Fri
Sep 4 2009 3:37pm

No one left to speak when they came for me: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling dystopia that feels real in every breath. It’s the story, told in pieces, through the eyes and life of one woman, of how the US slowly fell into being an oppressive religious dictatorship.

When you write mainstream fiction, you write about the truths of the human heart. When you write science fiction, you get to write about the truths of the human heart plus squids in space, how cool is that? Margaret Atwood is a brilliant Canadian feminist writer who has embraced this by leaving the literary ghetto and coming over to the science fiction side. This often isn’t easy, writers like P.D. James and Marge Piercy have embarrassed themselves trying to make SF work, because you can’t just write science fiction as if it were mainstream fiction, you have to know how to make it work, and reinventing the wheel from scratch gets clunky. Atwood however sails past this and uses SF techniques, not just in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a dystopia, but in the straight-forwardly near-future science fiction novels Oryx and Crake and sequel The Year of the Flood. It’s odd that Atwood so fervently denies writing SF, when other literary crossover writers who have mastered the technique, like Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro, don’t have a problem with the word. Ursula Le Guin has some wonderful snark in her Guardian review. But clearly, Atwood has a problem with the concept of squids in space. But she’s a terrific writer, and I’m very glad she did turn to SF, because I’d probably never have started reading her if it hadn’t been for The Handmaid’s Tale, which really is brilliant.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood takes a familiar form. I’m not sure if there’s a name for it. There’s a present time story going along, and there’s a lot of backstory, and the way the backstory got the character to the present time story is as important to the resolution as the events of the present time story. Atwood uses it in Lady Oracle and Cat’s Eye, and Ken MacLeod uses it in The Stone Canal and Cosmonaut Keep. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re presented with a first person narrator who is a handmaid in a dystopian future, and who used to be a women with a job and a husband. We learn slowly through layers of revelation what it means to be a handmaid, and we learn even more slowly what happened to the narrator and the world to get them both to that position.

The narrator’s voice is compelling and close up, present tense and focused on detail and description. The narrator, as a handmaid, is not allowed her own name, only “Offred,” i.e. “Of Fred,” meaning “Fred’s handmaid.” We learn about her time in the Center learning how to be a handmaid, and about her daily life. Atwood has thoroughly mastered the science fictional art of incluing, scattering in the information and trusting the reader to put it together. The details are perfect. Offred is forbidden to read, but in her room is a cushion embroidered with the word “Faith,” which she reads over and over. She hoards butter to rub on her skin, because she isn’t allowed handcream. The takeover begins when she tries to buy cigarettes and her card is invalid—all the women’s cards have been invalidated and given to their male next-of-kin. She loves her husband, but she also suddenly needs to rely on him, and it puts a barrier between them. (The whole card thing was an impressive piece of science fictional prediction—reading it now I was imagining my daily Interac use, but this was written in 1985.) The takeover happened slowly and one step at a time, and people didn’t complain until they were the ones in trouble. There’s an awful lot about it that’s very creepy and has horrible resonances. There’s a mention of seeing news about the resettlement of the “Children of Ham” (African Americans) in North Dakota, where they were supposed to farm. The Biblical literalism required for of making women into sex-slaves is exactly the way people do use selective Bible quotations for their own purposes.

This is a book about the absolute importance of feminism, the idea that women are people. This idea has not been the norm through history, and isn’t the norm everywhere on the planet now. In the afterword, an academic paper on the text from a hundred and fifty years later, Gilead is explicitly compared to Iran. There’s a moment where Offred is stopped in the street by a Japanese tourist and asked if she is happy, and she has to reply that she is very happy, because of course the translator is one of the secret police. This reminds me of interviews with women in Afghanistan saying how happy they were with the Taliban and the chador. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t hammer down its points, and it works better for being subtle. It also isn’t a book where all men are made out to be monsters. Even the man who is a monster, Fred, the Commander, is shown preferring it when the handmaid’s life is tolerable, playing Scrabble, breaking the rules. Luke and Nick are both shown as admirable, and as screwed over by the system as the women are. Gay men are mentioned (but not shown) as being early victims. The most important point isn’t about feminism though, it’s that democracy thrives when people have choices and aren’t afraid to speak out even when it isn’t their own ox being gored.

This is a very good book, but not a cheerful one. I really like it and admire it, but I don’t re-read it often because I don’t often want to read about how people give in, about the world becoming worse. But there is hope here, there’s a masterfully achieved ambiguous ending that’s as happy as possible under the circumstances, and it has great characters. It’s also written incredibly well and with a masterful command of technique. (It caused me to rush out and read all Atwood’s earlier work, and to read everything she’s written since.) It’s the kind of book that could only be science fiction, that goes beyond what it’s possible to write within the narrow space to which mimetic writers feel themselves confined. This is what science fiction is. There are no squids in space. But oddly enough, we can cope without.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

30 comments
Church Tucker
1. Church
I like to wax poetic on this as a charming utopian fable.

