The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 311 pages, $16.95
Since Sir Thomas More, utopias have been described from the point of view of a visitor, not a citizen. Obviously, the happy citizens of a perfect society would have no reason to write about it. And only a representative of harsh reality (the author's world) can provide the necessary tension between what is and what ought to be. In fiction, as in life, no one has yet created a vacuum-sealed paradise.
In the other kind of utopian fiction, satirical or negative "dystopias" like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley's Brave New World, a different dynamic is at work. Since these authors' purpose is to criticize their own society, they can't exactly send in one of their contemporaries to provide a positive contrast. Instead they create a Winston Smith (Orwell) or a Bernard Marx (Huxley): an ordinary citizen upon whom the scheme of social perfection fails to work.
The source of the aberration may be trivial: an improperly placed telescreen in Winston's apartment enables him to sit alone in a world where no one ever escapes the ultimate surveillance of the Thought Police: an extra drop of alcohol on Bernard's fetal bloodstream enables him to experience unhappiness in a world where no one ever feels anything but blissful contentment. But the effect is far from trivial: in each case a mind becomes free enough to bear witness to an unfree world.
Margaret Atwood, the highly successful Canadian poet and novelist, has created a dystopia based on feminism and Biblical fundamentalism in her latest novel, The Handmaid's Tale. The Republic of Gilead is a smaller, more precarious totalitarianism than Orwell's or Huxley's; it has only existed for a few years in part of the United States. As for Offred, the main character, she is both visitor and citizen, having lived through the social upheaval that brought Gilead into being.
Atwood is a talented wordsmith, and her initial premise is intriguing. She sees an affinity between the fundamentalist right and certain extremist feminists, noting that they both oppose some expressions of sexual freedom, such as pornography, with the virulence of true jihad. In the one case the holy war is against Satan; in the other, Men. These two ideologies have blended into one in Gilead (named after the Biblical land where Jacob lay with the handmaid Bilhah because his wife Rachel was infertile). Women are protected, morals are pure, and society resembles a convent-cum-breeding-farm run by the Gestapo.
This conception, plus Atwood's flair for detail and sensuous description, carry the reader nicely through the first few chapters. But the challenge of dystopian (or utopian) writing is to sustain interest and curiosity beyond the initial unveiling of an imagined future, to the stage where the deeper implications of that future engrave themselves on the mind and spirit of the misfit who is telling the story.
It's a challenge The Handmaid's Tale fails to meet. We learn the basic facts about Offred: that she lives the extremely restricted life of a Handmaid, or fertile female assigned to the household of a Gileadean leader called a Commander. We learn that she has no identity as a person; even her name ('of Fred') is nothing but a designation of her duty to bear children for this particular Commander and his barren harpy of a Wife.
Yet beyond these details, the larger outlines of the society are never more than vaguely sketched. When the Commander shows unorthodox interest in Offred, she tells him that what she wants more than anything is to "know…what's going on." Thus we look forward to the next step, to the Commander's attempting to explain and justify Gilead to one of its oppressed—just as the authorities do in both Orwell and Huxley. We don't expect Offred to agree with what the Commander says; on the contrary, we expect her to fight. But we crave something substantial—some wide-ranging if wrong-headed philosophy—for her to fight against.
We don't get it. Instead, the story proceeds with another cliched account of a powerful man taking sexual advantage of a powerless woman, without respecting her personhood. The danger of these chapters is that the reader will get a dislocated jaw from excessive yawning.
Optimists, and of course reviewers, will read on, still hoping to learn more about Gilead by discovering what happened during the crucial period of revolution and social reorganization. In early chapters, Offred speaks dreamily of the "Time Before," which resembles America in the late '80s. She recalls few details, however; and her very dreaminess suggests some terrible brainwashing in the reeducation camps of Gilead. So again, we look forward to a fuller vision of this awesome transformation.
Again, though, we are disappointed. It turns out that Offred had to spend a couple of years in an institution run by female propagandists called "Aunts," who occasionally tortured a runaway. But basically the place feels a lot like a girls' boarding school. Moreover, it also turns out that Offred can recall a great deal about the Time Before.
Unfortunately, her recollections lead to the dispiriting revelation that even back then, when she possessed all the advantages of higher education and the Bill of Rights, Offred was a pretty dim bulb. Drifting around Cambridge, Massachusetts, she knew nothing about the names of buildings or the history they represented. When the Gileadean revolutionaries marched into town and forbade all women to work, she hadn't the foggiest idea where these uniformed men were coming from. At one point she says that she "hadn't noticed" that the army depriving her of her livelihood was not the American army. Illiterate villagers in the Third World demonstrate a better grasp of the changes taking place in their societies than this dame does.
Atwood deliberately makes Offred nonfeminist—presumably because she wants to show all these terrible things happening to a typical Everywoman, the better to warn us. Yet although Atwood knocks certain extremists, she is nothing if not an orthodox feminist in her views, including the one that says ordinary, nonfeminist women are necessarily benighted. Offred is an empty vessel not only to her Commander but also to her creator. Unlike Winston Smith and Bernard Marx, she doesn't strive to figure out "what's going on." Even under the best of circumstances, she remains passive, unable to form or refute a single coherent idea about the world without the help of stronger characters who just happen to be feminist.
If this is Atwood's opinion of the raw, unreconstructed material of human nature, then she shouldn't be writing a dystopia. She should be ruling one.
Martha Bayles's fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she writes a regular TV column for the Wall Street Journal.