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The calculus of love and nightmare: The handmaid's tale and the dystopian

tradition. By: Feuer, Lois. Critique, Winter !!", #ol. $%, p%$&!', $p ()stract:
The *riter compares +argaret (t*ood's The ,andmaid's Tale *ith -eorge
.r*ell's !%/. 0he e1plores the similarities )et*een the t*o novels' totalitarian
societies. 0he sho*s the *ays in *hich (t*ood's *or2 goes )eyond .r*ell's in
matters of style that )ecome matters of su)stance as *ell as in the feminist
de)ate over 3essentialism4 that (t*ood )rings to the dystopian tradition.5 6AN
8evie*ers of +argaret (t*ood's The ,andmaid's Tale invaria)ly hailed it as a
9feminist !%/,9: ; and, li2e many handy tags, this one conceals a partial
truth. ( closer loo2, ho*ever, reveals not only the similarities )et*een the t*o
novels' totalitarian societies, )ut the *ays in *hich (t*ood's *or2 goes )eyond
.r*ell's, in matters of style that )ecome matters of su)stance as *ell as in the
feminist de)ate over 9essentialism9 that (t*ood )rings to the dystopian
tradition. The novel transforms that tradition stylistically as *ell as thematically
as (t*ood, a*are of her predecessors 6a persistent (t*ood trait: consider the
parody of the -othic in Lady .racle, for e1ample7, )oth participates in and
e1tends the dystopian genre.: <;
That tradition is a signi=cant one in t*entieth&century literature, replacing
earlier utopian visions of paradise regained *ith the nightmare reali>ation that,
)y the time industrial technology had made the controlled, ordered society
possi)le, *e might no longer )e *illing to pay the cost. The choice&&)et*een
happiness *ithout freedom or freedom *ithout happiness&&is presented )y
?ostoyevs2y's -rand @nquisitor, )y Aamiatin's Well&?oer, )y ,u1ley's +ustapha
+ond, )y .r*ell's .'Brien, and )y (t*ood's (unt Lydia, trainer of handmaids
and e1plicator of the regime's rationale for its oppression.: $; Because .r*ell's
*or2 is the )est 2no*n in this series, it is to !%/ that The ,andmaid's Tale has
most frequently )een compared.
The resem)lances are many, and perhaps inescapa)le given the totalitarian
regimes under *hich )oth protagonists live. @n )oth, *e have the distinctively
modem sense of nightmare come true, the initial paraly>ed po*erlessness of
the victim una)le to act. Barado1ically, given this mood of *a2ing nightmare,
)oth novels use nighttime dreams and memory Cashes to recapture the elusive
past through *hich their protagonists try to retain their individual humanity.
But individual humanity is, of course, undesira)le in the society&as&prison5 as in
Daf2a's em)lematic penal colony, language 6)oo2s for *omen in The
,andmaid's Tale5 connotative, reCective speech in !%/7 is restricted and
controlled as an instrument of po*er5 in The ,andmaid's Tale, ,arvard itself,
)astion of reasoned discourse, has )ecome the site of torture and mutilation of
the regime's enemies.
(s .ceania )oth *as and *as not the post*ar London of .r*ell's time, -ilead
)oth is and is not the Enited 0tates *e 2no*. 0erena Foy, the Commander's
*ife, )ears an ironic resem)lance to Bhyllis 0chlaCy, ta2ing a pu)lic position
that *omen should not ta2e pu)lic positions.: /; This referential topicality
e1ists )ecause )oth authors envision the future )y e1trapolating from
tendencies in the present5 as Bla2e points out, a prophet is one *ho tells us
that if *e 2eep on doing 1, y *ill )e the result. Both novels envision a society in
*hich perpetual *ar is used as a rationale for internal repression. The ease
*ith *hich the authorities in !%/ s*itch the identity of the enemy ma2es it
clear, long )efore Winston reads -oldstein's con=rmatory analysis, that the
9enemy9 is a prete1t5 the epilogue to The ,andmaid's Tale ma2es e1plicit the
secret agreement )et*een the superpo*ers that ena)led them to concentrate
on su)Gugating their o*n people 6$%%7. Both are societies purged of diversity
and individuality, )ased on se1ism, racism, and elitism, in *hich private
relationships )et*een friends and lovers )ecome&&or )ecome seen as&&
su)versive acts.: ';
Thus (t*ood gives us all the hallmar2s of a totalitarian society set forth in !%/
6,adomi <H!&"7 and originated )y Aamiatin in We: pu)lic spectacle as means
of control, the t*o&minute hate and ,ate Wee2, and the 0alvaging and
Brayvagan>a. The fear of spies and )etrayal are constants: ,andmaids part
*ith the phrase 9Ender ,is Iye,9 Gust as .ceanians 2ne* that Big Brother *as
*atching. Lac2 of privacy and constant surveillance are common features5 thus
the eye is a continuing image in The ,andmaid's Tale, from the name of the
secret police to the sym)ol tattooed on .Jred's an2le.: K; This threat of
)etrayal&&Winston suspects Fulia as .Jred does Lic2&&has already )egun to
destroy .Jred's relationship *ith her hus)and Lu2e )efore he is 6presuma)ly7
shot *hile they are trying to escape to Canada 6<$<,<$K7. ?espite this threat,
)oth societies have&&or have rumors of&&an underground resistance net*or25 at
the open&ended conclusion of (t*ood's novel, it is ostensi)ly this net*or2, of
*hich Lic2 is a mem)er, that ena)les .Jred to escape to the safe house in
+aine *here she dictates the tapes of *hich the novel purports to )e a
@n )oth *or2s, loss of identity is an ever&present threat, this su)mersion of the
self represented )y color&coded uniforms denoting the status of the *earer,
*hether @nner or .uter Barty mem)er or Commander, -uardian, or ,andmaid.
