Margaret Atwood | Critical Essay by Jill LeBihan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Margaret Atwood.
This section contains 6,687 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Jill LeBihan

Critical Essay by Jill LeBihan

SOURCE: "The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and Interlunar: Margaret Atwood's Feminist (?) Futures (?)," in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature: Feminism and Postcolonialism, edited by Coral Ann Howells and Lynette Hunter, Open University Press, 1991, pp. 93-107.

In the following essay, LeBihan analyzes the narrative technique and major themes in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and some of the poems in Interlunar.

Margaret Atwood is nothing if not formidable in her utilization of different forms in her writing. Her two latest novels are strikingly different from one another in terms of the formal traditions within which they might be placed. Cat's Eye is a woman painter's cynical retrospective principally on her relationships with other women and feminism. The Handmaid's Tale is most often labelled 'feminist dystopian'. I intend to call into question the use of this title here, for the way in which it has been employed to place Atwood's novel against the mainstream of fiction, conveniently reading the location and label as marginalizing. Marginalization then becomes construed as having the function of undermining the subversive effects of the text. In what follows, I will suggest some alternative readings of location, which offer the possibility of serious challenges to mainstream thought from places other than from the conventional centres of power.

Her latest collection of new poetry, Interlunar, contains poems whose narrators speak from locations which find echoes in the setting of The Handmaid's Tale. They are voices that have been given to them, voices which aim to discover precisely where they have been put, voices which protest against the order which has this locational power over them. The voices in the poetry are nearly all weakened however, by disease, death, despair. The Handmaid's Tale is offered as a prediction of the future only if its warnings against oppressive central powers to mute protest are ignored. The world of Gilead is not quite an inevitable destiny. This kind of hope is not offered by the poetry of Interlunar. 'Letter From The House Of Questions' is not like the tale which has fortunately survived as proof that in some small, though ambiguous way, a protest has been registered. Instead it begins with a sense of its own inevitable annihilation:

       Everything about me is broken.
       Even my fingers, forming
       these words in the dust
       a bootprint will wipe out by morning,
       even these words.

Atwood has used a different writing genre or generic style for three of her most recent publications, then: poetry, 'feminist dystopian' novel and almost realist novel (since the bizarre or fantastic is never entirely missing from Atwood's work). I want to explore in this paper some of the connections between texts using different kinds of genre, of which Atwood makes use in her later writing: the speculative fiction and autobiographical confession of The Handmaid's Tale, the retrospective first person speaker of Cat's Eye and the less assertive narrational voices in the poetry of Interlunar. This study is an attempt to discover whether Atwood's work offers hope for feminist fiction in the future, whether it can challenge the position offered to it by the literary mainstream or whether its words in the dust will be obliterated by a savage bootprint.

Putting Margaret Atwood's name on a feminist agenda immediately causes problems. In refusing to overtly align herself with the women's movement, Atwood has been seen as a reactionary artist, separating her art from her politics and undermining feminist solidarity. This latter perceived fracturing of sisterhood has been welcomed by masculist critics, who see any kind of criticism and internal political division into factions as destructive wrangling or bitching. Pro-feminist critics have also begun to reject Atwood's work as a result of her apparent distance, despite the fact that her textual concerns are very relevant to many issues discussed as 'feminist', irrespective of her personal declarations of non-alignment to specific feminist groups.

The agenda of 'feminist (?) futures (?)', the reason for all the question marks relating to Atwood's work, converges for me at a much debated current critical problem. The questions meet at a spot marked by a 'post'. Does Atwood's writing exemplify postfeminism, postmodernism or postmodernist feminism? In what ways are these critical, political and chronological categories useful in reading her later fiction and in what ways does her writing help us better articulate these positions?

The post stands at a crossroads, as a sign pointing the (literary and critical) directions. The post marks one spot, its own stable site where it is embedded in concrete, but being a directional indicator, it is clearly attempting to order and to ease the transit of others, who look to it to learn where they are, where they have been and where they are going. Perhaps one of the biggest questions relating to the post is the one of who erects such a solid, stable, privileged signifier. For He who attaches the sign (and I use He advisedly) is the style merchant of today, the director of what is central and therefore of what is marginal. The presence of the post is a sign of the cultural times (just like fashion designer labels, it is a marker of who is in and who is out). The post is tagged to descriptions to indicate the contemporaneity of the signified. Postmodernism, Postfeminism and the like are titles which tell us the time.

