The Handmaid's Tale Reconsidered
Thinking about why TV turned the Handmaid’s Tale on its head, I re-read the book, a beautifully written dystopian tale of the last century. And I came way with a critique, not of the story, but of the way it was written: backwards!
Slow, masterful, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (still) works like a striptease, dropping clues like garments to be followed into our narrator's -- a woman known as Offred -- cramped reproductive cottage, her henhouse, her life. Here sterility is only surpassed by fear. Looked at coldly, the falling petals of Atwood's first-person narrative appear to be the work of a novelist feeling her way forward, as if discovering furniture in a dark room. The novel's revelations are fuel but not the impetus the reader deserves. This is no page turner.
Maybe the Handmaid's Tale was one of those books that wasn't plotted out, which is not unusual, or wrong. Authors frequently discover their story as they proceed. The mechanics of a story are not, however, subject to discovery.
In any case, it doesn't matter if this book grew from an intuition that formed to an idea and developed into a tale. Had Atwood plotted out the book on a white board years before scrawling it across the page, it could have proceeded in the same fashion, drop by drop, sign by sign, intimation by intimation, patterning finally into The Handmaid's Tale. But not, I'd argue, without an antecedent. The great book has a great big structural problem.
Here is a novel that's become a classic, one considered an act of high art, distinguished literature in a vast middle-brow genre. Atwood's up there with the greats. The Handmaid's Tale stands up to the best of Orwell's work or Huxley. Atwood's prose blows away the competition, but her story here is lacking.
Conceding the book's greatness, I'd argue that Atwood buried the lede (correct classic spelling for the opening of a news story). Of course, had she not buried the lede, the book might have faltered forward into the lesser genre of thrillerdom. Too bad. I don't want to forgive Atwood for plunging us through tens of vague pages of carefully drawn story so the reader might chew on his or her own inferences. While her technique is brilliant, it's structure fails. It's missing an antecedent.
Offred's plight would have benefited from a little scene setting.
Instead, her story fritters along in a fog. And that's a no-no. From the first, Offred, the character, knows her story. She knows what happened to her, how this red gown came about. Maybe she's suppressed the ruined world she describes, but why won't she come clean? That makes Offred into a hand puppet. If indeed Offred knows her world -- despite the clouds that seem to obscure her memory (and where did those clouds come from again? Brainwashing?) -- then why doesn't Atwood provide us with the thumping drama that would have exploded from a little sign-posting, a lede, instead of the cheap shot she leaves with us readers at the end of the book.
I would argue, Atwood hides behind her character's imposed weaknesses. It's not Offred who has to figure out her world. She knows her world. It's the author who doesn't know her world, and it shows. Atwood uses Offred's hand to feel her own way forward through the dark halls of composition.
She should have done a rewrite.
Understand. I would recommend this book in a heartbeat. I would not argue against its brilliance or the majesty of Atwood's prose, but I will say the narrative is fundamentally flawed. Not fatally, but fundamentally.
Had the book begun on the last "notes," which is to say the final chapter inserted under the title Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale, then there would have been magic. The true spirits of drama would have been loosed. The book would have become a page turner, because actual tension would have infused the narrative, as opposed to Offred's stingy and occasionally tedious revelations.
Go on, Offred, you've lost a daughter. Where's your rage, where's your spit, your venom? All you've got is your repressed memory, the fog of PTSD? Perhaps. That's what Atwood would have us believe. Which is why she leaves her character to be diminished not just by her degenerate world, but by her feeble reaction to it. I can buy into that, but I won't praise it.
I don't want to revise the Tale. But I do want to scold Margaret Atwood for having wasted her precious prose on causing Offred to mindlessly cower. She would have been a better character had she not simply been damaged goods. And while it's certainly true that Atwood affords us a rare view into a world where the weak and oppressed fail to rise, as opposed to the literary cliche of the heroic opposition, her intimations of Offred's past fail to render her true horror. How is it possible that a human might willingly dress in a red gown of servitude? Think of Sophie's Choice by comparison.
Atwood ignores the facts of time and evolution; such creatures as Offred are not overnight creations, cannot be overnight creations, because her masters also play fool to the same game. No. Masters appear in star chambers, not sharing beds.
Atwood had the opportunity to tell a more soaring and daring story had she simply clarified her antecdents. In journalism, it's called a lede or lead, as I've noted. But Atwood cheats us by placing the lede at the end of the story. Oh, that's what happened! we say to ourselves. Instead she buries the lede in the garbage of a post mortum, her final chapter, entitled "Historical Notes on...." Humbug.
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