Teaching ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Given the revived interest in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (sales of the novel have increased dramatically since Trump’s election and a USA TV adaptation is to be screened by Channel 4 in the UK),  I found it interesting to look back at something I wrote in 1993 about  teaching it.

An Approach To The Handmaid’s Tale

When he taught Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to a group of sixth-formers Bernard O’Keeffe experienced some unease. Here was a text which was surely ‘feminist’ and here was a class of 17 year-olds in that most patriarchal of institutions, the boy’s boarding school.

The few all-boy boarding schools left in the country create an atmosphere which is  oppressively masculine. There may be women teachers, but many women in such institutions are seen in domestic, non-professional roles, central to the atmosphere of family-based community which such schools like to encourage but also subtly marginalised. Such institutions, through their structure, ethos and language, can create a peculiar attitude towards women and the world.

Nightmare of Gilead

 The nightmare future for women presented in Margaret Atwood’s novel is, of course, far more frightening. After an unspecified ecological disaster (which we later learn to have been caused by Agent Orange, the AIDS epidemic and a virulent strain of venereal disease), a coup by the moral, Biblical-fundamentalist right has led to the birth of the Republic of Gilead. Gilead represents male power at its most extreme. The apparent advances of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s are swept aside overnight as the state of Gilead is born. All the roles which would previously have been carried out by one woman are now isolated and fulfilled by specific, separate groups. The highest group, the Wives, are attached to Commanders and live lives of arid leisure. The lowest, the Econowives, are household drudges. In between are several other offices. There are Aunts, given a policing role and central in the re-education of women, and there are also Handmaids, fertile women who are allocated to a particular Commander’s household in an attempt to increase the population, devastated after the disaster. The novel is the tale of one such handmaid, Offred, who provides us with a view of Gilead and of what came before it, and who recounts her attempts to resist and escape the regime.

The school in which I taught The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly Gilead, but it is nevertheless an odd place in which to teach a novel so explicitly concerned with the position of women. Prejudices can be deeply ingrained. For many students their idea of ‘feminism’ is one gleaned from the worst parts of the tabloid press; along with the term ‘leftie’ the term ‘feminist’ ‘is often indicative of some laughable, but ultimately suspicious, aberration from nature’s norm and I became worried that teaching Atwood’s novel in the face of such attitudes might be the equivalent of teaching Swift’s A Modest Proposal to a class of cannibals. The average public schoolboy, I feared, might greet the nightmare world of Gilead as a male bigot’s paradise. As it turned out, The Handmaid’s Tale proved a challenging and rewarding text to teach in the peculiar environment I have described, provoking a lively response from the boys, eliciting sensible questions about male-female relations and the whole issue of ‘feminism’.


Three Epigraphs

 The novel’s three epigraphs provided a good starting point. The first is from the Bible, the extract from Genesis in which Rachel, desperate for children, encourages Jacob to go to her maid Bilhah:

‘And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’

This is the important biblical precedent used by the regime of Gilead to justify their use of handmaids such as Offred. Its relevance to the text seemed unambiguous and central and led to a discussion of religious fundamentalism which ranged from Mormonism to Islam.

The second epigraph is from the text I have already mentioned, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal:

‘But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal…’

This gave us an excuse to read the whole of Swift’s brilliant pamphlet, but also led naturally to an examination of its relevance to the novel. Was Gilead being presented as Atwood’s own ‘modest proposal’, merely a gross and obscene exaggeration of what was already happening? If so, what was the precise target of her satirical assault?

The third epigraph is a Sufi proverb:

‘In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones’

This proved the most problematic of the three. I assumed there was no need for a sign because nobody would, even in extreme hunger, consider eating stones, and suggested that it prepared us to approach Gilead armed with more than a pinch of pragmatic common sense. Others, though, felt differently and the Sufi proverb remained puzzling.

Language legitimises the outrageous

 We next decided to develop a glossary of terms. Gilead, much like George Orwell’s 1984, is a future world in which much of the world’s nature is revealed through its language. The shockingly unacceptable elements of a nightmare world are rendered more shocking by the knowledge that someone has found acceptable words for them. Language legitimises the outrageous. Through the simple technique of developing a Gilead Glossary, defining terms such as ‘gender treachery’, ‘unwomen’, the ceremony’, ‘prayvaganza’, ‘testifying’, ‘particicution’ and ‘handmaid’ as clearly as possible, we were able to get some grip on the structure of the republic.

Work on the glossary led naturally to a broader consideration of language and, more particularly, the sexual politics of language. The Handmaid’s name is Offred because she is literally Of Fred, the Commander’s property. She is one in a line of Offreds, all Handmaids assigned to Commander Fred. Others’ names are derived in the same way – Ofwarren, Ofcharles, Ofglen. This led to discussion of the importance of names and sexism in language. How acceptable or desirable is the term Ms? Is Mrs simply Mr with an apostrophe ‘s’, underlining the way that the woman, in taking the man’s name, has also become his property? Does language have an inherent bias against women? How many pejorative terms, for example, are there for a sexually promiscuous man? How many positive terms are there for a sexually promiscuous woman? What’s the difference between a ‘lady’ and a ‘woman’

A feminist text?

 When we discussed feminism it seemed obvious in what ways The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be a feminist text. We soon, however, wondered how helpful the term is. Are there not elements of the text which hint at an ambiguity towards some of the activities and aims of the feminist movement?

