Alienation and Narration in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set, at the time, in the near future for the United States of America where a conservative religious faction has overthrown the government and the Constitution and replaced it with a totalitarian Christian theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. When the novel was written in 1985, Ronald Regan had just been elected to a second term and the growth of the religious right in America was nurturing a renewed fundamental Christian rhetoric into politics often in a direct backlash to second wave feminism. That backlash fueled part of the genesis of the novel, as well as the struggle of women for equality still rampant then and now. In an interview in 1998, Atwood said, “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions” (“Reader’s Companion”).

While the novel’s setting seems to be late-20th century, thus making it now our past, what is truly frightening is how applicable the warning message of the novel still seems to be. The AIDS epidemic may not be the quick death sentence it seemed twenty five years ago, but the war for the control of women’s bodies has not receded. If anything, to judge by recent legislative moves and political rhetoric, it has merely grown more virulent, and while the regressive steps in the novel have not come to pass, it is not difficult to see the signs that there are powerful people in the country who would still happily see it come to pass.

The novel won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987, and is generally classed as science fiction, though Atwood herself prefers to call it speculative fiction, as she defined the difference between the two once to be that, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” (Langford). Elsewhere, Atwood opined that, “For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do…and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand” (“Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels”). The distinction is relevant mainly in placing The Handmaid’s Tale in the context of this course, mostly because it differs radically from most of the narratives we have examined to this point. Given that the novel repeatedly plays with behavior and the changing meaning signified by it with the notion that “context is all,” this seems an appropriate exercise to start with in examining the novel. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon is likely the most similar in that both novels explore the potential ways that technology and current social upheavals could drastically change the world as we know it in the very near future. While the tech in The Handmaid’s Tale may seem retro from our vantage point, especially in comparison to that in Daemon, the warnings in Atwood’s novel ring just as relevant as those of Suarez. Beyond the tech and the critique of society through a speculative lens, The Handmaid’s Tale engages with other works of speculative and science fiction in exploring the never-ending question of just what it means to be human.

This point regarding the question of our humanity is what I want to examine in this essay. The Handmaid’s Tale uses various themes to wrap around this theme, but I want to focus mainly on the importance of narrative in the creation and deployment of self within the novel, the retention of humanity, and the alienating, dehumanizing affect, or intention, in the restriction of these narratives. The novel reflects on a society which is rigidly divided along both gender and class lines, with further Othering in place via designations of creed, race and sexuality. In the Republic of Gilead men and women have been divided into their functions with a definitive ruling male class, the Commanders of the Faithful. Men in the society at least have more of a chance of moving upwards socially, but women are consigned to rigid roles from which there is no escape.  The majority of women are placed in roles of servitude to the Commanders. Their Wives are at the top of the female hierarchy, with their Daughters one rung lower. There are the Handmaids to whom the Commanders are entitled if their Wives cannot bear children and the Marthas who do the household chores. The lower class of legitimate women are the wives of the poorer classes—the Econowives. Unlike the women assigned to the Commanders these women must fulfill all duties—wife, child bearer and homemaker.

The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated in the first person from the point of view of Offred, a woman who married a divorced man and bore him a child in the days before the revolution. Since divorce has been outlawed, her marriage was invalidated, but since she had proven to be fertile she is given the choice to become a Handmaid instead of being sent to the colonies to be forced into dangerous manual labor until she dies. Offred chooses to be a Handmaid. This position requires her to engage in ritualized sexual intercourse with her Commander once a month when she is fertile in hopes of bearing him a child. There is a sense from both the reader and women who are not Handmaids that this ritual must be the true horror to which Handmaids are subjected. The ritual itself is dehumanizing. A Handmaid must come to the Wife’s bed and lay between the Wife’s legs with the Wife holding her while the Commander has sex with her (The Handmaid’s Tale 94).

The Wife’s presence is to enforce the surrogacy of the Handmaid, to give the illusion that it is with his Wife the Commander is having sex, because the child that results will be hers, not the Handmaid’s. There is no love, no affection even, nothing personal. In many ways the presence of the Wife arguably makes the act even less personal than sex with a prostitute. There, at least, the act is ostensibly about sexual desire and while it may not be intimate, the prostitute is a partner. In the ritual, the Handmaid is utterly obliterated. Fully dressed above the waist, she is nothing more than a surrogate vagina for the Wife—a physical opening in which the Commander can ejaculate. Reading it, there is a sense that this is nothing more than legalized rape, but Offred seems to have little emotional trauma regarding it. During the first ritual encounter in the novel, she describes it thusly:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose (The Handmaid’s Tale 94).

