The Power of Elusion in The Handmaid’s Tale
In her futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood constructs a dystopian world in which the United States have been overthrown in a military coup and supplanted by a theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Under this new state, individuals are reduced to a function and assigned a specific utility to the greater good of society; to act, and interact, outside of one’s prescribed station is unnecessary and suspicious, and may even be punished by torture, execution, or banishment the chemical wasteland known as ‘the Colonies.’ In an attempt to salvage a dwindling population in the face of direly low birth rates, the regime of Gilead allots the responsibility of reproduction to a class of women called Handmaids, who exist to be impregnated by and bear children for Commanders, who with their often infertile Wives constitute the elite of Gileadean society. Identified by the name of the Commander to whose household they’re posted plus the possessive prefix “of,” Handmaids are just that, possessions “of” the man they serve, valuable only as long as their ovaries are viable.
The protagonist of Atwood’s novel, called Offred, narrates her experience of indoctrination into and life as a Handmaid in the early days of Gilead. The theocracy has only existed for a few years, and Offred retains poignant memories of her husband, daughter, and friends from ‘the time before,’ which she threads through her more immediate account of her existence in the house of a high-ranking Commander in what was formerly Massachusetts. No part, however, of her narrative is completely contemporaneous: though she narrates in the present tense, we discover in the effectual epilogue of the book that her tale exists as a spoken recording on a series of cassette tapes that she can only have had access to after she has escaped Gilead, or has at least gone into hiding in wait of escape.
This revelation about the context of Offred’s narrative has a seismic effect on our reading of the story. In addition to unexpectedly framing the preceding tale, Atwood’s concluding fictional ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale’ provoke a multitude of questions—most of which go unanswered. In addition to prompting the reader to reconsider the motive for a narration that was evidently composed with the altered perspective that comes with remove, the ‘Notes’ make us question the identity and nature of our narrator herself. The contextualizing effect of this section confirms a niggling sensation in the reader that we have never really known Offred as a narrator rather than a character, as a host who has guided us through her vulnerable and intimate past experiences but not allowed us to assemble even the most rudimentary awareness of her present self and state. The realization of Offred’s elusiveness as a narrator dawns on the reader conjointly with the realization of the elusiveness of her narrative motive, and it is through Offred’s insistence on authorial unavailability that her tale’s narrative form, as much as its content, underscores the novel’s eerie warning that the revoking of a society’s right to interpret and wonder, and the supplanting of it with singleness of perspective are the first and foremost weapons of autocracy.
The ‘Notes’ rattle our perception of The Handmaid’s Tale by showing us the unexpected truth of Offred’s assertion that “this is a reconstruction” (Atwood 225). Being as such a version of events inevitably approximate and colored by retrospect, an inquiry arises into just what hue the events have taken on since their actual occurrence, in the narrator’s eyes and hence in her readers’. How does Offred reconstruct her tale, and to what end? Though she does weave certain diegetic clues into her narrative, they yield no consistent theme. As Marta Dvorak points out, these clues arise when Offred “calls attention to the fabricated nature of her story…and repeatedly [disscusses] the procedures of her own narration” (Dvorak 449). Indeed, at one point Offred acknowledges: “[i]t’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it is, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, chances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many” (Atwood 134). While a quote such as this, treating as it does of the manipulative properties of reconstruction, could be expected to divulge something of Offred’s narrative intent, this passage offers only the general assurance that Offred is indeed deliberately story-telling, and aware of it. It does not reveal the purpose of this story-telling, or what, if any, “half-colors” she has endowed her reconstruction with.
If Offred’s narrativepurpose seems uncertain to us, it is perhaps because we are made to feel uncertain by the very structure of her narrative, the very mind-style of our story-teller. Barbara Garlick observes that the opening segments of the novel are the most straightforward of the book, “seemingly framed in an almost classically correct way for fantasy” (Garlick 163), with Offred describing in snapshots her various settings of the ‘present’ moment (which we later learn is not actually that) and its preceding phases. Here “the emphasis is on certainty of perception and realistic descriptions of the Red Centre and the Commander’s house” (Garlick 169), but with the advent of the second ‘Night episode,’ the narrative becomes marked by “unreliability and deliberate prevarication” (Garlick 169). The straightforwardness of Offred’s valiant counter-memory falters, and the ‘certainty of perception’ that we as readers generally rely on in a text becomes increasingly unstable. This mounting uneasiness peaks, and meets its ultimate realization, at the end of the novel with our discovery that we have indeed been duped all along by our narrator: Offred is not there, before us, speaking or writing to us from where she has lead us to believe she is speaking or writing. Her voice, we are informed, is not conclusively the voice we’ve come to know; that familiar one is rather the “guesswork” arrangement of her “unnumbered” tapes by self-satisfied male academics who are so far from empathizing with Offred’s story—putting themselves in her place—that they can flippantly crack jokes about it (Atwood 302; 301, 305).
