Of contemporary thinkers, no one engages the essence of dystopia more than the Canadian author and professor, Margaret Atwood. She is, unquestionably, one of the most important women of letters, offering social and cultural criticisms in the vein of George Orwell and Russell Kirk. As with Orwell and Kirk, Atwood does not easily fit into a category. She neither is left nor right, socialist nor capitalist—as with Orwell and Kirk, she fears immensity in corporations, institutions, and bureaucracies. Most important to her is the humane and the dignity of the human person. In a profoundly telling interview about the nature of feminism and the left in the mid 1980s, Atwood admitted that she would despise feminist control of politics as much as fascist control.
“But I’m an artist. That’s my affiliation, and in any monolithic regime I would be short. They always do that to the artists. Why? Because the artists are messy. They don’t fit. They make squawking noises. They protest. They insist on some kind of standard of humanity which any such regime is going to violate. They will violate it saying that it’s better for the good of all, or the good of the many, or the better this or better that. And the artists will always protest and they’ll always get shot. Or go into exile.”1
As with Orwell and Kirk, Atwood also loves language and considers it sacred. When asked what her “literary theory” is, she quickly denounces theory as such: “I am not a literary theorist of that kind. The English tradition,” she continues in her hilarious quip, “begins with the noun. It begins with the concrete noun and the concrete verb.”2
A prolific and award-winning novelist, Atwood has thus far produced two major dystopias: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and the three novels of the Oryx and Crake trilogy. She also has given considerable thought to the nature of dystopia, perhaps more than anyone alive. The divide between a utopia and dystopia is silly, she argues, one cannot exist without the other. “Why is that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell?” she asks, echoing Russell Kirk. “I’m not sure, but so it is. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings.”3 In fact, she continues, no real difference exists between utopia and dystopia, since each must continue the other.
But scratch the surface a little, and—or so I think—you see something more like a yin and yang pattern; within each utopia, a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.4
How do we know this, she poignantly asks? “There is always provision made for the renegades those who don’t or won’t follow the rules: prison, enslavement, exile, exclusion, or execution.”5 Of course, Atwood could be quoting almost directly from Alexandyr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. In attempt—probably failed—to simplify our understanding of utopias and dystopias as essentially one thing, the Canadian employs a neoterism, “ustopia.”
Born in 1939, she lived with and closely watched the events of the Cold War. As a high school student, she read four books repeatedly: 1984, Wuthering Heights, Brave New World, and Darkness at Noon. The themes as well as the writing styles shaped her profoundly.6 She also studied with the famed Harvard professor of New England puritanism, Perry Miller, while earning her Ph.D. at Harvard. Understandably, ideas of puritanism and ideology intermingled in Atwood’s soul and mind.
Though future scholars will remember her as a critical writer of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, her greatest achievement will certainly remain A Handmaid’s Tale. In every way, it is a worthy successor to its predecessor and model, 1984. As should be obvious, Atwood’s own reading and study contributed greatly to its making. A fellowship in Berlin in the early to mid 1980s and a side trip into the gloom of communist run East Berlin inspired the book. Consciously imitating her hero, Orwell, Atwood laid out several rules for her writing of a dystopia: “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.”7 Almost satirically, Atwood used images of household products as her the model of dress for the Handmaid—an image from the Old Dutch Cleanser.
Named after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, A Handmaid’s Tale takes place only a few years into the future, somewhere near or in Bangor, Maine.* The United States collapses after what appears to have been a limited nuclear war and an onslaught of massive pollution throughout the Western World. In New England, a government calling itself the “Republic of Gilead” has assumed control. Prior to the revolutions and wars, a group of men and women meeting as Sons of Jacob Think Tank set into motion what would become Gilead. They did this through a number of radical Christian denominations, which were funded by televangelism. Economically, then, the Republic of Gilead was a gritty dystopia with consumer luxuries noticeably absent and even normal consumer goods difficult to obtain. Furthermore, the standard of living and life expectancy declined precipitously since the days of the United States and infant morality was astronomically high. The Republic of Gilead condemned all rival religious sects and particularly hunted down Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers. Jews were given a special dispensation and were allowed, at least for appearance sake, to immigrate to Israel. All others could either conform or die. Gilead remained at war not only with internal terrorist and opposition groups, but also with a number of rival powers on the permeable frontiers.
One of Atwood’s most powerful writing techniques is to leave much of the background and history behind Gilead mysterious and somewhat shrouded. The events that led to the creation of the republic happened swiftly, and those living in Gilead were encouraged to dismiss the past as nothing but a decadent hell hole. The reader slowly learns the history of the fall of the United States and the rise of Gilead. In doing so, he must piece the events together, as Atwood never systematically explains them. Even the main character remembers only bits and pieces of the past, though through a glass darkly: “That was when they suspended the Constitution,” she explains toward the middle of the novel. “They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television.”8
A number of orders comprised the social structure of Gilead. Commanders ruled all politics and war while their Wives maintained control over the social structures. Marthas served the wives, and Guardians (male police) protected the families. Eyes monitored society, a sort of Big Brother’s secret police. Angels were essentially equal to Guardians, except that they served on the frontiers. Non-Commanders, with permission, could marry Econowives. Since healthy pregnancies were rare and precious, Commanders mated with Handmaids, who were trained and taught by Aunts. The founders of Gilead claimed to have taken this structure from the Old Testament. Others existed as well, though some officially and some unofficially. Unwomen were those incapable—either physically or intellectually—of giving birth and of serving subservient positions in the republic. Jezebels, essentially prostitutes, are those who refuse to abide by the moral strictures of the society. The Commanders, though unofficially, housed these women in old hotels and “used” them whenever possible. Though the republic executed many of the Unwomen, it also sent them, as well as those of African-American dissent, to the “colonies,” or to the Great Plains.
