The Handmaid's Tale in context: a dystopian text such as The Handmaid's Tale can be seen as a commentary on the context in which it was written.



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The Handmaid's Tale in context: a dystopian text such as The Handmaid's Tale can be seen as a commentary on the context in which it was written. Amanda Greenwood shows how the practical and philosophical choices available to women in the mid-1980s inform the novel

Amanda Greenwood (The English Review)

Among the justifications for Gilead that the Commander puts to Offred is the argument that 'the main problem was with the men' because in an 'equal' society 'there was nothing for them any more' (The Handmaid's Tale, Ch. 32). Consequently, men were beginning to suffer from 'inability to feel'. Elucidating his own 'feelings' about 'how things have worked out', he dismisses the damage inflicted on Offred and women like her with his cliched acknowledgement that 'you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs'. This hackneyed phrase is a clue to what is the novel's most daunting question: what price might women eventually have to pay for the claims they have made? One shocking possibility is Gilead. It does not spring out of nowhere, fully formed. It has its roots in history.

Women's lib

It was North America (the USA and Canada) that saw the genesis of 'radical feminism' in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and North America is identified as the location of the fictional Gilead by Professor Pieixoto in the 'Historical Notes' provided as an addendum to Offred's narrative. Radical feminism shared with socialism the goal of equality for all, but socialism had been largely blind to the nature of women's inequality. In the 1960s 'women's lib' (liberation) began to question society's attitudes towards issues such as sexuality, 'family', violence against women and male oppression. This emergent movement focused not only on legal rights relating to, for example, equal pay and abortion, but on issues such as women's safety--the 'Take Back the Night' campaign, for example, 'reflected the fear many women had of walking alone in cities' (Rowbotham p.407).

Atwood singles out this campaign for particular attention: Offred's mother is seen in an archive documentary shown at the Red Centre carrying a 'Take Back the Night' banner. But when Aunt Lydia draws a distinction between 'freedom from' and 'freedom to' she is suggesting how such campaigns might backfire. Gilead provides a lot of 'freedom from' and Offred records that 'The night is mine, my own time ... As long as I don't move' (Ch. 7). Gilead's impositions have been achieved through manipulation of fear.

Atwood does not tell us much about how Gilead evolved, but it must have its roots in the latter part of the twentieth century. Arguably, the origins of the regime are traceable to the gap created by the shift from radical to cultural feminisms in the early 1980s. Radical feminism had focused largely on equality of rights and opportunities, claiming that gender differences are socially, and therefore patriarchally, constructed, while cultural feminism argued for the celebration and acknowledgement of (gender) 'difference'. Philosophers and linguistic theorists of the time sought to express 'difference' through language and form. For example, the French feminist Helene Cixous focused on the need for women writers to break away from what she identified as 'masculine' style--linear narrative culminating in 'climax'--and argued that 'woman must write herself'.

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Similarly, Julia Kristeva perceived linear time--'his-story'--as male-dominated, and even when Gilead is superseded (and we don't know much about that process either) The Handmaid's Tale remains 'his-story'. It is crucial that the 'transcription, annotation, and publication' of Offred's narrative is revealed to have been undertaken by men and that the narrative sequence and timeline have been retrospectively imposed by Professor Pieixoto; even the title has been 'appended ... in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer'. By reserving this sleight of hand for the conclusion of her novel, Atwood wryly suggests that any hopes raised in the 1970s or 1980s for a shift in the gender balance of the academic establishment have been defeated. The keynote speaker of the 'Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies' and the co-editor of Offred's narrative are both men from Cambridge.

Back to basics

In exposing the potential dangers inherent in both radical and cultural feminism, and indeed in suggesting that women may have contributed to their own downfall, The Handmaid's Tale builds on Sheila Rowbotham's observation that although 'the individualistic emphasis of the 1980s could release women from inhibiting constraints and duties ... it also brought confusion, removed customary protections and left an undertow of unease' (Rowbotham p.471). Radical feminism's ambition to 'have it all' was seen by many women as impractical and untenable, making the prospect of a return to 'traditional values' and gender roles seem attractive by comparison.

Arguments for 'traditional values' tend to converge with religious agendas, and are often reinforced by reference to Biblical precedent. In 1980, for example, Teddi Holt founded MOM (Mothers on the March). Its 'creed' was: 'I AM MOTHER ... The Creator of this universe chose me to be His instrument to bring all future beings into His world'. Ironically this 'creed' draws not only on the Bible but on Helen Reddy's 1972 hit song 'I Am Woman', which was adopted by the United Nations as the 'anthem' for International Women's Year in 1975. Holt's paradoxical claim was that 'women's rights' were a threat to her own rights as 'a free citizen of the US' and (crucially) as 'a homemaker and a Christian mother'. MOM reflected the extent to which, in the 1980s, 'the moral right-wing conjured an America in their own image', excluding those who did not conform to their own 'idyll of the family' (Rowbotham p.521). The links with Atwood's dystopian vision are clear: her opening quotation from Genesis 30: 1-3 supplies the credentials not only for Gilead's particular take on surrogate motherhood, but for the Ceremony itself.

