I first met Margaret Atwood in a literature class where her unconventional story, Happy Endings was discussed. Right after then, and perhaps also because of my fascination with the novelties being ushered in literature and criticism, I started to more consciously look after what she has to say about things. While I have been reading her other stories, which unsurprisingly like Happy Endings do not need too much length to jolt or awe, Handmaid’s Tale was the first Atwood novel I have read.
In this novel, Atwood tells, more than the story of Offred, the story of Gilead, a society set in the future where women are classified depending on the status of their husbands and the status of their ovaries. In Gilead, births are declining and humanity might be needing salvation and so Handmaids are primed most of all. Their function is to be impregnated by Commanders, powerful males of the previous society, and to bear the children that will occupy the future. Here, through the voice she lends to Offred, Atwood tackles the sense of loss gripping someone who had been a victim of societal forces who had stolen her past and the occasional spurts of rebelliousness that always threaten to undercut existing orders.
Atwood’s feminism and the authorial voice
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood speaks through Offred, the primary handmaid from whom we were able to experience Gilead. Through Offred’s wanderings, we were able to know about the existence of the Wall in Gilead – the place where people who committed felonies are hung to their death. Also, the brewing of a desire to rebel, usually conflicted its weakening with inevitable hearkening back to the wiped away past was best translated in the lines of thought of Offred.
In Gilead, women are classified either as a Wife, a Handmaid or an Aunt. Otherwise, they were in the Colonies where some of the women discarded from the past were doing petty, often hazardous tasks, or in the Jezebel’s, the place where most of the Handmaids who were able to escape pass away their already dissipated life. Wives cannot bear children, but by virtue of the high status of their husbands, the Commanders, they are saved from being thrown to the Colonies, or forced to find a way to get to the Jezebel’s. The Handmaids are considered National Treasures, thanks to their ability to reproduce. But sadly, they are no more than what their ovaries can do. They are reduced to that. Even after giving birth, they are not even allowed to look at the life that sprung from them. They are already less human. For instance, Offred is not really Offred – that is not her real name. She just happened to be the Handmaid assigned to the Commander named Fred, and so the prefix of-, implying association, perhaps possession, perhaps consumption.
But in the end, even by lending the privilege of narration to the female character, to Offred, Atwood could be perhaps be cleansed of possible treachery to the female which people might expect her to defend. This is the Handmaid’s Tale coming from the Handmaid, not from an Aunt, or an envious Wife, or a domineering Commander. This is Offred telling her story, telling a story in behalf of all the Handmaids who, after tottering since their pasts were stolen, have struggled to maintain the remaining shreds of their humanity, much less their individuality.
The charming in Atwood’s fiction
Reading this book, I got to explore further the silently charming style of Atwood. Tacitly post-structural, with the copious gaps that deny the sense of an unbroken narrative, Atwood brought to us the tale through Offred’s mental meanderings, hampered conversations with the likes of her Commander and Ofglen and recollections of her past.
There are some instances I find cute when Atwood would sort of parody herself, falsify her earlier narrations. When Offred went to Nick to make love to him, Atwood showed how Offred negotiates with her experiences, especially after she has already found distance with them: “I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. Here, Atwood seems to be calling attention to the storied-ness of her story, sometimes confounding the readers, halting them, barring too hasty conclusions.
And then there were her elaborations, ravaging of precious details that make up for what singular words fumble to articulate. Telling the act of Offred’s company boss when he had to lay off his employees, including her, this is how Atwood put into words his manner of speaking: “He said this almost gently, as if we were wild animals, frogs he’d caught, in a jar, as if he were being humane.”
The beauty in Atwood’s works is the absence of the sense of trying to say too much, if not everything, in order to capture the reader’s attention, latch them onto the happenings in the story, the wanderings in the story. Atwood digresses from that, and I like it. With her obvious post-structural leanings, she tells this story in a light manner that is not afraid of speaking of heavy things. After all, the values of things do not reside within themselves. And because in the end, her reminder in the novel itself shall bear a vital weight: context is all.