Is This Me? The Handmaid Narrative on Page and Screen


[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

The final episode of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale—like the rest of the show—is far more suspenseful than the original 1985 novel written by Margaret Atwood. Hulu’s Offred engages in several radically defiant acts; you worry more for her safety than you did in the book. But while these additions to plot probably make for better viewing, they obscure the central brilliance of the novel, which took its power from the mundane horrors of the handmaid Offred’s everyday life.

In the show, a subversive handmaid tells Offred to pick up a special package for safekeeping. After she obtains the parcel, Offred marches home proudly. “They should’ve never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she says of the state-mandated red garb she must wear. Offred, like her fellow handmaids, is forced to undergo a ritualized rape so that she can bear children for the well-to-do men of a totalitarian state. To endure this servitude, Hulu’s Offred finds solace in small acts of resistance.

But the original Offred, Atwood’s intended Offred, is far less politically active. In the novel, Offred recalls her feminist mother, whose activist leanings she always had trouble relating to. Even the regime of Gilead does not radicalize her; indeed, she is outwardly compliant—she attempts to get pregnant from a tryst with her assigned commander’s driver, at the suggestion of her mistress, his wife, Serena Joy.

The show, however, features Girl Power Moments set to danceable tunes. One of these intrusive songs is the otherwise wonderful Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It plays when, having stood up to the insidious Aunt Lydia, Offred and her fellow handmaids march down a wintry street, Offred leading the red cloaked women. Hulu’s Offred takes strong political stances against the regime under which she suffers. This, of course, is not worthy of recrimination—there is much to admire about her character. But her political bent makes her more unique, more of a leader than an Everywoman.

While transforming Offred into a stereotypically empowered representation of a woman may make the show more appealing to some viewers, I found it disheartening. To me, the book drew its magic from Offred’s stance as a witness. Not everyone is able to act in open defiance when the stakes are truly life and death, nor should people in unjust situations be blamed for their inability to escape them. The book offered another option for the oppressed; Atwood’s Offred finds, to steal a phrase from the French philosopher Hélène Cixous, “a way out” through the simple act of telling her own story.

Offred’s narration, though fiction, falls within a long tradition, as first-person narratives of life in bondage date back to colonial times. In the late 17th century, Mary Rowlandson wrote one of the first so-called captivity narratives about her experience as a hostage of Native Americans. The book, which was immensely popular at the time, has a didactic, moralizing quality. Rowlandson tells her story and at the end determines that her time in captivity was God’s punishment for the selfishness she indulged in prior to being kidnapped.

While the bondage narratives of the 17th and 18th centuries were predominantly written by and about white Americans, the bondage narratives of the 19th century were mostly written by and about black people who had been enslaved. The former category, that of captivity narratives, was largely about enforcing racist stereotypes that helped justify colonists’ mistreatment of Native Americans. The latter category, on the other hand, generally worked to tell individual stories, with the aim of aiding the abolitionist cause. The audience for both was almost always educated white readers.

Oddly, given the problematic racial politics of the The Handmaid’s Tale, both book and show, the narration of Atwood’s Offred has much in common with 19th-century slave narratives. As with famous examples like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, the textual version of The Handmaid’s Tale makes its potent political statement through the act of recounting what daily life was like, rather than through more explicit political commentary.  “I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery,” wrote Northup at the end of his story. “Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the ‘peculiar institution.’ This is no fiction, no exaggeration.”

The process of mapping a fictional sex-based oppression narrative onto the historical trope of race-based slavery yielded imperfect results in both the novel and show. The book’s aracial approach—minorities have been rounded up and sent to the so-called “colonies,” is particularly troubling, especially when the novel uses a historically black narrative format. The Hulu show, on the other hand, as Angelica Jade Bastién writes, features a somewhat glib “post-racial” approach. Minorities haven’t been sent to the colonies and are featured as prominent characters (Offred’s husband, daughter, and best friend), but the show fails to realistically address how race would function in an American religious authoritarian regime like that of Gilead.

