stones', though the region also abounded in spices and aromatic herbs and, in an ironic contrast to Atwood's fictitious society, was full of hope and fertility (cf. Genesis, 31:21 and 37:25). What the leaders of this state do not say, is that Gilead, in the Bible, is also said to be a "city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood" (cf. Hosea, 6:8).
The first scene of the novel occurs in a strange place where obviously many women have to live together in seclusion. It strikes the narrator as remarkable that anything is removed that you could tie a rope to (p. 9), and she also wonders why shatterproof glass is used in this place (p. 10). (Cf. also the textual references on p. 68 and p. 374. In chapter 27, the window of Soul Scrolls is said to be shatterproof, too; cf. p. 215.) The answer is that the action occurs in something that very much resembles a prison-like compound and that its residents should be prevented from committing suicide, which is also a hint about the desperate mood of the women living there. Later on, an analogy between the narrator's situation and living in a concentration camp is worked out (cf. for example the use of tattoos which are ironically called passports in reverse; p. 84). Whether you compare the locality to a prison or a concentration camp, it is clear that the narrator's situation is that of a victim anyway.
Although the term itself is not directly mentioned, it has to be concluded that the narrator finds herself in the Rachel and Leah Center, which is called the Red Center for short (the name first occurs on p. 34; cf. also p. 125). The name is reminiscent of the first motto of the novel, which is again referred to in chapters 11 and 15 and which is taken from the Old Testament (Genesis, 30:1-3):
|And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? 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.|
It is in the Red Centre that all the handmaids have to live, meaning that those Gileadean women who are thought to be fertile and therefore are still able to conceive a baby have to live in dreary imprisonment. They are recruited for the one and sole purpose of breeding children, and their procreative function becomes clear right from the beginning. Thus the above quoted passage provides the biblical precedent for sexual practices in Gilead: in the name of religion the handmaids are used as surrogate mothers.
Later on it is described that, in a pseudo-religious ceremony, the handmaids get face-concealing costumes and, in a nun-like way, they have to take the red veil (p. 285) and promise to do their duty in silence (p. 287). Thus their situation is defined by the colour of blood (p. 11); the statement refers to the red colour which is only to be worn by the narrator's group (p. 12) and which is the traditional symbol of guilt. This may be seen from the figure of the Whore of Babylon in the Bible, namely Mary Magdalene (cf. Revelation, 17:3-5) and from the allusion to her (cf. p. 314), but also from Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous romance The Scarlet Letter (1850). Colour, then, is used as a dividing line between classes (p. 12) and also as a tool in order to establish a hierarchical system (cf. p. 29). Thus monastic ideals become imposed horrors in Gilead.
Although the narrator is part of a homogeneous group, its members are not allowed to entertain normal relationships or to enjoy the benefits of human interaction: any talk between them is forbidden (p. 4). It may be assumed that verbal exchange is considered as a threat to stability and, as a consequence, it is controlled in order to stifle any possible opposition against the state: there seems to be a general climate of fear and distrust. It may easily be imagined that for the handmaids solipsism and permanent silence are well-nigh unbearable. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that they have recourse to lip-reading (p. 4), which helps them to develop an alternative means of communication. Generally speaking, the handmaids have to follow many rules, and they may never do what they would like to: life in the Red Center is systematically founded on coercion, and authority is maintained through terror. If necessary, torture is used to enforce discipline as can be concluded from Moira's swollen feet (she has been exposed to electric shocks from Aunt Lydia's steel cables; cf. p. 322 and p. 118; it is highly significant that this information is given in the context of Offred's monthly mating duty).
Moreover, the narrator states that "like other things now, thought must be rationed" (p. 10). The handmaids are allowed neither to read nor to write, i.e. they are denied any access to knowledge which is classified as a temptation (p. 252). The narrator, then, has to live in reduced circumstances (cf. p. 10, p. 134 and p. 141). First of all, this means a reduction of choices for her: as a prisoner she has no personal property at her disposal. She has no money and clothes of her own, there are no more films and no more magazines, any piece of information is scarce and valuable. Elsewhere Offred concludes that her isolation means intellectual starvation (p. 239). This is reminiscent of one of the three paradoxical slogans which George Orwell has placed in the first chapter of his novel 1984, namely: "Ignorance is Strength." In a similar way, the statement "we still had our bodies" (p. 4) is just wishful thinking since all possibly fruitful women had become "a national resource" (p. 85). Rather than belonging to them as individuals, the insides of their bodies are now claimed to be the state's property.
In this new society there is a return to traditional values (p. 9): these values are determined by the Puritan tradition, and they imply a return to a reactionary social code, which confines women to the home and to domestic roles. Thus, females are dependent on men in economic as well as in political respects and are also thought to be intellectually inferior. In other words, the rise of the so-called republic of Gilead implies a Conservative backlash for women: they live like virtual slaves and prisoners. There can be no doubt that the narrator is rejecting Puritan values right from the beginning.