The danger is real: .Jred at times )ecomes su)sumed )y her category and
thin2s of herself as 9*e9 6<H$7, and (t*ood uses the motif of the dou)le
throughout the novel to represent this threat. ?escri)ing another ,andmaid
*al2ing a*ay, .Jred says, 90he's li2e my o*n reCection, in a mirror from *hich
@ am moving a*ay9 6'!5 also <', $, <$7. The motif of the dou)le is a
continuing one in (t*ood's *or2, easily seen, for e1ample, in the titles of t*o
collections of poetry, ?ou)le Bersephone 6!K7 and T*o&,eaded Boems
6!"%75: "; here it suggests the loss of individuality that is the totalitarian
regime's goal.
We never 2no* .Jred's real name, not only )ecause her identity is su)sumed
)y her status as ,andmaid 6and she is therefore of&Fred, her commander7, )ut
)ecause that name is a lin2 to her past, her unique individual self, and her
society destroys that past as eJectively&&though less systematically&&as
Winston's does. The ,andmaids recite the +ar1ist 9from each according to her
a)ility5 to each according to his needs,9: %; having )een told that it is from 0t.
Baul 6scriptural *arrant )eing the )asis of -ilead's social code7. What
,andmaid, for)idden access to )oo2s, can prove other*iseM .Jred reali>es that
the ne1t generation of ,andmaids *ill )e more docile )ecause 9they *ill have
no memories9 of other possi)ilities, their collective past having )een re*ritten
and their individual pasts spent *ithout alternatives 6'7. To forget a past of
choices is to )e enchained in the present, a process that -ayle -reene has
descri)ed as 9the amnesia imposed )y *omen's roles96$H7.: !; (s in !%/,
memory is lin2ed *ith li)eration, a theme -reene =nds pervasive in feminist
=ction. William 0teinhoJ clari=es this theme in !%/: 9if one is cut oJ from the
past as Winston is in .ceania, if one's memory is not sustained )y o)Gective
evidence, and if one has no recourse to history, can one still preserve from the
domination of the environment any part of oneselfM9 6"!7.
The epilogue to The ,andmaid's Tale presents a =nal ironic e1ample of
dehumani>ation through faulty remem)ering5 its satire on the academic
rhetorical ha)it of 9distancing9 6and thus 9o)Gectifying97 its su)Gect sho*s
.Jred's story, t*o hundred years later, as fodder for pedantic discussions of
the tale's historicity, missing the meaning of .Jred's individual e1perience )y
committing the historians' sin of vie*ing the individual only as an e1ample of
the larger, more a)stract, point. The Ipilogue demonstrates also (t*ood's
consciousness of playing oJ .r*ell. 0he dra*s the direct parallel in spea2ing of
the point that the Ipilogue e1ists in part to sho* that, in this future time, the
reign of -ilead is past: 9@n fact, .r*ell is much more optimistic than people give
him credit for. ,e did the same thing. ,e has a te1t at the end of !%/. +ost
people thin2 the )oo2 ends *ith a note on Le*spea2, *hich is *ritten in the
past tense, in standard Inglish&&*hich means that, at the time of *riting the
note, Le*spea2 is a thing of the past9 6,ancoc2 <%/7.
The assaults on the individuality of the protagonists reinforce in )oth the
desperate need to ma2e contact5 Winston reaches out to Fulia and, fatally, to
.'Brien, as the ,andmaids 6again, signi=cantly, at night7 reach out )et*een
their cots in the gymnasium to touch hands and e1change names. This need to
ma2e contact *ith others leads .Jred's predecessor to carve out the hidden
schoolyard&Latin message of hope 6Lolite te )astardes car)orundorum: don't
let the )astards grind you do*n7. The contact itself is a *indo* to a *orld
outside the prison of one's loneliness5 (t*ood descri)es it as li2e ma2ing a
peephole, a Crac2 in the *all 6 <%&<!,"K7. The regime *or2s in a variety of
*ays to sever these ties5 9love is not the point,9 says ,andmaid trainer (unt
Lydia 6<%'7, a*are of the su)version inherent in private relationships. But love
is indeed the point for .Jred as it *as for Winston. @t is through .Jred's aJair
*ith Lic2, as through her friendships *ith other ,andmaids, that her re&created
self desires and re)els.: H;
(s the e1amples indicate, the commonalities are many, and if (t*ood *ere
merely inGecting a female protagonist into .r*ell's dystopia, *e could nod at
her 9modernity9 and move on. But it is not merely that .Jred is a female
Winston 0mith. For one thing, there are diJerences in style that amount to
diJerences in su)stance, and for another, the feminism of The ,andmaid's Tale
is more su)tle and comple1 than can )e indicated )y merely noting the change
in the protagonist's gender.