But the chronological issue of the post is a vexing one, for it is a prefix which in addition to marking what is in vogue, what is current and up to date, is an attachment which also indicates time passing, and politics progressing beyond their starting points. As I read it, then, the post may seem static and upright, but in fact it is a moment of utter uncertainty. It relates at once to several planes of history, offering both a relevant connection with the movement from which it has evolved but also a distinction from those origins. The post is also generally an attachment which appears to offer some kind of engagement with current critical theory, a warning triangle—'Caution. Theory Ahead!'—or the post can even turn out to be a sign which points to reader in a misleading direction.

Elaine Risley, the narrator of Cat's Eye, comments upon the post problem with some bitterness. After procrastinating as far as possible, she finally enters the feminist art gallery where her retrospective collection is to be shown. She comments with irritation:

I don't give a glance to what's still on the walls. I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we're all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own.

Elaine Risley firmly rejects any attempt to make her a member of a post movement because she equates the post with the past. Elaine Risley distinguishes between the past, as something which is dated and irrecoverably lost, and history, which is a subjective reconstruction influenced by elements of that past, but which is by no means the same thing. But for her the post marks not a position in an historical continuum but rather a radical break in genre, style and politics. According to the formulation of Elaine Risley here, the post becomes a sign that the past is no longer a relevant or fashionable referent. Elaine Risley wants her paintings to be current, which is why she has such ambivalent feelings about the retrospective exhibition ('first the retrospective, then the morgue' she comments). But she wants to be current on her own terms, not in post terms. 'Language is leaving me behind', she says, which is precisely what she believes the action of the post prefix to be. To have her work termed postfeminist appears to Elaine Risley to specifically date her feminism, and thereby make it outdated. This post categorization process appears to make her feminism 'past it' when she still sees it as necessary and relevant. As Margaret Atwood herself says in an introduction to The Edible Woman:

The goals of the feminist movement have not been achieved and those who claim we're living in a post-feminist era are either sadly mistaken or tired of thinking about the whole subject.

The Handmaid's Tale confronts the issue of postfeminism in a different way from Cat's Eye, by having the narrator speak from a time when postfeminism is no longer meaningful because the feminist precedent has all but been eradicated in a way that Elaine Risley fears might happen as a result of it being posted. References to preceding political, historical and artistic movements are still meaningful in all these discourses in Elaine Risley's era despite her fears that dating processes are used to relegate the past rather than make reference to it. The catalogue for her exhibition, for example, describes one of the paintings as:

A jeu d'esprit … which takes on the Group of Seven and reconstructs their vision of landscape in the light of contemporary experiment and post-modern pastiche.

The post prefix can no longer be attached to politics, art or history in The Handmaid's Tale in the way it is used in Cat's Eye because there is no official recognition of any preceding movements. There has been an attempt to erase awareness of a multiple and subjective past through the institution of a single, approved version of history. Gilead orthodoxy replaces various perspectives on the past which are accessible only through different histories by equating its one history with the past; this history is appointed to give access to what it propagates as the only true past which, this orthodoxy says, is to be disowned because of its corruption and dissolution. The only acceptable reality in Gilead is the present. Fantasy and memory (the personal, subjective stories confessed by the narrator) do not conform to this orthodoxy—they challenge the single historical canon which purports to tell the past as it really was. Fantasy and memory are consequently the very strategies which the narrator uses as part of her resistance of contemporaneity, erupting through the Gilead period in the regular 'Night' episodes that haunt the novel with the narrator's consciously reconstructed, or her unconscious/dream worked personal history.

Like Elaine Risley's rejection of the post label, like the unconventional narrator of the tale, the Handmaid herself, who keeps at least one of her identities secret, The Handmaid's Tale similarly resists labels that position it within a particular generic stream. The maintenance of a covert or multiple identity is shown in the novel to be part of a policy of subversion of the dominant, as I shall discuss later. The projection of the novel into the 22nd century, then, the intervals of fantasy and nightmare, the shifts in temporal position, the narratorial insistence that the text is just one version of a story that can be told in different ways by other people, the multiple examples of women's communities with their different (and sometimes oppositional) political struggles, the perspective given by the final chapter that what we grasp as a single text is in fact a reassembled transcription from a surviving jumble of cassette recordings: through all these strategies the novel constantly reiterates its uncertain, problematic relationship with the concept of a single reality, one identity, a truthful history as propagated by both the political orthodoxy of Gilead and by much of literary criticism today.