There are more allusions to the Puritan tradition in the text. Another example is provided by the principle: "Waste not want not" (p. 9). This is a saying which represents one of the Gileadean values, which is a plea for modesty and temperance, for which you find an appropriate version in the German translation:
by Helga Pfetsch (second btb edition, 1998): "Nichts entbehrt, wer der Verschwendung wehrt" (p. 19). All "viable ovaries" (p. 186, p. 324) have become national resources which are not being wasted. Another instance may be quoted: "Stabbed her with a knitting needle" (p. 14), which may refer to a practice superstitiously ascribed by the Puritans to witches. It was believed that what is done to the symbol happens in reality by means of sympathetic magic. So if a red-hot pin is put through the waxen image of a man, this will cause him to die. (There is a similar reference on pp. 354-355, where it is stated that wives are not allowed to kill handmaids with knitting needles or other tools ... On p. 376 needles are also described as weapons.) To conclude: the Puritan tradition is determined by superstition, aggressiveness and exploitation of other people. It may be interesting in this context that Mary Webster, one of Margaret Atwood's ancestors who is one of the two dedicatees of the novel, became a victim of Puritan hostility, too. The other dedicatee is Professor Perry Miller, director of American Studies at Harvard: he is an influential authority on Puritanism, its mentality and ideology, and he was one of the writer's academic teachers.(7)
This is not yet the complete picture of Gilead which is developed in the first chapters. Other classes are introduced rather early, for example the Aunts and the Angels. The Aunts are the female control agency (cf. p. 390): it is their task to 're-educate' the handmaids, that is to indoctrinate them, to blind them by using the same slogans, stock phrases and official platitudes (p. 353); this form of re-education is very close to reduction. The electrified cattle prods (p. 4) are a clear sign of their power: these are pointed instruments used to control cattle, but they were also used by the US police in race riots against black people in the late 1960s. This means that the handmaids, in addition to being sexual slaves and prisoners, are also tortured and degraded: they are clearly considered as inferior beings.(8) (The cattle prods are again referred to on p. 169, p. 251 and p. 313.) It is quite obvious that the present situation is insupportable for the handmaids; therefore the narrator mentions her yearning for the future (p. 4), i.e. she longs for a basic change to the better.
When the narrator has to live in a Commander's household for a limited period of time, she regularly meets another handmaid. Their personal names are replaced by the new official ones "Offred" and "Ofglen", with Offred meaning "of Fred" and Ofglen meaning "of Glen"; thus the names indicate that handmaids are their master's property.(9) This implies that, apart from being deindividualized, they are also dehumanized. When they have to go shopping together, this is said to be for their own protection. In reality they function as mutual spies (pp. 25-26). This brings in an additional element of hypocrisy: life in Gilead is founded on make-believe pretensions. In addition there is some kind of secret police, the so-called Eyes, who according to the biblical origin of their name (cf. II Chronicles, 16:9 and Proverbs 15:3) have to control everything and are comparable to the well-known Orwellian Big Brother.
The Angels are soldiers who fight permanently against the enemies of the regime. It is difficult to say whether these enemies exist or whether they are imaginary and whether they have been invented for propaganda purposes: thus fighting in wars may serve to divert attention from internal problems of the state so as to strengthen the stability of the repressive regime since only victories are reported (p. 106). Once again, Atwood's work is reminiscent of an Orwellian paradox, namely: "War is Peace".
The handmaids' fate, of course, is a deplorable one. However, for the wives of the Commanders the situation is not easy either. Serena Joy is a former gospel singer and TV star; since she is neither serene nor joyful anymore, the double irony of this name quickly becomes obvious. The first encounter between her and Offred shows that the code of behaviour is both very strictly formalized and also extremely rigid: communication between Serena Joy and Offred is greatly reduced, and there is hardly any common ground between them. Again, hierarchy seems to be the shaping principle of the state: the wives may strike the handmaids but with their hands only - a right which is also derived from the Bible (cf. p. 21).
The wives have got Marthas at their disposal who have to do the housework. They are female servants in Gilead: their name derives from the biblical account of Martha and Mary (see Luke 10:38-42). In this story, Martha, as a housekeeper, works so hard at welcoming Jesus Christ to her home that she fails to take advantage of his teachings.
The Commanders have got the political power. They are at the top of the state and are responsible for public prayers and religious ceremonies: state doctrines are put forward in sermons. Guardians may be promoted to Angels, are allowed to marry and possibly have their own handmaids (pp. 29-30): this is another hint at the fact that this regime has a clearly defined power structure, but in this nightmare world, there also exists hatred and envy between the polarized groups.
