How many of you are watching or have seen the new dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? I love this book, not least because it gifted me my favourite word, “palimpsest,” now taught to all my students as a matter of course. It is a rich, beautiful word and is surprisingly useful!
Its dystopian genre is sinister in its credibility and perhaps rings even more true in the world in whichwe now live than in the time it was written. However it is the characterisation of Offred the protagonist that moved me the most. She repeats a single phrase throughout the novel, “This is just a story I am telling,” or sometimes embellishing it, “I have to believe this is just a story I’m telling.” I believe human beings have a deep, visceral need for narratives. We seek stories to both escape and make sense of reality. In this case, Offred yearns to believe that what she is experiencing is not truth. If it is just a story then it will end, and none of the terrible things will be true.
The other phrase that has become a mantra for my teaching, and I would even argue for life per se is “context is everything.” In linguistics we have a word for this; pragmatics. Pragmatics make up the part of meaning and interpretation that can only be derived from the context in which the language is used. Thus, reading our world with understanding and emotional intelligence is entirely dependent on comprehension of context.
So for these reasons, the book has snaked its way into my consciousness. It is a well-written, graphic and disturbing tale where empathy for Offred is demanded. The first person narrative is commanding and her situation is revealed gradually. Just one warning…when you get to the Historical Notes section at the back of the novel, keep reading. This isn’t a bibliography or research acknowledgements, it is a fundamental part of the novel. Stick with it.
My lengthy discussion of everything Handmaid’s Tale was prompted in part by my watching the TV dramatisation, but also owes a debt to the fact that I have recently completed The Power by Naomi Alderman. Indeed, the two books could be read in tandem, though that might be an overdose of dystopia!
It is written in contemporary times with more than a nod to worldwide politics. Its focus, like Handmaid’s Tale, is on women. Early in the novel it is clear that women are discovering an ability to unlock power, literally, through their fingertips. A physical electricity, this power can be used to tease and tantalise others or it can be used for a defensive or destructive force. The imagery makes comparison with historical patriarchal dominance impossible to miss. The women soon realise that they can overpower men, and in some disturbing scenes, they force their power on unwilling or unwitting subjects. Its parallel to rape is unmistakable.
And yet the novel isn’t entirely dark. Women use their new discovery to escape abusive situations and to gain control over their lives. As more women worldwide, (and the scope of this novel is astonishing as political fears fuel strategic responses from the
US, Europe, the
Middle East and Africa) learn to utilise their
power, they unite. Such unity brings
fear, and an influential faction of men seeks to regain their dominance through
force and aggression. To resist the
electric currents used by the women in battle, they wear protective suits and
But this is not a trite feminist novel where women seize power and the men are reduced. Granted, it seems that Naomi Alderman wanted to show how centuries of subjugation and abuse have diminished women, and it is evident that she relishes her story-telling of emancipation. There is, at the heart of the novel, a recognition that power corrupts.
The narrative method is stories told through the experiences of several women and one man. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the key characters, and their stories, contexts and motivations are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. The two central female characters, Allie (also known as the Mother Eve) and Roxy come to polarise the struggle to use power wisely. Cited as an historical novel, the book has pace from the start. The opening section is entitled, Ten Years to Go and so expectation that a crisis will shape the novel is created from the outset.
Allie’s background is one of ritual sexual abuse. As a child she suffered much and discovery of her power enabled first escape and then realisation that she could influence others. A born leader, she recognises how to manipulate power to gather a following. After an initial escape to a house of nuns, she harnesses the power to create miracles that create a following. She is revered by women everywhere as her power is seen to be a catalyst for change. Hence, the name-change to Mother Eve as she leads girls to unite and fight for lasting shifts in gender politics.
Roxy is vastly different. A child of a notorious gang member, she knows the underworld and has tasted death. Indeed, in her opening chapter she witnesses the arranged killing of her own mother. She finds her way to Mother Eve’s base and the two become friends. Allie sees immediately that Roxy has exceptional power. She can control her electrical impulses with mastery (forgive the masculine description!) and Mother Eve recognises that if they worked together then they could achieve lasting change.
Such change will not go uncontested. The novel explores the morality of power, the responsibility of the individual, the globalisation and polarisation of gender politics and through it all, the base human need for relationship above all else.
The novel was not a comfortable read. It is, as its prize-winning status suggests, well-written. It is much more global than the popular teen dystopias like Hunger Games and Divergent, but it is not as credible as The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s supremacy is created in the credibility of her plot. Based around falling fertility rates, all the action in the latter novel is chillingly plausible. The Power, though telling truths about control and subjugation through its storyline, remains reliant on a gimmick that never fully creates total suspension of disbelief.
I would definitely recommend Atwood as the more intelligent read, Alderman the more quirky. And if you are watching Handmaid on TV, I strongly advocate reading the book too.