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My review of The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliant literary science fiction. I will discuss the literary aspects of it in a moment, but first it’s important to place it squarely in the domain of science fiction.

First, under Darko Suvin's definition of sci fi, the question is whether there is cognitive strangeness and nova. They are very apparent, specifically the new assignment of gender roles, along with the reason they exist. The nova introduced are ecological disasters, an enormous rise in failure to Gileadeans to sexually reproduce, and the imposition of a fundamentalist government that divides women by their function, entirely controlling them. We know (again from the lecture) that Atwood was responding to societal changes, such as the rise of the Moral Majority, which lends a spooky plausibility to the strangeness, making it not so strange and that much scarier.

Delany's definition is wider. He asks whether the story is read as science fiction. We should first ask the author. Atwood denied this book was science fiction, or that she, in fact, writes science fiction, famously claiming, “Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space.” This has become something of a joke, and there is actually a website called (“The Pinnacle of Science Fiction”) that celebrates science fiction, a reappropriation of the talking squids. Ursula K. Le Guin, for her part, says, “it [is] ungrateful in a writer to write science fiction and deny that it’s science fiction” comparing seeking literary status as denial of the “ghetto of genre” in preference to the Republic of Letters, something like a visa, I suppose. Science fiction readers certainly did find The Handmaid’s Tale. Since the election of Donald Trump and the success of the series, it has become a New York Times bestseller again. The cosplay is effective for political messages.

The publishing industry has promoted the story as sff. It’s also been up for awards like 1986 Nebula Award, and it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. You might find the book outside the sci fi or off (because of its enormous popularity) book racks, but you’ll likely find everything else by Atwood there. It’s marketed as genre.

These are the three ways I believe The Handmaid’s Tale is great literary fiction (in addition to being great sci fi):
* Calls attention to its language, and upon inspection, the language impresses thoroughly
** Helps to articulate more about Post-Truthism, a type of literature/political-philosophy where the “truth” of societies is invented.
*** Impressive literary techniques

Note: Some of these crossover.

Let’s discuss the language first, specifically the invented language, the use of poetic language, and language about language itself, especially the Scrabble game.

The invented language includes words that carry symbolic meaning and are generally practical to a fault. Thus the van that gathers the handmaids together for a birth is the “Birthmobile,” the ceremonies of ritual prayer in stadiums, “Prayvaganza,” the “Guardians” who sound like they are there to protect the women but in reality are spying on them, and, my favorite, “Econowives,” for the poor women who have more than one role. This last actually leads to a whole color-coded set of symbolism: Marthas (wearing green for generosity), Wives (blue for royalty), Commanders (black for power), and the Handmaids themselves in Red. One other invented word that predates Gilead but was crucial in its seizure of power was the “Compunumber,” the number you scan to get access to your money, assuming you have a y-chromosome. No worries… it’s only temporary. Dear.

Atwood's invented language and all the symbolism it conveys is one of the most important aspects of her world building. At her heart, though, Atwood is a poet, and unsurprisingly, poetic language is on full display throughout the story. Let’s look at some beautiful examples:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Night has fallen, then. I feel it pressing down on me like a stone.

She takes the visual image of night’s arrival, parses it both philosophically and observationally, and then, it lands on Offred. Another heavy weight.
Here is another, this time about pearls, which we learn later are undesirable for chaste women.

A thing is valued, she [Aunt Lydia] says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savors in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.
I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit. This is what I will tell Moira, later; if I can.
All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia (ed. Note: a sadist), with satisfied good cheer.

Aunt Lydia is rich in pauses she savors in her mouth. You can feel the beats. I also enjoy the dark humor. It is never funny, not the sanitary napkin tail nor this recollection:

Is anything wrong, dear? the old joke went.
No, why?
You moved.

Just don’t move.

Atwood finds power in unfunny humor. Repetition is used a lot for emphasis:

Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.

And two more examples of the same technique:

Already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, Already you’re starting to get paranoid. {When her Compunumber doesn’t work}
Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure.

When the narrative voice is like this, you cannot argue in between the statements. You must accept this truth, this post truth truth.

And it all helps establish the scene. It helps you to buy in.