We are made to feel that we have never really had access to Offred, or indeed to any sovereign narrator at all. To revisit Barabara Garlick, the scholar points out that “The ‘Historical Notes’…deliberately deny all possibility of establishing an identity for the narrator. She is like the first African Eve, evidently there—we have a consciously arranged version of the story told on the tapes—but without a clearly identifying face or name; it is only possible for Pieixoto to postulate a figure on the basis of the identity of the Commanders with whom she was associated” (Garlick 165). Offred the narrator is as remote from the telling of her tale as Offred the character is central to its content. We know her thought processes and motives as she navigates the Gileadean world, but we are excluded from the thought processes and motives of the Offred who is recording this story orally, who is enunciating from somewhere—we can only guess where, for this too is real-time information she does not grant us. And so the elusiveness of her diegetic intent becomes entwined with the elusiveness of her diegetic identity—the identity of an Offred who succeeds that Offred we know from the narrative, but is in fact the only Offred we have ever been exposed to.
Again, clues are dispersed throughout the text that may portend to reveal what we seek, in this case an authorial presence, but which also prove ultimately unyielding. One particular passage, embedded in Offred’s meditations of a solitary evening in Gilead, extends a gleaming hint: “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” (Atwood 134). Upon first reading, we may imagine this to refer to Offred lying in her bedroom in Commander Fred’s house reviewing her reality in her stream-of-consciousness way, and acknowledging our presence as a conjured listener in her head. After having read the ‘Historical Notes,’ however, we may return to reconsider this passage and now construe it as referring to the narrator’s immediate moment of actual recitation from her hiding place—perhaps a hiding place with a ‘single bed’ to lie ‘flat on.’ But such a revised reading is in turn revised by the following passage, in which Offred continues: “When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove” (Atwood 134). Does Offred here depict her Handmaid self anticipating her narrator self and the recording she will do ‘in the form of one voice to another’ if she can slip the noose of the regime’s control? The multitude of distinct, time-warping readings that branch out from this single excerpt conclusively extinguishes the hope of gleaning any omniscient authorial commentary here.
We cannot, then, locate the intent of a narrator who herself cannot be located. But we may guess at it. Some have suggested Offred’s narrative was a form of resistance, with the scholar Hilde Staels perceptively aligning Offred’s narrative act with that of resistance to an imposed theocratic discourse: “Offred crosses the boundaries of accepted meaning by giving voice to an alternative perspective and an alternative discourse that continuously cut through the rigid logocentric texture of the superstructure” (Staels 233). Staels traces this logic in its literal manifestations: the regime tells Offred she is better off as a Handmaid and must forget the past; Offred recalls and relives ‘the time before’ constantly in her tale. The regime tells her she is “a thing…a made thing not something born” (Atwood 66); Offred insists “I feel,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” attesting to the existence of an inner life outside of that which the regime recognizes and permits (Staels 231-32). And though Staels’ claim is undeniably true of the majority of the novel, I believe the ‘Historical Notes’ invalidates it: being committed in hiding or somehow outside the periphery of the ‘rigid logocentric…superstructure’ it is said to ‘cut through,’ does Offred’s narration still qualify as the substantive resistance Staels designates it?
