Living in the Gaps Between the Stories: Race at the Margins of The Handmaid’s Tale

We are so often drawn into the analysis of the tangible that we overlook the gaps in literature that beg for further critical attention. Margaret Atwood, a native Canadian who has reached international fame through her literary work, has crafted a tale that mirrors the gaps in our own histories and the difficulties in representing and misrepresenting race and ethnicity. Atwood intentionally excludes race from majority of her novel so that when we approach the concluding section, “Historical Notes”, the realization of the gaps not only in Gilead’s histories but in our own become that much more apparent. We begin to retrace the glimpses of our own histories being mirrored back to us within the novel. When we give the power of voice and validity to only one specific race or gender, the lives of the others become invisible under the foot, or the dominant voice, of the powerful. Atwood exposes this in order to release us from the cyclical world we live in where we are destined to continuously repeat our history—at least until each member of society advocates for themselves and is recognized as having such individual power of speech and self-determination. This point can be reached when we no longer have to draw out race, gender and ethnic binaries from the margins and their voices are heard in the body of our histories.

The lack of scholarship analyzing race in The Handmaid’s Tale speaks to the ways in which race continues to be overlooked and misrepresented in academia—and beyond. Atwood operates as an allusive author leaving breadcrumb trails for her reader to follow. In the opening pages we are flooded with colourful imagery—white, red, green, blue and black:

Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us (9).

Colours, in Gilead, have been used to define women based on their position and role in society. Hauntingly familiar to the ways in which within our own histories, North America specifically, has in the past irrevocably tied one’s position and role in society to the colour of one’s skin. Blood, as mentioned by Offred, is the common unifier beneath our physical differences. This is a detail that should not go unexplored as it further draws our race and ethnicity from the margins of this text. Offred, at many times, struggles with her identity amidst the role that society defines for her:

I avoid looking down at my body…I don’t want to look at something that              determines me so completely (78).

Much of the plot in The Handmaid’s Tale explores how gender can define one so wholly. This does not mean one should forget that racial inequality parallels and operates under the same pretences within this novel, it just takes further analysis to read between the blank white spaces on the page. These mechanisms used to define political subjects based on race and gender is the foundation of Gilead, and translates into our modern world. A dystopian novel, such as this one, is in many ways a re-working of our own western reality.

The social constructs of race and gender in Gilead not only mirror western forms, but Atwood digs at the roots to discover how these frequently hierarchal classifications, concepts and categories rise into normality, and are accepted as natural. In the Red Center the women are taught that over time these new laws will become ‘ordinary’. Ordinary is just a word attributed to something that at one time was abnormal, but due to a shift of compliance from the majority in power it begins to become more accepted as apart of every day life. The main exploration of this social construct is through academia—the study of history, specifically, leaves traces of the historical ‘ordinary’ that are still felt deeply in the present. Danita Dobson found that, “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” (66).  Atwood alluded to the idea that freedom and equality were simply words that held more meaning to the majority than to the minority of Gilead; which mirrors, as Dobson says, American history and any other Western nation that was founded on ‘democracy’. The issue of studying people in a black and white context – for example the textbooks and novels which are written from the perspectives of the majority and thus mutes the voices of the minority – is that much is lost in that representation of reality.

Context is all (240).

What lacks in the interpretation of Offred’s history, and arguably the representation of all minority races in our histories, is context and the critical position to name the forms of inequality and injustice that belie or contradict the stated ideals of governments – be them Western democracies or Gileadean Theocracies. Atwood, as a student of history and literature, included many Ancient Roman and Greek histories within The Handmaid’s Tale. Ironically an example of this can be found in the “Historical Notes” section: “Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme” (288). The Byzantine is a reference to the peak of the Roman empire in it’s economic, cultural and military force in Europe. By comparing this to Gilead’s society they are categorizing and generalizing entire histories from an analytical outside perspective. Atwood includes these references to ancient history not to show off her extensive historical knowledge, but to exemplify how even histories, ideologies and prejudices from thousands of years ago still leave traces in our present society:

These bodies hanging on the Wall are the time travelers, anachronisms, they’ve come here from the past. What I feel towards them is blankness (42).