That Atwood’s novel is a futuristic bondage narrative becomes overwhelmingly evident in the final pages of the book, which come in the form of an appended “Historical Note.” Offred’s narration ends mysteriously with her being taken away from Commander Waterford’s house in a van. The epilogue is set at a University of Nunavit conference set in 2195, many years after the collapse of Gilead.

A professor named Piexoto gives a talk on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has been discovered in the form of 30 tape cassettes in a footlocker. In this metafictional moment that departs from the confessional realist style that dominates the novel, Piexoto discusses scholars’ intense examination of the tapes in order to verify their accuracy and determine the speaker’s identity—a pursuit which ends in frustration. He reveals that he believes they were made after the fact while the narrator hid in a house along the Underground Femaleroad as she attempted to escape Gilead. His speech’s opening reveals a good deal about the society that has replaced Gilead:
This item—I hesitate to use the word document—was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine. We know that this city was a prominent way station on …the ‘Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ (Laughter, groans.) For this reason, our association has taken a particular interest in it.
Piexoto questions the legitimacy of Offred’s narrative, reluctant to call it a document but rather demoting it to the rank of “item.” Furthermore, Piexoto’s insensitive crack about the “The Underground Frailroad” is only made worse by the fact that he has just read a narrative detailing the horrors of gender oppression and has gained little from it. It is this bleak ending that suggests the limits of storytelling and the bondage narrative: unlike with activism, or even a more active text like the Hulu show, the apolitical bondage narrative does not imbue every reader with a more progressive set of politics; the interpretation of any personal narrative is subject to the whims of readers the narrative’s creator never chose.

In the final episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred opens the secret package she was told to keep safe and finds writings by women who have also been enslaved as handmaids. She is overjoyed by reading the accounts of other women in similar situations. She falls asleep reading these accounts, and the next day she, as previously mentioned, refuses Aunt Lydia’s mandate that she and her fellow handmaids stone another handmaid to death. It’s a somewhat clunky plot mechanism for generating Offred’s inspiration, but it seems to be the closest the final episode of the Hulu adaptation comes to making a nod to the narrative origins of the story.

Though the novel’s “Historical Note” undoes the explicit political force of Offred’s narration, the book—somehow, incredibly—affirms a farther-reaching and perhaps even more important message. Because if you can’t change the world you live in, you can find your way out of it. Hélène Cixous wrote that women writing their own stories was a way to escape patriarchal society. In a 1975 essay called “Sorties / Out and Out / Attacks, Ways Out and Forays,” Cixous writes that self-expression could help women combat their oppression. “It is writing in writing, from woman and toward woman, and in accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus, that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence.”

Breaking one’s silence, if oppressed as Offred is, is a vital means for survival. In both the show and the novel, handmaids like Offred are forced to be obedient. “Blessed are the meek,” Aunt Lydia tells them. Eyes down and hands folded, she tells the woman—whom she calls “girls”—when they first, after being captured, enter the handmaid training center. Then later, when they are out in public, they avert their eyes and wear absurdly modest bonnets that cover most of their faces. Its visuals like this that remind me of a line from Cixous’s essay: “Is this me, this no-body that is dressed up, wrapped in veils, carefully kept distant, pushed to the side of History and change, nullified, kept out of the way, on the edge of the stage, on the kitchenside, the bedside?”

At the end of the novel, though her story is co-opted by an insensitive historian, the answer to Cixous’s question for Atwood’s Offred, having spoken her truth, is most certainly, no. As for how the Hulu adaptation would answer that same question, I think the answer is more complicated, as Hulu’s Offred has shown herself to be a more actively resistant heroine. Perhaps she won’t be recorded in history in the same way Atwood’s, but in the end, both representations show women who are doing what they need to survive—and that’s what matters most.