I would not characterize Offred’s narrative purpose as resistance—not substantive resistance, at least. Her narration is neither an attempt to assimilate to nor to defy the reality of her world. Rather I believe it’s the aspiration to a consciousness in between these poles, a delicate balance, that ultimately emerges as the function of The Handmaid’s Tale. For while Offred’s act of narrating her Gileadean experience is an effort to commemorate it—and her existence as a Handmaid—it is simultaneously an effort to protect herself from being overwritten by this experience, an effort not to yield her consciousness of her own individuality to it. This balance between pre-Gilead selfhood and Gileadean selfhood is a critical one: over-emphasis of either could result in the loss of life, or of hope. Were Offred to fall irrevocably into pre-Gileadean self, as a fellow Handmaid did once at the Red Center, she might never resurface and never escape the regime. At the Red Center when Janine wakes one morning in a trance in which she relives her daily interactions as a waitress in the time before (“Hello…My name’s Janine…Can I get you some coffee to begin with?”), it takes a slap from Offred’s friend Moira to bring her back to the present: “Get back here, [Moira said]. Get right back here! You can’t stay there, you aren’t there anymore…Don’t you know what they’ll do? You go too far away and they just take you up to the Chemistry Lab and shoot you” (Atwood 216). Though a relapse into the past—a “slipping over the edge” (Atwood 217)—would not be as dangerous for Offred, ensconced presumably “in [an] attic or cellar” (303), as it was for Janine, who was in danger of discovery and punishment by the Aunts at any moment, a relapse would be equally detrimental to her chances of survival, as it would render her incapable of a cautious, stealthy escape. But total submission to her imposed Gileadean identity, on the other hand, would defeat the purpose of escape at all: why risk your life and the lives of others in an effort to flee if you no longer have any objection to living as a Handmaid, no longer cling to your former memories and no longer resent the humiliation and subjection that a Handmaid’s existence entails?
Offred’s orchestration of this balance can be seen in a passage in which she contemplates the importance of names to personal identity: “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried” (Atwood 84). Here Offred shows that she can preserve contact with her past (I have another name), while not allowing this contact to endanger her current position (I think of this name as buried). She narrates in the hope of conducting herself safely towards that ‘one day’ when she can dig up her old life, her treasure.
It is as much through this balancing act as through her authorial elusiveness that we can view Offred as cultivating a layering of consciousness. Offred’s power lies in her ability to generate multiplicity: while in the regime’s view this amounts to her capacity to be fruitful and multiply, for Offred it takes shape in the deliberate proliferation of meaning, in the “heterogeneity [which] manifests itself…in non-calculable musical effects” (Staels 229). In fact, in this generative power of our narrator we can identify a different sort of resistance than the type which Staels indicates. If her vagueness creates the possibility of ‘heterogeneity,’ it does so through its allowance of independent interpretation and conjecture. Such allowance, I believe, is an agent of individual and societal freedom; its restriction functions as a restriction of freedom, and in extremity facilitates oppression. By perpetrating elusiveness, then, Offred fights what twentieth-century philosopher Antonio Gramsci terms ‘the fight of position,’ “in which aggrieved populations seek to undermine the legitimacy of dominant ideology, rather than just a ‘war of maneuver’ aimed at seizing state power” (Gramsci paraphrased in Lipsitz 146). A unique form of resistance, the very unavailability of Offred’s narrative form undermines Gilead’s ideology by its criminal vagueness, rejoining the regime’s discourse of certainty with her private legitimation of uncertainty.
In an age when “alternative facts” abound, we are not in immediate danger of losing polyvalence in perspective. But with the ruling figure of the United States constantly clamoring to discredit the press—in deference to his own version of events—we find our nation uniquely ripe for the receiving of Offred’s warning. Both the content and the structure of her tale demonstrate how the denial of alternative discourses and alternative narratives denies the existence of certain populations, of certain lives and emotions and memories. Heterogeneity, Offred whispers, is worth fighting for.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.
Dvorak, Marta. “What is Real/Reel? Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rearrangement of Shapes on a Flat Surface’ or Narration as Collage.” Etudes Anglaises, Vol. 51, Call No. PR1.E85, Accessed May 8 2017.
Garlick, Barbara. “The Handmaid’s Tale: Narrative Voice and the Primacy of the Tale.” Twentieth-Century Fantasists: Essays on Culture, Society, and Belief in Twentieth-Century Mythopoeic Literature, edited by Kath Filmer, McMillan Press 1992, 161-171.
Lipsitz, George. “The Struggle for Hegemony.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 1988, pp. 146-150. www.jstor.org/stable/1889660. Accessed May 8 2017.
Staels, Hilde. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance Through Narrating.” English Studies 76, no. 5,1995. pp. 455-468. Accessed May 3 2017.