Conveying Theme with Margaret Atwood
Usually, I’m remiss to talk about theme. I worry that the discussion will start to dig into weird minutia and near-conspiratorial interpretations of “symbols” that can often come with amateur “literary criticism”–and, to be honest, even during my literature classes, whenever possible I’d swing from the “why” of literary criticism into the “how” that I try to cover on this blog, academically referred to as “craft criticism.” Now, it’s totally possible to have a craft discussion about theme, and that’s what I’m going to try to cover here, continuing on with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I reread for this study.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there about theme. There’s this common piece of advice given at least in literary circles, that when a novel explores a topic, the writer shouldn’t seek to answer questions, but just to ask and explore certain questions. From my reading experiences, no piece of advice could be less realistic.
This common misconception connects in a lot of ways to the idea that themes should come across subtly in fiction. But no valuable thematically powerful book that I’ve ever encountered has been subtle. Consider some science-fictional examples: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Le’guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, Pohl’s The Space Merchants, Butler’s Kindred or more recently LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Okorafor’s Binti. All of these texts are excellent explorations of their themes. They vary in levels of nuance and complexity (with Pohl coming in at the bottom of the list in both) but none of them are subtle. It’s fairly obvious what “side” each comes down on in the debates on their topics. This is also true with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
So the goal here is to do some work to demystify how theme works, at least in science fiction, and get a better sense of how to convey themes to the reader.
Not to tread the same ground here too much, I’ll at least mention that I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in lyrical, sensible prose. It’s a really precise novel (sometimes too precise for my taste) and can, at key moments, really pack a major punch.
You’ll need a basic sense of the premise at least to understand what’s going on here. On the off chance that any of you don’t have a sense of it already, here it is: The world is transitioning from the one that you and I know, to one that is dominated by an extreme, authoritarian version of Christianity due to a crisis caused by plummeting birth rates. Now women are separated into groups based on traditional female roles–the “Marthas” do cooking, cleaning, and general service work, the wives are older high-society women who are married to the higher-class men in the society, and final the “Handmaids” are women with “viable wombs” who are more or less treated like baby factories. The “Aunts” are older women who train the Handmaids, and they are the only women allowed to read. All the women wear highly constricting clothing meant to hide them from the gaze of men. The main character, whose new name is Offred, is a little over thirty years old, and before the crisis she was a comfortable middle class woman who was married and had a child. Now she’s a Handmaiden.
How does Atwood manage to convey theme without getting bogged down in lecturing? In short: using comparisons. Lots and lots of comparisons. Every female character acts as a foil to Offred, showing different systems of beliefs and different paths that women take in this world.
These comparisons can be roughly divided into two different buckets. One compares characters, and the other compares time periods in the arc of society. Atwood really only uses two methods to deliver these comparisons–either they are delivered through introspection in dialogue (in a detailed, evocative way) or they are delivered by placing two similar scenes close together.
For this post, we’ll just discuss the character foils, since they’re the majority of the novel and allow some excellent opportunities to show Atwood’s techniques.
Offred’s mother, Ofglen, and Moira are presented as radical, liberatory feminists who constantly rebel in their own way–more active and stronger than Offred. Sarena Joy, who was part of the leadership that instated this regime, shows a greater level of authority and power, while also navigating the limits of her position. Meanwhile Cora, Rita, and Janine are women who’ve fully accepted their role and perform it, if not with passion, then at least dutifully. Finally, we have perhaps the most important foil, “Aunt” Lydia, the voice of the regime, who honestly believes the world of Gilead is a better one.
In the following passage, we can see the comparison between Aunt Lydia and Offred being set up:
I remember the rules [of U.S. society in the 80’s], rules that were never spelled out but that every women knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. Int eh days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (32-33)
We can actually see here how Atwood blends both the personal foil and the time-period comparison (and most of the time it’s pretty hard to splice them, really). And how both “sides” of the argument are being presented, to a degree. We can see how Offred gets the appeal of “freedom from” while also missing what she’s lost without “freedom to.” In this, we can almost feel like the anti-Gilead sentiments trying to be subtle, but this becomes less true as the story develops.
We get this pattern in most of the comparisons–the comparison is made at the beginning of the novel, usually using dialogue or juxtaposing scenes (we get scenes of Moira in college making her feminist statements and Offred fighting back, thinking that Moira is too radical, for another instance). This is followed by development in the middle, too complex to cover in detail, but I’ll at least touch on how Aunt Lydia and Moira develop.
In the middle of the novel, we see more of Moira and Offred agreeing, at least rhetorically. They converse more openly, and Offred seems genuinely more radical than in college, although in some ways she isn’t–what she seems to lack is the desire to take direct action. When Moria and Offred both end up at the Handmaid training center, Moira makes numerous attempts to escape (eventually successful, sort of) but Offred simply does as she’s told.
