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Monday, November 28, 2011


First sentences: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Requested by mmy. Any requests for other first sentences, please post in the comments.

Note: it seems to be rather difficult to mention Margaret Atwood on the Internet without someone popping up to complain that she said something rude about science fiction, which tends to devolve into a discussion of her as a person instead of as a writer. Please don't do that in the comments; I'm tired of it, and it's not relevant here.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
Typical of Atwood, her first sentence begins at once lucidly simple and loaded with implications. It's a sentence that aches with time.

It's not that common to begin a book talking about a non-specific 'we'. Exactly who is being invoked here remains a little unclear, leaving the place the sleepers occupy more visible than the sleepers themselves. Already evident is that these sleepers have been dispossessed somehow, uprooted - not only because they're camping out in these uncomfortable-sounding circumstances, but because the very place they occupy has been dispossessed of its original function. The use of tense makes it clear that this stripping of function is final, a kind of death: 'used to be the gymnasium' has a certain vitality to it, a sense of positive transition, but 'once [had] been' is the end of something. These sleepers occupy the corpse of a gymnasium, its reclaimed shell. Suspense is laid on with a light but compelling touch: what has happened to this place to change it so much? What new purpose has it been bent to?

'Gymnasium', too, is an interesting word. The first thing to notice about it is that it's institutional: 'we' are numerous enough that an ordinary bedroom would not accommodate 'us'; 'we', too, are living in what is evidently an old school or college, a place where physical exercise would be part of the imposed routine. 'Gym' might imply a room with weights and workout machines, but a gymnasium is a place you're herded to play ball and perform gymnastics with your fellow-students. The gymnasium may have been demoted to a communal bedroom, but its occupants have been likewise demoted to the status of schoolchildren. The tone, with its ability to reach into the past and sophisticated use of tense, is that of an adult, not a child: immediately we are led to wonder what an adult is doing, mass-camped in a place for children.

There's also an other echo, which might be coincidental, but with Atwood, a writer accustomed to play with synonyms and multiple definitions (this is the novel where an entire paragraph is devoted to the multiple means of the word 'chair', for instance), one should never assume. Etymologically, a gymnasium is an ancient Greek place, to exercise naked and also to discuss intellectual pursuits and attend lectures. Open physicality, education, freedom of thought: all of these are over in the world of The Handmaid's Tale. All that resembles ancient Greece is a rigidly-enforced patriarchy and a willingness to enslave. The dead gymnasium takes with it all the positives of a Classical history.

The narrator, though, lands us in the middle of all these implications with no explanation. She does not pause to tell us who 'we' are; nor does she bother to describe the room's antecedents beyond 'the gymnasium' - not 'a gymnasium', but the definite article, as if we can be trusted to do without explanations. This story, whispered in secret, full of evasions and anonymity, begins with a vagueness that broadens out into the universal. If we are not told which gymnasium, it can only be because it doesn't matter - which means that what will happen here is of an importance not specific to the place.

Any literate dystopia will be aware of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and The Handmaid's Tale has something of the directness of Orwell's famous: 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' The contrast can be seen immediately: where Winston Smith is a character with little memory of anything else, so acclimatised to the newly militarised world that he thinks in twenty-four-hour time (ominously striking the unlucky hour; the bell tolls for doomed Winston in the first sentence). Offred, on the other hand, is a victim for whom memories of our world are recent, or at least recent enough that she can confidently say what things used to be. Her relationship with our world is thus personal - or at least, shading in and out of the personal and the general as she shifts from the open 'I' to the shadowy 'we'.

In beginning so, the narrator is showing her first act of trust, a trust that will carry us through the story. Graham Greene said of Great Expectations that it seemed to be the narrative of a mind 'talking to itself with no one there to listen', and The Handmaid's Tale makes this explicit, even saying despairingly at one point that it narrates itself to some listening 'dear You', knowing that 'you' can't hear her. This bleak paradox gives the tone an exceptional sense of intimacy, the feel of a story whispered through a keyhole. It's an intimacy granted more by the author than the narrator, though, and herein lies another paradox: to the nameless narrator, we are not the intended audience. To the character, we are not confidante but eavesdropper. Atwood, though, the poised and elegant stylist, does know her audience, and even adds a 'Historical Notes' final chapter to place a little distance between us and the raw secrecy of Offred's voice.

