Margaret Atwood discussing "The Handmaid's Tale"
BROADCAST: Mar. 13, 1986 | DURATION: 00:53:02
Margaret Atwood discusses her book "The Handmaid's Tale" and the real life and biblical events that inspired it. The show also includes two interludes with Erich Fromme discussing "Escape from Freedom".
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Margaret Atwood, the distinguished Canadian writer, I'll say distinguished writer and poet, has written a remarkable new novel. She was a guest on the program before, I believe it was "Surfacing" or "Life and Man".
Studs Terkel That what you've done now I think is a powerhouse and I'm happy, I'm delighted to know that listeners, readers have caught on, and it's called "The Handmaid's Tale", and it's been called by some Orwellian in its power. No, it's something beyond that. And perhaps we can, well, that'll be our theme of course. "The Handmaid's Tale" published by Houghton Mifflin. I think it's a beauty, and it's gripping, too, by the way. You can't put it down, because suddenly you realize she's not writing about tomorrow and the ominous aspects of it, a different society, or something new in the world. Writing about this very moment as it may be happening bit by bit. That'll be our theme. But I thought to open it, Margaret Atwood to open it, this is Erich Fromm, some years ago he wrote "Flight from Freedom", which might be the subtext to your book, "Flight from Freedom". He's talking about a kind of madness and something that is madness but called something else. And he said this, this is 20 years ago but how it applies, and then, perhaps you pick it up from there.
Erich Fromm A man who is poor and ignorant and has an unhappy life has to be really insane to say, "I'm the most wonderful man in the world." But if he can feel "My group, my nation, my religion, my race, my political creed is the most wonderful thing in the world, and I am part of it," then he can experience that very same narcissistic madness but with much more reality behind it so to speak, because while he is a poor devil, the group is after all something big. And there's another thing: if I get up today and make a speech and say, "I am the most wonderful man in the world, my family, my father, my mother, and my cousins are the most wonderful people," everybody knows where to send me. But if I make the same speech and say, "My religion, my nation, my race is the most wonderful thing," there are millions of people who a) agree with me, and secondly, I am considered to be particularly virtuous.
Margaret Atwood "Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly, and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn't running away they're afraid of, we wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge. So, apart from these details, this could be a college guest room for the less distinguished visitors, or a room in a rooming house of former times for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced for those of us who still have circumstances. But a chair, sunlight, flowers, these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe. I put my hand out unfolded into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison, but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or."
Studs Terkel Some of the opening passages of the book "The Handmaid's Tale" read by the author Margaret Atwood, my guest, but preceded by Erich Fromm, when I was thinking as you listened to him, who has read this passage, they connect, don't they?
Margaret Atwood The piece of speculative fiction that I have written is set in the future, and in the future the country has acted out in real life some of the things that are now just around as ideas in people's heads, and it's always very instructive to take ideas in people's heads and try to picture what they would look like and what they would feel like if they were actually put into practice. For instance, if you say woman's place should be in the home. That's sort of a glib thing that people throw out, but if you wanted to actually enforce it, if you wanted to put it into practice, no exceptions, no Margaret Thatcher is allowed to go around saying woman's place is in the House, home, but I'm prime minister so that doesn't apply to me. What would it look like? So that's one of the ideas that gets acted out in this book and in under the regime, which is a quotes religious unquotes right wing regime, it's not any religion you would immediately recognize right now, but they do go back to the Bible and I'll tell you which part of it
Margaret Atwood So women's place is in the home in this regime. No exceptions. You can't even have women on television saying women's place is in the home. They're not allowed publicly in any way, and that's, by the way, much the way it is in a country like Iran these days.
Studs Terkel But you see, there's something else. The little touches of it here, even though it's the future as you say, to me the power of it is compounded by the fact that I see now in it, the now, the phrases, not phrases, attitudes. We come to that. The narrator. It's called "The Handmaid's Tale" just in Canterbury tales or so, bath of wife's tale, or bath of wife's, wife of Bath's tale, the prioress's tale, but it's "The Handmaid's Tale", and there's a narrative, the central figure, "Offred," her very name, "Of Fred."
Margaret Atwood It's a patronymic, and we have many patronymics around and in our own time or in other, other names that connect you with someone. Wilson, for instance, originally meant son of Will. In German it's Von, as the possessive. Von Helsing. as in the Dracula story. In French it's de, D-E. So this is just an English possessive.
Margaret Atwood Of.
