-braided plot threads
-using objects in world-building
-using flashbacks in world-building
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic of dystopian fiction in the vein of and very much inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. The novel is told in fifteen parts, seven of which are called “Night” and are comprised of a single chapter. (It is also being adapted into a 10-episode series for Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will be out next year.)
We begin with a group of women living in a gymnasium, monitored by other women referred to as “Aunts” who are armed with cattle prods. Next thing we know, the narrator is dressing in her Handmaid’s garb (a red habit with white wings around the head obscuring the face) in the Commander’s house, where she’s been, in her third posting, for five weeks. The Commander’s Wife, formerly a television personality known as Serena Joy, seems threatened by her (“I am a reproach to her; and a necessity”). The household has a staff comprised of Guardians, Angels, and Marthas, in addition to the narrator, the Handmaid. The narrator wonders about Nick, the Commander’s driver, whom she suspects of being an Eye due to a lack of servility. As she walks into the city for groceries with her Handmaid shopping partner Ofglen, we learn that they live in what is now known as the republic of Gilead, and that the narrator used to walk there with her husband Luke before the regime change. They run into a pregnant and glowing Handmaid who makes them jealous; it turns out to be someone the narrator knew from the Red Centre, Janine (now known as Ofwarren). Then they are accosted by some Japanese tourists who ask if they are happy; the narrator, feeling she can say nothing else, replies in the affirmative. They also walk by the church to affirm their belief in it, and by the Wall, from which casually hang a few corpses, likely former doctors who performed abortions.
That night, the narrator’s memories range from her old friend Moira, to a book-burning of pornographic materials her mother took her to when she was a child, to a vague period she “lost time” and during which it seems her daughter was taken from her.
On their next walk, Ofglen comments that “It’s a beautiful May day,” causing the narrator to remember when Luke taught her about the term “mayday.” Later, she sees the Commander loitering outside her bedroom, where he’s not supposed to be. We learn that the narrator began her relationship with Luke when he was still married to someone else, and that they would rendezvous in hotels, which she compares with her current room at the Commander’s. She’s discovered writing on the baseboard in the latter that says: “Nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum”; when she tries to find out more about the woman who preceded her in her post, the cook, Rita, won’t tell. She goes to the doctor, who offers to “help her” get pregnant as he’s helped others; though his offer is tempting (the narrator’s life will be in danger if she’s unable to conceive a child), the narrator concludes it’s too dangerous. She is given her routine bath by Cora, which induces memories of bathing her daughter, who would be eight now. The narrator remembers when her old friend Moira appeared at the Red Centre; after a while they were able to communicate covertly in the washroom. The narrator then dreams of running for her life with her daughter, hearing gunshots behind them.
Everyone in the household is convened in the sitting room, but the Commander is late, so they get to watch some of the news, of vague “wars,” and only “victories.” There’s also a tidbit that the Eyes have busted a ring responsible for smuggling many “national resources” (code for Handmaids) over the border into Canada. She remembers driving in the car trying to escape the country, having lied to their daughter so she wouldn’t give them away. The Commander reads to them from the Bible, and the narrator remembers when Moira tried to fake illness to escape from the Centre and they injured her feet as punishment.
The narrator endures the Ceremony: the Commander has sex with her while Serena Joy sits at her head. Feeling the need for self-affirmation afterward, she sneaks out to steal something from the house and runs into Nick, who tells her the Commander wants to see her the next day. That night, the narrator thinks about her need to believe Luke is alive somewhere and that he’ll come for her.
The next day, a Birthmobile comes for the Handmaids to join in Ofwarren’s labor. The narrator considers the one in four chance the baby will be born a “shredder”–deformed, and therefore unfit to live, due to fallout from accidents at nuclear plants. She thinks of all the bad videos about the past they had to watch at the Centre to convince them the current way is better (she saw her mother in one of these as a demonstrator for abortion rights). The Handmaids perform their trained chant during Janine’s labor, and the baby appears to be healthy.