This delicate balance between the whisper of the narrator and the arched eyebrow of the author brings us to the final point of the book: this is less a work of science fiction in the marketing sense than it is a work of satire. Atwood invests Offred with a passionate lyricism while preserving a certain ironic distance from her. As such, Offred is both an intimate narrator and a reduced one, just one speck in a whole society. Even in her first sentence, nameless Offred is part of a 'we', at the mercy of others - even her creator. It's the tension between the vividness of human experience and the cool wit of social commentary that creates so compelling a dystopia. If not even your author will grant you a solo spotlight, and not even you can speak of your experience in the first person singular, you are lost indeed.

I don't like Handmaiden's Tale, in that I never have the urge to go back and re-read it, but it is one of those books that I think should be on everybody's reading list, both for content and for showing... well, the strength of style, what a writer can do with words to shape your experience of dropping into that world.

I've no idea what the controversy about Atwood and sci-fi is, unless it's because she distinguishes between science fiction and speculative fiction on the hard sci-fi line, more or less-- she considers that what she writes isn't, on the whole, science fiction. On the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction, she's said:

"It is hard to draw that line. A lot of what is labelled science fiction has nothing to do with science. It tends to be something that doesn't fit into any other genre, so it is all put in the same box. But to me there is a difference between a science-fiction novel such as Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness — which contains things that are very unlikely to happen, or impossible — and a speculative novel such as George Orwell's 1984, which really could happen. My books are more like the latter — I don't write about Planet X." (Nature 478, 35, 06 October 2011)

She has that strong science background (family are scientists, she might have been one if she hadn't started writing, big interest in science) which might also be why she makes that distinction.
Not to be unpleasant, but let's leave the controversy about Atwood and sci fi out entirely, shall we? If you're curious you can probably find it on Google (or Ecosia, for the ecological option), but I'm sick to death of it and it eats threads.
I asked Kit to "please, please, please" include The Handmaid's Tale because I was struggling to understand just how Atwood carried out her brilliance. Thanks Kit!!!

So, questions and thoughts.

RE the word gymnasium. I also thought it was a word carefully selected by the author. There are layers of suggestions. The dead gymnasium not only takes away the positive from classical history from women but also from men. Women never DID benefit from them in ancient Greece and neither did men who were not members of the kyriarchy. Similarly we come to realize that in Gilead most of the men have had their freedoms and rights taken away from them. The sons of the privilege are given women, the sons of the unprivileged have little chance to have wives and children.

Another thing that struck me on this last rereading is the amazing lack of anger in the book. Moira is angry, yes. But even Moira is not willing/able to really hurt one of the Aunts when she has and opportunity to do so.

It is as if the situation was too big for there to be a place for individual angers. And there is not a single person in the book who you can point to and say "see they have won, they have gotten away with it." To me an intense sorrow pervades the book. Not just sorrow for lost people (Luke, her mother, her daughter) but for a lost civilization.

Am I correct that the daughter is never named? Men have names and women are relationships -- they are mothers, daughters, handmaids, jezebels, aunts. The commander's wife does have a name but one wonders if the thinkers of Gilead were going to get rid of those too, eventually.
Am I correct that the daughter is never named?

That's right; she's just referred to as 'she'.

An interesting new perspective on that happened to me after I became a mother myself. When I read it as a teenager I just thought it was a literary device, but actually I think it's part of the intimacy.

My husband and I talk about our son a great deal, naturally enough, and I noticed something: often when we bring him up in conversation, we don't bother to say his name. We just say 'He's been good today,' the 'he' coming out of nowhere; the thing is, we both know who 'he' would be because nobody else occupies such a high place in our thoughts. Not saying the name can be a sign of how often you think of your child, how inevitable it is that you're talking about them, or perhaps of how close to them you feel.

So Offred's daughter is 'she' partly, I think, because if Offred thinks of a female person, her daughter is the most likely person she'd think of, or the most important.