There are four levels of narrative time in The Handmaid's Tale:

1) The pre-Revolution past, characterized by the narrator's memories of her childhood with her mother, her student days with Moira, her memories of her daughter and her relationship with Luke.

2) The period of the Revolution itself, and the time immediately subsequent to that, including the time spent training at the Red Centre.

3) The main narrative time, Gileadean time. It is this narratorial period that is interrupted by the dream sequences. The Gileadean present is what the narrator is telling her tale about, although the events of this present are still retold as past occurrences, narrated retrospectively on to cassette tape, a fact of which we are informed at the final textual time level.

4) The time of the 'present' (our future?), the period of the Symposium of Gileadean Studies—25 June 2195.

Apart from these textual times there is the question of the reader's own temporal context for the novel, her own recognition of events in the text and the placement of them within her own time scheme. For instance, some of the pre-Revolution period accounts of the novel deal with the narrator's mother's involvement in the women's movement of the late 1960s and the narrator's somewhat reactionary response to her mother's militancy. The narrator recalls witnessing the ritualistic burning of pornographic publications, for example, and she remembers the return of angry and injured women from abortion demonstrations. This is an inclusion of what can be seen as 'real history' or rather, what is sometimes called 'faction': a fictionalization or generalized account of real occurrences. This is what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction. The problem which I think this novel addresses is whether historical accounts can ever be more than 'faction'. The novel suggests that the privileging of history, notably in the form of 'authentic' first person narrative accounts of the past, as something more truthful and accurate than faction, is fallacious. The narrator insists that the tale she is telling is a 'reconstruction' which is always going to be at some level inaccurate, partial, incomplete, because it is retrospective and told by only one voice. But she suggests that this 'factitious' status, neither wholly fact nor complete fiction, is something that her story has in common with other historiographic metanarratives.

The novel operates on friction between narrative and theory, and between fiction and history. The story being told is one which comes from the personal experience of the narrating subject, although she does make use of stories told to her by others from their own lives. This first person confessional I rubs uneasily against the perspective provided by the viewing eyes of the academics which only cross the reader's field of vision at the conclusion of the novel. These organizing theoretical and editorial intrusions establish the text and 'establishmentarize' it. They drag the underground into the open, making public the story the Handmaid wanted to tell but they also attempt to uncover her secrets, trying to signpost her identity, giving her tale a stable location and thereby diffuse any resistance it might otherwise provide against the single authoritative, authentic history.

The preserved tapes on which The Handmaid's Tale is supposedly recorded can be viewed as vital records of the past, primary sources, a woman's voice speaking from a time when she should have been silent. The narration, because of its historical context, has become (like the scrabble game she plays) an act of subversion and rebellion. There is a level at which certain groups positioned within the women's studies category believe in these kind of recovered sources as challenges to a mainstream, canonical and patriarchal version of the past. But the narrative also consumes the past as it represents it, rewriting history by itself as its own fictional narrative, not The One Truth, but story, as the narrator insists.

The narrator's story is, on one level, a subversive act, because of the time in which she lived. She lives in a dystopian time when there is a patriarchal state domination of information. To withhold information, or to spread unauthorized material, is an act of treason for which the punishments are brutal and public. The narrator keeps a secret of her own name apart from the patronymic 'Of/fred'. Keeping this private knowledge forges a link with the past, but it is also an act of defiance, as the narrator is proving, at least to herself, that secrets can still be kept.

The private name has the same defiant linguistic pleasure for the narrator as her discovery of another piece of women's history. The carved incantation found in the bottom of her wardrobe, the pig latin joke 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum' (don't let the bastards grind you down) is an example of women's history, literally staying in the closet. Women's history is as illicit in Gilead as homosexuality now, made subject to acts of suppression, under a similarly fearful state. The carving is a sign of the power of the secret in a time of oppression for the narrator, but the non-classically educated narrator has to ask the Commander for a translation of the coded message left by the previous Handmaid as a legacy to her follower.