The narrator remembers when Moira escaped from the Centre, a tale she heard secondhand from Janine, who heard it from Aunt Lydia: Moira made the toilet overflow then threatened Aunt Elizabeth with a pointed lever from inside the toilet, chaining her behind a furnace and trading clothes with her, then walking out the front door as an Aunt.
After dinner that night, the narrator goes to the Commander’s room at his illicit summons, where she’s more than amused that he wants to play a contraband game of Scrabble. Then he wants her to kiss him, “As if you meant it.” They start an arrangement where she visits him to play a couple of nights a week, signalled through Nick, and he gives her small gifts like contraband magazines from his collection. During the next Ceremony, the narrator finds her emotions complicated.
On one of their shopping walks, Ofglen and the narrator pass by a Soul Scrolls franchise, with machines that print out prayers people can order to look good politically. Ofglen asks the narrator if she thinks God listens to the machines, a heretical question, and the narrator admits she doesn’t, a heretical response.
The narrator considers how Moira would likely disapprove of her arrangement with the Commander, since she’d disapproved of her affair with Luke, and recalls their debates over gender roles (Moira is gay). She remembers the job at a library she had while waiting for Luke to extricate himself from his marriage. She thinks about how the abolition of paper money paved the way for the government takeover, and the slow transition that followed it:
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
The Constitution is suspended, and following a period of “suspended animation,” the library employees are let go and a law is passed that all women’s property is to be passed over to their husband or male next-of-kin. The narrator wonders how Luke really felt about this policy, since they never actually discussed it–thanks to her new forced dependency, she couldn’t risk alienating him.
Trying to leverage whatever power their arrangement has afforded her, the narrator asks the Commander what the Latin phrase she found written on her baseboard means. He says it’s a schoolboy’s joke (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”), and shows her that it’s doodled in the margins of his old textbook. The narrator infers that the previous Handmaid must have had a similar arrangement with the Commander, who tells her the former Handmaid hanged herself.
The narrator recalls how Luke had to kill their cat before they tried to flee; noting how Luke referred to the cat as “it” before he did so gives her some insight into the regime now. Ofglen tells her the password for the secret network of them is “Mayday,” though it’s not good for them to know about too many of the others. Serena Joy offers to set her up with another man to get pregnant and the narrator agrees, knowing she has no better options. The Commander, whom Ofglen has told her is up at the very top of the regime, has started trying to justify some of the rationale behind the regime’s policies to her.
At the Prayvaganza, Ofglen tells the narrator Janine’s baby turned out to be a shredder after all. The narrator remembers a time at the Centre when Janine seemed to think she was still working as a waitress and Moira forced her out of it.
The narrator remembers when they tried to cross a checkpoint with fake passports and Luke fled when a guard seemed to be phoning them in. She considers the nature of love. The Commander surprises her by taking her “out”; Nick drives them to a hotel where she used to rendezvous with Luke, where all manner people are congregating, and the narrator sees Moira amid the women dressed in scrounged sexy clothing that’s since been banned. She meets her in the washroom and gets her story: after leaving the Centre, she made contact with the underground and was transported several legs until she was picked up by authorities right before crossing the border. After some implied torture, they gave her the choice of going to the Colonies to shovel toxic waste, or to essentially become a prostitute. The narrator never sees her again. Back at the house later that night, Serena Joy sends for her to rendezvous with Nick.
The narrator begins an affair with Nick and gets reckless. Ofglen stops pressuring her to try to find stuff out about the Commander. They go to a Salvaging, where a Wife and two Handmaids are to be hanged for unnamed transgressions (naming the crimes has caused too many copycat crimes). Then, for the Particicution, a Guardian is dragged out and accused of rape and the Handmaids set on him, Ofglen first, to the narrator’s horror until Ofglen explains the man is not really a rapist, but a “political”–part of their network who’d been caught and whom she was sparing further pain. The next time Ofglen approaches for their shopping trip, it’s a different woman; when the narrator can’t resist testing the “May Day” password, the woman gives her an implied warning and tells her Ofglen hanged herself when “[s]he saw the van coming for her.” Serena Joy confronts the narrator with the cloak the Commander gave her to wear during their night out.
