World Literatures in English; Postmodernism; Postcolonialism
The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood. (31st printing, NY: Fawcett Crest Book, Ballantine 1985)

Kate Liu
Main topics:
1. Target of Atwoods's Satire: The Nation's (Men's) Control and Her stories, Distopia and the present world
2.  Intertextuality & Language: Atwood's use of fairy-tales, (or generic elements of history, science fiction, etc.) & child's desire /language

Issues for further discussion:

  1.  Novel and film
  2. HT as a national allegory using conservative, protective feminism? "[The Handmaid's Tale]'s understanding of female independence is determined by Atwood's sexually coded understanding of Canada and America. In this, Atwood's full-scale parody of American society, what concerns her is not a feminist politics of emancipation, but the nationalist politics of self-protective autonomy, an autonomy which, as I will argue, eventually translates into an advocacy of traditional femininity." (Sandra Tomc 74) - HT compared with The Decline of the American Empire
  3. Atwood's treatment of histories; her postmodernism (compared with§õ©ùLi Ang's?)

I. Male control and female roles, past and "future"
Targets of HT's Satire

-- Three epigraphs: Genesis, Swift's "Modest Proposal" and a Sufi proverb ("In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones" --lack of resources).
-- American Fundamentalism and Puritanism
 -- The New Right in the 80's and its backlash of feminism.
-- Feminist controversies: 1. Anti-pornography, 2. Abortion: Pro-choice vs. pro-life.
 -- U.S. domination over Canada
--  American Fundamentalism
-- Technologies: Compucount, Computalk, and infertility
* relativity of power: 
we watch him 113; 
power and forgiveness: 174
the German commander's mistress 188-89
(Cf. "The Gap Betwen Official History and Women's Histories: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale" Magali Cornier Michael)
  1. 1980 America and 1990 Gilead -"context is all" 187; 248
  2. connections 'moments of change'  chap 28: Moira, loss of job and money.  Constitution suspended 225; escape:  pp. 108-110: one Sat. in Sept.; 248-50: to kill before escape, and kill things inside one's mind; chap 35 at the border
  3. Contemporary feminism: 1st generation: June's mother152-154; called Unwoman 152- ; second: Moira chap 28 (222-23); 
pre-Gilliead period 386
  1. parallels
1980 America
1990 Gilead

& family structure

-- classes of men and women; surrogate motherhood
  • Luke patronizes Offred 236; 332; 
  • argument over garbage bags 37 
  1. male-centered; gender stratification 4; 24 (Commander'Eye, Angel, Guardian of the Faith 27'Ethnics in colonies); 
  2. women's childbearing potential valued 
(Wives, blue 17'Aunts, brown 10'Handmaids, red,--Marthas, green'Econowives, striped blue, red & green'Unwomen 
  • color 29 
women's complicity & rebellion the mother's separatism 154-57; Moira's chap 28; 

"falling" in love292
freedom to change: 294; 

women's collusion'p. 233 (self-interest)

burning "bad rubbish" (51) -implying separatist, or radical, feminism's censorship of pornography 50-51

networking 261-62 lunch

control of women: e.g. Prayvaganza 277 - 
Birth- chap 21;  Women's culture 164; 209; a spirit of comaderie of women 287  <--> 
women's mutual hatred and jealousy 13, 17; 63; 64; 351; 
Salvaging, Particicution, 

fear and suspicion 24; Eyes everywhere 38; the doctor episode chap 11; 

Jezebel's 305

bloodlust 358

grapevine 261

(economic) control through technologies; environmental issues non-liquid money, computer network economic structures: e.g. credit card'Compubank (231); laws against women's holding property, jobs (224), 
freedom as either/or concepts freedom to --rules 32; 

the Commander's criticism 273

strict regulation

freedom from rape and abuse (32-33); 

space old dorm 41 her room 4, the barriers, the Wife's room, the kitchen; Wives only in cars 32
control of thought and desire Son of Jacob Think Tank 388; control thought system 10; 25; no bounds 31; 38; 45; 85; no university, no lawyer, no gym; 
religious control --Eye of God, Angel, Guardian of Faith

--Bible, kept locked up 112

--Soul Scrolls 215-17

subjectivity imaginary identity 67 no names, only roles and signs 33;
not on newspapers, live in the gaps between 74;
body as the central object 95; a blank, like a parenthesis, in waiting295
(names of the store in Gilead: Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Lilies; Red Center, the Wall, Birth Center; rituals: Salvaging, Prayvaganza (285), Particicution,
subjects: Serena Joy 60-61)
Michael: p. 144 "a feminist version of freedom cannot be an either/or choice between "freedom to" and "freedom from."
  • Post-Gilead World: 12th Symposeum of Gilead Studies in 2195.