Anachronism is a word referring to terms that have passed out of usage, and how we tend to revise the memory of history and historical moments due to nostalgia for the past. She feels blankness towards them because their stories are not written in words: they have been robbed of their voices or eliminated for using their voices to speak of a past that Gileadean society is trying to erase—but like all else, traces remain in the margins. The theme of misrepresentation through mainstream history bleeds through the pages of the novel and into our very own study of history, as well as the world we live within today.

How history depicts race is dependent upon who holds the pen and who chooses to place value into it. During the duration of this novel we are led to believe it is Offred’s voice we are hearing, and her empowerment through the written word is often felt. She represents the ‘race’ of women as suppressed and regulated in the patriarchal world of Gilead:

We were the people not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories (70).

This line serves as one of the many reflexive, meta-narrative moments, as Offred is arguably speaking to her readers directly. She is discussing the pre-Gileadean society here, a world in which the reader can relate to as it is not so different from our own. The social commentary she is making here is how detached we are from the world around us, from the stories of “others”. Although race is only depicted explicitly twice in the novel (excluding the Historical Notes) non homogenous races do exist; even though they are seemingly absent from this text, they exist in the margins just waiting for the reader to draw them out and give a voice to their stories. She has left a trail of evidence so the reader can develop and analyze the ways in which members of society are materially excluded, that is, not represented in Offred’s story. By implication, within our own study of history, how many marginalized groups and races are not represented within the dominant stories we accept as the all-encompassing-truth of the past?

A movie about the past is not the same as the past (296).

Offred once again recognizes that the reinterpretation of history can never be the same as the present to which she is living. She predicts the ways in which her own story will be lost in its future translation, how the views of others will influence her voice. Ultimately, those who were suppressed in the past will continue to have their voices silenced in the present. As long as this type of historical narrative, governed by the powerful, continues to hold the dominant historical truth in society, these perspectives and stories of the visible minorities will be marginalized.

Atwood allows the voices of marginalized races to surface in the beginning and concluding chapters of the novel to remind the reader what they may have missed along the way.

In the opening chapters, for example, Offred is approached by a group of people she identifies as, “tourists, from Japan it looks like, a trade delegation perhaps, on a tour of the historic landmarks or out for local color” (35). Offred makes an assumption as to not only which race these tourists belong, but also the many reasons to which they could be visiting Gilead—political, historical or for entertainment. This part of the novel is crucial as we see other women from other cultures, who have different rights and who have a different sense of “ordinary”. This is a reminder that Gilead is not the entire world; it just feels that way from within Offred’s ideological fishbowl. When others look in, that is when they place their own understanding upon you, Offred projected her beliefs and notions on the supposed Japanese women—without actually communicating with them directly. These women’s stories are only told through the eyes of another, dauntingly similar to the ending of this novel when the reader learns that Offred’s own story has been recorded and reproduced and then analytically explained by another. We are never given access to the story of the marginalized from their own perspective. Irony, when examining race, appears again in the second surfacing of race when the Commander takes Offred to the brothel and Offred takes a second look at the men around her:

The men are not Homogenous…there’s a group of Japanese…splash of white: Arabs, in those long bathrobes they wear, the headgear, the striped sweatbands (297)

Offred once again labels men who may or may not be from the designated races she assigns them. She identifies the Arab men according to their clothing, “long bathrobes”. Associating identity and social function to clothing and colour is one of the main mechanisms of domination and control in Gilead. Offred is forced to wear red to symbolize her role as a handmaiden, the Martha’s must wear blue and so on in this fashion. This irony is further explored when the Commander responds to Offred’s shock of the brothel by saying:

But everyone’s human, after all (297).

The commander was explaining how the nature of men require a “diversity” of women. What can be interpreted as ironic is that in Gilead women are seen as resources, not as humans equal to one another. Similar to how race has been perceived over the years in western civilization, and as Dobson continues to explore, “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” (67). Atwood has touched upon these historical realisms and pushed them to their logical ends not only in issues surrounding gender, but by ironically situating different races sparingly throughout her novel. It is left up to the reader to question the authenticity of the narrative, the absences and gaps in the text, and ask what is left out and why.