The narrator is waiting in her room, considering her limited options, when a van pulls up. Nick comes in ahead of the Eyes and tells her to go with them, that they’re Mayday. The narrator isn’t sure she can trust him, but chooses to, and gets in the van with them.
Then we get “Historical Notes,” a guy at a conference about the Gileadean period giving a talk about validating the authenticity of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” found on some cassette tapes discovered in a foot locker. He provides some historical context on who the “Fred” that “Offred” the narrator must have been a Handmaid for could have been; there are two possibilities, both men responsible for the regime’s major Handmaid-related policies. The narrator was unable to be traced and her fate is unknown–she could have been smuggled over the border, or she could have been recaptured. THE END.
The structure Atwood is working with here resembles a French braid, in which two smaller threads are interwoven around one main thread. The main thread here being the acute tension of what’s going on in the present at the Commander’s house, while the smaller threads are 1) her past before the Gilead regime, which largely revolves around Luke (and to a lesser extent her daughter) and 2) her past at the Red Centre, training to be a Handmaid after the regime started; this thread largely revolves around Moira, though Moira also appears in her pre-Gilead thread. The main acute thread is told chronologically, but the other two are told piecemeal, out of order, via snippets of memories triggered by stimuli in the acute thread.
One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it conveys the sweeping changes brought in by a new regime through the narrow focus of one of the subjects of that regime. No bird’s-eye-view explanations as to how we got here; we are instead, simply, here. It’s also impressive how understated our tale is–our narrator is not a hero of the resistance. She’s a reasonably intelligent individual who can process the horror of the regime without being gifted enough to resist it. Also no sappy reunions with her old family. All the references to Luke and her hope that he’s alive might seem like it’s setting up something of direct plot relevance, but Luke’s influence is ultimately indirect, his real plot relevance stemming from the psychological vulnerability recollections of him induce.
The clock on the present timeline is the narrator’s stint as Handmaid at the Commander’s house, but interestingly, this isn’t where Atwood chooses to start. She doesn’t begin with the acute thread, but with something from the middle-distant Red Centre past, starting the novel thus with a point in limbo between the narrator’s past and present. The Red Centre is a figurative and literal holding cell. The limbo state turns out to be a fairly ideal starting point to convey the particularities of this strange new world through a compare-and-contrast strategy, as a setting for which the Red Centre gymnasium works well. A gymnasium will be instantly familiar to most readers, and we know something is off when we read in the first line that it’s not a gymnasium anymore, and then further that the nets on the basketball hoops are gone. The opening establishes a yearning for the way things used to be, while at the same time teasing us with the question of what exactly is going on now, as well as what happened to get us wherever we are now. The oddness of the world is further underscored, and our curiosity further piqued, when we go to the Commander’s house in the next chapter and encounter Guardians and Eyes. (Capitalization is an important tool in world-building.) Still, we don’t know the official nature of the narrator’s role in the household. It’s when she flashes back to her encounter with the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, upon first coming to the house that a more clear (although still somewhat fuzzy) picture of what she’s doing there starts to emerge. The narrator seems to have little official power, and yet Serena Joy seems highly threatened by her. Immediately following the recounting of that exchange, we get this passage:
I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.
This description, drawing several likenesses between the physical environment and a living human body–first the ground is given hair, then, the soil is fertile, a common adjective applied to soil but that in the context of the comparisons before and after it (worms as lips) becomes more human. The comparison provides the reader with further subtle evidence as to the nature of the Handmaid’s official duty, and how related to the human body and fertility it is.
The only exposition that we will get about the state of this world or how it came to be has to come from concrete triggers encountered in scene. Atwood is a master of alternating between action and information, baiting us with just enough information to both start to satisfy our curiosity while also teasing it further. For instance, when Offred and Ofglen go on their first shopping trip that we see:
There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two. I see they have oranges today. Ever since Central America was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not. The war interferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up. I look at the oranges, longing for one. But I haven’t brought any tokens for oranges. I’ll go back and tell Rita about them, I think. She’ll be pleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made oranges happen.