This stripping away of humanity is surely meant to horrify, but for Offred there is a far greater horror and it is the very horror through which we experience her life: the use and restriction of narrative. Beyond being forced into rigidly stratified, subservient roles, the women of Gilead are forced into rigidly restrictive narrative modes. Wives and Marthas may at least gossip and exchange news—they speak freely amongst themselves (or at least as freely as one may in a totalitarian government). Handmaids, however, are set apart. The other women in the household do not generally speak with them among necessities, and loyalties and friendships among them are discouraged. All women find themselves stripped of individuality—their clothes are prescribed in style and color based upon their station—but Handmaids are stripped even farther than this: their names, their identities, are taken from them.

My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter (The Handmaid’s Tale 84).

Thus, the first words they used to identify themselves, or to carve a place in the world—name, daughter, sister—are gone. Instead, they are identified solely by the Commander they serve, their identities totally subsumed within his. Offred’s “name” then is literally what it looks like—“of Fred.” Fred is her Commander. When she leaves, the next Handmaid who takes her place will become Offred, and our narrator will have a new name.

This stripping away of words, of discourse, continues to be carried farther in the narrative rigidity of Gilead. Denied names, denied connection and communication, the women are further denied other words. It is illegal for women to read. In fact, the mere sight of letters and words is deemed to be “too much temptation” for them. Signs on stores have had their letters erased. Like the taverns and village shops of an earlier era, things women might come into contact with are identified by picture alone (The Handmaid’s Tale 25). Even titles and names in films are blacked out (The Handmaid’s Tale 119). For Offred, reading is tightly wound up in narrative, in story, and in the act of preserving one’s sense of self, even if they are not exact. But the forbidden nature of reading seems to tie itself up in the act of storytelling, somehow strictly contrasted with the oral. There is a hunger in Offred for knowledge, though her distrust of the veracity of the oral shines through: “This is the one good thing about these evenings, the evenings of the Ceremony: I’m allowed to watch the news…Such as it is: who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to red beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none” (The Handmaid’s Tale 82).

This hunger for news, for narrative, for some sense of connection to something outside of yourself is tied up in the novel in that sense of self, of knowing, of being human. Without story, without news, without connection, we exist in a space of nothingness, Offred seems to offer. With the gift of words and beyond them, the gift of literacy, we are far more able to get at the truth, somehow, and thus locate ourselves within it. The stripping of literacy and of connection, of narrative, has marooned these women in a world inside their own heads, where reality itself must be questioned. They must accept as truth the things they are told—the Bible passages read that Offred is sure have been altered, but which she can’t look up; the fate of her child, her husband, because there are no records; the fate of those around her, even, when they disappear. Like children, the Handmaids are left at the mercy of construction by Others—their names, their stories, their selves are obviated.

When the Commander seeks to gain more from Offred than the monthly ceremonial mating, he lures her to him with reading, and with constructing language. She expects to be asked to perform some sort of sexual activities that are forbidden. Instead, he asks her to play Scrabble, and Offred finds herself hungrily grasping at words that had slipped away from her, a skill once taken for granted, but now treasured. “It was like trying to walk without crutches, like those phony scenes in old TV movies. You can do it. I know you can. That was the way my mind lurched and stumbled, among the sharp R’s and T’s, sliding over the ovoid vowels as if on pebbles” (The Handmaid’s Tale 156).

From Scrabble, the Commander moves farther into the taboo, offering Offred a gift: a magazine to read. As she does, he watches, as if deriving a fetishistic pleasure from it. Offred can barely remember what she found captivating about these magazines before, so easily did she toss them away, but then she remembers—the magazines “dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities…one adventure after another…pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality. This is what he was holding, without knowing it” (The Handmaid’s Tale 156).

If promise is in writing, in reading, then the role of narrative would seem bound up in it, too, but it is not just narrative that Offred can find solace in. Narrative itself is too slippery. It is in the capturing of it, setting it down. The connection and self-making lies in literacy. Without literacy, narrative takes on the tone of insanity, playing constantly around and around in our heads. History may be rewritten by telling a new story, but that is a fact we like to ignore. After all, “history” and “story” may be different words in English, but they are derived from, and represented by, the same word in French: histoire. This connection is not one which we shy away from, necessarily. We tell history in stories, and stories may be true or false. That is something we see in children demanding to know—“is that what really happened?” “that’s just a story” “that’s not true” “you made that up.” It echoes through news and education and play. Paul Harvey’s tagline was “And now you know the rest of the story,” as if it were not true until the denouement was revealed.