Polish Poetry in a Time of American Resistance


The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief – a mouse tail, a pigtail – is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
                                              –Wisława Szymborska, “Pi”
The poet Jane Hirshfield stands on the stairs that lead down to the Dupont Underground arts space in Washington D.C. It is 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 20. Dismayed by the actions and proposals of the Trump administration, Hirshfield has traveled to D.C. to read at a series of events related to the March for Science. She is part of a delegation from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center who together have organized a group they call Poets for Science. In an hour and a half, Hirshfield will read her poem “On the Fifth Day.” (“The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away.”) She will use her time on stage to talk more broadly about the importance of empirical exploration to both science and poetry. But until that happens, she needs to find someone who would bring the banners up to New York for another science and poetry event on Monday.

Hirshfield and David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, had spent the past two months designing 21 seven-foot banners that featured poems related to science, empiricism, and discovery. The poems they had carefully chosen were penned by living American poets, such as W.S. Merwin, Camille Dungy, Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, Arthur Sze, Pattiann Rogers, Linda Pastan, Gary Snyder. The only notable exception to this criteria was the inclusion of two poems by the late Wisława Szymborska, a Polish poet.

Hirshfield, Hassler, and three others from the Wick Center arrived early to set up the enormous free-standing banners at the Dupont Underground. Seeing the final product “thrilled” them after having worked so hard on creating them, Hirshfield says.

“I wanted to support scientists by letting them see how their work appears in the daily, inhabited understanding of our lives that is found in poems,” Hirshfield writes in an email about a month after that Thursday evening in D.C.

Standing there on those stairs down to the decommissioned trolley station and one-time fallout shelter, Hirshfield comes upon Alexandra Chang, a curator and director of the global arts program at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She asks Chang if she knows anyone who could take some banners up to New York, and Chang immediately sends an email to see if the posters could go up on the buses returning to NYU’s Greenwich Village campus on Saturday. Contact information is exchanged — Hassler emails another woman affiliated with NYU — and the banner problem is settled. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and Jennifer Benka of the Academy of American Poets will be able to reuse about half of the banners, including one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” at their “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn the following Monday.

After President Donald Trump was elected on November 8, many sought out poetry., the website of the Academy of American Poets, saw a surge of visitors in the day after the election. Almost 150,000 users visited the AAP’s website. “People just were looking for words to help them make sense,” says Jennifer Benka, director of the Academy, of November 9.

Many Americans, in times of political crisis, turn to the work of Polish poets like Czeslaw Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, as Jane Hirshfield and David Hassler did for the March for Science events. But there is a beautiful paradox at the heart of most Americans’ use of the work of Miłosz, Szymborska, and others: these Polish poets’ verse is highly politicized but for the most part, vehemently apolitical — sometimes because it was a matter of survival.

Miłosz and Szymborska wrote much of their work during the post-World War II era, when Poland was the Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite state with strict censorship laws. In his The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz says that poets writing in the first decades of Communist rule were keen on experimentation. As he puts it, poetry of this era had had its “laboratory privileges” restored — no longer did writing poetry seem like a frivolous act, like it did in the face of the fighting and suffering of the second World War. Along with formal experimentation, irony and a stoic attitude toward existence characterized much of the verse of that time, according to Miłosz.

In the days following Trump’s victory, a number of people circulated Adam Zagajewski’s September 11 poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on Facebook. The Poetry Society of New York was one of the several people and organizations who posted the poem. “Nothing on the scale of 9/11 had happened, of course, but I wanted to acknowledge the very real threat the Trump administration posed (poses) to so many people,” writes Michelle Houslanger, social media coordinator for the Poetry Society of New York.

Slightly more political than Szymborska and Miłosz, Zagajewski came to prominence in the 1970s when the political situation in Poland had become more tense, as Poles began to tire of Soviet rule. Poets like Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak bristled at the censorship imposed by the Communist regime and decried its propaganda and official-speak in their poems, according to Miłosz’s History.