Objects convey much, and are also a critical touchstone to start to familiarize this unfamiliar world to the reader. Instead of introducing all-new unfamiliar objects to go with the all-new unfamiliar world, familiar objects are either used in unfamiliar capacities, or characters’ unfamiliar reactions to them, as in the above case of oranges now being such a big deal, further enlighten us as to what life in this world is like, and more importantly, feels like. The Handmaids’ red dress with white wings comes to symbolize the oppressive nature of the regime, as does the shift in attitude towards clothing and what’s acceptable to show or not. The way the little things we take for granted come to carry such weight conveys the extremity of the regime’s oppression: when Offred compares the game of Scrabble the Commander offers her to drugs, or saves pats of butter to use as hand lotion.
If the exposition about the larger world can only come through concrete in-scene triggers, the same goes for the transitions into the other two sub-threads, the past and the more distant past. A common and clever tactic Atwood uses to transition into the Red Centre past is for the narrator to think about what Aunt Lydia would say about whatever the narrator is doing or encountering in the present; this also works especially seamlessly because the Aunt Lydia commentary can but does not always segue into a more involved memory from the Centre. (Boldface mine.)
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.
Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view, she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them.
They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. She had a mole on her chin that went up and down while she talked. She said, Think of yourselves as seeds, and right then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices of those women who used to teach ballet classes to children, and who would say, Arms up in the air now; let’s pretend we’re trees.
The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Some day, when times improve, says Aunt Lydia, no one will have to be an Econowife.
It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives.
It’s a risk you’re taking, said Aunt Lydia, but you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance, into dangerous territory.
Aunt Lydia becomes the voice of the regime itself.
It’s on the shopping trip with Ofglen when the pregnant Handmaid Janine comes in, eliciting a jealous reaction from the other Handmaids, that we really start to understand what’s going on fully.
The narrator’s distant past is important both for compare-contrast purposes, but also so we can see why the narrator has landed where she has in this new social order: according to the new regime, her marriage wasn’t valid, because it wasn’t Luke’s first marriage. Which is why she has to be an adulteress, which leads to the nice use of that hotel in the then and now for further compare/contrast purposes. The narrator’s going with the Commander to that same hotel she used to with Luke is the novel’s pre-climax, if when the Eyes come for her in the house is the official climax.
It’s interesting to compare the world Atwood has created here to the one she creates later in Oryx and Crake–in the latter she actually creates two worlds. In Handmaid, the world that existed before the new strange world is intimated to have been our regular world, except for a few accelerants that are logical extensions of what could happen in our world, particularly the one major element that enabled the new world to come into being:
You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems so primitive, totemistic even, like cowrie shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the Compubank.
I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
(The one thing that’s off in the pre-new-world world is something that could conceivably very easily come to pass in our world, though over twenty years later we’ve still managed to resist full conversion…hopefully we will continue to heed the Handmaid’s warning.)
In Oryx and Crake, the pre-new-world world is a lot more different from the world we know. In both books, Atwood establishes the nature of that pre-new-world world with an interestingly similar device: a bonfire scene. Early in both books we get a flashback to a childhood memory of a bonfire.
There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.
Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost. Fire can do that. Even my mother’s face, usually pale, thinnish, looked ruddy and cheerful, like a Christmas card; and there was another woman, large, with a soot smear down her cheek and an orange knitted cap, I remember her.
You want to throw one on, honey? she said. How old was I?
Good riddance to bad rubbish, she said, chuckling. It okay? she said to my mother.
If she wants to, my mother said; she had a way of talking about me to others as if I couldn’t hear.
The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.
Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.
I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.
The world as presented in this scene resembles history as we’re familiar with, a feminist book-burning of pornographic materials in the seventies. This foreshadows the mass burnings of reading materials that the new regime will execute once in power, as well as the symbolic burning of women’s bodies under the oppression of that new regime. These foreshadowings are byproducts of this passage, whose predominant purpose seems to be establishing that the world that led to the new world strongly resembles our own.