We can )egin to understand the diJerences and their thematic implications if
*e start *ith (t*ood's evocation of the te1ture of daily life, made possi)le )y
the choices she has made in ordering her plot. (s +ala2 has e1plained, the
structure of the narrative, moving as it does from )rief memory glimpses of
.Jred's past to an increasingly fuller rendering of that past, provides a contrast
)et*een the dra) )arrenness of her present and the rich te1ture of her former
life.: ; 9These shifting reminiscences oJer glimpses of a life, though not
ideal, still =lled *ith energy, creativity, humaneness and a sense of selfhood, a
life that sharply contrasts *ith the alienation, slavery, and suJering under
totalitarianism9 6+ala2 $7. This 9praise of :our; present,9: <; in its untidy
surfeit of choices 6(unt Lydia descri)es the prerevolutionary Enited 0tates as a
society dying of too much choice, oJering security and sta)ility in place of that
too&demanding freedom7&of actions, thoughts, reading matter 6even
pornography7, and, yes, of ice cream Cavors&&renders a reality more vivid, and
more dear, than .r*ell can provide in the gray gritty *orld of .ceania, )ecause
his protagonist cannot remem)er )ac2 )eyond the grayness. .r*ell made the
ris2&laden choice of creating a protagonist as dra) as the *orld he inha)its5
: $; (t*ood, creating a richer te1ture of )oth character and setting, gives us a
protagonist *hose memories cele)rate the variegated past. .Jred's
clandestine game of 0cra))le *ith her Commander evo2es the sensuality of
no*&for)idden te1tures and language: 9We play t*o games. Laryn1, @ spell.
#alance. Nuince. Aygote. @ hold the glossy counters *ith the smooth edges,
=nger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eye)lin2 of it.
Limp, @ spell. -orge. What a lu1ury. The counters are li2e candies, made of
peppermint, cool li2e that. ,um)ugs, those *ere called. @ *ould li2e to put
them into my mouth. They *ould taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly
acid on the tongue, delicious9 6%H7.
This vividly felt reality emerges also in the secondary characters, individually
rendered as .r*ell's are not: .Jred's mother, a *oman on her o*n, )urner of
pornography and marcher to ta2e )ac2 the night, *ho desired a 9*oman's
culture9 much diJerent than the one that has, ironically, come to pass5 the
Commander, un2no*ing victim of the society he has helped to create, ro))ed
of his choices in the process of ro))ing others of theirs5 .Jred's 9sceptical,
irreverent, funny9: /; friend +oira, glimpsed for the last time as 9companion9
in an illicit )rothel5 even the silly and untrust*orthy fello*&handmaid Fanine,
*allo*ing in her confession of her former sins 6!$7. (nd of course, most vividly
rendered of all, .Jred herself, formerly o)livious to the signs of the coming
catastrophe, undramatically heroic, initially passive e1cept in her refusal to
)ecome a victim,: '; struggling to hold on to her sanity )y reciting childish
)analities to herself and lusting after hand lotion, emerging through her pain
and loss as a multidimensional character.
@t is not merely that (t*ood's s2ill in conveying character and te1ture is more
acute than .r*ell's&&though that is surely part of it&&nor even that her narrative
structure allo*s her to render a more particulari>ed reality than his does. Iven
the relatively minor character Lydia, one of the (unts *hose role is to condition
the handmaids to their ne* lives, ta2es on a distinctive voice: 9+odesty is
invisi)ility, said (unt Lydia. Lever forget it. To )e seen&&to )e seen&&is to )e&&her
voice trem)led&&penetrated. What you must )e, girls, is impenetra)le. 0he
called us girls9 6$%7. This insistence on the te1ture of felt life and on the fullness
of minor characters is a stylistically rich rendering of a central theme. 9The
most revolutionary feminist =ction is so )y virtue of te1tual practice as *ell as
content9 as -ayle -reene has recently put this point 6<!<7. (t*ood's te1tual
practice mirrors her novel's content, asserting the primacy of the individual
human spirit )y evo2ing it stylistically.
@n *hat initially appears to )e merely another in a series of remem)ered
conversational fragments, the Commander tells .Jred that 9Women can't add95
9For them, one and one and one and one don't ma2e four9 6</H7. 0he thin2s at
=rst he's ma2ing the customary condescending point a)out *omen's
mathematical a)ility: 9What do they ma2eM @ said, e1pecting =ve or three95 )ut
his point is in fact a great if unintended compliment: *omen can't add one and
one and one and one and get four )ecause *hat they al*ays get is one and
one and one and one, a sense of the irreduci)le value of the individual. Women
cannot thin2 a)stractly, says the commander, quoting Lenin on ma2ing
omelettes 6<"$7. The point, of course, is that the eggs )ro2en to ma2e the
9omelette9 are people, and *hether *omen deserve the commander's
compliment or not, (t*ood's focus is on this aOrmation of individual human
uniqueness in the face of those *ho are a)le to destroy it )ecause they can
a)stract, can *ill themselves not to see the individual life. .Jred muses later:
9What the Commander said is true. .ne and one and one and one doesn't
equal four. Iach one remains unique, there is no *ay of Goining them together.
They cannot )e e1changed, one for the other9 6</%7.
