By Myra Saturen
Special to the Commuter
“How do we know who we are and who other people are in the Internet age?” asked Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s most renowned contemporary writers.
Questions about identity intrigued her audience, which filled the Arthur L. Spartan Center at Northampton Community College (NCC) to capacity on April 17. The talk was the culminating event of the College’s year-long series, “Exploring Identity through the Humanities,” the seventh in NCC’s annual National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) series.
NCC honors student Melanie Kelliher, an Atwood enthusiast, introduced the author, praising her for imparting an understanding of the world. Professor of English Dr. Cara McClintock-Walsh, who helped develop this year’s NEH series, remarked that Atwood’s work is the embodiment of the humanities and that it is distinguished by “the urgency readers feel about it.”
The Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale and an abundance of novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction laced her comments on serious topics with quick-witted humor. In discussing the novel, she drew upon history and literature, referencing a diverse group of people and time periods, including the ancient Hannurabi legal codes, the Book of Leviticus, ancient Rome, Medieval England, the 19th century household advisor Isabella Beeton, a 1950s women’s magazine, Betty Friedan, and a 1940s advertisement for Old Dutch cleanser. The title of The Handmaid’s Tale itself derives from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Atwood approached her topic by asking how we learn about a character in a book. There are endless parameters, she said, including the character’s thoughts, what other people say about them, what they fear and love, whom they have and have lost, what music they hear, what they wear.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s clothing defines their assigned value in the hierarchical, totalitarian regime of the future, the fictional Gilead. Here women are ranked according to their fertility. The Handmaids, or wives, exist solely to produce healthy children for the ruling class. They wear red. Women who cannot bear children are banished to “the colonies.” They wear gray. “Econowomen,” those on the bottom rung, wear multi-colored stripes. The author based her characters’ distinctive headgear on the 1940s Old Dutch cleanser ad: a voluminous hood over an aproned woman’s head, hiding her identity and restricting her vision, as blinders block a horse’s peripheral view. Atwood talked about historical links between a person’s status and rules about attire. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of certain fabrics based on class. Only the wealthy were permitted to wear expensive materials.
In addition to clothing, Gilead women are defined by their names, which signify the theft of identity. Forced to relinquish their original names, they are given new ones that recognize only the man to whom they are assigned as a mate; the character Offred’s name means “of Fred.”
In Gilead, women are forbidden to read. Even family Bibles are locked away. Atwood likened this rule to laws during the period of American slavery, when slaves were barred from learning to read. In medieval England, reading the Bible in the vernacular was punishable by death. In the 18th and 19th centuries, controversy raged over whether women should have access to education. Learning could swell a woman’s brain, some claimed. “In totalitarian regimes, they try to control access to information,” Atwood said.
Women’s dictated identities survived well into the 20th century. Atwood read advice from an article, “The Good Wife’s Guide” from a 1955 women’s magazine. It instructed wives on their behavior. Before their husband’s arrival home from work, wives should touch up their makeup, prepare the husband’s favorite meal, clean clutter from the house, clean dirt from the children’s hands, refrain from complaining, and offer to remove the husband’s shoes for him so that he can relax on a couch. “This article is a time capsule, not of how women lived, but of how they were persuaded to live,” Atwood said. Articles like these inspired Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963.
Atwood read these far-ranging sources and more in creating The Handmaid’s Tale. She said that all the occurrences in the novel have actually happened or are happening.
She finished her talk with the four last words of The Handmaid’s Tale: “Are there any questions?” A Q&A session, facilitated by Dr. Elizabeth Tyler Bugaighis, Dean of Education and Academic Success, followed.
Q: Does fiction play a role in helping society change?
A: Reading complex novels about people expands our ability to feel empathy.
Q: After participating in the Women’s March, I reread your books. Given the current political climate, do you have any hope?
A: I’m hopeful that people in America are still dedicated to democracy and will push back against anything that would destroy it. Democracy is a respect for human rights, understanding what the truth means, respect for truthfulness in journalism. It is a sign of hope that The Handmaid’s Tale was allowed to be on television.
Q: What do you think is the most unethical practice in publishing?
A: Reputable book publishers hire fact checkers to ensure that everything is true and accurate. The most unethical practices are found online. Postings are often not only false but also cruel.
Q: What is the source of your fascination with horror?
A: I read Edgar Allen Poe and horror comic books as a child. Horror fiction is a way of confronting unknown and unacknowledged fears. People also have uncanny experiences that cannot be scientifically explained. There is the Third Man Syndrome, in which people in extreme danger feel the illusory presence of a helper. Asked about George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Atwood said, “I noticed that most of the protagonists were men. Writing about a future world as told by women seemed interesting to me. And I did it.”
Q: What is your construction of childhood?
A: We now know that children need some unstructured time for their imaginations to grow. Parents don’t let children go onto social media too early. We’ve gone through the shadow of the ebook and come out the other side.”
Atwood was also asked about her writing process. She writes the first draft in longhand. Never having learned to touch-type, she used to give her manuscript to a professional typist. “Then something was invented just for me: the personal computer,” she said.
She encouraged a man who asked about the future of dystopian fiction that the genre is far from exhausted.
Preceding Atwood’s lecture, students, faculty, and staff met with her. Lauren Stocker, a liberal arts major, said, “I never before got the chance to talk with someone whose work I admire. Having the opportunity to hear the voice that created that work is priceless.”
Northampton Community College’s NEH series is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the generous support of donors. NCC partners with the Bethlehem Area Public Library, the Eastern Monroe Public Library, Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, Bethlehem Area School District, the Monroe County Historical Society, and the Stroudsburg Area School District.
This article is reprinted courtesy of the college’s Marketing & Communication’s office, which originally posted it on the college’s website.