Compare that to the implications about that immediate pre-new-world world in the bonfire flashback in Oryx and Crake:
Jimmy’s earliest complete memory was of a huge bonfire. He must have been five, maybe six. He was wearing red rubber boots with a smiling duck’s face on each toe; he remembers that, because after seeing the bonfire he had to walk through a pan of disinfectant in those boots. They’d said the disinfectant was poisonous and he shouldn’t splash, and then he was worried that the poison would get into the eyes of the ducks and hurt them. He’d been told the ducks were only like pictures, they weren’t real and had no feelings, but he didn’t quite believe it.
So let’s say five and a half, thinks Snowman. That’s about right.
The month could have been October, or else November; the leaves still turned colour then, and they were orange and red. It was muddy underfoot – he must have been standing in a field – and it was drizzling. The bonfire was an enormous pile of cows and sheep and pigs. Their legs stuck out stiff and straight; gasoline had been poured onto them; the flames shot up and out, yellow and white and red and orange, and a smell of charred flesh filled the air. It was like the barbecue in the backyard when his father cooked things but a lot stronger, and mixed in with it was a gas-station smell, and the odour of burning hair.
“This is where it ends up,” said Jimmy’s father, not to Jimmy but to a man standing with them. “Once things get going.” Jimmy’s father sounded angry; so did the man when he answered.
“They say it was brought in on purpose.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jimmy’s father.
“Can I have one of the cow horns?” said Jimmy. He didn’t see why they should be wasted. He wanted to ask for two but that might be pushing it.
“No,” said his father. “Not this time, old buddy.” He patted Jimmy’s leg.
“Drive up the prices,” said the man. “Make a killing on their own stuff, that way.”
“It’s a killing all right,” said Jimmy’s father in a disgusted tone. “But it could’ve been just a nutbar. Some cult thing, you never know.”
“Why not?” said Jimmy. Nobody else wanted the horns. But this time his father ignored him.
“The question is, how did they do it?” he said. “I thought our people had us sealed up tight as a drum.”
“I thought they did too. We fork out enough. What were the guys doing? They’re not paid to sleep.”
“It could’ve been bribery,” said Jimmy’s father. “They’ll check out the bank transfers, though you’d have to be pretty dumb to stick that kind of money into a bank. Anyway, heads will roll.”
“Fine-tooth comb, and I wouldn’t want to be them,” said the man. “Who comes in from outside?”
“Guys who repair things. Delivery vans.”
“They should bring all that in-house.”
“I hear that’s the plan,” said his father. “This bug is something new though. We’ve got the bioprint.”
“Two can play at that game,” said the man.
“Any number can play,” said Jimmy’s father.
This passage is our immediate introduction to the pre-new-world world, and we can see several differences from the one we’re familiar with: the “bringing everything in-house” and “comes in from outside” remarks let us know that the residential structures in this world are different. The biological vandalism that has necessitated this fire itself seems a response to something questionable going on in the community. In Handmaid we aren’t in Kansas anymore; in Oryx and Crake we were never in Kansas at all.
(It’s also interesting to note that in Oryx and Crake Atwood doesn’t shy away from including detailed dialog exchanges in what are ostensibly supposed to be memory flashbacks.)
When Atwood makes the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale academic commentary from the distant future on the period during which the novel takes place, she is directly stealing from Orwell’s 1984 (as did Justin Cronin with his academic-conference conclusion to The Passage trilogy at the end of The City of Mirrors). Atwood notes in her SF and the Human Imagination that many people read 1984 as overly bleak, but that the academic commentary at the end proves that the oppressive regime was eventually toppled, thus offering us a version of a happy ending, for society at least, if not for the characters we’ve come to care about. What’s interesting is that Atwood’s conference speaker character surmises that the narrator told her tale retroactively, perhaps when she was in hiding somewhere after her escape, as she wouldn’t have had access to tapes under the regime, and not pen or paper either (the time the Commander lets her write something down noted for the novelty of her getting to hold a pen). And yet there are many lines in the text that seem to indicate the Handmaid is narrating the events not from a point after everything recounted in the book has already happened, but rather as she is experiencing it:
This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here –
Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever.
It seems like the version that discovered on the tapes can’t really be verbatim what was recounted in the text we read in the book itself…