Some claimed that the text is a tale primarily about any form of political oppression, about absurd and obscene suppression of human rights by an extreme government. In Gilead the women obviously seem to be those who are suffering, but it is clearly no male paradise either. What is more significant is that certain elements of contemporary or recent feminism seem to come in for criticism. Offred’s mother in the ‘time before’, for example, is shown deciding to have a child outside a permanent relationship, choosing the man with no illusions about his role in the process. ‘A man,’ she says, ‘is just a woman’s strategy for making other women’. Offred’s cry to her mother is similarly ambiguous: ‘You wanted a woman’s culture,’ she says, ‘well now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.’ We began to wonder whether the text is critical of some of the more extreme elements of recent feminism, encouraging us to consider whether the women’s movement indirectly facilitated  the moral backlash, making it easier for Serena Joy to appear on television calling for women to ‘return to the home’?

Gilead could even be seen as ironically fulfilling some of the objectives of the contemporary women’s movement. It certainly contains a separatist culture and female autonomy. Women are valued and protected; some are even considered a vital national resource. Pornography has been banned. Cosmetics are only available on the black market, 1970’s copies of Vogue are considered decadent and degrading. Offred is also free from the threat of rape or any act of unauthorised violence. She has, of course, to subject herself to the monthly Ceremony in which the Commander copulates with her while she lies between the legs of the Commander’s wife, but this is an act authorised by the state. As Offred observes, it is certainly not rape: ‘She chose this…’

Meeting Margaret Atwood 

When Margaret Atwood came to Blackwells in Oxford to read from Cat’s Eye we asked whether we could meet her and were delighted when she agreed. Clutching our paperback copies of The Handmaid’s Tale, we climbed the stairs to meet its writer. She seemed genuinely interested in, if a little wryly amused by, the idea of her novel being studied by a group of boys in an all-male institution, and stressed two things in particular: the way in which Gilead is a synthesis of historical actualities and the central significance of ‘The Historical Notes’. She had written the notes before the main body of the text, and had the parallel of Orwell’s 1984 very much in mind when she did so. The Notes are crucial not only in appreciating the books’ whole narrative technique, but also in presenting a degree of optimism to offset the nightmare of Gilead.

Our interview with Atwood provided fresh perspectives on the text – only when we were back in the classroom did we realise we had forgotten to ask about the Sufi proverb.

Logical Extension of Current Trends

 We came away from the Margaret Atwood interview to focus on two of her statements, Gilead was, she said, a ‘logical extension of current trends’ and there was ‘nothing in the text that hasn’t already happened’. Or, as Professor Pieixeto observes in his concluding academic lecture, ‘there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead; its genius was synthesis’.

We began to look at the institutionalised, brutal repression of any totalitarian state – the worlds of Hitler and Stalin – and examined how certain features of Gilead were reflected in them. ‘Men’s Salvaging’, in which dissident groups (gays, abortionists, or those of different religions) are killed, seemed suddenly familiar. Gilead’s need for a state-controlled birth-rate seemed not unlike the Ceaucescu regime in Romania. Gilead’s ‘Prayvaganzas’ seemed quite similar to the tacky commercialism of America’s televangelists. Gilead’s disenfranchisement of women by the overnight invalidation of their compucount cards seemed only an exaggeration of the way woman have historically been deprived of the vote and kept economically impotent. Gilead’s idea of surrogacy seemed close to polygamy and developing issues of in vitro fertilisation. Some of the boys claimed that the indoctrination at the Rachel and Leah Centre seemed similar to some of the educational experiences on offer at top-class boarding schools, while all seemed to recognise a system, like Gilead, which has tried to suppress sexual joy.

Narrative Technique

As we moved through the novel, focusing on particular passages for close reading, we tried to develop a sense of the novel’s narrative technique. The self-conscious artifice of the construction and the difficulties of trying to define the narrative method led us into discussion of our expectations of ‘realism’ in fiction and the nature of fiction itself. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative technique only becomes clear in the concluding section, ‘The Historical Notes’, a withering parody of the academic lecture delivered on 25t June 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit (deny none of it?). Here it becomes apparent that what we have been reading as a conventional novel has been a narrative dictated onto tapes, rearranged and edited by the academic delivering the concluding lecture. This would explain Offred’s uncertainty about her own narrative. ‘Because I’m telling you this story,’ she says, ‘I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.’ We are only clear about how to read the novel once we have reached its end. The Notes undermine any sense we may have of the bulk of the book as conventional narrative. Some students even felt ‘cheated’ by this section, clearly perturbed by the way their expectations of ‘realism’ had been radically challenged, even subverted. Whereas Margaret Atwood clearly regards the Historical Notes as central to the text, these students felt that the novel would be ‘better’ (ie more like a ‘conventional’ novel) without them.

Maybe this experience of the text was determined by the nature of the class and their environment. Was it merely a male reading to find the broad political issues as important as the explicitly feminist concerns? Was the perception of criticisms of feminism an attempt to avoid the text’s savage criticism of male attitudes, and was it a male response to find the questions raised by narrative technique as disturbing as those raised about the position of women?

Ultimately, it is like asking whether a black man’s response to Othello might differ from a white man’s, or indeed whether a cannibal might find A Modest Proposal lacking in satirical bite. The Handmaid’s Tale is a deliberately provocative, ‘open’ text. It is no accident that the concluding words of the lecture, and hence the novel, are ‘Are there any questions?’