The past is being reproduced at one level as a subversive act, but it is not a reproduction that is free of the determining factors of the prevailing ideology. Pig latin is a boy's school joke at the expense of classical teaching methods, but is a joke made from within the boys' school and interpretable only by the same classical scholars. Similarly, the recovery of the Handmaid's narrative by an academic institution in the 22nd century, the placing of the narrative in a literary continuum with Chaucer and all that that implies about a static canon, means that an act of feminist subversion has become part of the establishment. Elaine Risley is able to be self-conscious about this recuperation of her work since it happens in her own lifetime, and her comments are not without ambivalence:

My career is why I'm here, on this futon, under this duvet. I'm having a retrospective, my first. The name of the gallery is Sub-Versions, one of those puns that used to delight me before they became so fashionable. I ought to be pleased by this retrospective, but my feelings are mixed; I don't like admitting I'm old enough and established enough to have such a thing, even at an alternative gallery run by a bunch of women. I find it improbable, and ominous: first the retrospective, then the morgue. But also I'm cheesed off because the Art Gallery of Ontario wouldn't do it. Their bias is toward dead foreign men.

Elaine Risley recognizes that she has become part of the feminist establishment, but she is still not taken seriously by the national art scene; that scene is still, as Atwood eloquently puts it, occupied by 'dead foreign men'.

Successful resistance for Elaine Risley depends upon standards of success set by her own culture and for Risley this means widespread, establishment recognition of her art. Risley's rebellion is public resistance to trends set both by the establishment and the 'alternatives' including mainstream feminism. For the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale resistance, if it is to be survived, has to remain underground. In the narrator's past, lack of public resistance was in part a result of her apathy. She writes:

Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it … The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

The gaps between the stories told in black print can, despite their apparent blankness be read in a number of ways. They are not necessarily invisible to the reading eye (nor to the disciplinary one). The gaps are for the narrator in her earlier, pre-Revolution life, acquiescences to 'the usual', representing ways of surviving in an oppressive patriarchal state, where it is easier to keep a low profile than to draw attention to the way in which 'the usual' is formed according to gender.

Another way of reading the white spaces is to view them as being essential to the black print, a contrast which the human eye requires before it can recognize shapes and signs to read. Christopher Dewdney explains this lucidly in his Immaculate Perception in a section called 'Edge Features', and he also goes some way to showing here how the post can be used to illuminate and refer to the past, rather than just annihilating it:

Our vision relies on discontinuity and change. It seems the majority of neural processing in the striate cortex consists of an analysis of edge-features. An object is perceived by its edges, the relationship of discontinuous lines. All written languages are the abstraction and distillation of only the essential edge-features necessary to perceive the form on which meaning is concomitant.

The black print never acknowledges its dependence on the white spaces with which it is discontinuous and thereby made perceptible. The consciousness has not been taught to focus on the white page against which the black letters are defined, and it is the print which is given the privileged attention as the unusual, the significant, not 'the usual' background.

The Handmaid is obliged to occupy the white space, and to live as usual. She can make this 'as usual' more than superficial by acquiescing completely, as Janine appears to do, at least initially, transforming herself into a semitransparent blur (like 'raw egg-white',), to which no one pays attention. The narrator can, alternatively maintain only the superficial whiteness and have her own black spaces, her positive side. These do not challenge the orthodox centre page print; there is no question of their publication at that time. For the narrator in Gilead, the significances consist in the blackness of the 'Night' sequences which are as contrasts to the present white spaces in which she is supposed to invisibly subsist. By giving prominence to recollection of the subjective experience of the past, particularly as a private, illicit act, the narrator has found a way of providing Gilead with edge features.

The fantasy dream and memory of the 'Night' and the illicit relationship with Nick are the Handmaid's version of black print which has to remain invisible, whitewashed, at least while she is in Gilead. Finally, she goes the closest she can to taking over the black print and turning it to her own uses, by narrating her story in a form which clearly is intended to preserve it for others, although which others can never be known. But, of course, in this novel which is ever aware of determining power systems and the impossibility of escape from them, the controllers of the black print eventually take centre page. The mainstream academicians are the ones who transcribe, who organize, edit and publish the Handmaid's tale, and therefore relocate it firmly within the black print, once again neglecting the white ground.