Margaret Atwood Yes--
Margaret Atwood Okay. Well, one of the things that I think is that you cannot rearrange the position of women in a society without altering the position of men, just as you can't alter the position of men without having it effect women, the two are very connected. So we'll first describe the society from the point of view of women, but then we'll say a few things about how it would feel for men, how they would live their lives. The part of the Bible that the regime has gone back to is Genesis 30 chapters one to 13, which is the story of Jacob, Rachel, his wife, Leah his other wife--
Margaret Atwood No, she did manage to squeeze out a few, but she was originally barren initially. So there was Rachel and Leah, the two ones that he was actually married to, no monogamy then, and their two handmaids, and Rachel and Leah in that passage in Genesis have a baby contest to see who can have the most, because they consider it a favor to have a baby, and when they run out, they turn their handmaids over to Jacob and they get to keep the babies. They get to name them. There's a rather curious passage in which Rachel says to Jacob, you know, "Go in on to my handmaid that I may have children by her," so she considers herself the mother of these children even though another woman was having them. And that's the set-up we have in the Republic of Gilead, favored men, men who are high up in the hierarchy. Not all men, because any hierarchical regime, in any such regime, the powerful get more of the valued things than the people who are not powerful, whether it be money or cars or fertile women, because fertile women are at a premium in this society.
Studs Terkel That and the handmaids, of which Offred is one, and she meets someone called Ofglen, later on we'll talk of this underground that takes place in this particular society. Then they're dressed in red, aren't they?
Margaret Atwood All the women in this society are color-coded so that you can tell exactly who you're dealing with. And this--there's nothing in my book that hasn't already happened. It's all either from history or it's from other countries in the world or it's stuff that we have the technology for now, and this is based on the sumptuary laws in Renaissance Italy and in the dress codes under Calvinism in Switzerland. We've done it before.
Margaret Atwood Blue.
Studs Terkel Blue.
Margaret Atwood One per, because it's--monogamy is the official creed and there's no divorce. So you can see what kinds of lives men would lead in this one, too. There are no women in public places, none on television, none in the movies, no Playboy magazine, no porn, no public prostitution, no girlfriends, no female friends, and no divorce.
Studs Terkel But I want to stick with one figure at this moment who to me is one of the most fascinating in the book and most terrifying that I see her today and we'll come to others. Serena Joy. Her name is Serena Joy, now once known as Pam, who was a singer on television during when we hear the electronic religious programs. Now Serena Joy, someone else without your imagination, gifted, without your knowledge of today and what's happening. Remember, think along what Eric Fromm said earlier, too, would have made Serena Joy puritanical, played by someone like Beulah Bondi or Margaret. On the contrary, Serena Joy just reading her, her hair was still blonde, eyebrows were plucked in thin arched lines, her nose once may have been called cute, now a little too small for her face, and then she goes on, but you describe her through you, that is you, Offred, central figure. "I would watch the growing soul's Gospel Hour." This is in the past she's talking about, but I the reader see it now. "I would watch the growing soul's Gospel Hour when they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead soprano. She was ash blonde, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyes that would turn upward during the hymns." And this is she, and later you recognize that she was Pam when "People" magazine wrote her up. So this to me is an inspired and because it is not the stereotype or the caricature. On the contrary, someone quite with-it it would seem in fashion, and there she is.
Margaret Atwood Yes, she is now a wife, and she is not allowed to have any public life of any kind. But of course this is something she has campaigned for in her past, which is our present. She is one of the women like Margaret Thatcher, who go around saying women's place is in the home, and they make in fact rather a public career of saying that. This regime has taken her seriously and she really is in the home and she doesn't like it very much.
Studs Terkel See, when I thought of Serena Joy, I thought of, just this figure, public figure, Anita Bryant you recall. And there are a good number of them. We see them regularly on TV, particularly on these hours.
Margaret Atwood They are. Yes. Marthas wear green, and wives of poorer men have to combine all functions. They have to have babies if they can, be wives, and also be Marthas, so they're called econo wives, and they wear stripes.
Margaret Atwood All
Studs Terkel So you're describing the country. And by the way, there's a sweetness, that smile is perennial. They're generally smiles, you know, the have a nice day aspect of it, and now we come to the guys. Aside from the commanders, there are young guys around and about, and some are called guardians and some are called angels.
Margaret Atwood The angels are actually the military wing. The guardians are sort of the civil police force. So the angels are actually, a lot of the time they're out fighting, although you see them around in the Republic of Gilead doing special guard duty for things that require military supervision. Who is the civil war being fought against? Well, nobody would suppose that such a regime could come into the United States without there being some opposition to it, and some of the opposition strangely enough would come from groups that are now regarded as right-wing religious, because they wouldn't buy the polygamy. So the Southern Baptists are fighting it out in the hills. The Quakers are doing what the Quakers probably would do, they're running the Underground Railroad. Catholics have gone underground, and Jehovah's Witnesses are being persecuted as they often have been.
