In an interview for The Progressive, Margaret Atwood explains how she came to write The Handmaid's Tale, which is often labeled speculative fiction because it appears to predict or warn of a triumph of totalitarianism or what one reviewer calls a "Western Hemisphere Iran." Having absorbed the New England Puritan tradition during her studies at Harvard, she observed the rise of the U.S. political right in the 1980s and compared the Moral Majority's grass-roots menace to the phenomenon of Hitler. According to Atwood, the Nazi leader told the world what he intended to do; then he set about accomplishing his heinous aims. The ranting diatribes of late twentieth-century American right-wingers — who steadfastly push women back into the traditional roles common in the 1950s, delight in the AIDS epidemic among homosexuals, and threaten death to members of the gay culture — parallel Hitler's fascist candor. Atwood claims to have acted on a what-if scenario: suppose ultraconservatives did achieve a coup d'etat and turned rhetoric into a stringent authoritarianism, replete with suspension of constitutional rights, racial cleansing, torture, perpetual sectarian wars, public execution of homosexuals and dissidents, a repressive police and spy operation, and assignment of roles to women based on their childbearing capabilities.
So trenchant and compelling is Atwood's fictional premise that critics were bound to clash in their individual responses and interpretations. During the months following publication of the novel and a parallel period after the release of the film version, a variety of voices filled columns and reviews with their responses:
- Barbara Holliday, writing for the Detroit Free Press, granted the novel the adulation due a "brilliant and Machiavellian" thriller, but noted plot shortcuts, particularly the President's Day massacre of the U.S. president and the Congress, who are machine-gunned in one neat guerrilla attack. Holliday labels this unlikely scenario "a coup in a Banana Republic."
- Doris Grumbach, reviewing for the Chicago Tribune, strikes to the heart of Atwood's purpose — shocking the audience with her dystopian view, which is "gripping in its horrendous details, striking in the extensions Atwood makes from what is true now of our society to what might possibly be true in time to come."
- From a strictly literary perspective, John S. Nelson, writing for the Wichita, Kansas, Eagle-Beacon, pegs The Handmaid's Tale as a "cross between 1984 and The Scarlet Letter," an oft-repeated duo of comparatives that draw on themes of religious authoritarianism, repression, indoctrination, treachery, and victimization of women.
- A pointed complaint of Robert I. Davis' review for the Greenburg, Pennsylvania, Tribune is the limited development of characters, both male and female. Other critics lament that the Commander and Nick receive so little fleshing out, particularly during the evening at Jezebel's and on the evening of Offred's arrest.
- Elliot Krieger, book editor for the Providence, Rhode Island, Journal, brings Atwood up short for misinterpreting American devotion to free thought and speech. In what Krieger refers to as Atwood's ludicrous overestimation of ultra-right clout, Americans appear to roll over and play dead, demonstrating an unreal tendency to be "sheepish, malleable, easily duped." Krieger concludes that Atwood intends not so much to warn as to ponder the ramifications of the "so-called return to traditional values."
- Alix Madrigal, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who interviewed Atwood during her visit to the newspaper's office, claims that the fictional regime in Gilead lacks cohesion because its Christians and its revolutionaries express too little fervor, too little devotion to God or leaders. He concludes: "With no unifying vision, the center doesn't hold."
- Paul Skenazy, a literature teacher reviewing for the San Jose, California, Mercury News, lauds Atwood, but criticizes the novel's ending — the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies set at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195 — as "inept." He says, "It is Atwood at her cutest and most unappealing, a jarring piece of narrative silliness that adds little one could not already guess."
- More laudatory is Cathy Warren, an author reviewing for the Charlotte, North Carolina, Observer, who depicts Atwood's work as "the cry of a female Jeremiah. . . . The Handmaid's Tale is not a feminist novel; it is a political one in the Orwell tradition. It is a savage and gripping book, the kind you wish you could put aside but can't."
Atwood herself feared that readers would label her paranoid, but out of alarm at the growing power of anti-abortion terrorism and repressive, anti-female religio-political groups, she continued collecting ominous news clippings from the United States, Romania, Russia, Iran, and South Africa to use during the writing of The Handmaid's Tale. She noted: "I sometimes wake up in the night with disturbing thoughts. . . . What if this book is not a warning, but a forecast?" North American parallels to her thoughts were revealing: Canadian readers worried that such a reactionary cabal might form; U.S. readers shuddered in dread that a right-wing dictatorship was not a matter of if but when.
The Dystopian Novel
As Atwood reveals through her essays and interviews, The Handmaid's Tale is an outgrowth of the twentieth-century dystopian point of view. Unlike pre-twentieth-century dreamers, altruists, and sectarians — such as Bronson Alcott, Robert Owens, Henry David Thoreau, Mother Ann Lee, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, and Charles Fourier, who created perfect worlds on paper and launched experimental utopias (for example, Brooke Farm, Pennsylvania Dutch enclaves, Christian Scientists' Massachusetts Metaphysical College and Pleasant View Home, the pioneer beginnings of Salt Lake City, Utah, and the New Harmony and Oneida communes) — dystopian writers countered unbridled idealism with a worst-case perspective. George Orwell, master of the genre, wrote 1984 (1949), a nightmare novel set in London under a totalitarian regime where manipulative rewriters of history change facts to suit political exigency, manipulate language to serve the truth of the moment, and suborn party menials with threats, coercion, and subtle terrors. Orwell's brief beast fable, Animal Farm (1945), presents a similar controlled misery in miniature as the disgruntled animals on an English farm revolt and evolve a fascist pig-run police state, which is far worse than their former servitude to the human farmer.
