- Dark Knowledge in The Handmaid's Tale Vol. 53, No. 3 Spring/Summer 1991)
Among critics of Margaret Atwood, an important question about her work—whether or not she is a feminist—has given rise to considerable confusion. If she is chary of being categorized with contemporary United States writers and their traditions, a practice that sometimes threatens to obscure her Canadian identity, she is even more prickly when questioned about her identity as a feminist. Both of these concerns—her relationship to other writers and her feminism—may be addressed by analyzing an important metaphoric pattern in Atwood's most successful novel, The Handmaid's Tale: the replacement of ocular images for knowing with conversational ones. What is revealed is a profound feminist commitment through language. We need a greater sense of Atwood's work within both the cultural and feminist contexts, for her feminist readers often miss both her feminism and her position among North American writers, while other readers need to address more carefully how her feminism permeates every aspect of her works' structure, characterization, and imagery. The Handmaid's Tale replaces the certainty of rigid categories of any kind with the fluidity of an extraordinary heroine's voice.
Delicately but unerringly addressing many of our most urgent cultural preoccupations, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) quickly became a bestseller. Ostensibly fantastic in its mode, it engages religious fundamentalism, sexism, racism, pollution, nuclear war, and political chaos, describing in its dystopia a general contemporary sense of the tiredness of our world's institutions. Its vision is frightening, but its heroine's voice offers a moving testament to the power of language to transform reality in order to overcome oppressive designs imposed on human beings. This effort to maintain freedom of imagination places The Handmaid's Tale in dialogue with a particular philosophical tradition in the modern American novel while, at the same time, it transcends any national or traditional context through its feminist dialogics.
Though she is frequently described by literary critics as a writer impossible to "pigeonhole" (Ingersoll 525)—simultaneously a "feminist, nationalist, literary witch, mythological poet, satirist, formulator of critical theories" (Fulford 95) about whom there "is no real accord concerning her tone or attitude, her point of view" (Mandel 53)—obviously, as a Canadian writer, she cannot be read apart from that context. Indeed, she is self-consciously [End Page 302] Canadian; in her poetry, novels, interviews, and essays, she emphasizes her rootedness in Canadian literature, both in the Canadian landscape itself and in broad cultural issues. She has promoted understanding of Canadian writers in copyright cases. But The Handmaid's Tale is about America: It is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood lived while attending graduate school; it is about American-style fundamentalist religion; and its narrative enacts a hermeneutics typical of American novels.
Atwood told an interviewer that The Handmaid's Tale was the first major work she set in America and that she made this choice of setting because she "'couldn't fly it in Canada.'" She realized that the religious fundamentalism of The Handmaid's Tale's future America, Gilead,
"[is] not a Canadian sort of thing to do. Canadians might do it after the States did it in some sort of watered down version. Our television evangelists are more paltry than yours. The States are more extreme in everything. The Canadian joke goes something like, there's a road to heaven and there's a signpost on the road and one arrow says to heaven and the other says panel discussion about heaven, and all the Canadians choose the second."
She also remarks that "'everyone watches the States to see what the country is doing and might be doing ten or fifteen years from now,'" but she continues with a more significant historical context for her chosen setting: "'And then they are my ancestors. Those nagging Puritans really are my ancestors. So I had a considerable interest in them when I was studying them, and the mindset of Gilead is really close to that of the seventeenth century Puritans'" (qtd. in Lyons 72–73).
This work's most telling connection to American novels is precisely its post...