.r*ell, too, uses addition thematically, *hen .'Brien forces Winston to
ac2no*ledge that t*o plus t*o can equal =ve if the Barty says so. Both the
Commander and .'Brien use num)ers as e1amples of logical )ecause a priori
truth, fundamental to reasoning, and the utilitarian calculus invo2ed )y the
controllers of the mass dystopian societies goes )ac2 at least as far as
Aamiatin's Well&?oer, *ho argues that 9Iven at the time *hen he *as still *ild
and hairy, man 2ne* that real, alge)raic love for humanity must inevita)ly )e
inhuman, and that the inevita)le mar2 of truth is cruelty9 6!!7.: K; But
.'Brien's point is that truth, even the a priori truth of mathematics, is relative
and su)Gect to the violence&enforced *ill of *hoever is in po*er. (t*ood's point
is that the truth of human individuality and 6only through this individuality7
human connectedness is a)solute, inviola)le. 8oo2e relates t*o images to this
point of the connectedness of unique individuals, the chain and the +ayday
net*or2 of underground su)verters of the regime 6%'7. .Jred remem)ers her
mother, in a 9thro*)ac2 to domesticity,9 lin2ing safety pins in a chain 6<K$75
the Enderground Femaleroad is a human chain: 9each one of them *as in
contact *ith only one other one, al*ays the ne1t one along9 6$<H7. 8oo2e sees
this recognition of the value of the individual&&that politics and 9character9 go
hand in hand&&as 9at the heart of (t*ood's aesthetic and her politics. @t requires
the reader to position herself )oth *ithin and outside of the =ctive *orld5 and it
suggests that empathy and the larger perspective are not opposed9 6%'7. By
transforming style into su)stance, (t*ood has e1tended the reach of the
dystopian genre, so often populated in the past )y one&dimensional
demonstrations of the anonymity of the totalitarian state.
()stractions a)out gender are a maGor threat to individuality, in .Jred's society
as in ours. The novel's characters de)ate the theory of 9essentialism,9 the
notion that gender distinctions denote some fundamental and crucial
diJerences )et*een human )eings. The Commander's essentialism is evident
in his 9*omen can't add9 point, and gender a)stractions are easily visi)le
else*here in the novel, as *hen the doctor *hom .Jred visits oJers to
impregnate her and thus save her from the death accorded to unreproductive
,andmaids: 9'@t'd only ta2e a minute, honey.' What he called his *ife, once5
may)e still does, )ut really it's a generic term. We are all honey9 6"!7. This
gender a)straction is adopted )y )oth se1es, of course: (unt Lydia refers to all
men as 9them,9 )ut Lic2 calls .Jred )y her real, individual name as evidence
of his good faith in helping her escape at the end of the novel.
The a)solute of the individual distinguishes The ,andmaid's Tale from its
apparent analogues. @t is one of the fe* a)solutes in the novel, for (t*ood
gives little comfort either to the religious right's desire for a return to
9traditional values9 and a genderi>ed society or to feminist essentialists.
(t*ood reveals, in fact, a profound resem)lance )et*een these t*o apparently
polari>ed vie*s. Iach sees its opponents as 9the .ther,9 a)stracting so that it
may dehumani>e.: "; @n each case this a)stracting is )ased on essentialist
notions of 9feminine9 and 9masculine9 that )elie their various mi1tures in the
unique individual, or deny the possi)ilities of a life *ithout such la)els.: %;
This insight into the convergence of the t*o apparent e1tremes&&an insight held
*hile yet distinguishing the t*o sharply, refusing the facileness of a mere
9e1tremes meet9&&ma2es the novel's feminism more comple1 and more su)tle
than the la)el 9feminist !%/9 can convey. The Commander's critique of
*omen's past 6our present7 has enough truth in it to ma2e .Jred&&and us&&
uncomforta)le: he reminds her of the 9meat mar2et9 degradation of *omen
dependent on =nding men 6<%/7, and .Jred remem)ers the un*ritten 9rules9
of safety *omen follo*ed to deal *ith the threat of rape 6$<&$$7. The issue
here is *hat our present freedom costs us, *eighed against the price the
fundamentalist right e1acts for the 9protection9 of *omen in -ilead.
