Academic journal article Utopian Studies

"We Lived in the Blank White Spaces": Rewriting the Paradigm of Denial in Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale.' (Margaret Atwood)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

"We Lived in the Blank White Spaces": Rewriting the Paradigm of Denial in Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale.' (Margaret Atwood)

Article excerpt

WHILE MARGARET ATWOOD'S The Handmaid's Tale brandishes partial portraits of human-rights violations around the globe--especially in Iran, India, Germany, South Africa, Guatemala, and the former Soviet Union--it is quite clear that Gilead is most wholly the U.S.A., embodying its past, its present, and its potential future. This novel is Atwood's first foray into an extended representation of America (Stimpson 764-67). The Handmaid's Tale illuminates the deplorable irony that a nation established upon the utopian principle of "liberty and justice for all" has also been a dystopia for those humans sequestered and tortured because of differences from mainstream culture. As casualties of a patriarchal-based empire within the national borders, Native Americans, African-Americans and women are all examples of peoples who have been historically locked away from the utopian American Dream. Amy Kaplan asserts that American history is built upon the huge myth that the U.S.A. is anti-imperialistic because of its documented opposition to the totalitarianism of "evil empires" around the world (12). Such a "paradigm of denial" has caused numerous American citizens to ignore how "imperial relations are enacted and contested within the nation" (13). Atwood shatters this paradigm of denial and forces us to recognize how seriously "American imperialism and nationalism account for the repressive order which becomes the Republic of Gilead" (Hengen 55). Within The Handmaid's Tale lies the powerful suggestion that progress toward global human rights will never be possible until nations of "freedom" face their own incarcerated dystopian realities.

To come to terms with the confusing reality that domestic imperialism and enslavement characterize a nation that pledges "liberty and justice for all," the first section of my essay briefly discusses America's foundational dichotomy of utopia/dystopia. The next section surveys the violent legacy of the Puritans' divine mission; God's perfect kingdom in the New World was constructed through dystopian methods of capturing, ousting, and silencing apostates against the patriarchal communal vision, especially women dissidents--e.g., Anne Hutchinson, Tituba, and Mary Webster. Within this historical context, The Handmaid's Tale, emphasizing the terror that drives men to subjugate women, illustrates how rescuing the promised land from the subversive Mother/Other becomes the divine mission of Gilead's conservative reformers. My evolving argument is that Atwood evokes background memories of this Puritanical exorcistic tendency to accentuate and develop her major American genre reenactment: the narrative of the enslaved black mother. Focusing finally upon a specific comparison/contrast of Offred's tale with the slave narrative of Harriet Ann Jacobs, the paper moves to a discussion of the confessional purposes of The Handmaid's Tale.

By understanding how Offred ultimately develops a discourse with slavery, we witness the incredible power behind one individual's confession of her former indifference to the concept of American freedom. The major task of The Handmaid's Tale is "to portray convincingly . . . how the abridgement of freedom evolved in the United States" (Woods 134). Atwood suggests that an intimate and painful association with the history of this abridgement will help us attend to current global horrors; a better world that truly recognizes human rights will transpire oily when we empathetically descend to the Other's hell and then reawaken to the atrocities of the present. Lest we allow ourselves to be culturally defined by a "paradigm of denial" (Kaplan 13)--like the scholars who meet at the University of Denay (Deny) for the Gileadean Studies Symposium--we must look at the skeletons in the closet of our own national history.

Atwood and the American Dichotomy of Utopia/Dystopia

Any contemplation of our postmodern world must involve an examination of the instability of deconstructive tensions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.