TYPICAL FEATURES OF CONTEMPORARY FEMALE FICTION WRITTEN IN ENGLISH STORYTELLING AS AN ACT OF SELF-RETRIEVAL IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S NOVELS DIPLOMOVÁ PRÁCE
IV. ročník – prezenční studium
Obor: Učitelství anglické a českého jazyka pro II. stupeň ZŠ
Vedoucí práce: PhDr. Milena Vodičková, Ph.D.
Prohlašuji, že jsem diplomovou práci napsala samostatně a řádně uvedla veškeré prameny a literaturu, ze kterých jsem čerpala.
V Olomouci 16. dubna 2010
I would like to thank PhDr. Milena Vodičková, Ph.D. for her guidance of my diploma thesis, for her kind help and patience. I appreciate her valuable ideas, advice and comments and her encouragement into writing.
1 MARGARET ATWOOD: PROFILE AND CAREER.................9
2 KEY LITERATURE STYLES AND IDEOLOGIES
CONNECTED WITH ATWOOD’S NOVELS……………………...13
THE DEVELOPMENT OF DYSTOPIAN GENRE
IN CONNECTION OF ATWOOD’S WORKS……………13
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE
FEMINIST MOVEMENT AND ATWOOD’S WORKS…..15
FEATURES OF POSTMODERNISM IN
MARGARET ATWOOD’S WORKS……………………...16
3 THE HANDMAID’S TALE...........................................................18
3.2 THE HANDMAID’S TALE’S IDEOLOGICAL
3.3 THE COMPOSITION……………………………………...20
3.4 THE PLOT………………………………………………….23
3.5 THE MAIN CHARACTERS……………………………….26
3.6 THE MAIN THEMES……………………………………...33
4 THE BLIND ASSASSIN…………………………………………36
4.2 THE COMPOSITION……………………………………..36
4.3 THE PLOT…………………………………………………38
4.4 THE MAIN CHARACTERS………………………………40
4.5 THE MAIN THEMES……………………………………..44
4.6 SCIENCE FICTION IN THE BLIND ASSASSIN………..50
5 OFFRED AND IRIS: STORYTELLING AS AN ACT
The diploma thesis deals with two novels by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Blind Assassin (2000).
Firstly, it briefly focuses on Atwood’s life and career and on the main literature styles and ideologies that influenced her works (science fiction, postmodernism, feminism).
Then both the novels are analyzed into more details (composition, plot, main characters, main themes).
The last chapter focuses on the feature both the novels have in common – the fact that both the main characters (and at the narrators of the stories at the same time) use the process of storytelling as a way of their self-retrieval.
INTRODUCTION I firstly came across with a novel by Margaret Atwood last year while I was studying at Worcester University in Great Britain where I went for the Erasmus University Exchange. One of the modules I studied there was called The Women Writers and it was focused mainly on the identity of writers or narrators of their books in connection with the process of writing itself. One of the works that module focused on was Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Love at the first sight – this is the only expression to describe what I was feeling while reading this novel. I was amazed and excited. The Handmaid’s Tale captured me from the very beginning till the very end.
The choice of The Blind Assassin was much more intended. My mentor, Mrs. Vodičková, suggested that I should to read it and as I was reading through I found out that – even if the story is completely different – it also connects the theme of searching for identity with the act of writing and would be a very convenient piece to complete the thesis.
The decision to choose these two novels which cover more than fifteen years of Atwood’s work also provides the opportunity to compare her development, orientation or her attitude towards various issues typical of time. As this is not the subject of the thesis, these entities are mentioned within the diploma thesis only as hints.
Additionally, both the books have special meanings in the context of Margaret Atwood’s work - as The Handmaid Tale (1985)is the one that brought her fame all around the world, while for The Blind Assassin (2000) she finally obtained the Booker Prize – the prestigious award from British journalists, literary critics and publishers.
The topic of this diploma thesis is the act of self-retrieval in Margaret Atwood’s novels. The expression ‘self-retrieval’ seems to be strange or unfamiliar, but during the classes in England, it became essential. And I decided to use it for the title of my thesis as it describes its main aim best as it covers all that I intended to focus on - the act of putting oneself together, searching, finding, recovering, atonement and saving oneself.
This thesis might be divided into three main parts – first two chapters are focused on Margaret Atwood’s life and literature styles and theories that influenced her most. Chapters three and four analyze her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin while giving information on their composition, main characters and themes. Chapter five represents the main aim of the thesis - a synthesis of both the novels and while focusing on the topic of the act of self-retrieval, it compares similarities and contrasts differences of the two novels.
The methods used for the thesis can be divided into groups according to the structure of the work – gathering the sources, searching for the relevant background information, analyses of the novels and synthesis of their common features with the focus on the main theme.