I'm also kind of a dick.

(It works for me.)
Leigh Butler
2. leighdb
"In the desert, there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones."

I first read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I think, and I've come to realize since then that it stands as one of the most profoundly affecting and influential books I've ever read.

I've always been a feminist, both by upbringing and by natural inclination, but I think it was this book that really brought home to me why the protection of freedom of choice - for everyone, not just women - is so vitally important. Because the alternative is just far too horrifying.
mark Proctor
3. mark-p
I love most of Margret Atwood's work (although the library doesn't hold enough of them).
I found this terrifying as I was reading it. Its a long time since i read the book but is still very clear in my memory. The way it is written is very believable and real despite being science fiction. Its such a hopeless situation not just for the central character but even for those with slightly more power over their lives.
At leased it ends on some sort of hopeful note.
Soon Lee
4. SoonLee
I found it a horrifying, brilliant compelling read. It's not something I re-read, but would not hesitate to recommend it.
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
This is truly a great book. It really irks me that she is so adamant that she doesn't write science fiction.
MacAllister Stone
6. MacAllister
I'm so very glad you wrote about this. I've not read The Handmaid's Tale in at least ten years, but it's time for a re-read.
Clifton Royston
7. CliftonR
This is a brilliant enough book that I have not wanted to re-read it as being too uncomfortable, particularly during the last 8 years.
goshawk
8. goshawk
I have hated The Handmaid's Tale (and most other Atwood stuff, notably her poetry), since I was forced to read it in high school. Quite possibly *because* I was forced to read it in high school. This makes me think I might want to try a re-read sometime, now that I'm somewhat more versed in literature, genre, and feminist issues. Hrm.

And the whole "It's Literature so it can't be SF" thing *really* gets me torqued, no matter who's doing it.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Goshawk: School managed to ruin Jane Austen for me, and would have ruined Shakespeare if I hadn't already known I loved it. So I think on the whole you should probably give her another go, but preferably something written since that doesn't have the metaphorical smell of chalk hanging over it. I really like The Handmaid's Tale but I'm sure I'd hate it if I'd had to study it.
goshawk
10. Shireling
True story: Recently, a Christian parent in my area objected because his daughter's class was studying The Handmaid's Tale. The compromise (to which the man agreed): Instead of reading Handmaid's Tale, his daughter would read... Brave New World(!)
Paul Howard
11. DrakBibliophile
Shireling, that makes sense to me. Too many reviews of Handmaid take the 'attack religion' point of view. Brave New World is the same type of book but doesn't trigger my "oh it's just another anti-religion book" knee-jerk.

Of course, I won't read either Handmaid or Brave New World.
- -
12. heresiarch
Shireling @ 10: "Instead of reading Handmaid's Tale, his daughter would read... Brave New World(!)"

Brave New World is a dystopia where everyone does drugs and has sex with everyone else all the time. It's very possible to read it with John the Savage, who rejects the sex and drugs to flagellate himself in the woods, as the hero. Of course a conservative Christian would find that a more appropriate choice.

goshawk
13. Superquail
Shireling - What was the parent's objection? There are some scenes in the book that depict a brothel, but Atwood shows it to be a horrible place and the people who frequent it as being immoral and hypocritical.

Sometimes it seems that the only books that don't generate "parental objections" are those that are too bland to be worth reading.
Tex Anne
14. TexAnne
Superquail: I imagine they objected to the adultery that Offred was committing with Fred, the scarlet-wearing hussy.
goshawk
15. Mairreading
"writers like P.D. James and Marge Piercy have embarrassed themselves trying to make SF work"

Hey, this isn't the first time I've seen someone dissing Marge Piercy for this. I read Woman on the Edge of Time almost thirty years ago now, and I liked it enough to go on and read a lot more Marge Piercy. And it wasn't as if I'd never read any SF before (far from it).

Call me a tasteless dunce if you like, but I've definitely found I enjoy reading more when I don't criticize as I go!
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Mainreading: I didn't link to Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, a book I like a great deal, but to He. She and It (British title Body of Glass) a much less successful novel -- indeed a book simultaneously brilliant and awful in ways it's hard to explain.