I will reintroduce the post at this point. Up to now, the post has been discussed both as a signifier of chronological location—the prefix that indicates temporal movement away from origins—and it has also been discussed as the sign of the contemporary. The post has been seen, and feared (by Elaine Risley) as a marker of discontinuity and change, making the break with the past into a sign of fashion: the post as the designer label. In The Handmaid's Tale the character of Aunt Lydia is said to have a fondness for the either/or; that is, she cannot see the black print and the white spaces at the same time. In tune with Gilead orthodoxy, she would see the presence of the past as a threat to current stability, except that her either/or mentality enables her to deny that any vestige or reconstruction of a past remains. For Aunt Lydia there is only now.

The either/or viewpoint can be shown to be a fallacious one. The fusion of meanings into the word 'faction' shows that simple either/or divisions fail to operate at any linguistic or political level. The Handmaid's Tale itself proves the existence of a blend of what is considered historical fact and what is thought to be science fiction. The division of kinds of feminists into different political groups in the novel offers the possibility of feminist political, as well as literary, factions which are neither destructive bitchy squabbles nor pluralist utopias. I want to suggest that Dewdney's term 'edge-feature' is appropriate to the post because it functions as a marker of discontinuity and change, but one which illuminates the interdependence of the either/or, rather than insisting on the mutual exclusion of one term by the other.

A poem from Interlunar which recalls the quality of horror in some of the sequences from The Handmaid's Tale is 'No Name', and it comments upon a moment of stasis between dream and reality, between life and death, a transition point where there is no firm post to cling to. The scene described in the poem is in a nightmare setting, a moment where the relationship and power between the man and the narrator, against whose door he is bleeding, is not established and is entirely uncertain:

        He is a man in the act of vanishing
        one way or another.
        He wants you to let him in.
        He is like the soul of a dead
        lover, come back to the surface of the earth
        because he did not have enough of it and is still hungry
        but he is far from dead. Though the hair
        lifts on your arms and cold
        air flows over your threshold
        from him, you have never
        seen anyone so alive.

This man corpse returns with a powerful grip on the narrator, with his 'Please / In any language'. The haunting of the narrator in the poem is like those moments of the narrator's past that re-occur in The Handmaid's Tale. They have a narrative power over her, stories which demand to be told. She prefaces certain sections of the tale with the reluctant 'I don't want to be telling this', but somehow the narrator appreciates the necessity for her history to be recorded. 'No Name' ends with the same suspended moment with which it begins, a poem of non-progression:

       Your door is either half open
       or half closed.
       It stays that way and you cannot wake.

In the poem a third position of stasis results from failing to occupy either one position, that offered by the fully open door, or another, that provided by the fully closed door. The narrator is locked into her dreamlike state apparently because she has refused the either/or. The half-open/half-closed state becomes just a third fixed term. But there is a fourth, more mutable condition where all the positions are potentially ones that can be taken, or even all occupied at once. In the poem the narrator is locked into a dream, in the novel she is locked into a nightmarish dystopic world from which dreams are sometimes an escape, sometimes a torture. In both novel and the poem there is a tangential location which is implicit, an alternative to the fixed either/or choices, but both texts arrive finally at the rigid third term. The choice ultimately appears to be between the white space, the black print, or the stasis of indecision. The option of recognition of the fourth 'edge-feature' does not appear as a possibility.

The Handmaids themselves are supposed to have, like the poem, 'no name', no stability. This is to make them interchangeable and replaceable. The stable, pre-Revolution name to which Offred attaches herself secretively is the name that the 22nd century academic researchers really require in their belief that it will give them not just another history but a fully open door to a single, retrievable past. Their attempts to discover the narrator's secret go precisely against the attempts of the Handmaid herself to preserve this one aspect of her private body and her private past in the face of the violations of freedom being perpetrated in the state of Gilead. The state of Gilead has removed the mythical private family unit and this is nowhere more obvious than in the figure of the Handmaid herself, announcing her function in her red robes. The sexual act is transformed from the containment of the nuclear family in the pre-Revolution, when two metaphorically fused to form one, into a multiple fission of the familial unit, with the Handmaid standing for the wife, but precisely positioning herself in between the wife and the Commander as a rupture in the once traditional coupling. Unfortunately, the potential of this rupture of the private unit to deconstruct the power and hierarchy of the monogamous patriarchal family is not realized. Rather, the intervening Handmaid simply reinforces the ties that bind the Commander and the wife. The Handmaid's role is subordinate to that of the privileged couple, and she is an item in the male-controlled chain of trade in women.