- Gilead was installed violently on the east coast of the United States;
- the President of the U.S.A. was shot, Congress machine-gunned, the Constitution suspended;
- the democratic government was overthrown, democracy was abolished;
- newspapers were censored or closed down;
- there were roadblocks;
- women lost their jobs, they were not allowed to have their own property any longer;
- protest marches were suppressed by force (either by the army or by the police), opposition did not really take place, the media (the newspapers and TV) were controlled by new government of religious extremists.
In a few weeks, in spite of the radical and fundamental change, things went back to normal. A totalitarian regime had come into power and a brave new world of fanaticism had been established.
Offred had no scruples about starting an affair with Luke, who was a married man when she got to know him (p. 67). Although Luke liked the old things (p. 224), he finally left his wife. However, Offred married him out of love and cannot forget him after they tried to flee from Gilead. She also had guilt feelings concerning him when having to do her duty as a handmaid and when being together with Nick (p. 340, p. 348). In her former life, Offred was rather uninterested in politics: in the liberal society that she used to live in she always took the possibility of change for granted, and for her change always meant change for the better. However, the contrast between the past and the present situations could not be greater: in ultra-conservative Gilead there is no possibility of change or progress: society is determined by a complete stagnation (cf. the diagram in part two).
On the one hand, it is difficult to understand why such a development could take place. On the other hand, there are some hints in the text of the novel which point to at least a tentative answer to this question. According to official doctrine in the former state there were too many possibilities: it was a permissive society rather than a system based on law and order. To be sure, there were "excesses" to be found in the former state such as rape, pornography, abortion, birth control, infertility, AIDS, etc.(12) Permissiveness is equated with immorality or depravity, and the right-wing takeover is said to be a revolt of the American Moral Majority that was also called the New Puritans. According to them, abortion, and sterilisation became forbidden, rapists were executed in public and even homosexuals (classified as "Gender Traitors"; cf. p. 323 and p. 57) - like outsiders and dissidents - were not allowed to live.
According to the state's ideology, in the old days there was freedom to (p. 33), which in its original sense was a pro-abortion slogan (cf. p. 154). With the rise of the new regime this was proclaimed to be identical with anarchy and said to be typical of a dying society. Now, officially speaking, there is freedom from (p. 33), or 'real' freedom. This means that, on the one hand, the handmaids are perfectly protected, for instance against rape or abortion, but that, on the other hand, they are ironically freed from making their own decisions, which amounts to saying that their individuality is systematically suppressed and that they are made strangers to themselves. In a curious way, one of the three Orwellian paradoxes, namely: "Freedom is slavery" is inverted: according to Gileadean ideology the slogan should run: "Slavery is freedom."(13)
In addition to moral licentiousness, there exist economic as well as ecological problems (pp. 143-144). For example, a high degree of computerisation, and as a consequence of this, unemployment but also environmental problems and toxic pollution are said to have contributed to the rise of the fundamentalist state.(14) Particularly ecological catastrophes, that is chemical and nuclear accidents, are responsible for an elementary environmental crisis, which leads to such a dramatic decline of the birth rate that the survival of the nation has become a problem. This is the reason why all the fertile women are trapped and officially recruited for breeding purposes (p. 176).
The symbolism implied is that the procedure is formalized down to every detail in order to control, to stifle, to suppress emotions, and it also means that the handmaid's baby becomes the wife's property. The mating ceremony is modelled on and preceded by a regular, ritualistic reading of the above-mentioned passage from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament: thus it is scripture-based. This is not only a clear abuse of the Bible, but also a rigid attempt to provide both a religious mandate and a thin veneer of moral justification in order to legitimize most questionable sexual practices(15); in fact, women are regarded as nothing but sexual commodities who are exploited like slaves. The narrator, however, does not call the fundamental value of religion in question. Although she experiences despair, she does not give up prayer: she later creates her own Job-like version of the Lord's Prayer (cf. pp. 252-253).(16)
Nischik's comment on this procedure is that the difference between the sexes is thus brought to the extreme.(17) I would argue that this is not the crucial point; it is not as easy as saying that all the pain is for the handmaid and all the pleasure for the master. Rather than that it is painful for everybody, for the handmaid in the first place, of course, but also for the wife (cf. her feelings of envy and helplessness) and the Commander. As to his emotional dilemma Offred writes: "It must be hell, to be a man, like that. It must be just fine. It must be hell. It must be very silent." (p. 114). Of course, he has a serious duty to fulfil: the sexual ritual has become something without arousal and orgasm (p. 122), something without communication and emotion, a mere function of survival which retains no vestige of pleasure.(18)
This shows that Gilead is a social experiment which finds itself in an extremely precarious, if not in a desperate situation, in which love does not exist any longer (p. 284, p. 292): as a matter of fact, Offred complains that she dies from the lack of love (pp. 131-132). As a consequence it is highly significant that, in an old textbook owned by the Commander, the god of love, namely Venus as created by Milo (cf. photo below), is shown in disfigured form (a mustache, a black brassiere and armpit hair have clumsily been drawn on her; cf. pp. 241-242).