Bart of (t*ood's contri)ution is to sho* costs at )oth ends of the spectrum in
the essentialist de)ate: the 9*oman's culture9 that .Jred's mother envisioned
has eventuated in the oppression she thought she *as =ghting in )urning
pornographic maga>ines. (t*ood loo2s e1plicitly at the thesis that *e are our
o*n enemies5 the fundamentalist conservatives *ho create -ilead )y
overthro*ing (merican democracy use as a guide a C@( pamphlet on
desta)ili>ing foreign governments produced )y that very democracy. @n li2e
manner, the essentialism of .Jred's mother and her 9*oman's culture9
unintentionally supports the essentialism of the fundamentalist right. (s 0age
puts it, 9What (t*ood is after here&&one of the )oo2's persistent polemical
proGections&&is the tendency in present&day feminism to*ards a 2ind of
separatist purity, a matriarchal nostalgia ... :that; threatens to Goin forces *ith
right&*ing demands for 'traditional values'9 6$H"7. .Jred remem)ers telling
+oira that 9if +oira thought she could create Etopia )y shutting herself up in a
*omen&only enclave she *as sadly mista2en. +en *ere not Gust going to go
a*ay9 6<<$7. (s -reene points out, 9(t*ood oJers a cruel refutation of
separatism *hen she has +oira =nd her separatist utopia *ith a vengeance at
'Fe>e)el's,' unoOcially&sanctioned nightclu) )rothel *here unassimila)le
females, professionals and les)ians end up&&')utch paradise,' as +oira calls
it.9: !;
Writing at roughly the same time as (t*ood, Teresa de Lauretis ma2es an
analogous point discursively rather than =ctively. @n descri)ing the limitations
for feminist theory of the concept of se1ual 9diJerence,9 she says: 9The =rst
limit of 'se1ual diJerence6s7,' then, is that it constrains feminist critical thought
*ithin the conceptual frame of a universal se1 opposition 6*oman as the
diJerence from man, )oth universali>ed5 or *oman as diJerence tout court,
and hence equally universali>ed7, *hich ma2es it very diOcult, if not
impossi)le, to articulate the diJerences of *omen from Woman, that is to say,
the diJerences among *omen or, perhaps more e1actly, the diJerences *ithin
*omen. ... From that point of vie*, they *ould not )e diJerences at all, and all
*omen *ould )ut render diJerent em)odiments of some archetypal essence of
*oman, or more or less sophisticated impersonations of a metaphysical&
discursive femininity9 6 <'7. Brecisely this eradication of irreduci)ly individual
*omen in favor of Woman: <H; lies at the meeting&point of essentialist
feminism and the fundamentalist right in ,andmaid's Tale. Thus, (t*ood has
critiqued 9discourses concerning gender, including those produced or promoted
as feminist9 6 <7, an ongoing tas2 de Lauretis considers vital to feminism given
the persistent tendency to relapse into an e1cessively genderi>ed vie*. @n The
,andmaid's Tale (t*ood anticipates recent eJorts to move )eyond the
essentialistPanti&essentialist split in feminist theory )y critics such as Linda
(lcoJ, *ho loo2 for a third *ay, one *hich *ill 9avoid )oth the denial of se1ual
diJerence 6nominalism7 and an essentiali>ing of se1ual diJerence9 6/<K7.
(t*ood, )y giving us the irony of the 9*oman's culture9 )ecome totalitarian
nightmare, *hile simultaneously leaving open the possi)ility of a limited
essentialism in the 9*omen can't add9 passage, participates in this discussion
)y oJering evidence of the comple1 and ironic manner of life's category&
crossing.: <;
The novel em)odies the convergence of polari>ed vie*s in the am)iguous
image of )lood, image of )oth life and death. The menstrual )lood of a
handmaid is her sign of failure, and, ultimately, her death&*arrant, though it is
also the sign of her continued fertility 6!'7. The red go*ns of the handmaids
are the color of the )lood of life, )ut they are also shrouds, and the repeated
references to Co*ers 6usually red7 in the novel Goin this image of fertility and
hope to *ounds and suJering: .Jred envisions her hus)and Lu2e held
prisoner, 9there's a scar, no, a *ound, it isn't yet healed, the color of tulips,
near the stem end, do*n the left side of his face *here the Cesh split recently9
6$$7. The am)iguity of the image of )lood is one noted in (t*ood's poetry )y
Lorna @rvine: loo2ing at the (t*ood poem 98ed 0hirt9 that cele)rates *omen,
@rvine says 9Finally, menstrual )lood and the )lood of )irth are sym)ols of union
in this female *orld. @n '8ed 0hirt,' the poet and her sister, heads almost Goined
as they )end over their *or2, se* a red shirt for the poet's daughter. Ta2ing
from the color red its associations *ith anger, sacri=ce, and death, the sisters
purify it, oJering it as a female )irth&right to Goin all *omen to each other9
6H'7.: <<; The ,andmaid's Tale, *ith its insistent refusal to resolve
am)iguities, retains the polar images of red and )lood that the poem 9puri=es.9
The narrative itself enacts the am)iguity suggested in these images. (t the =rst
level, *e =nd in the Ipilogue that the historian Biei1oto has put together the
te1t from a set of scram)led tapes: the novel is a reconstruction.: <$; Within
the novel itself, (t*ood gives us .Jred reconstructing the novel's present at
some future time, in the safe house in +aine, insisting throughout on the
imprecision of the reconstruction. .Jred laments her ina)ility to tell it e1actly
69@t's impossi)le to say a thing e1actly the *ay it *as,9 "$7, *ishes for a less
painful, less fragmented tale to tell 6$/$&//7, complains of her fading memory
6<'H7 and unrelia)ility as a narrator 6/7, even gives t*o versions of the
)eginning of her aJair *ith Lic2 and then says that neither of them is true
6$/H7.: </;
@n fact, the novel is in a second sense a reconstruction of a reconstruction, a
memoir of .Jred's re)uilding of a self all )ut o)literated )y the pain of her
e1perience and the necessity of forgetting in order to survive. 0he must create,
or recreate, herself after having )een 9erased9 as a person. When 0erena Foy
)rieCy sho*s her a photograph of her lost daughter, .Jred cannot )ear to have
)een erased from her child's memory: 9@ have )een o)literated for her. @ am
only a shado* no*, far )ac2 )ehind the gli) shiny surface of this photograph. (
shado* of a shado*, as dead mothers )ecome. Qou can see it in her eyes. @ am
not there9 6<!K7. (fter this o)literation, .Jred re)uilds, recapturing her
individuality )y recapturing her past in her solitary recitations. 0itting in her
room, musing on the multiple meanings of the *ord 9chair9 6the precious and
pretentious academic in the ,istorical Lotes *ill reduce this *ord's possi)ilities
to a se1ist Go2e7, she recovers the am)iguity of meaning that totalitarian
regimes try to control. 9These are the 2inds of litanies @ use, to compose myself'
6/H7. 0he com&poses&&puts together, sets do*n&&herself as the novel's =ctive
reconstruction composes the story of her struggle to do so. Both senses of
9compose9 are present earlier in the )oo2: 9@ *ait. @ compose myself. +y self is
a thing @ must no* compose, as one composes a speech. What @ must present
is a made thing, not something )orn9 6%K7.: <'; 0he composes, creates herself
in opposition to those *ho *ould construct her socially, as an o)Gect, a *al2ing
.Jred's reconstruction of her self can )e seen as a re)irth, a rene*al a2in to
those Catherine +cLay sees in The Idi)le Woman and (nnis Bratt notes in
0urfacing: li2e these *or2s or li2e Lady .racle, The ,andmaid's Tale gives us
the descent to a nightmare under*orld that is, as +cLay reminds us, so central
to the romance pattern. Thus situating the *or2 *ithin the romance tradition
and *ithin the )ody of (t*ood's o*n *or2, *e can see that the descent is
dar2er and the re)irth more tentative than in her other novels, in part )ecause
of the open&endedness of the ending.