The biological division of power in The Handmaid's Tale, then, accordingly not only to gender but also fertility, is another symptom of what Aunt Lydia is fond of, the either/or. Gender ambiguity, bisexuality or plurality of sexuality are impossibilities in Gilead. The signposts are on the genitalia. The narrator is consistent in her attempt to undermine the division into the two gendered posts which keeps her attached to the powerless and subordinate half of the binary. One of the ways in which she does this is with the repeated motif: 'context is all'. The shock of the old, the specifically dated in the modern environment—for instance, the fashions in the Vogue magazine, the ridiculous garments retrieved for use in Jezebel's—prompts the very important recognition that versions of normality are not static. Elaine Risley, in a world whose versions of femininity are more contradictory and complex than those of Gilead, although by no means unrelated, of course, walks up to a drunk bag-lady on the street. The incident provides Elaine with a review of the language of gender and power:

When I get up even, I see that this person is a woman. She's lying on her back, staring straight at me. 'Lady', she says. 'Lady, Lady.' That word has been through a lot. Noble lady, Dark Lady, she's a real lady, old-lady lace, Listen lady, Hey lady watch where you're going, Ladies room, run through with lipstick and replaced with women. But still the final word of appeal. If you want something very badly you do not say Woman, Woman, you say Lady, Lady.

The sign on the door of the toilet is run through with lipstick but the writing underneath can still be seen. The substitution of 'women' for 'ladies' as acceptable terminology does not mean that 'ladies' and all its baggage of meaning is eradicated, as the bag-lady is there to indicate with her plea. As Elaine Risley says at the beginning of the novel:

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space … I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.

The selective process of recovery of the past in The Handmaid's Tale is used as a characterization device for the narrator and it also becomes a damning indictment of the Gilead state organization. The commander is constructed as living in the past, with 'old-fashioned values', although in a less conscious way than the narrator, who actively reconstructs her past for herself as a political and personal survival tactic. The Commander takes Offred to a Disneyland version of a brothel, nicknamed Jezebel's by the women who work there. All the prostitutes have to wear sequinned, low-cut, frivolous attire that has been salvaged from the past: bunny-girl outfits, swimming costumes, frilly lingerie. The narrator recalls:

'It's like walking into the past,' says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. 'Don't you think?'

I try to remember if the past was exactly like this. I'm not sure, now. I know it contained these things, but somehow the mix is different. A movie about the past is not the same as the past.

Of all things the Gileadean statesmen could choose to replicate out of the past, these men choose prostitution. The sanctioned prostitution and surrogacy of the Handmaid system has its roots in the practices of many eras and cultures, but Jezebel's recreates a trade of sexual illegitimacy, a parody of sexual relations from the immediately pre-Revolution past. The narrator emphasizes the 'inauthenticity' of her mental reconstructions of the past in her stories. But the construction behind the Gilead system appears to believe in the annihilation of the Utopian 1960s permissiveness, and a replacement of the failed fabricated world from that era by a 'natural' system, the return to the 'usual' which means a system based on female subordination, with women as items in a complex scheme of ownership and reproduction.

The tale telling functions as a reassurance of the existence of the past, that things were different once. The need to juxtapose past and present is a desire for perspective, looking down through the waters of time rather than along the line as Elaine Risley sees it, reading the sign underneath the lipstick scoring. The Handmaid says:

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface … Otherwise, you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

The perspective is provided by the white background to counteract the black print which fixes the subject in the moment. The subject needs to be able to see the frame, to be conscious that the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface is precisely that. Therefore there is an arranging subject in addition to an arranged one. The change of perspective is provided for the reader as much by the science fiction style of the novel and its future dystopian setting as by the narrator's recounting of her past. The shift in time-scales in the novel is part of its emphasis on avoiding complacency, of avoiding the danger of accepting the present moment as usual when at another point in time its standards would have been rejected as appalling or horrific. The dystopian genre and temporal shifts are ways of drawing attention to the frame, the arrangers, and the white space and flat surfaces which make perception of the signs and shapes possible.