|(Source: Musée du Louvre, Paris; private photo)|
In this context Atwood's narrator shows a remarkable sensitivity to language when it becomes obvious that the statement "Pen is Envy" (p. 241) is a pun on and protest against the Freudian concept of "penis envy", which implies women's 'natural inferiority' and which is used in order to justify that they are forbidden to write. And she also uses irony when she points out that, just like Luke, the Commander believes in clichés. For example he maintains that women cannot add (p. 240), which may mean that they are bad at mathematics or that they think of details only rather than of results. This seems to be in accordance with the fragmentary nature of Offred's account, which ironically possesses coherence nevertheless.
The relationship between the Commander and Offred loses its formality, and to some degree it becomes a personal one (cf. p. 237). There is an improvement of the atmosphere between the two characters; for Offred it also serves as a means of escape from the unsatisfactory monotony of her life. Communication barriers have successfully been overcome: the handmaid is no longer a passive victim, she even gains some power over the Commander (p. 272). Obviously the relationship between Fred and his wife Serena Joy is not a sound one (p. 203), so for him his relationship with Offred means some change from daily routine and some kind of amusement, too.
When Offred goes to Jezebel's with the Commander, the aspect of sameness is emphasized: it is located in the same hotel in which Luke and Offred used to meet (pp. 304-305). In spite of this obvious parallel the Commander can be said to be neither a reflection of Luke nor a structural twin (21) since Offred really is in love with Luke and still feels ashamed because of her betrayal of him (p. 340, p. 348). Officially the club should not exist but it is tolerated for economic and financial reasons, that is business partners like meeting there (p. 308). Of course, this is another example of the fact the regime builds up walls of political deception.
The narrator has some guilt feelings concerning Serena Joy (p. 208) since she knows that, as a rule, women have to pay the price for disloyalty, though she realises that in this case the Commander and Serena Joy have got very little in common (p. 203). When Offred becomes Fred's mistress, when she comes to like him, this does not make the situation easier for her: being in his arms, she is not at one with her body, she still reacts like "a dead bird" (p. 331). Further, it means additional pressure for her to wear a perfect mask, and she must also be afraid that the Commander might betray their illegal relationship by a wrong gesture or any other sign of affection. Theoretically she could also join the underground movement Mayday (cf. for example p. 218 or p. 261), but she is too afraid to spy on the Commander, and she does not inform on him to Ofglen for example (p. 348). This would lead to a different story.
In the text there are three versions of Offred's affair with Nick (cf. chapter 41): in each version she feels alive. First the sexual relationship with Nick is presented as an act of defiance. This is in sharp contrast with her behaviour towards the Commander whom she does not love. At the same time she feels both shame and guilt: she feels ashamed of herself since she thinks she has betrayed her husband Luke, who may still be alive (p. 340). The narrator, then, as a fictional character, does not hesitate to confess her own shortcomings.
Nevertheless, Nick seems to be a real helper whom she can trust. She has complete confidence in him: she tells him his real name and contacts him as often as possible. In his room she feels safe and protected but she knows this may be the security of a trap (p. 347). He becomes her saviour; at least she can escape and get her report recorded on tapes. Thus Atwood provides us with a fictitious explanation of the fact that we can read the novel today: "The very existence of the tapes suggests that, aided by Nick, she [Offred] did elude the rule of Gilead."(22) Thus her fate resembles that of Melville's Ishmael in Moby Dick (1851), who has to survive in order to be able to tell his tale.
Even if the reader thinks that the narrator is no model of perfection, s/he has to realise that at least Offred displays a ruthless honesty of thinking and that she is capable of self-criticism at the same time. Thus she may be classified as a narrator both believable and reliable.
As a matter of fact, the function of the Historical Notes in the context of the novel is not easily recognizable at first sight. The novel itself has been termed a palimpsest by the narrator (p. 3), that is a written document which had its original writing rubbed out. In the Historical Notes the text is said to have been transcribed from musical tapes, with the reconstruction of a machine capable of playing them (p. 382). "Reconstruction" is a key word in the novel (p. 173, p. 181): it shows that scholarly work is approximate (p. 383), which is in accordance with Offred's statement that an account of love is always "only approximate", too (p. 340).
The history lecture takes place at the university of Denay, Nunavit. Denay and Nunavit allude to the first Canadians, the native Eskimos and Indians who became victims of colonization policy. The Indian term "Dene" means "people" (called "inuit" by the Eskimos), "Nunavut", between Alaska and Greenland, is land claimed by the Eskimos in Canada. Taken together, "Denay, Nunavit" is is a pun on "Deny none of it"(23), which certainly refers to the imaginative truth rather than to the factual level of Offred's tale: if applied to the scholar's lecture it may express a hue of irony. It may also be seen as an ironic device that the chairwoman of the academic meeting, at the end of the 22nd century, has got a name probably analogous to Canadian inuit, namely Maryann Crescent Moon (p. 379).
