Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Delights on International Women’s Day

March 8, 2013 — 1 Comment

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2013 but to pay tribute to Canadian author Margaret Atwood? Poet, novelist, lecturer, inventor, tweeter, and celebrity ice hockey goalie, Atwood’s achievements in each of these roles is accomplished with wit, grace, and aplomb.

Handmaid's tale

There are other earlier covers, but this one is my personal favorite.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class just finished reading her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in the dystopia of Gilead, where in response to political and ecological upheaval, a quasi-Christian theocracy is organized in the eastern section of the United States. Astute Sparknote writers, graduates of Harvard, recognized many of the landmarks in the novel’s setting (the brick wall, the gymnasium) as that of their alma mater, an indication of Atwood’s wry sense of irony. In the novel, fertility is an obsession. Rituals and “ceremonies” are enforced; offenders and outliers are publicly executed or sent to labor in toxic waste dumps. The main character Offred, who had a daughter before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, is valued only for her ability to reproduce.

Because of the mature themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in senior high school classes. The title is often suggested on the exam for the open-ended Question #3 on the AP Literature exam which means other schools assign the book. There are always plenty of copies available in the secondary market. Our classroom library has over 60 copies from a variety of library book sales and thrift stores. I have spent under $100.00 in adding this title to our curriculum; I’d like to think that Atwood might be pleased with this “ecological” way to have students read the text despite her loss of possible retail revenue. However, if one wanted a new copy, they are available at Amazon for $10.20 paperback or an audio recording by Claire Danes is available  at  for $24.95.

When we discuss the clothing that marks the different “castes” of people in Gilead,  I always use the endpaper story Atwood published in the New York Times Magazine published “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”

Six years after our trip, I wrote ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” a speculative fiction about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nuns’ costumes, partly from girls’ schools’ hemlines and partly — I must admit — from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, but also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is freedom to and freedom from. But how much of the first should you have to give up in order to assure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own — as we are now seeing — is no exception. Would I have written the book if I never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

Dutch Cleanser

The combination of the Dutch Cleanser girl with the chador is the inspiration for Offred’s clothing; the story and the visual always sparks a discussion on the symbolic effect of clothing.

My students always argue about the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. This year there were a number of votes for political science book, others for a dystopian love story; no one said science fiction. Atwood would be relieved; she has always drawn the distinction between science fiction and her writing which she calls “speculative fiction”. Several of my students also read the other books Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood that are speculative fiction.

Here is Atwood with her take on the genre of specultive fiction.

The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an allusion to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice:

“We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.”

After we finished the novel, the class read Atwood’s poem Eurydice. I asked them what they thought.

  • “There is a sense of longing in both.”
  • “The language is so similar. There is the white curtain…the gauze.”
  • “‘It is not through him you will get your freedom’ is just like
    from and freedom to…that is Offred’s problem”
  • “We could have just read the poem! They’re almost the same!”

One other area of speculative fiction where Atwood has shared her thoughts is on the topic of modernity…and Zombies. In an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, Atwood was quite clear on the limits of Zombie stories:

“No zombie story is ever told from the zombie point of view… they’re not narrative…they don’t have language and that impedes one from telling a story.”

Outside of fiction, Atwood has also written about debt. Her non-fiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came from her 2008 Massey Lectures. Not surprisingly, her interest in debt began in from her study of Victorian Literature. In an interview with Suzanne Ellis, CityLine “Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt”  Atwood discussed how the Victorian stories that are on the surface about love and romance are really all about financial arrangements:

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

The book was made into a documentary and released in the spring of 2012. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott opens his film review with the premise of the documentary:

A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system.

While the film did not receive critical acclaim, Atwood’s ability to connect herself and link to the world through Twitter is often lauded.  She is an avid twitterer with 383,430 followers and over 15,000 tweets of her own. She links to political issues, comments on travels, and gives recipe advice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.06.17 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.07.07 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.08.58 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.09.56 AM

She also is the inventor of the “long pen”, a device that allows her to attend book signings from distances and sign books “virtually”. When she is tired of traveling to sign books, she can now meet her adoring public in virtual space and provide them with an authentic signature. Fortunately, I saw her before the “long pen” at a Barnes and Noble reading/book signing for her short story collection Moral Disorder. She was amazingly articulate; in the 40 minute talk, she never hesitated or once said “um”.

And just when you thought that Atwood could not be more accomplished, she starred in a video explaining “How to Stop a Hockey Puck” for the comedian reporter Rick Mercer. I put the video below. (Too bad her “Dance Party Video” was removed from YOUTube for copyright violations.)

So, on this International Woman’s Day, let’s hear a cheer for Margaret Atwood!

She writes. She tweets. She scores!

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  1. The Handmaid’s Tale | My Books are Your Books - May 1, 2013

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