By remem)ering her painful past in order to tell her story, .Jred heals herself
in a vivid demonstration of Foan ?idion's ma1im that 9*e tell ourselves stories
in order to live.9 Through telling her story, .Jred survives )y ma2ing herself
real, spea2ing her *ay out of invisi)ility into her humanity, as the authors of
the slave narratives asserted and discovered their humanity )y remem)ering
their captivity and their release in the perspective of their ne* freedom.: <K;
(ll this is in part the no*&familiar t*entieth century o)session *ith the
unrelia)ility of language: <"; and narrative, part of the self&reCe1ivity of the
novel in our time. But it also conveys a tentativeness, a hesitancy in the face of
the murderousness of those *ho are so very sure of their righteousness 6li2e
the Buritan fore)ears *hose 9city on a hill9 =gures as a su)te1t in the novel's
Boston setting5 the novel is dedicated to Berry +iller and (lice We)ster, the
latter )eing an ancestor of (t*ood's hanged as a *itch and the former,
(t*ood's teacher and a prominent e1positor of Buritan certainty7. This distrust
of certainty )ecomes part of the linguistic te1ture of the novel, as .Jred
ponders the multiple possi)ilities of language, cherishing the am)iguity that
the regime is ultimately una)le to control, at least in her o*n case. +ultiple
meanings reveal alternate possi)ilities, and .Jred's *illingness to ris2 the
alternatives appears in her narrative's last lines. Ensure *hether the proJered
route of escape is a trap, she nonetheless ma2es the leap: 9(nd so @ step up,
into the dar2ness *ithin5 or else the light.9 (t*ood suggests that the ris2 is
*orth ta2ing, )ecause the novel presumes .Jred's successful escape to the
safe&house *here she tapes her narrative.
@n an intervie* *ith Fan -arden Castro several years )efore the pu)lication of
The ,andmaid's Tale, *e can see that (t*ood has long )een concerned *ith
the perils of a)solutist certainty: 9it's o)vious no* that everything passes
through a =lter. ?oesn't mean it's not true in some sense. @t Gust means that
no)ody can claim to have the a)solute, *hole, o)Gective, total complete truth.
The truth is composite, and that's a cheering thought. @t mitigates tendencies
to*ard autocracy.9: <%;
The novel thus reaOrms and transforms a central attitude in the dystopian
tradition. 0tylistically and thematically (t*ood moves far )eyond .r*ell in her
*ariness of 9passionate intensity9 a)out one's righteousness. @n the face of
such menacing certainty as essentialists and the religious right e1hi)it, the
novel suggests that the most humane response is an appropriate humility
a)out one's o*n a)solutes, all e1cept that *hich says that our humanity is
dependent upon our remem)ering that one plus one plus one plus one do not
equal the a)stract four.
This essay, though drafted earlier, *as su)stantially revised during my tenure
as a Fello* of the (merican Council of Learned 0ocieties, and @ am grateful for
the support and opportunity provided )y the (CL0.
1. "A Feminist 1984" is, in fact, the title of Cathy N. Davidsons !evie" in #s.
A!nold Davidson, 11$%&1, asse!ts that 'he (andmaids 'ale has the "standa!d
fo!m of the dysto)ia," desc!i*in+ these cha!acte!istics on 116. ,ee also -!ian
,ta*lefo!d, 9.%100.
&. At"oods a"a!eness of he! )a!tici)ation in this t!adition is manifest in "ays
as o*vio/s as he! callin+ 'he (andmaids 'ale "a dysto)ia, a ne+ative /to)ia."
,ee a 1985 inte!vie" cited *y 0/cy #. F!ei*e!t, &90n.