There are more examples of puns and irony. The title "The Handmaid's Tale" for instance was invented by one of the historians (p. 381). On the one hand, the term tale is an allusion to William Chaucer's Canterbury Tales but, on the other hand, it is also a pun on the archaic meaning of tail (p. 381), which is a slang term for women, since it reduces them to their sexual function. Thus it becomes clear that the Historical Notes and the text of the novel are closely connected.
Elsewhere, the "Underground Femaleroad" (cf. p. 320) is called the "Underground Frailroad" (p. 381). This phrase may have two different meanings. In historical terms, it is an allusion to the underground railroad set up in order to enable black slaves to escape: thus the reader is again confronted with the implication that women are compared to slaves. In literary categories the term "frailroad" may be an allusion to William Shakespeare's statement "Frailty, thy name is woman" (Hamlet, I,2, 146). The pun, then, is clearly sexist, which shows that even in the epoch of the Historical Notes, there is nominal liberation of women only. In the scholar's language they are still actively discriminated.
The following key statement sounds convincing at first: "Our job is not to censure but to understand" (p. 383): this seems to be an open-minded, liberal standpoint since, according to common conviction, it is dangerous to utter value judgements too rashly: if they are based on too little evidence, they are prejudices. However, considering the fact that Gilead is a tyrannical, Nazi-like state, this is a satirical attack at scholarly self-complacency, which shows that tolerance for other standpoints certainly has its limitations. This non-evaluative attitude cannot be acceptable because avoiding a clear stand in a totalitarian context is a justification of it. Anyone who avoids taking a moral or political standpoint about an issue of crucial magnitude such as totalitarianism, will necessarily become even an apologist for evil.(24) It may be concluded that this thesis is meant to emphasize the moral responsibility of all human beings.(25)
THT, then, is a book about responsibility, at once emotional, sexual, intellectual and civic.(26) The novel calls for resistance to those who would devise Gileadean states and those who - like Professor Pieixoto - merely study it.(27) The novel warns us of the subtle domination of women by men, and of our unconscious imprisoning of each other and ourselves by ourselves.(28) Therefore we have to see the professor's account in a critical light. We have to remember that this lecture was written by the writer herself, i.e. it is a criticism of the way she expects critics to deal with her work. Thus the Historical Notes are a scholarly talk which is parodied by Margaret Atwood. It may be asked now how to evaluate the learned historians' work as a whole.
(1) The historians make no attempt to see Offred's narrative as fiction. The lecturer and his assistant use sheer logical reasoning because they only want to know whether the tapes are genuine or not. As a result, they negate the work of art as a moral instrument. They simply neglect the narrator as an individual, they reduce her personality to an academic question and they analyse her tale in historical terms only. The desire of the scholars for univocal meaning (denotation) ironically mirrors the authoritarian word of Gilead.(29)
But there is no one, clear and unambiguous meaning in the text of the novel: it consists of connotative and creative utterances. Thus there is a clear-cut contrast between the historian and the artist. The historian approaches the text in a completely utilitarian way: he uses it as a mere set of data rather than as a piece of writing. He is somebody who aims at facts, material, sources, and truth whereas the artist strives for what is timeless, universal, open to interpretation, and for what has multivocal meaning. The professor does not ask the questions which concern the reader: this shows his inability to read Offred's story. The scholar trivializes the horror, marginalizes the narrator's personal mind-style, esp. the pain, the hope and the belief in new life, the alternative world and the ambiguous word.(30) He searches for objective truth in the narrator's account, which is not there. Thus June is muted once again.(31)
(2) Apart from the fact that there is an unwillingness to confront the moral questions posed by the past, self-recognition is absent from this conference. This generalised academic discourse does not do justice to the novel even if Gilead is placed in the international history of totalitarianism. THT should be read as the literary work of art that it is intended to be, i.e. as a futuristic satire.
(3) The professor yearns to have something from the Commander's private computer; his desire for what he has not and his disregard for what he has make his lecture finally parodic. The female chair assumes a marginal place; what is central, is the male lecture.(32) Although women are very important in Gilead, they are powerless and demeaned members of society. There is no relationship between importance and privileges: Offred becomes a tool of patriarchy once again. The Historical Notes provide comic relief, yet they are the most pessimistic part of the book. The horrors of this dark narrative are insidious, its final question is rhetorical.
