Sunday, November 19, 2006

Handmaid's Tale, pt. 2

Like the movie monster that becomes considerably less frightening once it shows onscreen, the world revealed in the book's second half left its scope more limited than I'd expected. The fault was probably mine: read fifteen years ago, the concept would have seemed more innovative.

Gaps and connecting images are the two areas of books I usually enjoy examining. The color red threads through the novel, from the first tulips to the handmaids' outfits (as well as their training ground, the Red Center) to the color of the lipstick that ultimately reveals Offred and the Commander's illegal activities. (The tell-tale lipstick stain on the hood of the cloak also echoes the blood-stained hood of the corpse in the beginning, "the one red smile . . . the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden.") Then there's the narrator's name, Offred -- or Off-red, a succinct statement of her desire to be free from that role and outfit. (Initially, I wondered if that was a too much of a semantic stretch, then found several essays on the book in the Summer 2006 issue of University of Toronto Quarterly, via Project Muse. Not only did others also consider the Of-fred/Off-red interpretation, but Rosemary Sullivan notes that "Robed in red, [Offred] would be an offering" -- or offered -- to the Commander. Another article commented on the various types of wordplay in the novel, or, as Eric Domville phrases it, "there flourishes a paradoxical jouissance in the telling, in the endless playing with words and their meanings and associations." He also mentions something I'd forgotten -- that Offred's previous career was as a librarian.)

Phonetically, "red" is indistinguishable from "read", and reading and reconstructions are another intriguing aspect of the novel. Having seen "Historical Note" in the table of contents, I'd spent most of the book anticipating an author's note providing historical context and commentary to round off the reading, and was caught off guard by what followed (although, in one sense, it does round off and provide historical commentary on the reading . . . ). Is the intent to contrast scholarship/history vs the lived experience? Is it significant that a male scholar presents on a woman's experience -- the difference between Perry Miller (who, I've since learned, was also one of Atwood's professors) trying to recapture the Puritans and Mary Webster (the other person named in the dedication), Atwood's ancestor, a 17th-century woman who survived hanging after being accused of witchcraft?

Indeed, the transmission of history and issues of knowing/not knowing outcomes (incomplete or obscured history?) are also ideas that recur throughout the book: in the Red Centers, films from the past are used to show the wrongs of the past (but take on a different meaning for Offred, who sees her own mother in the footage -- like the Miller/Webster dedication, another example of impersonal history juxtaposed against lived experience). The past is also distorted through the Commanders' versions of history and partially erased through the book burnings and attempts to keep women from literacy (and through the periodic purges of records); the recent past is transmitted in fragments via the Handmaids' whispers or a moment's glance at a photo. Even Offred's history comes piecemeal throughout the book. Is the tale's supposed preservation in disguise on music tapes important -- a reminder of the palimpsestic nature of much of women's writings?

More questions than answers there...

Doubling back to reconsider a few of the elements I'd noticed or questioned from the first half, I find I still don't know if Nick's name was indicative of his role (as tempter or as rescuer, in the nick of time), nor have I reached any conclusions about why every other chapter is titled "Night." A reminder of the darkness of that society? Of the limited times Offred and others like her are unobserved and have some personal freedom (but do they?)? Of the protagonist's changing situation (since most of the changes occur at night -- from solitude to secretive meetings with the Commander to trysts with Nick to departure)? Is "light", the last word of Offred's narrative, an indication of hope?


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