Searching for available sources was the most problematic part of the whole work. Those focused on the relevant topics, such as science-fiction literature, feminism and postmodernism were easily accessible, but - as Atwood and her works are unfortunately – still rather ‘undiscovered’ for Czech readers, and so the amount of information or analyses about Atwood’s work is very restricted.
Beside the written studies, the essential sources for the analytical parts of my thesis – especially for the last chapter - were the seminars I studied in Worcester, where the whole topic of my thesis was discussed from various points of view.
I am aware of the fact that I have chosen a very difficult aim - as both the novels as well as the topic itself are very complex with many layers, overlaps and subtextual meanings that need much deeper view than that one I am able to achieve. But I still hope to fulfill the aim of my thesis the best I can.
1. Margaret Atwood: Profile and Career
This chapter is based on information – if there is no other reference listed - from Atwood’s profile on the website of The Guardian (Potts, 2010) and The Wikipedia – The free encyclopaedia.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood is at present Canada's most renowned novelist and poet. She also writes short stories, critical studies, screenplays, radio scripts and books for children, her works have been translated into over 30 languages. Her reviews and critical articles have appeared in various eminent magazines and she has also edited many books, including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (1983) and, with Robert Weaver, The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1986).
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada, as a middle child of three kids. Her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, was an entomologist, and her mother, Margaret Dorothy Killam, was a former dietician and nutritionist. In her early childhood, the family was moving around in the forests and small settlements of Northern Ontario and Quebec because her father was working in these areas. Later he became a university professor in Toronto and so the family settled there. Atwood started attending school there (until the age of 11 she had not attended school full time) and then continued her studies at Victoria College, University of Toronto. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and minors in philosophy and French.
Atwood started writing at the age of 6, when she was 16 she decided to become a professional writer. During her studies at the university she was writing and reviewing articles for her college magazine and designing programmes for the drama society.
Atwood graduated from university in 1961 and in the same year she privately published her first book of poems called Double Persephone for which she won the E.J. Pratt Medal. She went to the United States to continue her studies – she obtained a graduate fellowship to Radcliffe College, Harvard, where she studied Victorian and American literature.
Atwood got a master’s degree here in 1962 and began her PhD thesis on ‘The English Metaphysical Romance’. The experience of the United States was a cultural shock for her – there was a big difference between her home place and that metropolitan culture of anonymity. This fact caused that Margaret Atwood moved back to Canada without finishing her doctorate and spent next ten years teaching in university English departments across Canada from Vancouver to Montreal and Toronto. Between 1964 and 1965 she worked as a lecturer in English at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the next academic year as an instructor in English at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, between 1969 and 1970 at University of Alberta and finally as an assistant professor of English at York University in Toronto (1971-72). During this time she also made her first trip to Europe, got married to Jim Polk and wrote her first novel The Edible Woman (1969). Since 1972 she has been a full-time writer.
As Howells (2005, pp. 3-4) describes, the period of 1970s was for Atwood very productive and represents an important time for her establishment as a professional writer. She published three novels, a book of short stories, five books of poetry, a pioneering critical survey of Canadian literature, and a children’s book. Her national and international reputation was made during this time - this fact is usually described in connection of the rise of feminism and resurgence of cultural nationalism on Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967.
It was also time of great changes in her personal life – she got divorced in 1973 and soon after formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson with whom she has stayed till nowadays.
In 1973 they moved together with his two sons, to a small agricultural community in Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto and in 1976 their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born there. Even if they liked living and the whole life style in Alliston, in 1980 the family returned to Toronto because of Jess’s studies. Toronto has become the place where Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson have lived – with only a couple of short breaks - until now.
Between May 1981 and May 1982 Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984 -1986. Atwood is a current Vice-President of PEN International.
An important part of Atwood’s life and work is politics. She expresses her ideas in her books and also presents her thoughts in public. She and her partner Graeme Gibson are currently members of the Green Party of Canada and strong supporters of GPC leader Elizabeth May. In the 2008 federal election she attended a meeting for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and appealed to people to vote for them. The other time, in a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority. She also expressed her strong disagreement on a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States during the conference about this topic in 1987, where spoke out and also wrote an essay opposing the agreement.
Atwood is also interested in environmental issues - she suggests that gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers should be banned. To show she takes these problems seriously she - for example – she uses a hybrid car or has made her home more energy efficient by installing awnings and skylights that open, and by not having air-conditioning.
As a political gesture can be also seen the open-endedness of much of her fiction. Margaret Atwood emphasises moments when people have a choice, and, having suggested the factors involved in such choices she leaves the reader at the moment of decision, he/she has to make the decision himself/herself.