(4) It has been argued that the Historical Notes are an optimistic coda to a pessimistic novel.(33) This is not acceptable: there is no discrepancy between the two parts of the novel. If the Notes are a parody, they may be humorous. Nevertheless, in contrast to the thesis to be found in two early reviews, rather than undermining the novel's lingering effect and its sustained tension (34), they serve a very serious purpose: to prevent the novel from being interpreted as an account of facts only. The relationship of narration to interpretation should be problematised. The text as such is dead, but each reading creates a new tale. Just as many of Pieixoto's questions remain unanswered, the ending of Offred's story continues to be deferred, untold. Margaret Atwood, then, has juxtaposed the voices of Offred and Pieixoto.
This is due to the reduced circumstances the narrator has to live in and to her limited perspective. It has been mentioned already that she is allowed neither to read nor to write nor to interact: communication is reduced to a few ritualised formula. Thus, her perception of the world is subject to extreme restrictions. Besides, she has difficulties in remembering the past, and she suspects that her power of reasoning may have become defective, and many of her conclusions and generalisations are just tentative. This may perhaps also be due to the influence of strong medication, drugs and pills which may have been used in order to manipulate her and to make her subservient (cf. p. 51 and p. 91). (Drugs are also used in salvagings: cf. p. 352, p. 355; their use seems to be customary in Gilead.)
Generally speaking, Offred is exposed to so much stress that sometimes she seems to be on the verge of insanity. Therefore the narrator's search for truth is a difficult one: there are some statements in the text which are only made in order to be called in doubt immediately afterwards.(39) In other words, there are statements and restatements, different versions of the same episode, some of them being described as wishful thinking. So there is a lot of self-reflection in the story, there are many suppositions, conjectures, and speculations in Offred's account in order to make sense out of the little information she has got: the narrator is dominated by a basic scepticism, and the textual evidence for that is scattered all over the novel. The analyis of narrative technique below is based on the following excerpts:
Last sentences of chapter 12 (p. 86)
I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.
Last part of chapter 7 (pp. 52-53)
Extract from chapter 41, first part (pp. 343-344)
Comment on these excerpts
This is only a small part of the textual material which can be traced in THT. For example, the narrator also discusses the necessity of perspective for herself (p.185) and she describes the act of narration as a very difficult process (p. 173f). However, the above excerpts may draw attention to some essential aspects.
ad 1): "I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech". This quotation expresses a significant analogy: the narrator tries to use language in order to create a self, she speaks about the creative process of her tale in terms of herself. This statement not only shows her desire to keep her self-control, but it is also the most explicit hint in the complete text of the novel that for Offred telling her story also means an essential effort of defining her own identity. Telling her story may be compared to the psychological function of writing a diary, which may be motivated by a person's desire to learn about his/her own life. Therefore we may read the novel on a fictional and a meta-fictional level; the reader becomes familiar with the events of the novel and its creative process at the same time. In other words, this literary work provides information on its own genesis which is typical of many contemporary novels.(40)
The text, then, is ambiguous: it has two dimensions at least. For Offred telling her story is an attempt at self-definition which is auto-therapeutic. Unfortunately, she is unable to offer a complete account. Thus the reader never learns the fates of Moira (p. 325), of Luke (Offred believes he was killed during their attempt at flight to Canada; cf. pp. 132-133) and of their daughter (Serena Joy just provides a photo of her; cf. p. 295). The last sentence (What I must present is a made thing, not something born) is a clear allusion to the aphorism: Poeta nascitur non fit.(41) It means that Offred does not claim to possess a poet's talent and inspiration; in order to get her tale told she admits she has to undergo a rather long, possibly troublesome process of learning.
ad 2/3): From the last page of chapter 7 and chapter 41 the narrator establishes a connection between herself and her audience: "A story is like a letter. Dear You." (chapter 7) And: "I tell, therefore you are" (chapter 41). The latter is a punning variant on Descartes' famous first philosophical principle Cogito ergo sum.(42) These are the two occasions where the reader comes in. Offred speaks of events in which she is directly involved, and she calls us/the readers into existence as witnesses, too, thus stressing the interdependence of all human beings.(43)
From chapters 41 and 42 the readers may learn something concerning Offred's motivation to tell her story. Basically this motivation is very strong, since it implies a lot of self-reflection and a process of self-education. Nevertheless there are some parts she does not want to tell. First of all this may concern the salvagings, which is a legalized form of public lynching. This is perfectly understandable since the procedure is very cruel and since she does not feel good because of her complicity in it (cf. p. 355 and p. 361).
But it also concerns her relationship with Nick: the narrator offers three versions of this episode. However, they have got one thing in common: in every version, Offred's emotions are involved, which means her body is very much alive. This also means that she is ashamed of her behaviour, because of her disloyalty towards her husband (p. 340). Offred is a very honest character: she is capable of self-criticism, she lives in search of and in a struggle for reliable values. Even if she is no figure for identification, her unconditional honesty is something that makes her very likeable as a person: it is attractive for the readers to put themselves into her shoes.
