As I mentioned in a previous post, I am participating in a city wide read and discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I just finished the book, and next week I will begin attending public lectures, panel discussions, film screenings and a presentation by Margaret Atwood herself. Needless to say, I am very excited about this opportunity.

Today, I am going to simply provide my gut responses to the book – my reactions and questions, etc. Later, I will update my reponse in future posts as the city wide events occur. I’ll explain new revelations about the content, thought provoking insights I’ve gained, and my reactions to the analysis and critiques of others in response to the book. I think it will be really interesting to see how my thoughts develop and become more refined in response to the work based on the public events.

Initial response (with the needless caveat that these are unrefined reactions). The work The Handmaid’s Tale consists of two primary sections – the actual first person narrative itself and the “Historical Notes Section,” a section that appears to be the transcript of a lecture that takes place in a future society on the topic of the first person narrative (which we learn is actually a tape recorded narrative collected and compiled by historians of uncertain origin or authenticity.)

My initial response to the work when I finished reading it was one of dissatisfaction. Atwood did very well in conveying the limitations of our first person narrator, Offred, who is allowed no real information about the real political and social situation beyond her household. We, through her narrative, are allowed to only gather bits and pieces of information about her society at a time, and I found myself often straining for any detail that would explain what had happened to allow the formation of such a society.

I found myself furthermore almost desperately curious for more detail about the attacks that led to the dominance of the “Gileadean” society, as well as more details about the ideological basis for such a society as well as its infrastructure and political structure. We obtain a better context at the end when the narrative is put into perspective in the lecture, however throughout the whole narrative I fought my own desire to know more about the sequence of events that had shaped the life of our narrator.

I found that, for some reason, I could not emotionally connect with our narrator Offred or her plight. Offred, whose name “Of Fred” signifies her relation as a possession of the high ranking male to whom she is assigned, finds herself without any power or will in her society and subject to the horrific whims of those in her household. However, I was just not able to really connect with her character or her plight, even at the end in which her fate is uncertain. I found myself not really caring. She just seemed a little flat.

Perhaps this was intentional to somehow demonstrate the psychological effect of her powerlessness in society – her constant need to be physically complaint reflected in a sort of two dimensional acceptance and experience of her world. The narrative is marked with numerous flashbacks which fill in some details about her prior life before she was captured and forced to take on the role of a handmaid. However, even given those details, I struggled to connect. Or perhaps the effect is an intentional construct that serves to indicate that the narrative was “fabricated” – as its authenticity comes into question in the historical notes section.

Whatever the reason, a reason exists; I am just not certain of it at the moment.

Really, though, I wonder if attempting to apply these measure of satisfaction to this particular work are actually appropriate to the nature of the work. Its entire structure as a “historical” document and the academic response to that document do not lend themselves to the measure I am imposing.

If, rather, I look at the narrative as a historical document, as we are suggested to do at the end, things become clearer. (It is only that as readers we do not know “how to read” the narrative and so throughout I was dissatisfied because I was applying the same expectations I have for a novel. BUT, it simply isn’t structured as a novel. A re-read would probably be helpful if I had the time.)

However, there is a problem with viewing the first person narrative section of the work in that manner, especially as that view would be informed by the historical notes section. The historical notes section makes the narrative even more impersonal by couching it in cool, distanced academic jargon, jokes, and analysis. In fact, the designation of the narrative as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which I can only assume is an allusion to Chaucer’s tales, seems extraordinarily inappropriate – an imbedded critique by the author on the nature of academia perhaps (??).

On the other hand, the historical notes section is very helpful for a number of reasons. First, it provides a context for readers, like me, who were salivating for more details about the inner workings of Gileadean society. Second, the section provides relief to readers in that it indicates that the totalitarian society (despite the uncertain fate of Offred) did not actually survive. Third, the relative position of security and comfort of the academics portrayed in the section (allowing them to make jokes about the various oppressive measures within Gileadean society) is both a natural evolution or extension of society as well as a dangerous forbear to potential oppressive societies in the future.

So – essentially, my primary questions are about Margaret Atwood’s choice to structure the book as a historical artifact + academic analysis. Why did she not create an epic novel detailing the rise and fall of this society, told from multiple points of view, greater detail about the ideology of the society, etc.?  The structure makes the work unique but is it the most effective structure for conveying the content?

One benefit of the work’s structure as it is, though, is the way in which is reflects the constant cycling of free and oppressive societies. It is presumed that the Gileadean society sprung from modern American society, as it is today. And, it suggests that the oppressive Gileadean society phases out into a freer, more liberal society. Currently, I believe our society operates from the viewpoint that we have successfully created a free and unoppressive society – and yet does the possibility not actually exist that these freedoms may at any moment be taken away? (i.e. Iranian revolution) We view ourselves as invincible – but that is not actually the case. Furthermore, the structure of the book allows us to see that, as horrible as they are, oppressive societies eventually evolve into free societies, given enough time, allowing just enough ease and comfort and satisfaction to make society ripe for another totalitarian regime.

So, I suppose I am answering my own question. The book’s structure works for that reason. As you have likely noticed, I have not even addressed the “gender specific” concerns of this book. That is because there is no other way to interpret the way Gileadean society treats its women other than that it is horrible and unacceptable. Not much in the way of discussion there. For me, the primary function of the book would be to suggest that we not get too comfortable with our freedoms, that we continue to fight for them, because the possibility of fundamentalism and oppression is one that we have not managed to entirely overcome. The possibility always lurks, especially when times are at their best.