$. 1ete! 2/dy, in his 3nt!od/ction to 4il*oo!+s t!anslation of 4amiatins 5e,
*!ie6y e7)lo!es the choice *et"een f!eedom and ha))iness as desc!i*ed *y
Dostoyevs8y and 4amiatin. ,ee Chad 5alsh fo! the t!ansfo!mation of /to)ia to
dysto)ia. 9the! si+ni:cant analyses of the /to)ian;dysto)ian lite!a!y t!adition
incl/de </dith ,h8la! and 2o*e!t C. =lliott.
4. Cathy Davidson >&4? notes the connection *et"een ,e!ena <oy and 1hyllis
5. Fo! love as a s/*ve!sive fo!ce in *oth novels, see -a!*a!a =h!en!eich, $4%$6,
es)ecially $4.
6. ,ee, fo! e7am)le, the ima+es of eyes on )a+es 9, &9, 65, .8, and 84. David
@ette!e! >&09%1.? lin8s the eye ima+e!y to that of mi!!o!s in the novelA 3 myself
"o/ld *e inclined to see the mi!!o! ima+e!y, "hich !ende!s 9B!ed as only a
"disto!ted shado"," as )a!t of the motif of the do/*le, the dan+e! of losin+ the
self in a "o!ld of enfo!ced confo!mity.
.. ,he!!ill C!ace loo8s at mi!!o! ima+es, do/*les, d/alities, and )ola!ities in
At"oods )!e%(and%maid "o!8.
8. 'he D/otation f!om ",t. 1a/l," att!i*/ted to Acts, sho/ld *e com)a!ed "ith
Acts &E44%45E "And all that *elieved "e!e to+ethe!, and had all thin+s commonA
And sold thei! )ossessions and +oods, and )a!ted them to all men, as eve!y
man had need."
9. 'he D/otation !efe!s to c!itiD/es li8e those of -etty F!iedan and ea!ly
feminist :ction s/ch as 'he -ell <a!.
10. ,ee, on this )oint and many othe!s, the :ne disc/ssion in Constance 2oo8e,
11. C!eene :nds the alte!nation of )ast and )!esent e)isodes and va!iations of
this fo!m to *e so f!eD/ent in feminist :ction "as to *e )!actically a de:nin+
cha!acte!istic" >$06%$0.?. 'ho/+h he! chief At"ood e7am)le in the ,i+ns )a)e!
is 0ady 9!acle, she !efe!s s)eci:cally to 'he (andmaids 'ale as an e7am)le of
this alte!nation of scenes.
1&. 0o!na ,a+e, $0..
1$. Ce!ald A. #o!+an sees 9!"ell as tellin+ his tale "in !eve!se," f!om ,miths
)oint of vie" !athe! than that of the less limited 9-!ien. 'his is, fo! #o!+an, a
""ilf/l o! /nconscio/s desi+n in tellin+ a tale as *adly as it co/ld *e told, "ith
some )/!)ose /nfo!med o! /ndecla!ed" >81?.
14. 'he )h!ase a*o/t #oi!a is ,a+es.
15. 'his !ef/sal of victim stat/s and the theme of victimiFation a!e )e!sistent
th!eads in At"oods "o!8, f!om the *e+innin+ of the last cha)te! of
,/!facin+%%"'his a*ove all, to !ef/se to *e a victim. Gnless 3 can do that 3 can do
nothin+"%%to the asse!tion of this theme in Canadian lite!at/!e in ,/!vival.
>,/!facin+ and ,/!vival "e!e *oth )/*lished in 'o!onto in 19.&.?
16. ,teinhoB notes some )ossi*le so/!ces fo! 9!"ells /se of the & H &
eD/ation as !e)!esentin+ o*Iective !ealityA he cites C. @. Cheste!tons 'he #an
5ho 5as 'h/!sday >18? and sho"s that the /se of the fo!m/la +oes *ac8 a
lon+ "ay in 9!"ells ca!ee!. (e notes as "ell its )!esence in Dostoyevs8ys
Notes f!om Gnde!+!o/nd >1.$?. 9!"ell himself, in a lette! to (. <. 5illmett on
#ay 18, 1944, /ses the e7am)le fo! (itle!, "ho "cant say that t"o and t"o a!e
:ve, *eca/se fo! the )/!)oses of, say, *allistics, they have to ma8e fo/!. -/t if
the so!t of "o!ld that 3 am af!aid of a!!ives, a "o!ld of t"o o! th!ee +!eat
s/)e!states "hich a!e /na*le to conD/e! one anothe!, t"o and t"o co/ld
*ecome :ve if the f/eh!e! "ished it" >cited in 3!vin+ (o"e, ed., 9!"ells 1984E
'e7t, ,o/!ces, C!iticism, &nd =d. Ne" Jo!8E (a!co/!t -!ace, 198&, &.9%80?.
1.. #ala8 D/otes ,imone De -ea/voi!s 'he ,econd ,e7 to this eBect on ). 1&.
=h!en!eich, ,a+e, and ,tim)son all ma8e the )oint a*o/t the conve!+ence of
!adical feminism and the !eli+io/s :+ht in thei! !evie"s of the novel.
18. Ca!olyn (eil*!/ns 'o"a!d A 2eco+nition of And!o+yny is no" the classic
te7t, */t see also he! 2einventin+ 5omanhood and 5!itin+ a 5omans 0ife.
19. Cayle C!eene, "Choice of =vils," 14%15.
&0. -a!*a!a (ill 2i+ney >11? D/otes At"ood as "antin+ to "ta8e the ca)ital 5
oB 5oman."
