Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 25; 27 October 2021

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

A long-delayed reread

Next month, the newsletter will be a whole year old. I can’t believe the time has passed so quickly. Obviously, the number of subscribers has grown (slowly) over that period, which means that some of the early issues haven’t been seen or read by as many people as the more recent ones, so I thought I’d like to resurface some of those earlier issues. I’m soon going to be writing about the middle two books in Tana French’s series set among the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad. When I do, I’ll include links to my posts about the first two books in the series.

Tana French apart (for now), these are my own favourites among the early issues of Talk about books, and I’d like to recommend them to you.

William Empson and Andrew Marvell’s widow
Most of Andrew Marvell’s poetry is known to us only because it was published after his death by a woman claiming to be his widow, and to have married him in secret. Her claims have generally been met with scepticism. Empson believed that the marriage really took place; however, when I looked into his arguments in its favour, they were badly flawed. But the sceptics were wrong too. Empson had arrived at (probably) the right conclusion for all the wrong reasons. This is the first of three posts under the heading “Empson’s insightful errors”.

Helena’s kink: Jillian Keenan on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I discuss the first chapter of Keenan’s book, Sex with Shakespeare (2016). Keenan had always been disturbed by and yet drawn to the treatment of Helena in the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena seems to wallow in self-contempt, a pathetic doormat. But Keenan liked the play a lot more once she saw that the part of Helena doesn’t have to be played (or read) that way. What if the character knows exactly what she wants, and how to ask for it?

Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Wilkie Collins’s Armadale
A look at two novels, both set in the nineteenth century but one of them written in the twenty-first, in which unscrupulous plotters engage in elaborate, perhaps over-complicated, schemes to marry wealthy innocents in order to get their hands on their inheritances.

Midnight’s Children: “A thousand and one dead ends”
Salman Rushdie’s second novel tells the story of the liberation of the world’s most populous former colony and what happened (and failed to happen) in the three decades afterwards. I describe it as “the most important English-language novel of the second half of the twentieth century”.

At the end of July, I wrote on my blog about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel only once, in 1989 or 1990, and remembered very little about it apart from the premise (a religious takeover of part of the United States, where — because of a fertility crisis — women capable of bearing children were controlled by law and allocated to the families of powerful men) and that I had found it disappointing. I discussed in that post the reasons for my disappointment and concluded that I might have been less than fair to the novel and that I ought to give it another chance. Now, three months later, I’ve finished rereading it, and am ready to admit that it’s a much better and more significant novel than I gave it credit for the first time around.

I’ll try to avoid a rehash of what I said in the blog post. The predominant impression I had while reading it this time was that it is set in a society which can’t survive for long. The degree of oppression required to keep it in existence would be very difficult to sustain: guardians carrying automatic weapons, public executions, ever-increasing secrecy on the part of the authorities contrasting with the visibility and openness to scrutiny of the citizenry. And then there’s the fertility problem, which would be a sufficient threat on its own. In a new introduction by the author from 2017, Atwood writes:

Under totalitarianisms — or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society — the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids.

It would seem to follow that most strata of society will be reproducing (if at all) at a much slower rate than the few at the very top: the “Commanders” and their wives. If that situation continues, the society will soon run out of people qualified or equipped to do anything other than govern. At present, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of human labour: women who are not considered fertile are, for the most part, sent to the Colonies, where they lead shortened, miserable lives cleaning up toxic waste. But how long can that last?

Probably not long. From the perspective of 2195, Professor Pieixoto talks about “the middle-period Great Purge, which discredited and liquidated a number of the original architects of Gilead” (p. 314) including a plausible candidate for the original of the narrative’s “Commander”, one Frederick R Waterford. Waterford was accused, among other things, “of being in possession of a substantial and unauthorized collection of heretical pictorial and literary materials” (p. 318). So we can surmise that the rulers of Gilead changed direction, perhaps more than once, and probably under a combination of economic and demographic pressure.

Waterford’s possession of “heretical pictorial and literary materials” doesn’t necessarily correspond to the magazines and films that the Commander had in his study. It’s likely that most men in positions of power thought the rules were for other people. Indeed, the reader has the distinct impression that, although Gilead had an official, prescribed religion and rituals, the proportion of the population who actually believed what they were supposed to believe was very small.

The Commander and his wife are both happy to break the law: he in various ways, culminating in his smuggling Offred into the former hotel, where she has her final encounter with her old friend, Moira. Serena Joy, encourages Offred to try to get pregnant by Nick and pass the child off as the Commander’s. Nick himself is willing to go along with this, and it’s strongly implied that Cora (who wants there to be a child in the household) is turning a blind eye. So far as we can tell, almost nobody is a true believer.