2. Key Literature Styles and Ideologies Connected with Atwood’s Works 2.1 Introduction
This chapter focuses on the dystopian genre, feminism and postmodernism in the context of Atwood’s work as these represent important influences on Atwood’s novels this thesis deals with and may become necessary sources for further analyses of Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.
2.2 The Development of Dystopian Genre in Connection of Atwood’s Work
The survey on the development of dystopian genre as well as the choice of the example pieces of work is based on the study by Baccolini and Moylan (2003) and Roberts (2000).
During the 20th century the genre of dystopian science fiction – so called “the dark side of utopia” - underwent various changes. There were some works that represented the classical form of this genre (Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We, Aldous Huxsley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).
During the whole century in the mainstream literature there appeared a couple of works closely connected with dystopia – usually their main features were the ambiguity or irony (Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, C. S. Lewis That Hideous Strenth, Vladimir Nabokov’s Ben Sinister, Evelyn Waugh’s Love among the Ruins, Don De Lillo’s Underworld).
After the World War II, as the modern culture was developing, more and more writers started writing dystopian literature – Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, A. F. Van Vogt, John Brunner, J. G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, James Tiptree Jr. These authors tried to warn the society that – if the socio-political tendencies of that time continued – the world would become an impossible place to live in.
Against this dystopian tide, in 1960s and 1970 there appeared a new opposite line so called ‘critical utopia’ (‘critical’ in a sense of an Enlightenment ‘critique’ – an attitude of self reflexivity). Its approach was to find better places, to show the idea of a social change. This style was especially shaped by ecological, feminist and New Left thoughts, represented by writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Sally Miller Gearhart, and Suzy McKee Charnas.
In the 1980s this tendency came to a sudden end. “In the face of economic restructuring, right-wing politics and a cultural milieu informed by an intensifying fundamentalism and commoditisation, science fiction writers revived reformulated the dystopian genre”(Baccolini, Moylan, 2003, p. 44). This fact was also influenced by the new creative movement of cyberpunk (Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer) that work with negative or even nihilistic images of everyday life. By 1984 – the year of the ‘anniversary’ of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – the dystopian tendency started becoming more and more popular. This was the time when Margaret Atwood wrote her novel The Handmaid’s Tale which is – as Baccolini and Moylan (ibid., p. 47) claim - based on the classical dystopian narrative but also shows new directions for this literal tendency.
The dystopian line was moving on, there was the ‘second wave’ of cyberpunk – works written mainly by women – and “opened the door to a dystopian narrative that was critical in its poetic and political substance” (ibid., p. 48).
2.3 Connections between the Feminist Movement and Atwood’s Work
Atwood is nowadays one of the best known English writing women and is often described as a feminist writer. In her books she deals with the themes traditionally considered as being ‘feministic’ – especially the general problem of the relationship between men and women in which - in her eyes - the power relations are crucial. She expressed her opinion on the whole discussion in 1984 when she said: "I didn't invent feminism and it certainly didn't invent me but I'm naturally sympathetic to it" (Potts, 2010).
The answer for the question about the influence of feminism on her work could be found if we consider the time of her growing up. The period of late 1950s and early 1960s represents the emergence of the second Wave North American feminism and this is what her fiction reflects a lot. This was the time when the issue of women liberation became a political topic. As Howells (2005, p. 10) remarks, since The Edible Woman Atwood’s novels “have provided a chronicle and critique of the changing fashions within feminist politics”.
The Women’s Liberation Movement was developing in the USA, but there was also a parallel feminist movement in Canada. In 1960 the Voice of Women, the first Canadian national women’s organization, was founded and two years later the first Canadian Royal Commission on the Status of Women was set up. One of the leaders of these activities was Betty Friedan, who was inspired by the work of Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex. In the introduction to The Edible Woman Atwood admits that both these women influenced her thinking at the time of early 1960s.
During the 1970s there appeared a great amount of feminist writing – especially in North America, England and France. The authors wanted to define the positions of women on social and political issues in the context of every discipline (literary criticism, media, history, psychoanalyses, anthropology, science, theology). There were also new, till that time unspoken topics women wanted to write about – female sexuality, desire and body. But there were more new topics being discussed – the women’s experiences of motherhood or darker themes such as male violence against women. In connection with the last one there was analysed the situation of male dominance within the media in the context of male fantasies of aggression and violence. Another new theme of the books that appeared was the female literary tradition.
In her works, Atwood wanted to reflect all of these changes of the cultural climate. But the way she deals with all of it is not only descriptive. Her approach is also critical, doubtful, she tries to examine if all these theories agree with reality. As Howells says (ibid., p.12), Atwood does not reduce feminism to simple views that women are always right, but she analyzes the problem much deeper – the fact that women have rights as all human beings and it should also consider the ways in which they use their power traditionally given and how they enhanced their influences and also look at the effects on women of not having legitimised power and the consequences of it (ibid., p.12).
