Tuesday, 18 October 2016

But is it Gothic? - The Handmaid's Tale

This week we’ll be meeting to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, so now’s the time to grab a copy and start thinking about what makes this work of speculative fiction Gothic. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those novels that I’ve found myself returning to time and time again through the course of my studies, but I never seem to get tired of it. This text definitely benefits from re-reading. I was first introduced to the novel during my A-Levels when it was sold to our class of wide-eyed 16 year-olds as Sci-Fi without the spaceships. Fast-forward to University and it was a set text for a module on dystopian fiction, but until now I’ve never stopped to consider Atwood’s vision of a nightmarish near-future in relation to the Gothic.

To give a synopsis without too many spoilers, Atwood presents a world where the Caucasian birth-rate has plummeted due to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, pollution and the pro-choice movement. Following a terrorist attack in which the President of the United States is assassinated (supposedly by an Islamic extremist), a military regime founded on Christian ideology rises to power and sets about transforming swathes of North America into the Republic of Gilead. Women’s rights are gradually taken away as they begin to implement a society in which women are defined by their fertility. Handmaids, as the few remaining fertile women, are assigned to the households of high-ranking, married officials whose wives cannot conceive – a practice justified by the Bible story of Rachel and Leah. Through her first person narration, Offred, a Handmaid whose real name we never learn, drip-feeds the reader information so we can gradually piece together her history, learning that she lost her right to work and own property before her child was taken away following a failed escape attempt. 

When she is taken to the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre to be assimilated into the regime as a Handmaid every aspect of her life is controlled – from the nun-like red habit she has to wear, to the food she consumes – even the formulaic call and response form of language she uses is prescribed. Reading and writing is forbidden, thus turning something as innocuous as a game of Scrabble into a clandestine act of rebellion. The novel delights in word play and dual meanings - just take ‘spell’ as an example. When this word can refer to the spelling of a word, or a charm cast by witches it perfectly illustrates the power of language and the fear of women using it for their own ends.

The familiar trappings of the Gothic may be absent - there are no monsters, vampires, or zombies; no crumbling castles or ruined abbeys - but we do have an incarcerated heroine trying to escape tyranny. Offred is continually haunted by the past in her claustrophobic, mechanical existence, and references to ‘the time before’ abound throughout the course of her stream of conscious narrative. Reminders of her previous existence, or ‘echoes of the past’, survive in spite of the regime’s attempt to destroy all traces. The scent of flowers, the taste of cigarette smoke, or the sight of repurposed university buildings all have the power to trigger memories, and what makes The Handmaid’s Tale scary is how quickly the familiar becomes unfamiliar: ‘in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’[1]

You don’t have to suspend your disbelief to imagine how easily it all could happen; many aspects of the novel have happened at one time, or are happening right now. Atwood emphasised this very point during an interview about another one of her works of speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake (2003), in which she said: ‘As with The Handmaid's Tale, I didn't put in anything that we haven't already done, we're not already doing, we're seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress.’[2] The fact that Atwood collected newspaper cuttings whilst planning the novel to get a sense of the contemporary climate of anxiety is clear for all to see… depletion of fishing stocks, disposal of nuclear waste, religious extremism, sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction and the role of women in society are just some of the issues highlighted that are still as relevant today as they were in 1985. The humiliating victim-shaming Ofwarren faces for having been raped as a teenager also stands out when factors including what the woman was wearing are so frequently reported in media coverage of rape cases.

As a work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale tends to be discussed alongside texts including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and P.D. James’ Children of Men (1992) as opposed to a Gothic novel such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) for example, but a focus on prevalent cultural anxieties is more often than not what defines, and unites, seemingly disparate texts as Gothic. 

That’s not to say that The Handmaid’s Tale has nothing else in common with early Gothic novels. The dangers of pseudo-religious enthusiasm really come to the fore in Atwood’s description of the ‘Particicution’, and the way in which the collective anger of the Handmaids is built up before they are let loose to tear apart a man accused of rape recalls the pulverisation of the Abbess at the hands of the rampaging mob in The Monk. Even the form of The Handmaid’s Tale makes a nod to origins of the Gothic novel, with the found manuscript having been associated with the genre ever since Horace Walpole infamously tried to pass off The Castle of Otranto (1764) as the work of an Italian monk. Atwood takes this trope and subverts it by shifting the metatextual content from the preface to the afterword. 

[Ed's Note: Oh, Atwood, you beautiful meta woman you]
Destabilising everything we as readers thought we knew about Offred, the Historical Notes appended to the end of the text reveal that academics have pieced together the narrative from a collection of audio cassette tapes found hidden in a New England attic. Whilst this suggests that Offred escaped Gilead using the underground femaleroad, it also raises the possibility that the recordings have at worst been faked, or at best embellished with various names changed to protect the identities of those involved. The very idea of identity is unstable with a patronymic system whereby names are constantly being formed and exchanged by combining the possessive preposition ‘of’ with the name of a specific Commander.

Basically, the more I think about The Handmaid’s Tale, the more Gothic it seems – but what do you think? Two questions we’ll be addressing during Wednesday’s meeting are:

How does Atwood use religious language and imagery to create a dystopian setting?

How do the Historical Notes change the way we think about Offred’s narrative?

No doubt we’ll also end up discussing the forth-coming 10 part TV series with Elizabeth Moss taking on the role of Offred and Joseph Fiennes as the Commander (personally I’ve always pictured someone more like Jonathan Pryce). Remember if you can’t make it in person, you can always tweet us @SheffieldGothic to join in the discussion.

[1] Margaret Atwood (2016). The Handmaid’s Tale, (London: Random House), pg. 89.
[2] Gruss, Susanne (2004). ""People confuse interpersonal relations with legal structures." An Interview with Margaret Atwood". Gender Forum: Gender Queries, 8.

Hannah 'Nolite te Bastardes Carborundum' Moss is a PhD researcher on perceptions of architecture in the 18th Century Gothic novel at the University of Sheffield and is a vital component of Sheffield Gothic. She has been known to scratch rebellious warnings into cupboards in pig latin. 

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