Margaret Atwood Yes, there's a lot of, some of it is the United States history, the theocracy was in fact 17th century Puritanism, and the Underground Railroad of course you had during the, just before the Civil War--
Studs Terkel We got to take our break 'cause we got to come to what is happening to Offred and various other handmaids in red, and the people they see and meet, and what the life was like, and we'll continue with something and a wall. Where are we? That's the other thing, where are we? And Aunt Lydia, one of the elder teachers, says "Prison or privilege, and either/or doesn't really matter, does it?" We'll come to that, too. "Flight from Freedom" again. And "Handmaid's Tale", Margaret Atwood, Houghton Mifflin publishers, and, really, it's a stunning book, in that it's exciting reading, but all of a sudden it stays with you, you tremble a bit, too, in reading it, and then you wonder, hey, wait a minute, she's not writing about tomorrow, she's writing about now leading into it tomorrow, and we'll resume after this message. Margaret Atwood my guest, we pick up with "The Handmaid's Tale". So you've--we've pretty much got the dramatis personae pretty well set up as far as categories of people. Now, the place they live. You open up it's a big gym where she is with a lot of the other handmaids, and she has memories of the gym, past and some past time.
Margaret Atwood Yes. Well, of course it's a reeducation center. Once a high school, now a place where women like her are sent to be indoctrinated, and we know about reeducation centers. We've seen them in various regimes around the world. But that's just the opening scene. Then we switch to her life after she's been quotes reeducated, and you wondered where this was taking place. Well, it's taking place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I chose for several reasons. The wall that you see in the book is the wall around Harvard University. It does have a wall around it. It was the earliest Puritan university ever established in North America, and latterly it's known as the kind of bastion of liberal democratic freedoms and so forth. So it's quite ironic that the headquarters of the secret police in this regime is occupying buildings that were once Harvard University.
Studs Terkel The eye is the secret police. Now, Offred and other handmaids, others, have to be very careful, don't they? At the very beginning you said, "I don't think it's easier not to." Nor does she speak too much either.
Margaret Atwood No. And if you've ever traveled in a country in which the regime is fairly repressive, this is simply how people conduct their lives. And if you want to talk to a person freely in such a regime, you do not do it in your hotel room, you do not do it in a building, you do not do it in a car. You go to the park.
Studs Terkel I was thinking as she's walking to the shopping areas, we'll come to those, the shopping areas because the Marthas who work in the kitchen ask her to pick up some things. She and her, this other handmaid, Ofglen, she doesn't know Ofglen is, can she talk to her? There's a war going on somewhere against Baptists, I think.
Studs Terkel The war is going well I hear, she says, Ofglen. "Praise be," I reply. There are certain set phrases, aren't there? We've been sent good weather which I receive with joy. Again. They've defeated more of the rebels since yesterday. "Praise be," I say. I don't know how she knows what war, but they go into it but there is a set pattern for speech limited as it is, isn't there, just as for no thinking.
Studs Terkel And they're going to--and they pass a wall. You spoke of the wall, and oh, there are certain wagons that go by, and the eye is on it, and I take it those are paddy wagons or secret police wagons.
Margaret Atwood Yes.
Margaret Atwood No, the wall is just, it's around--it's not a wall that keeps you from going anywhere, it's around what used to be Harvard Yard. And right now is the home of the secret police, and that's where a lot of executions take place.
Studs Terkel We should point out, by the way, just so there's no misunderstanding. She's not talking about the Harvard Yard now with secret police, talking about the book. Now, who are, and they see certain people on the gallows hanging there.
Margaret Atwood Enemies of the regime, and there can be various kinds. They usually have signs around their necks indicating what it is that they've been executed for. And you will see this in Middle Eastern countries. When they execute people, they hang signs around their necks and they have white bags over their heads, so you don't know who they are as individuals. And I got this from 19th century public hangings in Canada in which they would put white bags over their heads, not black ones. And these particular first people she sees are doctors who are accused of having performed abortions in the previous time. Now, nobody performs abortions in the regime of Gilead partly because it's outlawed and partly because the ability to have children is so valued because the birth rate has gone down and the infertility and sterility rates have gone up and the birth defect rate has gone up as well, and all these things are happening now, incidentally, so here are these doctors-- You're
Margaret Atwood Oh yes, well, as in the Nuremberg trials. If you if you decide that something is a hanging offense, you know, say I decide in 1976 that something is a hanging offense, should I find somebody who did that thing in 1970 when it was permitted and hang them for having done it then? Now, there is always this problem of legality versus justice as we all know. But the thing can be turned around.
Margaret Atwood Yes. Public executions did not go out until quite recently in history. There were still public executions in the 19th century and in, on this continent and in the rest of the world lots of executions are public.
Studs Terkel She's ordinary. Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary. Now, that may be the most chilling sentence of your book.
Studs Terkel That which is accepted. Now I'm thinking about phrases and language and a manner of thinking or non-thinking that is accepted today. The comments of Erich Fromm at the very beginning, your thoughts, and so we're talking about this, but oh, one other thing before we go on about what happens to Offred, because this is a story, very definite. And her thoughts back and forth. We'll come to her past and thoughts. There's a special, there's always a danger to these handmaids if they don't produce the children for the commander. Isn't it? She has three chances.