Atwood is not interested only in the relations between men and women but she explores the relations between mothers and daughters and sisters or on the different age stages – little girls or adult female friends.
2.4 Features of Postmodernism in Margaret Atwood’s Works
The features of postmodernism are often described while analyzing both of the novels. It is mainly connected with Atwood’s experiments with different styles and her quotes or intertextual references to various literal sources – mainly The Bible, the classic antic tales or Shakespeare.
However, the ‘postmodernistic mix’ of various styles is absolutely obvious within The Handmaid’s Tale, in The Blind Assassin it is even one of the crucial features of the novel. From this point of view, The Handmaid’s Tale is characterized as a “hybrid of two highly popular fictional forms, science fiction and the women’s romance” (Bloom, 2004, p. 88). Moreover, this view is supported mainly by the crucial position of media within the text (the tapes that the narrator uses for recording the story or old issues of fashion magazines as representations of the former culture).
The Blind Assassin goes even further while considering its structure – there are four different lines written in different genres (a diary, a romance, a sci-fi), there are novels written within the novel, there are extracts from newspaper articles that complete and comment on the story. Howells (2005, p. 156) describes the whole structure as “the initial challenge for readers is this switching between different genres, for these appear to be competing narratives”.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale
I wish this story were different. (…) I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even: about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
Maybe it is about those things, in a sense; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way. (…)
I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story.
(Atwood, 1996, p. 279)
The novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published for the first time in 1985. Since that time it has become Atwood’s most popular piece of work, it has won her several prizes and Atwood was given various significant honours. The novel has been translated into more than thirty languages, German director Volker Schlondorff made its film adaptation (the screen play was written by Harold Pinter) and Danish composer Poul Ruders made the story into opera.
3.2 The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ideological Sources
As the previous chapter says there were many literature influences that served Atwood as sources for her new piece written in the dystopian sci-fi style. As Howells (Howells, 1996, p. 96) describes Atwood’s process of preparation for the act of writing, when she started thinking of the topic of her new novel, she kept a file of items from newspapers and magazines with information connected to the theme she was interested in. This covers articles and pamphlets from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, reports from Amnesty International about atrocities in Latin America, Iran and The Philippines, information about new technologies, surrogate motherhood, facts about institutionalised birth control from the era of Hitler in Germany to Ceausescu’s in Romania. This shows the wide range of interests and sources of the origin of The Handmaid’s Tale.
A very important source for Atwood was also the history of The United States, especially the era of Puritan New England. It is signalled from the very beginning of the book where we can find a dedication of the novel to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Webster was Atwood’s own ancestor who was hanged as a witch in New England (but survived and went free). Miller, a professor of Puritan history, was Atwood’s director of American Studies at Harvard. His works and studies represent a great source for Atwood’s novel.
This all leads to the important feature of the novel – the tension between a sci-fi style and the fact that the whole story is based on real events that happened or are happening somewhere in our world.
Another important fact is the location of the story – The United States. The places are based on the real settings – Cambridge in Massachusetts as the city where Offred lives and Harvard Campus as the site for the country’s secret headquarters. Atwood decided to set the story to The United States and not to Canada because: “The States are more extreme in everything… Canadians don’t swing much to the left or to the right, they stay safely in the middle” (ibid., p. 96).
These three points from above (American history, especially the era of Puritans, similar events happening all around the world and her decision to choose USA as the setting of the novel) Atwood explains in the interview for the New York Times:
You could say it’s a response to ‘it can’t happen here.’ When they say ‘it can’t happen here’, what they usually mean is Iran can’t happen here, Czechoslovakia can’t happen here. And they’re right, because this isn’t there. But what could happen here? It wouldn’t be some people saying, ‘Hi, folks, we’re Communists and we’re going to be your new Government.’ But if you were going to do it, what would you do? What emotions would you appeal to? What groups would you utilize? How exactly would you go about it? Well something like the way the religious right is doing thing. (…) We’re often taught in schools that the Puritans came to America for religious freedom. Nonsense. They came to establish their own regime, where they could persecute people to their heart’s content just the way they themselves had been persecuted (Bloom, 2004, pp. 77-78).
And the way she explains the situation directly corresponds with the way she described the act of establishing the regime of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale:
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on (Atwood, 1996, p. 183).
3.3 The Composition
The novel consists of three parts – the three epigraphs at the beginning of the book (Genesis, Jonathan Swift – A Modest Proposal and Sufi proverb), Contents and Historical Notes on Handmaid’s Tale. The Contents of the book consist of fifteen parts with different headings, seven of them are called “Night”. All these parts are divided into several separated chapters.
