Is Offred too passive to be satisfactory? (part 1)

The recent television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has been striking in its success. Critically acclaimed, it’s benefited from Margaret Atwood’s input in a way that the over-eroticised, over-dramatised, heavy-handed 1990s film didn’t. Contains details of plot, both novel and series.

The washed-out grey of a dystopian colour palette

The colours, a slightly washed-out palette, capture the grim reality of Gilead and provide an easy symbolism of the differences between before, and now. The adaptation is faithful in style, tone, and idea if not always in plotline. Some events, and even dialogue, are echoed from the original novel. But the changes have been extremely interesting to view, and explore with students studying the dystopian set list for A-Level.

Offred and the modern heroines of fiction

Studying the novel, a common student complaint is Offred’s passivity. While she is narrating the story, her lack of direct action becomes frustrating, particularly perhaps for a modern audience who want the strong, independent women they have come to expect as the heroines of fiction. These A-Level students have grown up with Hermione (older than them, incidentally, as Harry Potter turns twenty this year). They’ve experienced the ‘post girl power’ era, taking for granted ladette culture – and its next incarnation – and the way that women in fiction have become more kick-ass. Not just independent and feisty a la Jane Eyre, or Jo March, heroines* who were inspiring and forthright but nonetheless eventually bound by their social place. In the teen fiction landscape of Lyra Belacqua, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen, curious, willing to fight, decisive, impulsive, and courageous, Offred doesn’t fit the profile of dystopian heroine in Atwood’s original. Austen and Bronte’s heroines, despite their appeal – including to a modern readership, just ask my year nine and ten students who have recently discovered them – never step too far outside their boundaries. They push, challenge and extend, but eventually return to female desires of marriage, love, security, family, the home. Those who do push too far, Lydia Bennet, for example, eloping with Wickham, is swiftly dispatched into loneliness, and a loveless relationship far from her family – her sisters are denied permission to visit, and “she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.” Although modern heroines are still very much interested in love and their future partners (the hetero-normative expectation still being a marriage lasting until death, even in future dystopias for young adults), they are also concerned with the world around them. Katniss is maybe the least contemporary in that regard, a typical love triangle, and a major spur to her participation in the rebellion (which is at times reluctant) is Peeta’s capture.

* Deliberately using the term heroine because while a  modern novel might suit a more gender-neutral “hero” noun I’m not sure it can be applied in the same way to Victorian fiction.

Offred watches, other women act

Offred’s status as narrator in Atwood’s novel positions her as a watcher – all first person narrators are, to some extent, outside watching even themselves, commenting on those around them. But even in the time before, novel-Offred is unwilling to act and it is Moira and Offred’s mother who represent the 1980s, second-wave feminists fighting to retain the equality they have managed to obtain. Offred herself doesn’t go to any of the protests when women’s rights are threatened, when they lose their jobs and their money, when they become dependent on their husbands. She doesn’t challenge Luke when he promises to look after her rather than fight with her. Every right that women have accrued has slipped away and Offred does nothing.

Once in Gilead, Offred still doesn’t stand up for herself. She accepts the training at the Rachel and Leah Centre, and takes her place with the Commander. Her rebellion, such as it is, takes place in her head, in her narration. In a household where she is under constant scrutiny and threat, she barely even fantasises about the havoc she could wreak with Serena Joy’s shears. Her fears over her child, over Luke, her own safety, all keep her paralysed and refusing to help May Day. In 1984, “sex is a political act”; while the politics of Gilead demand sex, Offred’s sexual relationship with the Commander and Nick are again borne of passivity, her unwillingness to antagonise the Commander in the first instance and Serena Joy in the second. Her relationship with Nick is likewise more passive – she cannot decide how to describe it, repeating versions of events until it is unclear what in fact happened.

She freely acknowledges her inaction:

“But I haven’t done anything, I tell myself, not really. All I did was know. All I did was not tell.”

The negative – not telling – is used in the active voice but highlights the passive resistance Offred has demonstrated. While Ofglen and Mayday have attempted action, gathering knowledge, infiltrating social groups, and vague hints and gossip about bombings or other disruption, the act of not telling is minimal in the extreme.

Even Ofglen’s arrest – at the end of the novel, moved in the adaptation to episode 3 – doesn’t prompt her to action. She sits on her bed and thinks “idly” about what she “could” do – a list of destruction and rebellion. Yet she doesn’t do any of it, and even as she is taken out to the Eyes’ van, she doesn’t resist:

“I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

Read part two

What do you think?