Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s disturbing, even decades later. Here are some thoughts on why (in my view) it gets under your skin.

I can’t prove it, because after reading several interviews and descriptions, she hasn’t told me,* but I suspect Margaret Atwood followed a kind of intuitive approach in writing The Handmaid’s Tale.

By intuitive, I mean that kind of writing in which you allow character, setting, dilemma, to lead the way, rather than a pre-arranged plot. You, the writer, don’t know what’s going to happen–or at least, not very clearly how you’ll get there–when you sit down to write the first chapter. Some people call this the “pantser” (vs. “plotter”) approach–writing by the seat of your pants. Bradbury put it like this: “Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.”

Here are my reasons for thinking Atwood tackled The Handmaid’s Tale this way:

  1. The scenery/environment is well developed, but the trajectory of the main character (Offred) is episodic for much of the book. It lacks a clearly defined “plot.”
  2. Offred is fully realized; her inner life is available to the reader–or at least as much as it is available to her. This is virtually impossible to achieve, as far as I can tell, in a highly plotted novel, for the simple reason that the characters become cogs in the machinery of plot. In such a novel, the complex, layered thoughts of a character tend to be more hindrance than help, since they’ll often lead to unpredictable actions that derail the plot.
  3. Atwood remarks that she knew where the story was going, so she didn’t have to query herself about it; this suggests that she sometimes does have to query herself–meaning she doesn’t plot out in advance. So did she this time? I doubt it. Knowing where the story is heading is a sign of a very realized sense of the character in relation to the situation in which she’s been placed–her limitations, or parameters, within that situation, and within her particular personality.

This, in my view, would not mean there would be no persons, situations, or even characters arising in the unfolding of the story that the conscious mind has not planned in advance. For instance, when Atwood placed Offred in a relationship with a married man (in her past; “Luke”), did she foresee the tension this would create with Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander for whom she’s a “handmaid”? Or did this rather come to her in the telling of the story, a “lucky happenstance,” a chance encounter that presented another layer to the story? Because, to me at least, this element complicates a simple before=good/after=bad equation. And I find it convenient to suppose that Atwood’s subconscious resisted that equation, more than (or as much as) her conscious mind.

But, of course, I’m only guessing. Call it intuition.

If you’ve read the novel (or better yet, an interview or confession I couldn’t find; or better still, you are Margaret Atwood) and you’d like to weigh in, I’m all ears.

* I overlooked an interview with Margaret Atwood in The Paris Review when I was writing this post. It turns out I was right. Here’s what she says:

When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers. As for lines of descent—that is, poem leading to novel—I could point to a number of examples. In my second collection of poems, The Animals in That Country, there’s a poem called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” That led into the whole collection called The Journals of Susanna Moodie and that in turn led into Surfacing. Or, another line of descent, the poems in parts of True Stories have obvious affiliations with the novel Bodily Harm. It’s almost as if the poems open something, like opening a room or a box or a pathway. And then the novel can go in and see what else is in there. I’m not sure this is unique. I expect that many other ambidextrous writers have had the same experience.


Note: This post originally appeared in my Blogger blog, here: Sideways-in: Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  1. Enjoyed the post & interesting thoughts!

    I think highly plotted, when it means more of a thriller, can keep the character engagement more shallow, although it doesn’t have to. But I’ve seen workshops by romance writers about how to plan out a story that really gets into a character and inner journey. These techniques can work very well even in a ‘plot driven’ story because in the end, great stories tend to be more about character and premise than anything, regardless of whether it is a techno-thriller, a romance, literary fiction, or what have you.

    The planned approach to the character-driven novel has you determining inciting incident, turning points, black moment, realization and resolution (or the equivalent; there’s other ways to describe it and similar methods). You may be right that Margaret was more of a pantser but she still may have conceptualized it that way by the final draft. But on the flip side, many of the writers I know who write romance or women’s fiction will at least plan out these elements. I don’t think plot and deep character are exclusive.

    Myself, I’ve tended to approach things more from plot first but I’ve come to diagnose that as a weakness in my writing. These days, I do like some idea of the story ahead of time but I like the elements above (II, TP, BM, etc.) and the rest develops as I go along. I do like a complex plot but I’ve found that, for me, it works best if I start just with the basic structure and weave in the complexity as the characters and story takes shape. So, a bit of both seems to work for me.

    • Yeah, I probably overstated that point. There are definitely high quality novels on both sides of this issue, and I was only guessing about Atwood. I also think that a planned piece has certain advantages, and vice versa.

      For me (due to my own personal make-up), I do best when I have some inkling of the main story’s arc (or better yet, its conflict) and a clear notion of who this person is (what drives them, in other words). But if I go beyond that in the planning, I mess it up. I either lose all interest or I kill the story – or sometimes both at the same time. When I let all the subplots and complications and innuendos and unforeseen characters introduce themselves out of thin air, then I’m in my element – provided I have those other two parts.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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