To help answer these questions, the “Historical Notes” chapter of this novel in all actuality does not conclude the novel, but re-opens it so that we may re-read it under many different lenses. In his analysis of the Historical Notes chapter, Dominick Grace states, “The world of 2195 is one in which women once again assume positions of authority in which Native North American peoples are evidently part of dominant North American culture, and in which there is a renewed respect for nature” (481). An important factor to weigh is that Atwood’s Canadian background influences the way in which she writes. The Indigenous populations in Canada have a very dark history in which their voices were, and still remain, silenced today. People outside of the marginalized communities retell their histories, leaving their stories and interpretations outside of it, similar to Offred’s story which turns into The Handmaid’s Tale. To use traditional Native names for the professors hints that a flip of script has taken place in the future. Not surprisingly, the misogyny continues to thrive as well as the misrepresentation of race through the academic approach to studying history. Grace continues on this point, “In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood invokes a model that, in its standard use, serves to validate, or support, the authority of the work, but she does so in ways that subvert the conventional function of pseudo-documentary devices in science fiction” (482). Atwood’s literary technique further extends the critical interpretation of race, gender and history throughout our modern world. Offred’s final words are a testament to this:

I have given myself over to the hands of strangers (368).

We can interpret this line, after reading the novel, as saying that Offred must once again submit to the powers at large and give over her story to them to do with what they will. In this case, the academics have taken her story and tried to use it to piece together more information on the Commander and collect evidence to the functionality of Gilead. They lack the context, as well as the empathetic care, that Atwood has built upon throughout the entire novel. Offred’s story lives among the races not discussed in the novel—within the blank white spaces on the edge of the page.

These academics continue to study Offred’s story as a form of history, devaluing its authenticity and ignoring several elements that were essential to her life:

However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has designed to vouchsafe us (387).

They have decided to name her the “Goddess of History” who has simply left crumbs for them to piece together as the “truth” or perhaps their version of it. Ironically, Atwood played a similar role as the author of this novel. Atwood has used speculative fiction to integrate real historical occurrences within The Handmaids Tale. She does so, arguably, to intentionally leave the social construct of the marginalized races within the gaps between the stories, in order to mirror the similar occurrence in our own histories. Also, the professors cite and then call forward Ancient history, articulating a theme that can be traced back within the entirety of the novel:

We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer…As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and is filled with echoes. (388).

The story of Eurydice is the cautionary tale when one seeks “forbidden” information. The fault in comparing Eurydice to Offred is that she is not a ghost to which we will never be able to interpret; her story is one in which we are un-willing to understand. These academics have done no more than we do on a daily basis: we re-interpret history the way we want to see it, and expunge from the text that which is inconvenient. We label and misrepresent races because we view them from ‘the outside’ and allow the dominant histories of our authorial ancestors to influence our perceptions. What Atwood calls us to do is to analyze our methods around studying and narrating history, specifically in relation to race and gender, and further reflect upon how what is depicted in dominant canonical sources still finds a place within our modern world and continues to shape our sense of the ‘ordinary’.

Race -or the the lack thereof – in The Handmaid’s Tale is a key component to this novel that is often overlooked.  The truth lies within the acceptance that race, gender, and the writing of history are irrevocably tied, for better or for worse. Atwood mirrors how often, through dominant forms of historization, race is misinterpreted from those outside of the communities they are attempting to define. She left a trail of nuanced threads, including the way in which Gilead operates under a system of colours and exterior appearances, to determine identity and purpose within the society. She also heavily critiqued the dominant methodologies of studying and recreating official history. Finally, Offred’s own ironic labelling of other races shows how inherent these ideologies are, and just how deeply rooted they are, not only in this fictional society but in our own as well. The goal of this essay is to make visible what is invisible, or latent, in the ‘gaps’ between the stories, and to promote positive, critical changes in our ways of representing history that will break this continuous cycle of marginalization we seem to be within. To write is to have power; to listen is a skill which very few have actually acquired. We must be critical in the ways in which we construct our histories and in selecting the voices we choose to validate; these concerns affect our present and inevitably our future as well.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart-Bantam, 1986.

DODSON, DANITA J.. “’We Lived in the Blank White Spaces’: Rewriting the Paradigm of Denial in Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale”. Utopian Studies 8.2 (1997): 66–86.

Dominick M. Grace. “”the Handmaid’s Tale”: “historical Notes” and Documentary Subversion”. Science Fiction Studies 25.3 (1998): 481–494.