This true/false, malleability of both history and story is something which Atwood plays with repeatedly in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the play is deeply connected to humanity—our history, our selves are made up from the stories we tell and if we are not allowed to tell them, not allowed to preserve them, then the very truth and facts of our lives may cease to exist: we are no longer human. Offred frames her narrative this way—that she is telling a story, that she has to believe it is a “story” in the potentiality of its falsehood:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off. It isn’t a story I’m telling. It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along (The Handmaid’s Tale 39).

Later when she has had an exhausting day, emotionally, when she feels like she is seeing things and questioning if she is even real, she adds, “I’m too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one” (129). “If it’s only a story, it becomes less frightening,” she says (144). When the narrative twists in different ways, she apologizes to whomever she is telling the story, the “you” she has invented, though she stresses that she is telling, not writing, but that there must be a you, because you don’t tell stories to yourself (39).

This act of telling, of connecting, of fighting off isolation via stories is crucial to Offred and to the point of being human—of being made up of our stories, and in telling them we validate our own and others’ existence:

But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or you escape, in the future or in heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are (The Handmaid’s Tale 267).

And because she tells, she is, as well. And when she tries to tell it, to change it, to recreate it, she twists back around, tells the same thing in a new way, as if trying to find the truth in the reconstruction—while admitting that it is reconstruction, and one is forced to wonder if the truth lies somewhere inside of that (134, 142). It matters to her, what is real, if only to keep hold of herself. She tells her believed in listener about her life, so that it can be validated, so she can have existed, so she matters.

This need to view ourselves, to understand ourselves, to construct ourselves is one that bleeds through a lot of fiction. Science fiction seems to dwell on it even more critically in some ways—as if only in the realm of the speculative can we embrace the reality of our own natures. Offred apologizes when she thinks she does not show well within the narrative, but the deeper truths of her personal hell wrap up in those moments. The final section of The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a meta-frame for her narrative, for her life. In the year 2195—so a solid two hundred years after the events of the book—Offred’s tale is being discussed by academics who study Gilead. Gilead is framed in conjunction with Iran—as one of the two Late-Twentieth Century Monotheocracies. We discover that The Handmaid’s Tale has been constructed and edited into a manuscript, but that there are problems in authentication (299).

Offred’s story has been uncovered, but it was not a “manuscript” when found. In fact, the professor does not even want to refer to it as a “document.” The item—Offred’s story—was discovered in what was known to be a waystation on the Underground Femaleroad out of Gilead, and it was not written down, it was recorded. The story has now been transcribed from this oral telling, though through trying to piece it together as the tapes were in no labeled order. The rest of the section becomes a discussion on authentication and history versus story. First, there is a consideration that the tapes might have been forged. Secondly, even if they are real, it is nevertheless obvious to the researchers that Offred could not have recorded them as events were happening, and thus the story is, truly, the reconstruction she claimed it was. Finally, they are unable to authenticate the existence of anyone in Offred’s tale. They manage to narrow the Commander down to possibly two, but none of the names of the others she gives lead anywhere. Offred is criticized for not giving more detail, and it is decided that if it is all true, nevertheless there is no way to know who she was, and she was likely one of many (309).

Nothing is known of her fate—whether she escaped or was recaptured, whether she lived or died or found her daughter or anything else (310). Her story is, thus, questionable as history, because it was recorded orally, not in written form; because it does not contain the proper elements for authentication (310). Ultimately, what her existence means is obscured by her manner of revealing it, and, yet, perhaps, she is saved from utter insignificance. What that significance is beyond curiosity, however, is questionable: “As all historians known, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day” (310).

Thus, Offred is allowed to live—her words have been written down in order to survive, to stand for her life and the lives of those like her, and she can, at least, know that her story was heard by the future “you” that she was reaching for. But it is in a form that was denied her—writing—that she will be preserved—and it is only narrative—also denied her save for in her head and speaking, finally, to a lonely tape recorder—that testifies to her existence. The question of story vs. history is not one the novel is able to answer, but the necessity of defining our lives, claiming our humanity, via the stories we tell and having someone to tell them to is clear, and becomes an interesting frame to examine other narratives through: Do we tell the stories of our experience to document the experience, or to document ourselves and our existence, to claim significance in the universe?

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 16 June 2005. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

—. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986. Kindle.

Langford, David. “Bits and Pieces.” Langford Home Page. (Originally published in SFX Magazine, August 2003). Web. 25 Feb 2013.

“Reader’s Companion to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.” Random House. Doubleday, 1998. Web. 25 Feb 2013.