Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale describes a totalitarian future in which all facets of human life, no matter how personal, are subjected to a rigidly enforced state ideology. In her essay for this series, Edan Lepucki, author of California, examines the ways that Atwood’s novel uses language as a subversive agent, counteracting repression as it wrests control of meaning.
The future that Lepucki envisions in California, also a work of dystopian fiction, bears little resemblance to the hyper-structured world of The Handmaid’s Tale. Set just a few years from now, California depicts an America disarrayed by full-scale social breakdown. The main characters, Los Angeles natives who once took yoga classes and cooked extravagant Thanksgiving dinners, now wash laundry in a creek and forage desperately for chanterelles. The novel explores the fate of love, family, and community as civilization and its bright lights erode into wilderness.
Thanks, in part, to a well-timed plug on The Colbert Report, California became a No. 1 bestseller this summer; Lepucki’s publisher, Hachette, said the book is one of the most preordered debuts in its history.
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 For the women in this brutal future, arousal and orgasm are “outdated.”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.
Throughout the novel, Offred continually turns her body into something other than a body in this way. At the same time, she also regularly personifies objects. In this passage, for example, while she is a piece of a toast, the ceiling has a “blind plaster eye” and the moon shines on “the breast of the new-fallen snow.” In Offred’s imagination, everything is turned on its head, or given one.
Human beings like to forget their own bodies, and it takes being ill or turned on, or being threatened by the Supreme Court, to remember them. In fiction, there aren’t enough bodies: breathing, eating, having sex, breaking down. Unlike a lot of other writers, Margaret Atwood reasserts the corporeal in all of her work. In an email today, a poet friend of mine wrote, “Then we walked to the public library, where we both took incredibly satisfying dumps.” Let’s not forget what makes us human, everyone. Atwood never does. When teaching, I ask my students, “What does your character feel, physically?” I want them to describe what a character’s stomach feels like; describe how the air feels on his skin; tell me how dry her mouth is. I want to know what the character’s relationship is to her own messy, revealing, secretive body. Tell me.
In California, I wrote about Frida and her marriage to Cal, and I made sure they had sex. People remark on it a lot, as if it’s exceptional, as if sex isn’t an enormous part of romantic relationships. As if sex weren’t another means of communication—or miscommunication. I guess I’m channeling Atwood. It’s also why I made Frida and Cal, who are living alone in the woods, smell; their feet-stink is like “like a bag of rotting vegetables.” Remember the body, I’m saying. Or: You can’t forget the body. In the future it might be all that’s left.
After providing the image of skin like buttered toast, the opening is dulled by monosyllabic words. “I can’t sleep” is the simplest and heaviest line in the passage. There’s no room for imagery or play here. It makes me itchy with desperation.
But, then, Offred starts looking at the world around her, and the passage opens up syntactically. The descriptions are strung together with commas, a breath between details that might otherwise be separated by harsh, unyielding periods: “There’s no breeze, my white curtains are like gauze bandages, hanging limp…” By the time we get to the tri-syllabic “glittering” the passage has expanded with hope. The passage’s one question “or is there a moon?” feels snuck in, impossible but possible in this small, policed bedroom.
After all these reads, I remain beguiled by the next line: “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 syntax reflects Offred’s pure excitement and innocent desire as well as her awareness that she’s transgressing. I always read this sentence quickly, breath held, and then once more, because it’s a peculiar and delightful run-on. It reminds me, too, that Offred was once a mother who knows what children are like; she will never see her daughter again, but she hasn’t forgotten her.
The sentence’s final string of monosyllabic words, “I want to see” isn’t heavy and dull like those that appeared in the first paragraph, but, rather, powerful. Offred has stated a desire, and that isn’t insignificant for a handmaid in Gilead.
The irony that Offred, whose menstrual cycle is now the regime’s business, finds joy in the moon, the most feminine of symbols, isn’t lost on Atwood. Here, the moon isn’t just “a goddess,” it’s also “a wink” and “a sliver of ancient rock.” Like Offred’s body, the moon cannot be one thing, it must be shaken up by metaphor, coupled and uncoupled with disparate objects, in order to be seen anew.
By the time Offred’s done with the moon it’s “a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware,” evoking all that she’s lost and is afraid of. Offred finds it “beautiful anyway.” I love that she bears witness to the instability of meaning—and accepts it. That single word, “anyway,” proves how strong Offred is. She sees with such clear-eyes, and feels what she feels. It’s a lesson to me, as a writer, to let my characters see the world in their particular, complicated, contradictory ways. I can see the world that way, too.
The passage that follows is further proof of Offred’s resilience. She has seen the moon—really seen it—and in that vision she located her agency. She begins a series of sentences with “I want”: “I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. ” They are demands as well as desires, and they lead her to repeat her real name to herself. Her name—another word—is rich with meaning. More than valuable. The passage ends with a one-sentence paragraph: “I want to steal something.” Here, another desire. She won’t be contained.