We get a further sense of this when Offred inadvisedly tries out the “Mayday” password on the new Ofglen. She immediately realizes her mistake: if the first Ofglen had come under suspicion (and why else would she have been replaced so suddenly?) then presumably her successor would be someone the authorities believed they could trust, someone who would be prepared to betray her predecessor’s accomplices. The other Handmaid recognizes the word, but doesn’t respond with encouragement:

“That isn’t a term I remember. I’m surprised you do. You ought to make an effort …” She pauses. “To clear your mind of such …” She pauses again. “Echoes.”
Now I feel cold, seeping over my skin like water. What she is doing is warning me.
She isn’t one of us. But she knows. (p. 292)

As they part, the other woman takes an apparent risk, moving her head close to Offred’s and whispering that the earlier Ofglen had hanged herself: “She saw the van coming for her” (p. 293). This reassures Offred. If Ofglen is dead, she can’t be tortured and can’t betray her. But mightn’t the replacement Ofglen be lying, precisely to make her believe that she’s safer than she is?

There are several possibilities but surely the most likely one is that the current Ofglen knows something about Mayday, isn’t willing to get involved, but doesn’t wish any harm to Offred. She’s passively disobedient to the authorities, so long as it’s not at any risk to herself. In that case, Nick is telling the truth and the van has been sent by Mayday, not officialdom.

Of course, there are problems with this explanation too. If Nick really is with Mayday, and also one of the Eyes, he must be particularly useful to the resistance. Why, then, would he risk exposure to rescue Offred, who has not — not yet at any rate — made much of a contribution? For, although Offred was pleased to be approached by the original Ofglen, her behaviour has been closer to that of the second. Her disobedience too has been merely passive; she has been unable (and partly unwilling) to spy on the Commander, to provide her supposed comrades with information that they can use.

Offred is the central character, the narrator of the story, but she is not its hero. From the reader’s point of view, her passivity is a good thing: she lives very much in her head, and we get to see in there too. It seems that even her her ability to record a narrative probably didn’t do any good for the resistance to the regime. The tapes were concealed in a house in Bangor, Maine, apparently on her way to the Canadian border, and not discovered and transcribed until much later. They did not contribute to the fall of Gilead, though they may have helped later historians partly to explain it.

The existence of the tapes at least suggests that Offred escaped, if not in the van that came to take her from the Commander’s house then — and surely this is less likely — later. She didn’t have the tapes or recording equipment when she lived in that household, so unless they and her story are (rather pointless and elaborate) fabrications, she was free at some point after she left it.

So, this is not a novel that focuses on the actions of heroes, though there are some. Moira’s escape is impressive, but in the end it achieves little. Offred writes:

Here is what I’d like to tell. I’d like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or, if I couldn’t tell that, I’d like to say she blew up Jezebel’s, with fifty Commanders inside it. I’d like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know, that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again. (p. 258)

The genuinely heroic behaviour is that of Ofglen (the first) who positions herself near the front of the group for the particicution (a compound of participation and execution). She kicks the “convicted” man in the head several times before he is torn apart with bare hands, as if by maenads. Offred demands an explanation for her friend’s previously unsuspected violence.

“Don’t look at me,” she says. “They’re watching.”
“I don’t care,” I say. My voice is rising. I can’t help it.
“Get control of yourself,” she says. She pretends to brush me off, my arm and shoulder, bringing her face close to my ear. “Don’t be stupid. He wasn’t a rapist at all, he was a political. He was one of ours. I knocked him out. Put him out of his misery. Don’t you know what they’re doing to him?” (p. 288)

It’s not long after that that the van comes for Ofglen. Presumably, it was her action in knocking the man unconscious, or her brief altercation with Offred immediately afterwards, or a combination of the two, that drew attention to her, that gave her away.

I’ve referred to the narrator so far as Offred. She makes it clear early on that that is not her name. If is, as Pieixoto explains in his lecture:

… composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. (p. 314)

Not a name, then, but a brand: a mark of ownership, even if temporary. Pieixoto continues:

Such name were taken by these women upon their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it. (p. 314)

But the “entry into a connection” is not voluntary and the “name” is not taken by “these women” but imposed upon them and then taken away again when the connection is broken. The narrator tells Nick her name (p. 278) — or at least she says she does, but she also makes it clear that not everything she tells us about her relationship with Nick is truthful. She doesn’t tell the reader, though. As far as we’re concerned, she remains anonymous. In her 2017 Introduction, Atwood explains why:

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered between the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, June is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought, but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Atwood also explains why the question of fertility is at the heart of the novel:

Without women capable of giving birth, human populations will die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from them for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful and important novel. In a way, I regret having left it so long before I reread it, but I’m also glad to be coming to it afresh now. I haven’t yet read the much more recent sequel, The Testaments (2019), but I’m not going to be putting it off for long.

Edition: Passages from the novel are quoted from the Vintage paperback, 1996;

The 2017 Introduction is quoted from this ePub edition from Apple Books.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 27-Oct-2021.