As said before, there are three introductory quotations that open the novel. The first, from Genesis is taken from the story about Jacob and Rachel. Jacob promised to work for seven years in exchange for marriage to Rachel but then he was tricked into marrying her elder sister and she bears him two sons. Later Rachel – his second wife he loved the most but could not come with child – makes Jacob bed her handmaid with whom he has two sons too. This biblical story can serve as an inspiration for the system of Gilead and also brings the idea of devaluation of women who cannot become pregnant. The second epigraph comes from a satiric essay A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, published in 1729. Here, Swift comes with the idea of raising children for sale as food and other articles of trade to solve the problems of the poor families who have more children than they can afford to bring up. This mad idea makes parallel with the fanaticism of Gilead’s society. The last epigraph was taken from an Islamic proverb. It suggests that it is not necessary to make laws against what is obvious – as people are not meant to eat stones, travellers in the desert do not need any sign that eating stones is forbidden there.
The story itself is composed of isolated units with blanks between them, there are different time levels – present events stand next to Offred’s memories of her past, of her life before. The fragmentary structure presents Offred’s stream of consciousness, she often draws our attention to the storytelling process itself, and she explains why she has to tell the story – to let the future generations or others outside the regime know what the life in Gilead is like. But it is not only the reconstruction of the Gilead’s regime, but it is a reconstruction of Offred’s own self. She is trying to keep herself as an individuality, which is so difficult in such circumstances. Individuality is the first which the regime tries everyone to get rid of. Again and again Offred emphasizes anything round her that would be somehow connected with herself only - “my own time” (Atwood, 1996, p. 47), “my room” (ibid., p. 60), “my own territory” (ibid., p. 83), “my name” (ibid., p. 94). She knows it is not real truth as the regime rules everything. But you can keep your own self even there – as long as you follow the rules. As long as you do not give up. As said before, several parts of the book are titled as Night, night represents for Offred a very special time: “The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will as long as I am quiet” (ibid., p. 47).
The whole story is told by the main character – Offred. Because the handmaids are not allowed to write or read it seems the whole story consists of Offred’s thoughts. At the end of the novel we can find out that she was recording it all and these tapes were later found and transcribed by professor Piexioto about his lecture on this we can read in the very last part of the book.
Offred’s act of the tapes recording (and so telling the story) is her way of rebellion against the state. She does not want anything to be forgotten. But Offred does not tell only her own story, behind it there are stories of many other women with whom she met. Offred’s storytelling voice multiples to become the voices of ‘women’ rather than voices of a single narrator (Howells, 1996, p. 100).
Offred very often addresses directly her (potential) readers, she warns them she might not be always a reliable narrator. But we – as the readers – have no choice. We have to follow her story, rely on her memory and her point of view and believe all we read is what the situation was like.
From this point of view this novel can be seen as it has little in common with epistolary literature but – as it is transmitted into twenty-first century, the letter is transformed into the tapes (Kaufman, 1989, pp. 221-222). This fact is also once mentioned by Offred herself: “A story is like a letter. Dear you, I’ll say. Just you, without a name” (Atwood, 1996, p. 49).
The other problem that is brought into the discussion – connected with this particular media – is that consequently there must be someone to transcribe the story. And therefore there might be also some other changes done and we can never be really sure about the author and about her or his reliability.
3.4 The Plot
In the middle of the 1980s near Boston in Massachusetts U. S. president and the members of Congress are murdered by right-wing fundamentalists. Since then there starts a new era, life for all is changing. Firstly, women are not allowed to use their credit cards and it continues with women denied work and education.
Then the state of Gilead1 is established. It is a country with strict conservative rules – homosexuality, abortions and any religious sects are forbidden. People are divided into particular groups, except Jews, old women and non-white people who are directly sent working to the Colonies – a radioactive territory. Because many areas have been nuclear polluted and there have been some epidemic illnesses the population is decimated and it is facing a problem of high infertility. As the solution of this problem there is made a kind of a caste system – fertile women who got involved in illicit liaisons or second marriages are becoming so called Handmaids. To be easily recognized they wear red uniforms and they live in the houses of Commanders. Their only function is to become pregnant by the Commander and then give the birth as many children as possible to keep the nation live on. They are only live breeders – a new kind of slaves, who were got rid of their manes and have become possessions of the Commander – as they are now labelled only with the name of the man who is their ‘owner’ (Offred, Ofglen etc.). Not only have the Handmaids to live and have sex with the Commanders but they also share the house with Commander’s real wife who gets the baby after the Handmaid gives the birth. Wives represent another caste of the society.
A different ‘social class’ is represented by Aunts in khaki uniforms. Their function is to train the women who are supposed to become Handmaids. Their main task is to take away the identity of the prospective Handmaids, to restrict their vision to make them think differently – to make them to forget who they used to be and to focus on their new ‘function’. The Aunts train Handmaids in the Re-Education Centre (Red Centre) – the building surrounded by fences with barbed wires reminding of concentration camp. There all the women share a gymnasium like space.
