Considering the great novelists of anti-totalitarianism, the name of Margaret Atwood is sometimes overlooked. I have touched on The Handmaid’s Tale before, but it deserves its own post in this series, because it captures the reality of totalitarianism better than more celebrated dystopian writers. Huxley’s Brave New World is so farfetched and remote that I doubt any contemporary reader can take it seriously. The dictators of Nineteen Eighty-Four generously provide Winston Smith with a book that explains the dictatorship in its entire theory and practice. In this, Orwell’s insight into political theory proved his downfall as a novelist. The flow of a great work is broken by forty pages of academic writing on totalitarianism. Orwell clung to his mistake and insisted on keeping Goldstein’s extract even at a cost of £40,000 in American sales.
Atwood’s narrator is limited. To pick a pun from the book’s forestry of wordplay, Offred is a woman in reduced circumstances. A surrogate mother attached to an influential home, Offred’s life consists of tedious and monitored routine: buying groceries, rehearsed inanities with other Handmaids, viewing the bodies on the wall. Her blinkered veil acts as a symbolic and physical manifestation of her reduced circumstances: a reduction of the circumstances of her life but also her thoughts and dreams. Offred is left foraging in the murk of rumour and propaganda for the grubby silt of truth.
The theocracy of Gilead is a recent thing and, at just thirty-three, Offred can remember life before its rule. But her memories are blurry fragments – news footage of a machine-gunned Congress, the day her bank card was refused, a failed border crossing, blood and motion in the forest. She has no idea what has happened to her husband, her friends, her mother, or her child; her recollections have been diluted by grief and trauma and, we suspect, will eventually fade. At the indoctrination centre the Handmaids are told that ‘Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.’
This lack of information, Atwood says, is part of the nightmare. And no one brings the totalitarian nightmare alive quite like Margaret Atwood. The book is structured around Offred’s days; chapters are entitled ‘SHOPPING’, ‘HOUSEHOLD’, ‘BIRTH DAY’. A recurring title is ‘NIGHT’ and it denotes the time Offred spends in bed, where nothing takes place except ‘sleep; or no sleep.’ The night offers freedom of a kind because Offred is more or less alone. Inside her head she can dream herself into better times: ‘the night is my time out. Where should I go?… Somewhere good.’ At other times, she lies awake grappling to make sense of the horrendous changes in her situation. ‘But then what happens, but then what happens? I know I lost time.’ Lines from the Night sequences echoed in my head and heart. No one else can capture what it is like to lie awake in a strange room in a silent land that is watching you. Reading Atwood, you can see the glimmer of searchlight on the mottled window and feel your heart in your throat and listen to the uninterrupted flatline of the sleeping totalitarian night. You are inside the nightmare. Oh my God this is real. How can I keep on living?
Human beings, O’Brien observes, are infinitely malleable, and Offred’s desires become reduced to the small and furtive pleasures that make every nightmare slightly more bearable. The Commander of the household (taking a liking to Offred beyond the grotesque sexual ceremonies instigated under the new laws) makes her a present of butter that she can use as face cream; he also treats her to games of Scrabble and the occasional back copy of Vogue. Although Offred feels affection for the Commander, she resists the delusion that he cares for her, reminding herself that ‘context is all’. She remembers an interview with the mistress of a Nazi concentration guard who insists that ‘He was not a monster’. ‘How easy it is to invent a humanity’, Offred reflects, ‘for anyone at all. What an available temptation’: the Nazi perhaps had ‘some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen’. The inverse manifestation of this invention comes a little later, when a group of Handmaids, goaded by propagandists, stomp an innocent man to death at a public ceremony. ‘He has become an it,’ Offred notes. Totalitarianism grants humanity to monsters and makes monsters of human beings.
By this point in the story Offred has found a friend, her shopping partner Ofglen, who appears to be in touch with the underground resistance to the regime – an association that, if cultivated, could present an escape from Gilead. Offred realises this at first meeting, but is soon distracted first by the Commander’s treats and then by her affair with Nick, the household’s young, virile chauffeur. Sexually fulfilled, Offred loses interest in her comrade’s plans: ‘I hardly listen to her, I no longer credit her. The things she whispers seem to me unreal.’ Context is all – or is it ripeness? After Ofglen’s suicide (‘she saw the van coming’) Offred’s window of opportunity appears to have slammed shut: she has sacrificed long-term liberty to short-term satisfaction. Stupid, no? But then, what would you? Who would not give up freedom of speech in an instance for a treat, a drink, a hour of making love?
And yet for all that Atwood is an optimist, and makes it clear that the regime will fall; there is even a hope that Offred will survive to take back her own name. The study of tyranny is not always completely bleak. Shelley was a better observer than any political theorist when he wrote ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive (stamped on these lifeless things)
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’