Atwood unobtrusively suggests that all kinds of feminism have a capacity for self-destruction. I have already referred to the 'Unwoman documentary' of a women's rights demonstration shown at the Red Centre, as part of the brainwashing transition process undergone by prospective Handmaids (Ch. 20). Offred's mother--presented along with Moira as a 'voice' for feminism --appears in the documentary holding a 'TAKE BACK THE NIGHT' banner. The Handmaids are encouraged to perceive such 'unwomen' as having 'wast[ed] their time ... when they should have been doing something useful'. Significantly, though, Aunt Lydia acknowledges that 'some of the ideas were sound enough' and would have to be 'condon[ed]' even in Gilead. This suggests that Atwood sees some of the tenets of cultural feminism and its insistence on 'difference' as potentially and dangerously close to the ideologies of evangelism. Her caveat is developed not only through Offred's mother's declaration that 'You were a wanted child, all right!' but through Offred's own observation of the red balloons released at the end of the demo marked with the biological symbol for female:

Now my mother is moving forward, she's smiling, laughing, they all

move forward, and now they're raising their fists in the air. The

camera moves to the sky, where hundreds of balloons rise, trailing

their strings: red balloons, with a circle painted on them, a

circle with a stern like the stem of an apple, the stem is a cross.

She describes rather than names the symbol, thus suggesting that it is no longer familiar to Gilead women. But what Atwood is highlighting is its intertextual resonance. Leaving aside the colour of the balloons (Atwood's deployment of red has been thoroughly documented), the 'apple' reference connotes Eve's original sin and the cross both redemption and crucifixion. In other words, women's fate is a consequence of their own desires. Again, when Offred reflects on the concept and semantics of 'falling in love' (Ch. 5) she remarks that 'we were falling women', the postlapsarian (after the fall of Adam and Eve) terminology indicating the female guilt on which Gilead has been founded. Later, she asks 'What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?' (Ch. 28). In this context, the cross on the stem of the symbol prefigures Gilead's dystopian form of redemption, where Handmaids (along with God) are elevated to the status of a 'national resource'. 'Be thankful for small mercies' Offred concludes when she addresses her mother in the privacy of her thoughts:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be ... You wanted a women's

culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it

exists. (Ch. 25)

Her mother had also predicted that Offred's blase post-feminist generation was 'just a backlash' and that 'history will absolve' her. Gilead ironically proves her to be more right than she knew. Her words are echoed by the Commander's assertion that feminism was 'just an anomaly, historically speaking ... All we've done is return things to Nature's norm' (Ch. 34). 'Nature' here is not the matriarchal role-model of cultural feminism, but an appropriation of the vengeful Old Testament God who created 'Man' in His image and cursed Eve with the pains of labour. For the Commander, this God and Nature are one and the same. Gilead's consequent ban on pain-relief in labour is a sinister and ironic inversion of some early feminists' demand for 'natural' childbirth.

Offred's mother somewhat paradoxically functions as a Cassandra for her time. (Cassandra in Greek mythology was doomed always to prophesy truly, but never to be believed.) When she mocks Luke for 'slicing up the carrots'--a concession, she argues, that has been paid for in 'women's lives' and 'bodies'--she exposes the flimsiness of 'New Man's' construction (Ch. 23). Luke's 'evidence' for his claim that men need more meat than women ('studies had been done') is replicated almost verbatim by Aunt Lydia, who denies her charges coffee, tea and alcohol on the grounds that 'Studies have been done'. The arguments of cultural feminism are seen throughout The Handmaid's Tale to have been taken up by the regime, twisted and used against women.

Context and point of view

Between pre-Gilead and Gilead, Atwood places a distorting mirror. One reflects the other, but they are not the same. In both, for example, Offred is a 'mistress'. Before Gilead her relationship with Luke is almost a parody of 'liberated' sex, though she never refers to herself as his mistress. Moira accused her of 'poaching, on another woman's ground' and Luke's first wife is represented solely as a disembodied 'voice on the phone ... crying, accusing, before the divorce'. Yet in her relationship with the Commander, she readily acknowledges 'the fact ... that I'm his mistress'. She goes on: 'Men at the top have always had mistresses, why should things be any different now?' (Ch. 26). When Serena Joy discovers her husband's 'infidelity' in developing a relationship with the Handmaid beyond what the Ceremony allows, she calls Offred 'a slut ... just like the other one'. What defines the relationship is context, and point of view.



The meaning of 'mother' is likewise a distorted mirror image in the two contexts. The theft of Offred's daughter by the regime is prefigured in pre-Gilead where 'one day, when she was eleven months old, a woman stole her out of a supermarket cart' (Ch. 12). The baby-snatcher is just as sure of her God-given entitlement as the regime will be: 'It was her baby, the Lord had given it to her'. But Offred (as she has not yet become) was assuming her own set of 'rights'. She tells us that both she and Luke 'had jobs', implying both her right to work and her right to expect her partner to share the chores.

Is the loss of her child a 'punishment' for this assumption? Is the regime's form of baby-snatching a warning against the dangers of post-feminist complacency? It is because she has dismissed her mother's principles as 'nothing', that Offred finds herself 'erased' from her own daughter's life. The Commander's facile observation that you can't have an omelette without breaking eggs has been deconstructed: the eggs are destroyed in the process, but it was the eggs that led to the omelette, the eggs that made the omelette possible.


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