As for enjoying reading more if you don't criticize as you go, yes, me too, but that means I have to read books that don't have the kind of problems that demand it. I'm actually quite a forgiving reader, if a book has grabbed me I'll overlook a lot of things wrong with it, but if the problems grab me instead it's like trying to enjoy an icecream on the edge of a cliff -- I can't just ignore the huge drop in front of me to concentrate on the sweet taste, and there are problems with shutting my eyes...
lanyo lanyo
17. lanyo
I've adored this story for so long, and given away copies of it to several people. I find it terrifying, and if nothing else, to be a warning. I've wondered many times why there should be freedom-from rather than freedom-to. I want to have more freedom-to.
goshawk
18. Jinian
I love The Handmaid's Tale, but I about died recently reading this in an interview with her: "People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed..."

What on earth does SHE think the book's about?

(I suppose she's just never heard that patriarchy hurts men as well, and she's pointing it out. This is my optimistic interpretation.)
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Jinian: I think that the way the men are also oppressed is what lifts it out of the category of books like Native Tongue and The Shore of Women where Men Are The Problem. Gilead would be a horrible place for anyone. And Serena Joy is one of the people who made it that way. But the women are definitely oppressed! However, considering the way words are misreported, maybe she said "only the women" and they didn't catch that word. But good grief.
Daniel Abraham
20. DanielAbraham
Woman on the Edge of Time is one of those books that makes me very uncomfortable because it had one detail in it that can't quite work its way out from under my skin, and how I interpret it changes the rest of how I see the book. It's like one of those face/vase illusions where the whole book keeps flickering from one book to a different one. I read it in college lo these two decades ago, and it *still* bugs.

I read Handmaid's Tale for the same seminar, and then went and read everything else of Atwood's I could find. And you can figure out Offred's real name if you read it closely. At the front of the book, she lists all the women's names, and then all but one of them appear in the book. It's that kind of care that makes me love her.

And yes, she writes science fiction and is too embarrassed to cop to it. We've all got our failings.
goshawk
21. R. Emrys
I am extremely fond of Woman on the Edge of Time, but He, She, & It definitely has problems. Specifically, the parts in the setting she made up are terrific, but when the characters leave that setting they end up in Generic Cyberpunk World.

I need to try and reread The Handmaid's Tale now that no one in my household is in the middle of a surrogate pregnancy. (Other things not to read in the middle of a surrogacy include Butler's "Blood Child." Eek.)
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
R Emrys: It would be possible to make a whole list. A long list! I don't think "Blood Child" would go down well in any pregnancy.

Daniel: What was the detail? I'm intrigued.
Daniel Abraham
23. DanielAbraham
The name of the doctor Connie is trying to kill is the same as the future-world verb for "to learn": Redding. And the closer she gets to killing him, the harder it is for her to get to the (semi-)idyllic future.

And poof. A very different book. See?
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Daniel: Yes. You're right. That's very interesting. I shall bear that in mind next time I read it.

That violence isn't the way to get to the future you want is also a theme in Piercy's Vida, a clever and subtle book.
individ ewe-al
25. individ-ewe-al
Huh, I find myself in strong agreement with most of your reviews, but I have the exact opposite opinion about The Handmaid's Tale. It fell flat for me precisely because IMO Atwood doesn't have a mastery of the techniques of SF, and because she seems to blame men (and religion) for everything. To me, Native Tongue was a much stronger book, with better world-building and less man-hating.
goshawk
26. Elliott Mason
I love Handmaid, but can't stand any other Atwood I've ever tried -- it gets the full 'Double Dorothy' (where you chant, "I don't care WHAT happens to these people!" and then fling it at the wall: double for Dorothys Heydt and Parker). The trouble, for me, is that she throws you in the deep end of Terribly Moving Things happening mysteriously to someone she has neither introduced you to, nor given you (maybe just me) any reason to be hooked into ...

The framing story is what makes Handmaid 'work' for me, and avoid the above (which is also why I can't stand most things shelved in the bookstore as just 'Fiction" -- they, and Atwood, seem to be convinced I'm so Utterly Enchanted to have the opportunity to read anything written by Marvelous Them that they feel no need to waste time on a hook, character development, or worldbuilding. IMHO. YMMV. :->
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
Elliott: Have you been reading the same Atwood? Have you tried The Robber Bride or Cat's Eye? I don't think they're at all the way you describe -- maybe some of her very early stuff is.
goshawk
28. Elliott Mason
Cat's Eye was the first non-Handmaid I tried, and so far the worst offender. The whole first chapter, shorter: "Hi, I'm someone about whom you know nothing, except that I'm standing on a bridge being melancholy and thinking about killing myself."

It is probably Not My Kink ...
Sumana Harihareswara
29. brainwane
People who liked Handmaid's Tale should definitely read "Sisters of Bilhah".
Yaron Glazer
30. statisticity
Have you read The Blind Assassin? I liked Handmaid's Tale, but loved TBA. More a mix of conventional literary fiction and science fiction, but definitely my favorite of Atwood's

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