The narrative voice, first person, minimal psychic distance, is like Aunt Lydia in one way. She has a steady beat. You hear it most when it’s not there, like when the scripture is read instead:

“I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he says, “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

“But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Here he looks us over.

“All,” he repeats.

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
“And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. “Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”

Those damn pearls again. ;-)

By presenting the misogyny in terms of their sacred text, Atwood is giving every individual a blanket pardon. This is what they must believe. If they do not swear to these convictions, they will end up on the wall.

Non-verbal language is also invoked explicitly twice. Body language is the communication of Nick and his hat. Sign language is the advertisement that calls the handmaids to buy muddy farm-raised fish.

But the biggest presence of language is the Scrabble games:

The second evening began in the same way as the first. I went to the door, which was closed, knocked on it, was told to come in. Then followed the same two games, with the smooth beige counters. Prolix, quartz, quandary, sylph, rhythm, all the old tricks with consonants I could dream up or remember. My tongue felt thick with the effort of spelling. It was like using a language I’d once known but had nearly forgotten, a language having to do with customs that had long before passed out of the world: café au lait at an outdoor table, with a brioche, absinthe in a tall glass, or shrimp in a cornucopia of newspaper; things I’d read about once but had never seen. 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.

To play Scrabble with the Commander is an offense against Gilead where women are not supposed to read anymore. Yet here Offred is dangerously spelling. They argue about whether some words are words. The Commander offers to let her look up the word in the dictionary, another act against the state. In every way, these games themselves are Offred’s power play, one The Commander Fred invites.
When the narrator talks about “a language I’d once known but had nearly forgotten,” we become acutely aware of the gravity of Offred’s predicament. This spelling is a form of Thoughtcrime, in the rich tradition of Orwell.

Scrabble, of course, has implicit rules and relies on dictionaries to settle disputes, but one of the most interesting lines of the story means nothing at all. On the closet wall of her room, Offred finds scrawled therein “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” When she asks The Commander what it means, she gives away everything, that she knows the last handmaid also came to play. What it means is important to give Offred a reason to fight, but it’s also an important plot device.
These ovoid vowels also bring another thought to mind, one that I was keenly aware of from the offset. The text is saturated with so many pregnancy-like words. There is egg symbolism, when it rains the “smell of earth and grass [filling] the air” is gravid, and there are bellies. Bellies. BELLIES.

Or the sail of a ship. Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems. Bellying. Propelled forward by a swollen belly.

Bellies everywhere. Almost all the 13 occurrences of “belly” and 2 occurrences of “bellies” have to do with pregnancy. Sometimes this is literary belly comparison porn.

As a Post-Truth story, The Handmaid’s Tale extends the Stalinist ideas of 1984, merging them with religion now. It feels contemporary because of Trump’s “Fake News” diatribes on Twitter. Essentially, Post-Truth stories, whether authored in books or in social media, rely on building an illusory terrain of philosophy the target audience doesn’t question. Atwood did not invent anything here, but she did transform the state propaganda by lending it a sexist cult flavor. This feels like nova to me, though honestly, I haven’t read enough to know it’s her invention or something she borrowed. Either way, it works and is powerful.

Finally, I want to talk about her technique, not the humor, or how she uses dialogue. Actually the dialogue is noteworthy, especially the syntax:

Your mother’s neat, Moira would say, when we were at college.
Later: she’s got pizzazz. Later still: she’s cute.
She’s not cute, I would say. She’s my mother.
Jeez, said Moira, you ought to see mine.

I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins; the way they used to use up old women, in Russia, sweeping dirt. Only this dirt will kill her. I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something.

So, it's almost indistinguishable syntactically from the rest of the narration, which makes some sense, because of how the transcript is constructed, and this leads to one of the coolest aspects of the story.
The mixed up timelines lend authenticity to the text. Throughout the story, the timeline shifts from whatever the present is to Offred reflecting on her mother or Luke in the life before or their attempted escape, and then sometimes to their training with Aunt Lydia. There are three basic threads but it is very intertwined.

At the end of the story we are offered a plausible reason for this confusion. The professors who assembled the transcript worked from a set of unordered cassettes found in a military trunk. This one illumination was worth all their bad jokes.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the story. I had read it before but too long ago to remember how skillfully she weaved the tale.

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