Zagajewski’s poem goes: “Remember June’s long days,” “and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. / The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles. / You must praise the mutilated world.” The poem has hints of the political — “exiles,” for example — but most of the poem is a reflection on life’s good stuff. Wild strawberries. Rosé wine. And later: “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered. / Return in thought to the concert where music flared.”

Miron Białoszewski —- who wrote during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s -— is another example of a Polish poet who was ambivalent about more political writing, says Professor Bill Johnston, a translator of Polish literature. “He was a gay writer and was not just not allowed to be a gay writer, but gay at all. The apoliticism of his poetry was his protest,” Johnston notes.

The decades between World War II and the fall of the Communist regime in 1990 were not an ideal time for free expression and the concretization of unhindered consciousness into verse. But then again, Poland has a long history of difficult political circumstances. “Poles have been for better and worse, and often for worse, the specialists in suffering,” says Professor Clare A. Cavanagh, who has translated both Szymborska and Zagajewski.

Polish poets who wrote during the Polish People’s Republic stress their individuality. “The things I love about the best Polish poets is their wonderful senses of humor, quirky individual styles, and idiosyncratic passions,” says Cavanagh. Stanislaw Barańczak, Cavanagh points out, loved basketball and wrote a poem about the Celtics.

“One of the oddities and interesting things or eccentricities about Polish poetry is that they’re thoroughly engaged but they don’t only want to be defined their opposition to political parties,” says Edward Hirsch, a poet and the director of the Guggenheim Foundation who has been a longtime advocate of Polish poetry. “They don’t think that poetry’s only role is in resistance and opposition. They don’t want totally apolitical poetry, or an ahistorical poetry, but they don’t want poetry to be entirely defined by politics.”

Poems like Szymborska’s “Pi,” are almost apolitical, if you believe in scientific empiricism and have any faith in the human race’s capacity for reason. “[Szymborska’s] great fidelity to the actual’s naming, leavened with imagination, suddenly feels indispensable as reminder and corrective to our current political condition,” Jane Hirshfield writes of “Pi,” which was used at three science-related protest events in within one week in April. “We need now, more than ever, bedrock to stand on. We need practical truths, observed descriptions, emotion’s difficult, subtle namings. We need imagination’s freedoms. And there is Szymborska, providing them all, in a poem that is in no way overtly ‘political.’”

It is almost 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 20. The March for Science rally has ended and the marching portion of the day’s events will start in about an hour. David Hassler and others from the Wick Center begin the process of taking down the Poets for Science tent. They were supposed to be gone by noon, but “people actually did not want to leave the tent,” Hassler says.

That morning Hassler and his colleagues had arrived early to set up the 21 seven-foot banners at the Poets for Science tent on D.C.’s Mall. They had placed the banners on both the outside and inside of the tent. They readied 150 smaller poem-posters, which were 18 inches by 24 inches, to be distributed to any March for Science participant who might want to carry one.

At 9 a.m. the tent opened to the public. According to Jane Hirshfield, the Poets for Science tent was the “first thing” seen by marchers who entered the rally through the security checkpoint at Constitution Ave and 17 Street NW. The small poem-posters were gone, all distributed, soon after 9 a.m. “Seeing the tent covered on the outside with its poem-banners, many came over to see what it was, and begin to read, take photos, and some would enter the little tent to continue reading the poems on the inside and perhaps write their own,” Hirshfield recalls.

But now it is nearly 1 p.m., time to begin to break things down. Hassler and others collapse the banners into their tubes. They carry 12 of them, including Szymborska’s “Pi,”  to the rented SUV the Wick Center staff has brought from Ohio. They drive to NYU’s DC campus on L Street between 13th and 14th in NW. They had been told by the NYU organizer to leave the banners in a meeting room, so that the university’s March for Science contingent would see them when it returned later that afternoon. “It was an exhilarating whirlwind,” Hassler says.

Later that day the banners would be carried onto the buses returning to Greenwich Village. They would be reused at the “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn. The banners, including the one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” would be used again.