Offred leaves the centre and after the first unsuccessful attempt to conceive she becomes a Handmaid of Commander Fred, whose previous Handmaid hanged herself in the room where Offred is going to live now. The presence of Offred’s predecessor in the room is reminded by a secret phrase that she scratched on the wall - Nolite te bastardes carborundoru. As Offred finds out later it is a botched version of Latin aphorism Nonillegitimi carborundum (Do not let the bastards wear you down).
I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. (…)
Still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact (…) It pleases me to ponder this message. It pleases me to think I’m communicating with her, this unknown woman. (…) It pleases me to know that her taboo message made it through, to at least one other person (Atwood, 1996, p. 62).
This unnamed woman represents to Offred a very special person – Offred feels that subconsciously as she does not know anything about her – and she calls her “my ancestress, my double” (ibid., p. 65). As we find out later, that woman went through the same as Offred and her situation led to her suicide.
Offred’s daily routine is to get fresh food at the local markets, to stay in her room, to participate in the public prayers sessions and executions. Once a month she has to attend a pseudo-religious ritual where Bible is read and after that she has to copulate with the Commander in the presence of his wife Serena Joy. Every month she also has to undergo regular medical exam.
As Serena Joy is longing for a baby but Offred still has not become pregnant, Serena arranges for her a secret rendezvous with a family chauffer Nick and she hopes Offred and Nick will become lovers. Her intentions are fulfilled soon and Offred comes to see Nick more and more often.
Meantime – unknown to Serena – the Commander invites Offred for late-night visits to his room. There is no sexual purpose – except a couple of kisses – they talk together, play Scrabble and Offred is given some presents – fashion magazines, a hand lotion and some information about the world outside. Once Commander gives Offred makeup, high heels and a costume – mainly made of feathers, looking as a dress of a cheap prostitute – and he takes her to an illegal nightclub Jezebel’s. Among the prostitutes who work there, Offred finds Moira – her friend from the old times.
Some time later, Serena Joy finds the dress Offred was wearing that night and accuses her of treachery. Offred does not know what to do – she has not many alternatives – escape, suicide, hide at Nick’s place, ask for mercy from the Commander. But there is a black van arriving – the secret police is coming. Nick enters Offred’s room and hides her in the place of two agents of Mayday – the underground liberation group. Offred’s story ends with an ambiguous scene – the two agents accuse her of violating state secrets, push her into the waiting van and she leaves Commander’s place.
The last part of the whole story is a separate chapter called “Historical notes on the Handmaid’s Tale”. It is set on June 25 in 2195 – over two centuries after the formation of Gilead. There is an academic conference and there is just Professor James Darcy Piexieto delivering his speech. Pixieto is an archivist who gives the audience a lecture on Offred’s thirty cassette tapes. He tried to analyse the information given by the speaker and he identifies the Commander as Frederick R. Waterford who was effaced during the Liberian revolution. Pixieto supposes that Offred escaped from Gilead and hid the tapes before departing from Canada or Britain. She then lived there alone to protect her family against potential reprisal attacks.
3.5 The Main Characters
Offred is the narrator of the story. We do not know her real name but it might be guessed from the first chapter – five women are secretly talking together before sleeping in the gym in the Red Centre where they are trained to become good handmaids:
We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June (Atwood, 1996, p. 14).
Offred is her given name with the meaning she is a possession of Gileadian Commander (“of Fred”). As Bloom (2004, p. 16) suggests ‘off red’ might be a hint – Offred is not as devout as she first appears.
Before the establishment of Gilead, she was married to Luke with whom she had a daughter. When the situation in the country became unbearable and the menace of totality was getting serious, all the family tried to escape to Canada. They were captured and Offred has never seen Luke and her daughter again. Now she has become a Handmaid – a woman whose role in the new society is to work as a reproductive mechanism and to follow all the rules of the new regime.
Offred tries to keep her identity and at least a little freedom which goes directly against the rules of the state. She does things strictly forbidden - she has a love affair with the chauffeur Nick, she comes to visit the Commander in the evenings to speak with him or read in his room. It can be seen as an act of revolt or as the way of self preservation, to forget her previous life for a while or not to become insane or to commit suicide.
Commander’s identity is not clear but at the end of the novel it is indicated by the historians his name was Fred Waterford, one of the most important persons of the regime. In Offred’s eyes he is a grey-haired, impotent man in an unhappy marriage to Serena Joy. He has nobody to talk to and so he invites Offred into his room to spend the time with him. He treats her like a child giving her small presents or playing scrabble with her. He does not agree with all laws of the state as he once tells her the commanded act of sex is ‘impersonal’. He represents a person who realized that the world he helped to create is not what he wants. He even asks Offred – an inferior person - about her opinion on the system and asks her for help how to improve it.