The Handmaid's Tale demonstrates the juxtaposition of past standards of normality with present 'usualness' and within this, the function of some kind of historical evidence to jog the memory into recognition of change. As the narrator reminds us: 'Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it'.' In the 'Night' episodes of the novel, the narrator explains how she claims space for her thoughts, and more particularly for her past as a way of judging the temperature of the water. She recalls her mother urging her out of complacency, her mother's nagging insistence on the importance of the history of the women's movement, a selective version of the past:

You young people don't appreciate things, she'd say. You don't know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's bodies the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?

It is the 'Night' episodes of the novel, significantly, in which these stories from the past emerge. In the daylight, under the scrutiny of the Eyes, the narrator's recollection of the past puts her at risk. 'Night' becomes a definite, positive location from which to articulate resistance to the status quo, provided by the structural organization of the novel, interspersed as it is with these sequences which challenge the narrative of the present. Of course, Atwood does not allow this imposed structural division to go without examination. There is emphasis on the necessity of drawing attention to the frame throughout the novel and the final chapter, which claims to have organized the material in the tale, reincorporates into the academy what has up to this point been seen as a disruptive narrative strategy. But this demonstrates the impossibility of a clear division between the light and dark, the mainstream and the subversive, the inoperative 'either/or', something suggested also by the title poem from Interlunar:

        The lake, vast and dimensionless,
        doubles everything, the stars,
        the boulders, itself, even the darkness
        that you can walk so long in
        it becomes light.

The post as a chronological locator does not mean that its terms are divided off from the theories of literature that came before or that are to follow. The post does not give privilege to the prior theories either. Rather, it insists on recalling them and partially incorporating them within the present. The post does mark out the poles between which meanings shuffle, but the movement is not necessarily between only two signposts, and the movement can be back and forth: the post does not mark the entrance to a one-way street. 'The lake' is 'vast and dimensionless' as the poem says. The posts are used to mark out sections within it, making their own patterns and boundaries. Even this marking out of areas for concern does not prevent the darkness from turning into light, or the light from fading into dark. What this means for the future is uncertain, as the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale concludes:

Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped.

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

The compromise that 'can't be helped' is the relinquishing of privacy and the safe white spaces away from print, the giving of oneself into the hands of strangers through telling a story. The most recent of Elaine Risley's paintings in Cat's Eye is a similar recognition of the risks of constructing a central subject, a narratorial I (or 'an oversized cat's eye marble'). The adoption of another genre, another way of telling a story in Atwood's latest novel, that is the paintings put into words: these provide another perspective on the positioning of a public subject, a subject which is both an attempt to resist the mainstream but also requires recognition provided by convention in order to achieve an effect. The frames can be stretched: Elaine Risley's latest painting, 'Unified Field Theory', is 'vertical oblong, larger than the other paintings'; The Handmaid's Tale is dystopian fiction, but also historiographic metafiction with a confessional journal-style first person narrator. The single identifiable generic frame is stretched to include as many different writing strategies as possible within its construction. But the story once in print or paint, as both novels' narrators accept, is not under the subject's control. Elaine Risley says, whilst looking around her exhibition:

I walk the room, surrounded by the time I've made; which is not a place, which is only a blur, the moving edge we live in; which is fluid, which turns back on itself, like a wave. I may have thought I was preserving something from time, salvaging something; like all those painters, centuries ago, who thought they were bringing Heaven to earth, the revelation of God, the eternal stars, only to have their slabs of wood and plaster stolen, mislaid, burnt, hacked to pieces, destroyed by rot and mildew.

A leaky ceiling, a match and some kerosine would finish all this off. Why does this thought present itself to me, not as a fear, but as a temptation?

Because I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I'm what's left over.

Elaine Risley lives to see how her work takes off without her, how it changes with each additional post attached to it, framing it, mildewing it. The Handmaid's Tale survives in a form as battered as those paintings of centuries ago. Interlunar is a reminder to pay attention to the lighting, to the way it colours and changes shapes, the way everything can be doubled in the reflection of that vast and dimensionless lake or else obscured and submerged without trace.

(read more)

This section contains 6,687 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Jill LeBihan
Follow Us on Facebook