Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is justly admired as one of the great dystopian novels, but just how deep does it go? Daniel Abraham, author of The Dragon's Path and many other novels, and co-author of Leviathan Wakes, explores the clues in Atwood's weirdly playful text.
"I don't tell him about the claw hammer, or about the arms and legs hidden here and there about the province, in culverts, in wooded glades, like Easter eggs or the clues in some grotesque treasure hunt." – Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
When you think of novels that put together puns, double meanings, and elaborate puzzles with creepy sexuality, it usually means there's a new Xanth book out, but that isn't entirely fair. Margaret Atwood, icon of the ongoing uncomfortable blind-date between literature and genre, also engages in those perilous joys. Consider, for example, her Clarke Award winning novel, The Handmaid's Tale.
Top image from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's stage version of Handmaid's Tale.
The book is a near-future dystopia in which a right wing religious culture has remade America into the Republic of Gilead. Women have been reduced to domestic and sexual slaves. Even their names are taken away, replaced by statements of male ownership, so the narrator is "Offred" (Of Fred) and other handmaids are called Ofglen and Ofwarren. Not, perhaps, the best ground for playfulness, but Atwood won't be stopped.
At first glance, the puns and references are the sort of things that English essays are made of. After describing the body-concealing dress and wimple-like head coverings that Offred is forced to wear, she notes "Habits are hard to break." Or, later, she describes women as "We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print." Why? Because they're marginalized. Or the way that everything about the Handmaids is red, and the rebellious narrator is "off-red".
And sometimes it crosses into the realm of straight-up jokes. The book ends, for instance, with notes from a historian's symposium in 2195 looking back on the events of the book. The conference is being held at the University of Denay, Nunavit. Or, said quickly, Deny None Of It.
Handmaid's Tale also has a few easter eggs hidden in it for people in the know. At one point, Offred finds a desk with graffiti carved into it, including "M. loves G. 1972." Margaret Atwood married Greame Gibson in 1972. And then there's the question of Offred's real name.
The opening of the novel is set in a kind of induction center in which women are taken from their former lives and brainwashed into their new roles. It's as oppressive and awful as you might expect, given the subject matter, and Atwood uses the opportunity to reward readers who like to solve puzzles.
"We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed:
"Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June."
The list of names is the first clue, and as the plot unfolds, four of the names are mentioned again. Janine and Moira are featured prominently, Alma and Dolores are mentioned only a couple times and are easily missed. Only June never reappears, and so, Atwood implies, that was Offred's real name.
So what does Atwood intend by making her book this kind of – to borrow her phrase from elsewhere – grotesque treasure hunt? Why all the double entendres and puns and hidden meanings?
One of the things that happens when an author like Atwood starts salting her work with these kinds of artifacts is that the readers who notice them are then invited to read more closely. Listing the five women's names and then withholding Offred's original name is a hint that the reader should pay attention. Punning with names rewards readers who look for deeper interpretations, and pretty soon the whole book becomes a mystery asking the readers to find the solution. If Offred's name is June, is it significant that the historical symposium at the end of the book is held in June? Does it mean something that Offred's pre-Gilead husband was conversant in Latin and that she later adopts a mock-Latin phrase (Nolite te bastardes corborundum) whose meaning she doesn't know (loosely, "don't let the bastards grind you down") as her personal prayer? Is it making fun of Catholic mass? Is it a dig at people who parrot back religious phrases without understanding them? Or is there some other meaning – some play of syllables – that would have you groaning as soon as you saw through it the way Denay, Nunavit does?
Because of its subject matter and Atwood's unwillingness to flinch from the ugliest parts of her literary world, The Handmaid's Tale is a punishing, difficult book. The sexual politics are bleak, the prison camp feel of Offred's existence is oppressive, and the ending is ambiguous at best. But Atwood is also a weirdly playful writer, and that sense of amusement with the horrific is what makes her brilliant. Her prose is like a carnival, but only after dark with the carneys whispering to each other and gesturing toward your kid.
The enduring question of The Handmaid's Tale isn't whether it's science fiction (it is), but whether it is modern literature's work of blackest humor.
Daniel Abraham is a genre writer with a dozen books in print. He has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, and also writes as MLN Hanover and the James half of James S. A. Corey.