Wake up to Margaret Atwood beyond The Handmaid’s Tale

The first time I saw Gilead as a verb was in late 2018 when Bitch media cofounder Andi Zeisler Tweeted about the “Gileading” of the United States, describing, generally, the systematic quest to dismantle the progress that women have achieved.

Gilead, of course, is the fictional dystopia in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (both the novel and the Hulu series). Zeisler’s and others’ usage signals all sorts of important cultural phenomena, and much of it has to do with the fact that, perhaps, as the series’ lead actor Elisabeth Moss commands us in the trailer that first aired during Super Bowl LIII, we are waking up. Perhaps.

Zeisler admittedly is already much more “woke” than many Americans and certainly is well-versed in her Atwood. But the point remains: Atwood is a strong contemporary cultural critic, and her fiction long has reflected a reality that is sometimes difficult to process.

The Handmaid’s Tale television adaptation has become essential viewing beyond the realm of feminists, and we finally get a sequel to the 1985 novel in September of this year: The Testaments.

It seems logical (or at least what the cool kids are doing), then, to explore a bit more of Atwood’s oeuvre.

The Canadian author has written nearly 20 novels, nearly 20 books of poetry, numerous short stories, collections of non-fiction, literary criticism, and a graphic novel. And that’s just her literary career.

Her themes are those that confound: power, gender, language, religion and myth. Did we mention power? Her works often examine the role of women and their relationship to power and their fight for it.

In fact, last fall, a high school student Tweeted his frustration at being asked by his “crazy English teacher” to explain why Atwood explores facets of power and control in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood answered the student: “Because it’s in the world.” She elaborated that not only are women controlled but also anyone not at the top of the social pyramid because Gilead is a theocratic totalitarian society. Not bad to have a primary source like Margaret Atwood.

Because it is indeed in our world, power and control figure prominently in much of her other writing. Some of her other works also have the essence of the dystopic cautionary tale while others look at the seeming impossibilities of women and others not of the ruling class in Western society.

For instance, her widely anthologized short story “Happy Endings” (1983) contains six versions of the “story” of John and Mary. Atwood deftly uses language to show her readers that all is not as it appears. The happily-ever-after façade could easily hide emotional abuse and unfair expectations, motivated by gender dynamics. One iteration of Mary tries and fails to please the unpleasable John. Another iteration of Mary leaves John for a younger, hipper guy. Atwood, as did Moss in the advert, advises us to wake up: “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

With incredible feats of plot, character development, and mind-blowing prose, 2000’s The Blind Assassin asks readers to follow the protagonist Iris on her journey. Somewhat of a Bildungsroman, the novel, through Iris’ remembrances, as well as a novel within a novel, helps us understand how and why a clearly intelligent woman with tendencies to be independent ends up in an unfulfilling marriage with a rather nasty and controlling older man. Atwood writes, “Women have curious ways of hurting someone else. They hurt themselves instead; or else they do it so the guy doesn’t even know he’s been hurt until much later.”

Other Atwood works (and this list is certainly not exhaustive) that ask us to question why women seem to be relegated to the role of the one who makes others happy, the one who serves, the one who is not in control include 1988’s Cat’s Eye which digs deep into female relationships, and of course, Alias Grace (1996), which chronicles and assesses a woman servant (the real-life Grace Marks) convicted of murder.

Reading Atwood is full, layered experience. Yes, you wake up as you uncover the many ways that society is failing us and even imprisoning us, but you will also find both solace and hope in the intricate ways that Atwood uses language to make each sentence both a call to action and a solution – should we choose to employ it.

Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California. She is a lecturer in the Analytical Writing Program the University of California, San Diego and teaches copyediting at UCSD Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum.


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