To sum up, in the beginning Offred is offered to the Commander: she is a part of Fred's property. She is Of-Fred, and therefore she has no individuality of her own; she is a replaceable and disposable handmaid, who has got one more chance only (p. 186). If she cannot conceive a child, the Colonies will be her destiny. In the end, she is a unique and an individual person, who is no longer interchangeable. She may even commit aggressive acts such as setting the Commander's house on fire (p. 374), but this desire for criminal behaviour shows that she has maintained her self-respect and that she is yearning for possibilities to commit acts which contradict the role expectations imposed upon her. She is now Off-red rather than Of-Fred: that is, she has rejected the symbolic colour value ascribed to a handmaid.
This shows the potential of art/literature: it is a threat to totalitarian governments and it accounts for the fact that books have been suppressed or forbidden so often and that artists are not tolerated by totalitarian governments. Offred is not confrontational like Moira; however, she is no conformist either. Obedience would correspond to total silence, whereas speech may be linked with revolt. Therefore composing/giving shape to a narrative may not only be auto-therapeutic, but also subversive.(44) Offred's risk-filled story becomes the source for her freedom.(45)
In Gilead, Offred would eventually neither be interchangeable, nor speechless nor invisible any longer(46): she could not live between the lines but would emerge from the rest by overcoming her voicelessness. In other words, Offred is a woman who has reactivated the potential of language(47), who has learned to speak in her own name: so we as readers learn to live in the words, on the pages, and not in the margins, not in the gaps that she once inhabited (cf. p. 74).(48) She may be neither a flawless heroine nor a model of perfection. However, the account of her destiny is a personal achievement, a narrative of defiance, which, I think, is an impressive and a fascinating one, is much more than direct protest, it is a creative form of rebellion.
(2) Diana Brydon, "Beyond Violent Dualities: Atwood in Postcolonial Contexts", in: Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (eds.), Approaches to Teaching Atwood's THT and Other Works (New York: MLA, 1996), p. 54. This is also in accordance with the demand made by the new teacher Mr Keating in N.H. Kleinbaum's novel Dead Poets Society.: he tries to make his pupils see life from different perspectives in order to fight against clichés and prejudices.
(3) Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II - Gymnasium/Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Englisch (Düsseldorf, 1999), p. 27.
(4) Karen F. Stein, "Margaret Atwood's THT: Scheherazade in Dystopia", University of Toronto Quarterly 61 (1991/92), p. 269.
(5) Reingard M. Nischik, "Back to the Future. Margaret Atwood's Anti-Utopian Vision in THT", Englisch Amerikanische Studien 5:1 (1987), p. 141.
(6) Kathryn VanSpanckeren, "The Trickster Text: Teaching Atwood's Works in Creative Writing Classes", in: Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (eds.), Approaches to Teaching Atwood's THT and Other Works (New York: MLA, 1996), p. 79.
(7) Cf. Mark Evans, "Versions of History: THT and its Dedicatees", in: Colin Nicholson (ed.), Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity. New Critical Essays (Houndmills, Eng.: Macmillan, 1994; New York: St. Martin's, 1994), pp. 177-188.
Attention may also be drawn to Arthur Miller's The Crucible: this well-known play which is still often read in FLT propagates a severe criticism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s while it is based on the Puritan background of 17th century witch hunting.
(8) It has been argued that people of color and poor people, very often women, are affected by environmental threats disproportionately. Cf. Sylvia Mayer, "Ecologically Orientated Literary and Cultural Studies: Ecocriticism - A Brief Introduction", Mitteilungsblatt des Landesverbandes Westfalen Lippe, Moderne Fremdsprachen 22:1 (Mai 2004), p. 8.
(9) It has been advanced that probably the narrator's real name is June, since every other name in the list at the beginning of the novel (cf. p. 5) is assigned to a character; cf. Harriet F. Bergmann, "'Teaching Them to Read': A Fishing Expedition in THT", College English 51:8 (December 1989), p. 853.
(10) Mary Ellen Snodgrass, p. 34.
(11) Madonne Miner, "'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's THT", Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991), p. 158. Cf. Pamela Hewitt, "Understanding Contemporary American Culture through THT: A Sociology Class", in: Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (eds.), Approaches to Teaching Atwood's THT and Other Works (New York: MLA, 1996), p. 110.
(12) Hilde Staels, Margaret Atwood's Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse (Tübingen: Francke, 1995), p. 157; cf. THT, pp. 385-386.
(13) The Gileadean handmaids are drilled in self-denial and renunciation before they are offered to a Commander. Cf. Lucy M. Freibert, "Control and Creativity: The Politics of Risk in Margaret Atwood's THT", in: Judith McCombs (ed.), Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood (Boston: Hall, 1988), p. 282. Strictly speaking, it is not true that they are protected against rape. As will be shown below, they have to undergo a kind of legalized rape. At the same time freedom from choice ultimately implies the abolition of volition, self-determination and the destruction of morality.
