Two years ago, I bemoaned the worldbuilding of The Handmaid’s Tale, taking issue with Atwood’s politics and characterisation. However, this topic requires revisiting. I still stand by everything I wrote. Yet nuance is required, especially in discussions regarding the original novel. This is because despite the flaws present in The Handmaid’s Tale, there is one particular strength which deserves mention. It is not related to politics or ongoing conversations about sexuality and gender.
Unfortunately, this is a problem with dystopian fiction; where the themes and politics overwhelm and overshadow key aspects of storytelling. A recent example comes from France. Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission is viewed through the prism of Islam and the West, or I suppose, ‘The Great Replacement.’ It is certainly true that fiction can analyse our polities and cultures. No topic is off-limits and authors are free to inject whatever commentary in the prose. However, this only works if the characters are well-developed. It doesn’t matter if the worldbuilding is sophisticated or the plot events are enticing. Everything comes back to character.
Much praise directed at Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale concerns realism and ‘getting reality right.’ Others delight in comparisons between the tyrannical Gilead and our present reality. She is not the only dystopian author to receive these words: Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury have, too. What separates Atwood from these novelists is characterisation. The Canadian novelist is superior in this aspect. Here, Offred never feels like a dangling object between plot points. She’s a vivid individual with a stirring backstory and an ongoing identity crisis. Offred is also a great filter of information: we don’t know everything about Gilead or every character. This is a good thing as we don’t need to. More importantly, we may not want to.
By doing this, Atwood creates a veil of mystery and anxiety around all the characters we encounter. That’s why The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply depressing. It’s not just the gruesome events of beheadings and slaughter. Heck, it’s not even the disturbing rape scenes. Rather, Atwood’s brilliance is morphing the normal into the abnormal. She takes familiar settings: a house, a supermarket, a school yard, a kitchen – and twists these places into dungeons of horror. This is powerful. Although Atwood’s execution isn’t flawless, she is extremely talented at pointing out the ‘mini-Gilead’ which already exists. Her prose helps.
“The newspaper stories (about atrocities) 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 print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
This is excellent writing. Sadly, it works better in literature than in television, which surrenders to the whims of cliff hangers, multiple seasons, melodrama and drawn-out storylines. The Handmaid’s Tale is significant because of its quiet nature. Like Offred. There’s a developed sense of powerlessness, where one lacks control over her fate. Very few dystopian novels capture this helplessness, with the exception being The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. To his credit, Orwell comes close. Winston Smith is magnetic enough. However, Atwood gives Offred greater details and fleshes her out further. I prefer 1984 and argue it’s superior to The Handmaid’s Tale. But not in regards to characterisation.
To conclude this short article – the most realistic aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale is Offred. Atwood is an ambitious novelist. Although she doesn’t quite pull off her worldbuilding, I have no problem in giving credit for the mastery in creating Offred. The protagonist explores the horror of herself and Gilead in superb prose and well-articulated thoughts. More dystopian characters ought to have that.