&1. de 0a/!etis >1989? says "3t is one of the )!oIects of this )a)e! to shift the
foc/s of the de*ate f!om feminist essentialism, as a cate+o!y *y "hich to
classify feminists o! feminisms, to the histo!ical s)eci:city, the essential
diBe!ence of feminist theo!y itself" >6?. 3 am inde*ted to C!itiD/es !eade! fo!
sha!)enin+ my foc/s on this )oint.
&&. (e!e as else"he!e, "e a!e made a"a!e of the thematic contin/ity *et"een
At"oods )oet!y and he! :ctionA this contin/ity is a))a!ent as "ell in the motif
of the do/*le, disc/ssed a*ove.
&$. 9n this )oint see 0inda ,. @a/Bman, &&6.
&4. 9B!eds insistence on he! sto!ys /n!elia*ility has many lite!a!y
antecedents, of co/!se, */t it evo8es most )o"e!f/lly Kladimi! Na*o8ovs -end
,iniste!. Na*o8ovs na!!ato! also +ives alte!native ve!sions of !emem*e!ed
events%%*oth novels a!e, in )a!t, a*o/t memo!y%%as his )!ota+onist, initially
a))a!ently )a!alyFed into inaction a+ainst a totalita!ian !e+ime, li8e 9B!ed
st!/++les "ith the /n*ea!a*le !emem*!ance of a lost child. 5hat -onnie ,t.
And!e"s says of the na!!ato! of ,/!facin+, that she "*ecomes !elia*le. ,he
*ecomes !es)onsi*le fo!, D/ite sim)ly, he! t!/e lifes sto!y" >106? co/ld *e said
of 9B!ed.
&5. (a!!iet F. -e!+mann >84.%54? e7)licates the lin+/istic themes of the novel
&6. (en!y 0o/is Cates, <!. ma8es this )oint a*o/t slave na!!atives in "5!itin+,
2ace, and the DiBe!ence 3t #a8es," in his 0oose Canons >Ne" Jo!8E 97fo!d G1,
199&?. F!ei*e!t notes the analo+y to the slave na!!atives as "ell as othe! )oints
of deli*e!ately intended com)a!ison, s/ch as the Gnde!+!o/nd 2ail!oad, "ith
its safe ho/ses and event/al esca)es to Canada >&86?.
&.. Cathe!ine 2. ,tim)son, in he! !evie" of the novel, desc!i*es this dist!/st of
lan+/a+eE "3n )a!t, she )ays an o*li+ato!y homa+e to the "ea!y modem
a"a!eness of +a)s *et"een the "o!d and the thin+A si+n and meanin+A c/lt/!e
and nat/!e. 5elcomin+ the death of synta7, At"ood is also )ayin+ the no"
eD/ally o*li+ato!y homa+e to a dist!/stf/l )ostmode!n a"a!eness of the a*ility
of the )o"e!f/l to cont!ol disco/!se." 9n the !e6e7ivity of the mode!n novel,
see 2o*e!t Alte!.
&8. 2ein+a!d Nischi8 also sees anti%a*sol/tism as a focal )oint of the novel.
W.8D0 C@TI?
(lcoJ, Linda. 9Cultural Feminism versus Bost&0tructuralism: The @dentity Crisis
in Feminist Theory.9 0igns $:$ 60pring !%%7.
(lter, 8o)ert. Bartial +agic: The Lovel as a 0elf&Conscious -enre. Ber2eley and
Los (ngeles: E of California B, !"'.
(t*ood, +argaret. The ,andmaid's Tale. Le* Qor2: Ballantine, Fa*cett Crest,
Bergmann, ,arriet F. 9 'Teaching Them to 8ead': ( Fishing I1pedition in The
,andmaid's Tale.9 College Inglish ' Lo. % 6?ecem)er !%%7: %/"&'/.
Castro, Fan -arden. 9(n @ntervie* *ith +argaret (t*ood: <H (pril !%$.9
+argaret (t*ood: #ision and Forms. Id. Dathryn #an 0panc2eren. Car)ondale:
0outhern @llinois EB, !%%.
?avidson, (rnold. 9Future Tense: +a2ing ,istory in The ,andmaid's Tale.9
+argaret (t*ood: #ision and Forms. Id. Dathryn #an 0panc2eren. Car)ondale:
0outhern @llinois EB, !%%.
?avidson, Cathy L. 9( Feminist !%/.9 +s. 6Fe)ruary !%K7: </&<K.
de Lauretis, Teresa. 9The Issence of the Triangle or Ta2ing the 8is2 of
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diJerences :< 6!%!7.
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+cCom)s. Boston: ,all, !%%.
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Culture and 0ociety K Lo. < 6Winter !!7: <!H&$<.
+ala2, (min. 9+argaret (t*ood's The ,andmaid's Tale and the ?ystopian
Tradition.9 Canadian Literature < 60pring !%"7: !&K.
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of +argaret (t*ood: Issays in Criticism. (rnold I. and Cathy L. ?avidson.
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The ,andmaid's Tale.9 Inglish&&(merican 0tudien 6+arch !%"7 : $!&/%.
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Bratt, (nnis. 90urfacing and the 8e)irth Fourney.9 The (rt of +argaret (t*ood:
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+ichigan B, !"'.
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