It reads as identity-erasing, but in my experience it can be a sign of an identity that's not diminished, but instead so vast that it's eclipsed its own name.
That's interesting Kit (about the daughter's name).

Three thoughts

By the time Atwood wrote THD she was herself a mother and was therefore speaking from the inside about how it feels to be a mother.

Second, there is a stress in the epilogue that Offred would change names if there was any chance that her words could be used against someone. Somehow I think that a mother would find it psychologically easier to not name the daughter than to give her a wrong name.

Third, about not giving names to those people whose existence/importance is almost immeasurable. When my father says "she" without a name it is my mother of whom he is speaking. When one's loved ones are in the hospital and someone asks after them -- just the question "how is He" or "how is She" is enough.
I was going to ask you do 1984's first line and now you sort of have :)

Really like this series, there is something exquisite about a well done first line, and you've found more meaning in them than I think I expected.

I would quite like to see Pride and Prejudice done, just because it is a truth universally acknowledged that any article about Jane Austen must begin with "it is a truth universally acknowledged...". On a slightly less classical theme, I do like "The Eyre Affair" by Jasper Fforde... its first line being "My father had a face that could stop a clock". Interestingly (well, relevant to this thread anyway :)) the father in question also remains unnamed throughout the series, for reasons that are sort-of explained.
It is interesting to compare/contrast the first line of The Handmaid's Tale with that of Consider Her Ways (Wyndham) ...."There was nothing but myself" especially considering their contrasting/echoing themes.
How about Left Behind? ;-)

- julie paradox
I so love "The Handmaid's Tale", and I loved this blog post. I had never thought about the Greek connection, and now I think that's so very lovely.

I really find it so fascinating how much Atwood was able to strip away identity, in the same way that society had stripped away Offred's.

Wonderful post, as always, Kit. :)
I'm thoroughly enjoying these first-line analyses. Thank you!

BTW, if you haven't visited Obsidian Wings, Doctor Science mentions In Great Waters as one of the best books of the year.

First lines--there are so many books by superb stylists: LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness has been suggested, I think. I'd love to see Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, "My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood." (And for the number of times I've read that book, I'd never have noticed that the first line moves us so far forward in understanding what kind of person the narrator is, without having read these first-line analyses.)
I think it's also significant that the first words are saying they slept. They're passive, not active. They are sleeping, not waking. They do not get to choose who they sleep with -- and that's a major theme.
I would love to see an analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is one of my favorite books. It's a nice companion to The Handmaid's Tale, in the way that it shows such opposite views of the potential of gender relations.

The Handmaid's Tale is also one of my favorite books, although it's painful to read at times because of the inhumanity of the society. I first read it when I was 14 or so and it opened my eyes to how an entire society could be so incredibly oppressive to women. Of course, I knew that women had been oppressed throughout history, but Offred's voice and sense of intimacy, helped me put myself in that situation in a way that I couldn't have imagined on my own. And you do a lovely job showing how even from the first sentence, Atwood communicates how suffocating and hopeless the situation is.
(Hoping this works this time, something seems to have gone wrong before?)

So many requests! Well, if you don't mind me adding to the pile, I'll ask for Foucault's Pendulum. :)
Speaking of requests, how about Lolita or The Trial? Love the series!
@Jo Walton: I think it's also significant that the first words are saying they slept.

Hmmm. "Slept" as opposed to "passed the night" (or "the nights") or something similar. It's interesting how much Atwood leaves open in this sentence. We don't know if they are sleeping (as opposed to just "passing the night") because things are relatively stable, barring the displacement that put them in the former gymnasium to begin with, or because they're exhausted, or for some other reason.
Later in the book Offred comments that in the Commander's house, nothing takes place in her bed but sleep. I think one element of it is the reduction of beds to a series of biological necessities: procreation when approved, otherwise sleep when necessary, and nothing else.
Love these deconstructions, Kit. Are you still taking requests? If so, I'd suggest the following:

-The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

-The Kite Runner and/or A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

-The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta (but any Perrotta novel would do)

-Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

-Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

-Any of the Harry Potter books

-The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

-The Green Mile, Stephen King

That's probably enough suggestions from one person, huh? :-)
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