  •  University of "Denay¡§("deny¡§; native group in The Northwest Territories); Canada criticized.
    Explains the source of the tale (30 something tapes), their inability to identify Offred, the Gilead¡¦s ways of arresting women and possible reasons for infertility.
    Similarities between Pre-Gilead period and Gilead period: birth services; polygamy, totalitarianism (e.g. KGB) p. 386- 87
    Gender structure unchanged:
    Professor Pieixoto flirting with Crescent Moon ¡V"enjoy" her;
    "Underground Femaleroad" --> "The Underground Frailroad" 381
    His distrust of the narrator.
    "Our job is not to censure, but to understand." 383
  • Sociology of sex roles: Pamela Hewitt (from Teaching Approaches p. 110)
sexual objectification (e.g. Jezebel's, an underground nightclub, where women serve as sexual playthings), patriarchy (e.g. the use of Bible), Gender stratification (differential access to cultural resources such as prestige, respect, self-esteem, money and goods)

the other concepts: androgyny, gender stereotyping, homophobia, the Cult of true Womanhood, pornography, rape, etc.

  1. surveillance of Eye and the characters' look / Power' and its reversal
the guardian's look 30; Nick's 30; 302-03; the handmaids' mutual gaze 217; Serena and Offred 264

"We watch him, every inch, every flicker" 113

power to forgive, temptation to forgive 174

  1. the narrator's and other people's resistance
a. the narrator--
  1. her keen senses: smell 1, touch 4; heart beating with the womb 190
  2. empathy and connections 29, the previous girl, protected 275; talk 13-14; look 24; enjoys the power of a dog bone 30; her idea of freedom 38; 
  3. her use of language: food (date rap 50 ); correcting Aunt's lessons in her head 60; "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum": "Don't let the bastard grind you down."  p. 117; 241
  4. her memory 16, nightmares 96-98; remembering as filling up a space-time 35; her focuses -on Luke, his whereabout pp. 133-35

  5. mother and daughter relationships--on her daughter 52; 139; her with ice-cream 213; 82; her mother 152-54; 
  6. her composition and writing: 86; 123; 166; 173: reconstruction: two-fold: in the mind and writing ; 181the kiss scene; 185: her need of perspective and depth ; made-up stories: with Nick 338-40
on flowers 10, 16; 59; Serena's garden 196; different flowers 347, drier
on words'"chair" 140; "job" 224; body marked with J 259;
  1. her stories: about the daughter 82-84, about Luke 44,
  2. her story-telling 52'having control; a story is like a letter to you 53
-- "you will have to forgive me" 294
--hatred "no longer pure and simple" 207
  1. her challenge of the Lord's Prayer251-53
  2. Nick 24; 
  3. Moira 73; her escape, 166-72; her story 317-
  4. Mayday 58; words left in the room 69, 242, Ofglen and "Us" 218; grapevine 261; 376?
2. fairy-tale motif & a child's desire /language
Intertextuality: Bible, The Little Red Riding Hood, p. 11; garden p. 16; red tulips 44;
Scarlet Letter, etc.
Biblical Allusions ¡V
 Martha, devoted herself to housework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus.
 Jezebel -- tried to kill the Lord's prophets and encouraged Ahab to do evil. the dogs would devour Queen Jezebel's body
(Kathleen E.B. Manley TA 135) the use of folkore'as product (e.g. a traditional house described; often to provide verisimilitude) , situation (context; e.g. storytelling or building of a traditional house included), medium (the language or style used)

fairy-tale elements'fragments reconstructed,

the garden, the wolf, the grandmother, the Little Red Riding Hood. "In the novel she explores the relationship of character traits to flowers to the subtext of sensuality she sees in the original tale" (TA 137, Cf Sharon Wilson for discussion of the connection between flowers and sensuality.)

garden images: 23; 31; Serena's garden 196; baskets carrying strawberries 240; the last walk 368

other images of sensuality and desire: 3 the gym and dance

Offred like a child 29; 32;

children's language-- dolls 43; the red of the smile = the red of tulips 44; child 178; candy 180; Commander "indulging a child's wish for bubble gum" 203

eggs'with life inside, incubated by women140-141

3. novel and film:

  • film as the "metaphoric art" (Stuart McDougal, qut in TA 111)
  • five concepts differentiate the novel from the film adaptation: sexualization, plot smoothing, simplification, thrill seeking, and resolution (TA 111)
  • Differences: the novel: More thinking, remembering, narrating creativity and feeling on the narrator's part.

  • e.g. after the 1st ceremony

    the film --
    Memory¡Xescape scene, quiet
    The woman as still an object of gaze.  e.g. after the 1st ceremony.
    The ending: killed the commander, rescued by Nick--no ambiguity.

    Stein,Karen F.  Margaret Atwood revisited.  New York : Twayne Publishers, c1999.
    Wilson, Sharon Rose, Thomas B. Friedman; Shannon. Hengen.  Approaches to teaching Atwood's The handmaid's tale and other works.  New York : Modern Language Association of America, 1996.