There are three things that I noticed in this rereading of The Handmaid’s Tale.
- The use of time in the narrative.
- The importance of what is not said.
- The matter of world-building and perspective.
In all three, readers are wholly engaged. Engaged in the use of time, in the fast-paced movement through the story. This should be a devastatingly slow read, given the subject matter, but the structure (everything from sentence structure and chapter length to cyclical inner-rounds like all the “Night” chapters) shapes the story into a fast-paced narrative.
(The days are measured out in bells. Gardening makes the time pass, but it’s an activity restricted to the Commanders’ wives. The Angels “haven’t yet learned about existence through time”. Bodies are time travellers. Decades are measured in fashions like mini-skirts and pants. Offred notes: “I’ve filled in the time I’ve lost. I know how much there’s been.” There’s a “long parenthesis of nothing”. The Guardians have to spend so much time waiting, probably playing cards or reading. Luke: “Stopped dead in time, in middair, among the trees back there, in the act of falling.” And time has washed away June, like a “woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water”. There are so many more. I’ll stop here.)
Engaged in the act of unearthing what is not said. For instance, learning that the glass in Offred’s window is unbreakable: this takes no effort, we simply absorb the information. But when we are told that there is no glass in a picture frame, we actively participate in finishing the sentence. Until, when we learn details like this, we not only complete the thought by acknowledging that June cannot throw herself from the window, that June cannot break the glass in that picture frame to slit her wrists. But we also become involved with the realization that other women threw themselves, other women slit their wrists. Their deaths were the motivation to make different choices.
(“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”)
This is also connected to the world-building aspect of the story, which readers also engage in, from the first mention of tokens for groceries and how the Marthas bake bread. A frequent complaint about dystopian fictions is that readers want more or less of an explanation. One advantage to scattering the information about Gilead (and what might exist of the world beyond, which isn’t entirely clear until the final pages of the book) is that piece-meal, it’s hard to gauge just how much we know. It’s more likely to satisfy more readers.
But even more important in this regard, is the fact that readers’ understanding of Gilead comes entirely from Offred’s experience of Gilead. What she doesn’t see, beyond the wings of her headpiece. What she doesn’t know (for instance, Ofglen encourages her to learn any small detail about the Commander’s travels and efforts), beyond the peripheries of her existence in the Commander’s house. What she doesn’t think about (for the most part, what other women’s experience of Gilead is/might be like, although there are plenty of phrases which reveal the inequities of the system).
We can’t see or know or contemplate something unless it’s in Offred’s purview. [Many of the criticisms which are levied against this story confuse the character’s presentation with authorial voice: it is deliberately limited to encourage readers to examine the limitations of their own perspectives.]
And, so, we are engaged in the process of building an understanding. Which, ironically, is an opportunity afforded to us because there is a symposium – in the future – about the historical Gilead.
How we see things.
Whether we see things.
Both are equally important. The more privileged amongst us might have the luxury of not-seeing. Of choosing to not see.
It matters to June. What she sees.
She thinks about how her mother used to burn magazines and how June didn’t take her position seriously. (This is an ongoing debate amongst feminists even yet, whether the fashion and porn industries are empowering or repressive for women featured in these media.)
She considers that Aunt Helena used to head a Weight Watchers franchise. (The diet and wellness industry also remain touchstones for women.)
She asserts that Aunt Lydia “pretended to do all that love-the-sinner, hate-their-sin stuff, but she enjoyed it”. And she reports her intention to aim for “a spirit of camaraderie among women”. Her belief: “We must all pull together.”
She wonders about Nick’s view of things: “Maybe he has no notion of the future, or does not bother or dare to imagine it.”
But ultimately, The Testaments is poised to offer another perspective on Gilead. Beyond Offred. Beyond June.
Tomorrow, I’ll be chatting about the TV series, and next week, I’ll have more to say about The Testaments.