(14) In an interview the writer herself states that books like this [THT] are "logical extensions of current trends"; cf. Barbara Korte, "Margaret Atwoods Roman THT. Interpretationshinweise für eine Verwendung im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II", Die Neueren Sprachen 89 (1990), p. 229.
(15) In the "Historical Notes" the writer points out that, even before the rise of Gilead, artificial insemination and surrogate mothers existed in reality (p. 386). In addition, Maragaret Atwood puts forward that, generally speaking, "there was little that was truly original with Gilead ...: its genius was synthesis" (cf. p. 389). It may be concluded, then, that, in her depiction of the dystopian state, she claimed to be a systematizer rather than an innovator.
(16) Janet L. Larson, "Margaret Atwood and the Future of Prophecy", Religion and Literature 21:1 (Spring 1989), p. 46.
(17) Reingard M. Nischik, p. 142.
(18) Cf. Karen F. Stein, p. 272.
(19) Lucy M. Freibert, p. 282.
(20) Cf. the fact that cattleprods are used by the Aunts, which has been mentioned above. Cf. also the second motto of the novel which is taken from Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal": in it the satirist compares women and children to cattle. Cf. Coral Ann Howells, pp. 12-13.
(21) Madonne Miner, p. 160.
(22) Arnold E. Davidson, "Future Tense: Making History in THT", in: Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Gordon Castro (eds.), Margaret Atwood. Vision and Forms (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 116.
(23) Hilde Staels, p. 171. The author has also drawn attention to the irony of the "Historical Notes" as a whole; cf. ib.
(24) Amin Malak, "Margaret Atwood's THT and the Dystopian Tradition", Canadian Literature 112 (1987), p. 15.
(25) Coral Ann Howells, p. 85.
(26) Stephanie Barbé Hammer, "The World as it Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in THT", Modern Language Studies 20:2 (Spring 1990), p. 47.
(27) Diana Brydon, p. 53.
(28) Stephanie Barbé Hammer, p. 47.
(29) Hilde Staels, p. 173.
(30) Hilde Staels, p. 174.
(31) Hilde Staels, p. 172. Cf. note (9) above.
(32) Arnold E. Davidson, p. 119.
(33) Reingard M. Nischik, p. 140.
(34) Cf. Judith McCombs and Carole L. Palmer, Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide (Boston: Hall, 1991), p. 456. One reviewer even maintains that the Historical Notes ruin the novel; cf. ebd., p. 514.
(35) Harriet F. Bergmann, p. 854.
(36) Lucy M. Freibert, p. 280.
(37) Quoted in: Lucy M. Freibert, p. 280.
(38) Quoted in: Donna Bennett and Nathalie Cooke, "A Feminist by Another Name: Atwood and the Canadian Canon," in: Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (eds.), Approaches to Teaching Atwood's THT and Other Works (New York: MLA, 1996), p. 33.
(39) The desire to learn something about the world, a basic scepticism whether this is possible, a sceptical attitude towards any attempt at interpretation, but also towards her own assumptions: on the one hand, all these elements are typical of the narrator's self; on the other hand, they are also peculiar to her tale, to postmodern writing and socalled deconstruction. This concept, which originates in the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, has become a dominant element in post-structuralism, which may be classified as an influential approach to literary criticism. Cf. Hubert Zapf,"Poststrukturalismus und Dekonstruktion", in: Kurze Geschichte der anglo-amerikanischen Literaturtheorie (München: Fink, zweite Auflage, 1995), pp. 189-204. Cf. also Jeremy Hawthorn (ed.), A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory (London, second edition, 1996), s.v. deconstruction.
(40) Peter Freese, "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)", in: Peter Freese und Liesel Hermes (eds.), Der Roman im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II. Theorie und Praxis (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1977, 2. Auflage, 1981), p. 417. [ISL 11]
(41) This statement which was first mentioned in a comment on Horace's Ars Poetica became common knowledge during the British Renaissance: Sir Philip Sidney is said to have called it "an old proverb". It must be pointed out, however, that the above statement was quoted verbatim neither by Horace nor by Sidney.
Cf. William Ringler, "Poeta nascitur non fit: some Notes on the History of an Aphorism", Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941), pp. 497-498.
(42) Coral Ann Howells, p. 81.
(43) Diana Brydon, p. 54.
(44) Hilde Staels, p. 168. This idea is also in accordance with Richard Wright's thesis of using words as weapons (cf. his autobiography Black Boy), which he derived from the works of the social critic H.L. Mencken.
(45) Lucy M. Freibert, p. 286.
(46) Karen F. Stein, pp. 270-71.
(47) Hilde Staels, p. 164.
(48) Harriet F. Bergmann, p. 854.