Serena Joy (Commander’s wife)
Serena Joy represents another person who – even if she belongs to upper class of the new society – does not feel happy living in these circumstances. She shares her home with Offred, who is still there to remind her of her lost youth and also who is there to have sex with her husband during the monthly “Ceremony” according to the state law. She is longing for a baby that represents in Gilead the status symbol within the society, so she arranges the meeting of Offred and Nick. In this situation she shows the real cruelty of her character as she promises Offred to show her a current photo of her daughter if she agrees to meet him.
Nick is Commander’s chauffeur. Offred soon finds out that he does not agree with the strict rules of the regime. He is trying to contact her from the first time they meet each other. They are getting closer and it seems Offred is feeling kind of affection but she still cannot forget her husband Luke and feels like she is betraying him (even it has been more then three years they saw each other for the last time). According to her behaviour (she visits Nick many times, she herself smiles during the days, she starts to feel to be content with her life) the relationship changes and she falls in love with Nick. At the end of the novel he helps her to escape – even though it presents a great risk to him. At the final conference the historians speculate that at that time she might have been pregnant.
Moira is Offred’s best friend from college. She represents a lesbian feminist activist, the main ‘heroine’ of the book and the hero for Offred herself. Moira is the one who is not being afraid of saying her critical ideas against the regime and not afraid of all the consequences of her behaviour in such a way. After the first unsuccessful attempt to leave the Red Centre, she finally escapes and leaves Offred wondering what became of her friend. This act gives Offred hope one day she will run away too.
Moira and Offred meet together later in Commander’s club where Moira works as a party girl. She is happy about her current job – the chance to be with other women. Offred is very disappointed - she feels that Moira has given up her fight and resigned and her own hope for better future or any change becomes weaker. They never meet each other again.
Janine stands directly in the contrast of Moira. She represents what can happen when one buys into Gilead’s regime. At the age of fourteen she was raped and as consequence she became pregnant – she believes it was all her fault. She gets the name Offwarren and becomes secretly pregnant with her doctor during a monthly visit. The baby dies soon after its birth and Janine is transferred to another commander.
Later at the Particicution – a ceremony in which Handmaids can do whatever they want to a man who has – they are told - committed rape and murdered a baby, Janine is seen with a tuft of the man’s hair, smiling. It seems she became insane.
Ofglen is one of the Handmaids and she is Offred’s shopping partner. At first Ofglen seems to be devout, she follows all the regime rules. After some time, Offreds finds out her real identity, Ofglen is a member of a group of people who try to fight secretly against the regime. Ofglen tells her about their “Mayday” code which is used to recognize “the resistors”. Ofglen asks Ofred to find out information from her Commander during their evening meetings. Offred is afraid of doing this and so she denies cooperating.
One day a black van comes there – it is the secret state police. As Ofglen knows they have come for her she hangs herself. Ofglen represents – next to Moira – another way of living under this regime and tries to defeat it.
Luke is Offred’s husband and we know him only from short flashbacks in her memory. We do not get much information about him but according to Offred’s memories they had a happy marriage and loved each other a lot. She does not know anything about him now but she still believes he escaped successfully during their attempt to run away to Canada.
Because Luke was married when he met Offred and first they had an extra marital affair, Offred became the Handmaid in the strict Gilead’s regime.
She remains nameless – in the same way as her mother – throughout the whole story and in the same way as her father Luke we know her only from Offred’s memories. They were separated while the family tried to escape to Canada and Offred does not know anything about her daughter’s life. Three years later she sees her once again in a photograph – at the age of eight she is wearing a long white dress. The photo reminds Offred of arranged marriages with soldiers that are very common in Gilead.
Offred is worried about her daughter but she keeps hoping they will meet one day again. The story remains open, we do not know if the family reunites again.
As the other members of the family we know her only from Offred’s flashbacks. She was a member of the radical women’s movement, a ‘pronatalist’ – she decided to have Offred at the age of thirty-seven and to raise her without any male aid. She takes part in many activities to support fight the for women’s equality.
We do not know much about her life in Gilead but Moira tells Offred she saw her mother in the film about women working in Colonies, cleaning up radioactive waste – the worst work people in Gilead can do. “Even though the “women’s society” she wanted has, in perverse way, been achieved, she has been marginalized more severely than ever before” (Bloom, 2004, p. 22).
Cora and Rita
Cora and Rita are Marthas in the house where Offred lives. They differ in their attitudes toward Offred – while Cora hopes Offred will be pregnant soon and it will bring happiness to everyone in the house (she smiles at Offred, gives her extra sweets etc.), Rita hates Offred and judges her for her choice to become Handmaid over the work in Colonies.
