THE HANDMAID’S TALE / Margaret Atwood. 1985 (378 pgs)
First Sentence: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: In the first chapter called “Night”, which is only two pages, the reader is addressed directly by a collective narrator represented by the pronoun “we.” There is no mention of who “we” is until the last phrase of this chapter/prologue, “In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” Each name is heavy with the languid sound of vowels or keening. Notice how each name is followed by a full stop, which in the case of this story feels portentous.
In the second chapter, called “Shopping,” we meet an un-named young woman who narrates from a distant first person. She names people, customs, objects in her room or in the house but she makes clear that women of her station do not socialize with others and therefore are rarely addressed. It is from this distance that the reader is being prepared to experience the story.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: We hear about the way things were. We experience the gymnasium as it was, full of sweating athletes, cheerleaders and fans. Also, dances where girls are selected and shown off, kissed and the expectations that follow.
What the reader learns in the first 10 pages: The reader is being readied for a personal revelation in an impersonal setting. Each of the women intimated in the first chapter is clearly an individual and yet each are referred to by their property, particularly their bed and where they sleep. These women do not fraternize (or soronize). It seems the unidentified narrator in the second chapter will be featured for the remainder of the book. She gives the reader a tour of her room, the downstairs household, the other servants and her position within the household as if outlining evidence or telling a tale. (A Tale!) On the simplest level she is preparing to go to market and in those preparations the reader offhandedly learns about her via her position in the household and that hers is considered a privileged position. We also learn that precautions have been taken to prevent her from taking her own life, including a bedroom door that will not completely shut.
Character: Individual character is vaguely put forward by the method Atwood introduces the reader to the collective “women” in the gym and the female servants in the Commander’s household. In these first ten pages the reader is asked to prepare themselves for a story that may seem far fetched in its treatment of women, and yet, may hold allegorical parallels to society as we know it today, or at least 1985.
Setting: This is a paramilitary society in the near future where the United States and other countries no longer exist, “…(we had) army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.” It could also be a metaphor for the polygamous fundamentalist collectives in Southeastern Utah or Texas. There is a creepy sense of living within a compound where there are significant distinctions between those on the inside and those who are not. There are several references to guards, keepers, mandates and rule following. In the larger picture, while we don’t know exactly where the story is taking place, and it doesn’t really seem to matter since this story probably is taking place in many locations in many different ways, the setting is built upon the ruins of a previous, and one must imagine, failed society. In this case the U.S. and her allies.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Even though the tale begins somewhat collectively and impersonally, I expect that the reader will become intimately familiar with the narrator, even if she becomes one of several narrators who lead the story. I suspect that breaking away from her confinement will be a key element in the story.
Random Comments: Interestingly, Atwood wrote an essay called “Historical Notes to The Handmaid’s Tale” which appears at the end of the novel. It is written as if the source material for the book has been found a century or so later and is being presented at an anthropological conference. It is humorous and offers some insight to its placement in history (1985) and its fictional placement within the scope of the tale. There was a feature film of Atwood’s story with Natasha Richardson as the young girl and Faye Dunaway & Robert Duval as the tyrannical right-wing Commander and wife who own the young girl for her baby making capacity. [thanks Eileen!] She was supposed to feel honored for being chosen and being able to live on the inside. In Atwood’s book CAT’S EYE the theme of being inside vs. outside is told from the viewpoint of a mature woman recalling her confusing girlhood on her first return visit to her childhood home.