Edan Lepucki, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a staff writer for literary culture site The Millions. The founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles, she lives in California.
Edan Lepucki: Even though I’ve read Atwood’s masterpiece five times, I have trouble recalling the book’s finer plot points—perhaps because what I want to remember, what I must remember, is Atwood’s language play, the way she uses metaphor and image to reveal and emphasize her narrator’s plight.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel about a handmaid named Offred living in the Republic of Gilead (née the United States of America). As a handmaid, Offred’s only permitted social role is to bear a child by her Commander. Under this oppressive regime, she has lost her husband and her child and her past self. She doesn’t even get to keep her name.
During The Ceremony—the state-sanctioned procreation ritual through which Commanders impregnate their handmaids—Offred’s clothes are left on (mostly), and she must lie against the Commander’s wife, whose presence keeps this procreation ritual wholesome, formal, and… inclusive. As Offred says, “It has nothing to do with sexual desire.” For the women in this brutal future, arousal and orgasm are “outdated.” Throughout the novel, Offred muses on all that doesn’t exist in this new world: privacy, for instance, or conversation as a true exchange of information. She thinks about all the words she can no longer use, like swoon and naughty and thud. Thinking about them keeps such words alive, and also brings into harsh relief just how much has been lost to this repressive government. For Atwood, a vision of the future is incomplete without an exploration of language, of what words have been added to describe experience (such as “prayvaganza”), and what words have been lost or prohibited. In my novel, California, I put a little boy in a shirt bearing the words OFFICIAL PUSSY INSPECTOR; he was born in the wilderness at the end of the world, and his parents have taught him that pussy is a type of mushroom. “They could rename everything if they wanted to,” my main character, Frida, thinks. I myself was thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In Atwood’s novel, sex isn’t sexy anymore, so language and its evolving meanings become sites of desire. In a society where intellectual engagement is prohibited, Offred’s persistent curiosity is powerful and dangerous. It’s the only hope she’s got.
In my favorite passage from The Handmaid’s Tale, figurative language reminds us that Offred’s flesh is and isn’t flesh, and that although her body is controlled by the state, it’s far from a defined, closed system. This brief unhinging of meaning is an act of defiance. And in a world where all you’re allowed is your female body, it also may be a relief. Here, we witness Offred in a moment of introspection after she’s endured The Ceremony:
Buttered, I lie on my single bed, flat, like a piece of toast. I can’t sleep. In the semidark I stare up at the blind plaster eye in the middle of the ceiling, which stares back down at me, even though it can’t see. There’s no breeze, my white curtains are like gauze bandages, hanging limp, glimmering in the aura cast by the searchlight that illuminates this house at night, or is there a moon?
I fold back the sheet, get carefully up, on silent bare feet, in my nightgown, go to the window, like a child, I want to see. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow. The sky is clear but hard to make out, because of the searchlight; but yes, in the obscured sky a moon does float, newly, a wishing moon, a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink. The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.
Because Gilead doesn’t allow handmaids to use lotion, Offred has moisturized with a pat of butter stowed away in her shoe. In that first sentence, she’s “like a piece of toast.” It’s a funny simile that acknowledges just how pathetic our heroine has become. It also transforms Offred’s flesh into something inert, without a lick of sentience. (Fitting, considering what she’s just gone through with the Commander and Serena Joy.) And yet, by refiguring her flesh with a strange, unexpected metaphor, Offred paradoxically becomes master of her own body again.