Other anti-utopian classics from the twentieth century exhibit the doubts, fears, and discontent of notable dystopists: Ayn Rand (Anthem), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Karel Capek (R.U.R.), and Ray Bradbury ("There Will Come Soft Rains" and Fahrenheit 451).
In most instances, creators of these hell-on-earth visions draw on the perversion of science and technology as a major determinant of society's function and control. For example, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is set in a California dystopia that features a fire department whose sole purpose is book burning. Likewise, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World contains a baby factory capable of manufacturing the prescribed number of people in each of five intellectual levels and indoctrination centers that train the resultant infants to embrace their lot in life. In contrast to the technical wizardry of Capek, Burgess, Bradbury, and Orwell, Rand, in Anthem, evolves a society in which innovation is suppressed and people are forced to live in primitive squalor.
Atwood, whose Handmaid's Tale demonstrates elements inherent in the dystopian genre, echoes numerous motifs and literary devices. Like Huxley's creation of a drug-calmed society, her characters awaiting execution appear tranquilized by shots or pills. Like Huxley's engineered reproduction, Atwood's fictional Gilead depends on the allotment of enslaved babymakers as a means of assuring the birth of white children to repopulate a declining Caucasian nation. A factor that Atwood's novel shares with Rand's Anthem and Orwell's Animal Farm is the subversion of aphorism as a means of indoctrination. Further enforced by overseers, these simplistic precepts are subject to change or reinterpretation, depending on the exigencies of the artificial society that they are meant to bolster and legitimize.
Offred's thirty-seven-year-old feminist mother (mid-1950s) disdains her mate, a useless man with memo rable blue eyes who lives on the coast.
At age four, Offred receives a pop-up book of reproductive organs. A year later, Offred and her mother attend a Saturday rally and porno graphic magazine burning in the park. A par ticipant gives Offred a magazine to burn.
At age fourteen or fifteen, Offred resents the illegal activities of her mother and other radi cal feminists.
During their college years, Offred and Moira become friends.
late 1970s Before Luke's divorce, he and Offred enjoy a premarital affair and meet in a hotel for after noon trysts. During Offred's pregnancy, she and Luke lie in bed and monitor their unborn child's movements.
early to mid-1980s
In September of Offred's daughter's third or fourth year, repressive measures halt Pornomarts, Feels on Wheels, and Bun-Dle Buggies and cancel Offred's Compunumber. These events, prefaced by the President's Day Massacre and suspension of the Constitution, comprise a hostile fundamentalist takeover — the beginning of early Gilead.
2:00 p.m. the next day
Offred and other women are fired from their the jobs. Offred's mother disappears.
In September of Offred's daughter's fifth year, Luke, Offred, and the child attempt to flee Gilead and cross the Canadian border. Offred and the child run through the woods and are apprehended and separated by unidentified pursuers. Luke's fate is unknown.
two weeks after
Janine is ridiculed as a crybaby. Offred Offred's placement at will take part in the ritual of public the Rachel and Leah humiliation.Re-Education Center
a week later
The authorities bring Moira to the Center for Handmaid indoctrination. Bruises suggest that she resisted arrest.
four days later
Moira and Offred make tentative contact and arrange a meeting in the end stall of the wash room at 2:30 p.m.
Janine allows a group session to turn her testimony of gang rape at age fourteen into a unanimous accusation of seduction and criminality for having an abortion. Janine claims to have deserved the pain.
late winter or early
After service to a bald-haired man, Offred spring of Offred's is reassigned to the Commander.thirty-third year
three days later
Offred discovers a Latin inscription scratched into a closet wall by the former Offred.
three weeks after
Offred's Handmaid companion disappears; arrival at the a second Ofglen takes her place. Commander's home
Offred discovers the Commander snooping near her room. She undergoes a mating ceremony and returns to the sitting room to steal something. Nick interrupts her and informs her that the Commander wants to see her the next night.
the next day
Ofwarren gives birth to Angela. At nine o'clock that evening, Offred goes to the Commander's office and plays Scrabble. Back in her room, she fights hysteria and sleeps in the closet.
the next morning
Cora finds Offred in the closet and fears she has committed suicide.
end of the first year
Offred observes her first Salvaging.
July of Offred's
Offred takes part in a Prayvaganza and joins
third year at the
The Commander at the nightclub, where she Commander's house reunites with Moira for the last time. Moira divulges that Offred's mother, an Unwoman, works in the Colonies. Offred and the Commander take a room, where they have intercourse. After midnight, Offred, returned to the Commander's house, follows Serena through the dark kitchen and out to Nick's quarters for forbidden sex.
Offred takes part in a Salvaging, where three women are hanged and a man is torn to bits. That afternoon, the second Ofglen is replaced by a new Ofglen, who divulges that her predecessor hanged herself after seeing the van coming for her. Serena stops Offred at the steps and accuses her of sluttish behavior with the Commander.
Nick bursts into Offred's room and urges her to accompany two men in a black van. The Commander objects and is, according to a twenty-second-century scholar's theory, later executed for harboring a subversive (Nick).
Authorities grow more cautious about liberalism.
June 25, 2195
At the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, a British archivist from Cambridge University, explains how Offred's cassette tapes were unearthed in Bangor, Maine, and pieced together into a puzzling and incomplete retelling of her ordeal.