The only name the protagonist was given is Offred (of Fred), though it is hinted that the Handmaid’s pre-Gilead name was June. A relatively normal New Englander, Offred married a man, with whom she had had an affair and a daughter, prior to the establishment and implementation of the theocratic republic. Her mother was a radical feminist, but Offred rejected many of her teachings as mere bitterness. During the entirety of the story, she is thirty-three—the same age as Jesus Christ at His death. Having lost her husband and her daughter, she was miserable, but she attempted to make the best of her life. Her life plagued her, though, and she hated almost every aspect of it. After the state assigned her to the commander known as Fred, Offred tried desperately to make a life for herself within the suffocating confines of the family. The wife, a former Tammy Faye Bakker style televangelist, who now had to subsume her once worldly ambitions to the role she regretfully created for herself, despised her. Serena Joy, the wife, once entertained through the Growing Souls Gospel Hour on TV, during which she “could smile and cry at the same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek.”9 The Marthas both respected and hated Offred.
As with Orwell, Atwood plays with notions of time and with language. Unlike Orwell’s dystopia, in which time was the seemingly eternally present, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a rhythmic sense of time based on the lunar cycle, the cycle of the woman’s menstrual period. Even the titles of the chapters reveal much: night, shopping, night, waiting room, nap, household, night, etc. Because the reader sees the world through the eyes of the Handmaid, everything revolves around fertility or, at the very least, potential fertility. The fear of infertility hovered over all. Should she not conceive, she would become an Unwoman. Should she conceive but not by the Commander, she would become a Jezebel. Should she conceive by the Commander, she would be given a reprieve, but only until menopause then, she would become an Unwoman. The choices present were grim.
When The Handmaid’s Tale first appeared in 1985, burgeoning women’s studies movements across North America embraced it, just as many social conservatives condemned it as being anti-Christian and pro-abortion. Interestingly enough, a similar response followed the release of Roland Joffe’s majestic tale of two Jesuits in eighteenth-century South America, The Mission (1986)—many on the Left embraced it as a visual representation of Liberation Theology, while many conservatives condemned it for the same reason. Fortunately, neither side was correct about either work of art. For, that is exactly what each was and is: a work of art, transcending the limitations of propaganda and ideology. That Atwood condemned a certain form of predestinarian and fundamentalist Christianity (real, or contrived in her imagination) is certain; that she condemned Christianity is not in the least certain. During the time of The Handmaid’s Tale, as with Big Brother in 1984, the government cared for power above all else. If it could get to power by destroying Christianity, it would. If it could use, abuse, and manipulate Christianity, it would do that, as well. That the heroes of The Handmaid’s Tale were the martyred Roman Catholics, defrocked nuns, Baptists, and Quakers should be revealing. The Handmaid’s Tale holds far more in common with, say, the Martyrdom of Perpetua than with any book written by Gloria Steinem. In one important moment of the novel, Offred described the purchase of “Soul Scrolls:” “There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated,” she explains. “The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over.”10 If this is not the height of hypocrisy, nothing is. For Atwood, this is the Official Church of Gilead—full of meaningless pieties, all based on creating a false social stability, maintaining and increasing the power of those in charge. Perhaps most tellingly, the church of The Handmaid’s Tale rejected “love” as a false romanticism, a distraction from the rigors of the world.11 St. John, it seems, has been assassinated in Gilead.
Offred’s life became a whirligig a plaything of her Commander as she tried to maintain some stability. She resisted, she manipulated (poorly), and, at times, she succumbed. Scratched secretively in her room she found the following school-boy joke: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” As it’s in Latin, a language unknown to Offred, she lingered over the deliciousness of it, recited it as a prayer, recognized it as a gift from the past given to her to connect her to the transcendent, a fleeting moment of hope.
The other thing that gave her hope was her ability to understand and comprehend words. In Gilead, the government forbade women to own property, express opinions, read, and write. Their importance came merely from the vagina. The story is, of course, written as a memoir, and it is presumed that Offred escaped to Canada and possibly England where she wrote the manuscript; thus proving her own literacy. The story ends far into the future with an academic conference studying the history of Gilead and attempting to figure out exactly how important the document, The Handmaid’s Tale, is to an interpretation of the era. This exactly parallels—intentional on Atwood’s part—the conclusion of 1984 with its exploration of Newspeak. The reader is left to presume the dystopia is long gone. At the beginning of the novel/memoir, however, Offred’s command of the English language was good, but not artistic or spectacular. Her Commander, in some bizarre ritual of manipulation, smuggled into their relationship the game, Scrabble, long forbidden and illegal. Offred not only embraced this diversion, but she thrived with it. In this way, Atwood rather brilliantly allowed Offred’s vocabulary, as well as her comprehension and understanding of the world around her, to grow as well. It is, perhaps, Atwood’s single most ingenious literary device.
1 Margaret Atwood, Conversations, 183.
2 Atwood, Conversations, 186.
3 Atwood, In Other Worlds, 84.
4 Atwood, In Other Worlds, 85.
5 Atwood, In Other Worlds, 86.
6 Atwood, In Other Worlds, 143.
7 Atwood, In Other Worlds, 88.
8 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 174.
9 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 16.
10 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 167.
11 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 220.
*Editor’s Note: In interviews, Atwood mentions the story took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts; however, the end of the book specifically mentions Bangor, Maine.
This essay is part of a series on dystopian literature. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.