We get a brief bit of introspection about Moira at the start of Chapter 28:
They’ve given me a small electric fan, which helps in this humidity. It whirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grillework. If I were Moira, I’d know how to take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver, but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira. (221)
Offred wants to act, as radically as anyone might in this case, forging a weapon from a fan, but she fells like she can’t.
With the comparison to Aunt Lydia, you can see some further development in the two passages below, which are essentially talking about Offred’s mother and feminist activists like her, the first from Aunt Lydia’s POV, the second from Offred’s:
Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, the unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing. Mind you, some of their ideas were sound enough, she went on, with the smug authority in her voice of one who is in a position to judge. We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her index finger, waggling it at us. But they were Godless, and that can make all the difference, don’t you agree? (153)
We see, in a video of these protesting “unwomen” the image of Offred’s mother, and that launches Offred into a flashback, culminating in this bit of introspection:
Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway.
I admired my mother in some ways, although thing between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.
I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But here is no point it it, this wanting. (156)
The more the comparison with Aunt Lydia develops, the more it becomes clear that Offred and Lydia do not see eye to eye, and that the narrative agrees with one more than the other–just based on the amount of time one voice gets compared to the other, even if you ignore tone.
Also, a technique to notice here is that when characters begin pontificating, Atwood gives them objects and images that we can relate to. In this example with Offred’s mother, you can see that her mother is a stand-in for “all suffragettes” and their tactics, but in a way that is deeply personal to Offred. Simultaneously, we can imagine the footage being used as a jumping off point, and we can understand Offred’s emotions in reaction to seeing her mother. This gives the thematic content a sturdy, physical anchor.
Offred usually views Aunt Lydia so distantly, a woman buried deep in her memories. It gets frustrating to see Lydia in her memories represented almost without direct comment. But when Aunt Lydia appears in the story physically, we finally get to the core of this comparison. We can see, in this moment, the resolution of the comparison: the end of the book dedicates itself largely to doing this.
Offred sees Aunt Lydia on stage, and then:
I’ve begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit. The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like a Christmas creche. I can see wrinkles under Aunt Lydia’s eyes, the pallor of the seated women, the hairs on the rope in front of me on the grass, the blades of grass. There is a dandelion, right in front of me, the color of egg yolk. I feel hungry. The bell stops tolling.
Aunt Lydia stands up, smooths down her skirt with both hands, and steps forward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is an instant and earsplitting feedback whine from the PA system. From among us, incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and the look of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face as she adjust the sound. This is supposed to be dignified.
“Good afternoon ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny and flattened. It’s ladies instead of girls because of the wives. “I’m sure we are all aware of the unfortunate circumstances that bring us all here together on this beautiful morning, when I am certain we would all rather e doing something else, at least I speak for myself, but duty is a hard taskmaster, or may I say on this occasion taskmistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are here today.”
She goes on like this for some minutes, but I don’t listen. I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases: the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. It’s hard to believe there will not be polite clapping after this speech, and tea and cookies served on the lawn.
That was the prologue, I think. Now she’ll get down to it.
Aunt Lydia rummages in her pocket, produces a crumpled piece of paper. This she takes an undue length of time to unfold and scan. She’s rubbing our noses in it, letting us know exactly who she is, making us watch her as she silently reads, flaunting her prerogative. Obscene, I think. Let’s get this over with. (353)
We see Offred here, viewing and contemplating on Aunt Lydia, in real time, for the first and only time. We see that not only does Offred have major political and social disagreements with Aunt Lydia, she also sees Aunt Lydia as quite ridiculous. It’s not just that her views are bad, they’re laughably, obscenely wrong.
We can compare that to the resolution with Moira, which I won’t quote since this post has expanded rapidly. What I will say, though, is that when Moira’s comparison is resolved we find that she hasn’t, ultimately, escaped at all–even if it seems it at first. In this scene, it feels almost like Offred has surpassed Moira, and it makes us question how radical she ever really was. But we aren’t really directed to think of Moira as ridiculous or obscene for her views, just that she’s ended up not really succeeding.
That went on for a while, and could go on for a while longer. The last third of the novel or so, for instance, does this interesting move where the focus of comparison shifts from Offred and her female foils, to comparing three central male characters of the story. I’m not sure how I feel about this in a grander sense, because it seems to take focus away from the heart of the story, but these comparisons use similar tactics.
As discussed, the external world of the story (its objects, people, and places) seems set up almost exclusively to inspire these comparisons. Also, the way information is revealed, the way scenes are ordered, and the way the plot moves seems shaped to allow the “contrast arc” to have really parallel form across timelines and characters–to allow Atwood to shift from establishing, to developing, to resolving.
90% of the space in this novel is spent comparing and contrasting characters, events, places, philosophies. This post hardly scratches the surface. If you feel like some of the techniques here would be useful to you, definitely read the novel. There’s so much more you can take from it.
Have you noticed any other techniques Atwood (or any author you’d like to talk about) uses to convey subject and judgement? Let me know.