The Marthas show us the situation of women who are not able to have children any more live within the society obsessed with fertility. As Offred sometimes overhears their talks and comments on society and regime we know what they think about it. Offred would like to be a part of the community of Marthas, to have someone to talk to honestly.
Lydia and Elizabeth
Lydia and Elizabeth are two main Aunts. We know them from Offred’s flashbacks. As they are supposed to educate the new handmaids, their speech is always full of slogans and rules – about reading, writing, maternal rule of women. They want Handmaids to become absolutely obedient and follow any rules of Gilead.
As Bloom says, the Aunts represent one of the lowest groups within the society – they are those who will “to harm and sacrifice others for the sake of their own interest” (ibid., p. 23).
The Aunts might be also seen as the main representatives of the Gilead’s regime and essential characters for the explanation of the fact the novel is so worrisome and even frightening. Aunts are women with a great power that is physically represented by the electric kettle prods they wear on their leather belts which they can use against women any time they like. Catherine R. Stimpson (2004, p. 81) describes these characters as being “sinister and funny at once” and explains the way Atwood makes Gilead more terrifying – she gives these tools into hands of such ordinary people. Stimpson continuous her explanations with the idea that the totalitarianism in Atwood’s work becomes domesticated as we can find there such ordinary figures. And in consequences it is so frightening as everything there seems normal and absurd at the same time.
3.6 The Main Themes
There are various themes that can be found within the story and it is difficult to say which the main one is. There is a description of living in the dictatorship and ultra-conservative society that can remind us of extreme godliness. But in Gilead the concept of Bible and its values seem to be misunderstood or the society is highly hypocritical as - the role of Bible is rather official. Bible is usually locked by the Commander and it is only used for a short reading before the monthly ceremony.
The society in the fact does not follow anything that is written in Bible. As another example can serve the way the society solves out the problem of its “useless” citizens. All who are not convenient for any position within the society that is absolutely obsessed with the fertility are sent to the Colonies, wich equals to be sentenced to death. There is no reason to keep them among those who can serve the purpose of Gilead. There can be seen a parallel with the life in wilderness where only those strong species can survive.
The time before Gilead is sometimes called as chaos. And even the recent regime is purely totalitarianism, it tries to persuade its citizens it is not so. It is only the matter of the point of view: “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” (Atwood, 1996, p. 34).
But the essential thing is that the regime is not originally based on religion but on feminism that – even if hidden underneath - has actually the main role. How this works in the novel describes Barbara Ehrenreich:
We are being warned, in this tale, not only about the theocratic ambitions of the religious right, but about a repressive tendency in feminism itself. Only on the surface is Gilead a fortress of patriarchy, Old Testament style. It is also, in a thoroughly sinister and distorted way, the utopia of cultural feminism (Ehreinch, 2004, p. 78).
The society in Gilead is mainly lead by women and there is nothing that could be criticized by feminists as an instrument of humiliation of women or any thing that would represent me as a stronger part of the mankind. Everything that has been traditionally described as instruments that suppress women nature form – make up or other cosmetics, high heels, mini skirts, fashion magazines, pornography – has disappeared. The position of men has been reduced as their only important task is to fertilize assigned women, but they no longer live in normal partnerships with their wives or girlfriends. Women should feel – within this society - absolutely free. And this is also the idea that is given by Aunts to all former Handmaids in the Red Centre.
There can be seen what might happen if any ideology in its extreme form is put into practice – concretely what consequences might bring an extreme variety of feminism. But there is also present another fact that occurs within feminism itself – women – same as men – are guilty for the position of the women within the society. The book supports this fact mainly by the characters of Aunts.
Ehrenreich (ibid., p. 78) describes the whole situation in the context of various historical issues that represent subjection or injustice to women all around the world. She speaks about foot-binding, witch-burning, slavery, organized rape, enforced childbearing or denial of ordinary rights such as speaking out in public or walking down the street alone without fear. From her point of view women have not been only passive victims. To prove this fact is also one of the main aims of Atwood’s novel:
This tale is an absorbing novel, as well as an intra-feminist polemic. Still, it does remind us that, century after century, women have been complicit in their own undoing. Like the sadistic Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale, it was women who bound their granddaughters’ feet, women who turned over their little girls for clitoridectomies, and often even women who denounced their neighbours as witches (ibid., p. 80).
Another theme that appears in the story is the way how to survive under these conditions. How to carry on living and not to become insane. How to keep your own personality inside which is the last piece of freedom you have, but the system tries very hard to take it away from you. There are various ways that Offred does to protect herself. She knows she has to keep her name which represents her past and – what is more important - her individuality. And there is the act of telling the story, which is another act of self preservation and self reconstruction. This topic will be discussed in details in the last chapter of the thesis.