The Engendering of Narrative in Doris Lessing's Shikasta and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
Earl G. Ingersoll
Pairing up Doris Lessing Shikasta and Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale makes the two writers seem like the figures in one of those old-fashioned barometers that turn up in garage sales every once in a while: you know, the gadget in which one figure steps out of the little house as the other figure backs in. Although Atwood's work was well regarded critically before the appearance of The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, the "science-fiction" novel made her a best-selling author and clearly enhanced her literary reputation. Lessing's case is quite different. The appearance of the first "space-fiction" novel of the Argos in Canopus series, Shikasta, in 1979 put at risk much of her readership. As she herself reports, her readers have responded with comments such as, "The publishers who published this should be shot!" and "Fan as I am of Doris Lessing, I will never read another novel of hers as long as I live!" And there have been those persistent rumors that Lessinghad been short-listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature until the committee took offense at her straying out of the so-called mainstream into science fiction. Were it not for the counter-evidence of The Handmaid's Tale, one might be tempted to see her as a martyr to the cause of literary fantasy. Both writers have made clear departures from conventional realist narratives, perhaps for similar reasons, and yet Lessing's departure has been a more radical one. Both Shikasta and The Handmaid's Tale, however, raise some interesting questions about the gender of narrative paradigms.
One of many elements evident in the fiction of both Lessing and Atwood is the problem of closure. The Handmaid's Tale does not "end," it stops--twice. The narrative proper as told by Offred stops as she is stepping into the van, when she says: "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light" (295).
We turn the page, knowing that more pages remain, only to discover then that we are in an even more distant future--2195, perhaps two hundred years after the future