Margaret Atwood As in the Bible, there is no talk of male sterility. That's not acknowledged. So that's forbidden, in fact. So if a woman does not have a child, that is her fault, and she is considered to be incapable of doing so although in fact it may be the man, but that's--you're not allowed to say that. So she gets three chances, that is, she gets three men and she gets a set time with each one, and if she doesn't conceive, then she gets shoved along to the next one. And if she tries with three and fails with three, then that's away with her to the colonies.
Margaret Atwood Well, they are sort of like Siberia, only within the continental United States, and the colonies are where people are used to do jobs that are not very nice jobs. Some of the jobs that they do are cleaning up toxic wastes, because the continent has so toxified itself that this has affected the sterility and fertility and birth defect rates and they finally decided that they've got to clean some of it up. It's a bit late, but they're doing it, and these women and other enemies of the regime, enemies of the regime and infertile women are used to this. Some nicer jobs are things like picking the tomatoes, you know, jobs that we now use itinerant labor for, usually under pretty bad conditions. So these are jobs that are not favored. It's much nicer to be a handmaid and get three meals a day and be rather well treated than it is to be somebody in the colonies, because people in the colonies
Studs Terkel But there it is, and there's talk about it, less than, far less than there should be. But there is an awareness that people are damaged and die as a result. But that's present now we're talking about and we see it within your book, so I say this is to me beyond Orwell and beyond Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", because you connect with the now and then and they fuse.
Margaret Atwood Yes. That's a term I lifted from the Philippines, where the, under the Marcos regime, the execution of one's political enemies, the assassination of political enemies was called "salvaging."
Margaret Atwood That's like an extravaganza, only with pray, and you may have wondered where I got the term for participatory executions where everybody helps hold the rope. I got it, actually, from an exercise program in Canada called "participaction." So I just changed it around a bit, and this is a particicution.
Studs Terkel Before if I ask you about, now off--we're going--this all throughout as we're talking, we're just talking casually based upon the reading of the book "The Handmaid's Tale" with Margaret Atwood. There's a storyline throughout and there's a past and present, and she's thinking of the past and what it was before that, and Luke her husband or lover and baby and what happened to them at a certain moment. But before that, there's another, just as Serena Joy, the wife of the commander and the boss of Offred, holds me, so does a girl named Janine.
Margaret Atwood Janine is one of those who can't take the strain, and she is an handmaid, too, but she does not--one of Offred's main focuses is to try to keep sane under all this so that she will be able to survive. And Janine doesn't ultimately make it. She does not. She wanders off into an inner reality of her own in which she reverts to being a mentally ill waitress in a Holiday Inn.
Studs Terkel Ah, but it's Janine's talk. Now we come to today, see if the audience recognizes [here?]. "I was looking at Janine, her eyes were open but they didn't see me at all. They were rounded, wide, her teeth were bared in a fixed smile. Through the smile, through her teeth she was whispering to herself, [unintelligible]. "Hello," she said, but not to me. "My name's Janine. I'm your waitperson this morning. Can I get you some coffee to begin with?" "Christ," said Moira. Moira is your, the rebel friend, we'll come to her in a minute. "Don't swear," said Alma. Moira took Janine by the shoulders. "Snap out of it, and don't use that word." Janine smiled. "You have a nice day now." And I was just about to hear her say, "You hear?" But you see, this, we see this every day. We see that girl every day. That girl is everywhere at any chain hotel or motel restaurant anywhere, with a certain short dress and her name, so she'll know who she is. You see her behind the counters behind the desk for these big hotels there, you see every one, and the guy, too. So here's the now and to then that's Janine. And later on more--so this is what you've done, you've taken of course history, present, everything and out of it has come Gilead.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Now you see, there's one spot where I might, you speak of a certain moment in the past when there was a raid, raids occurred, you know, and people were suddenly fired and the attempted assassination of a president, or the assassinee, that's where I would disagree. To me it's happened--it's a gradual benign thing, not at all a coup d'etat.
Margaret Atwood Well of course, no repressive regime ever comes in by saying, "Hi folks, I'm a repressive regime and I'm going to really take away your freedom. "They always say, "Listen, the country is a real mess and we have to do something about it, and we're going to help make things much better."
Studs Terkel Let's have one more break because now we've got to come to Offred and what is happening, because obviously this is not a passive book, but very active and down below the handmaids and others may be thinking thoughts and bit by bit they come out of someone they realize they can trust as part of know something happening out there, out there beyond the wall. So we're talking to, by the way, a very excellent writer from Canada, Margaret Atwood, who is a guest on the show and by the way is a splendid poet, too. "The Handmaid's Tale", Houghton Mifflin the publishers and it's causing quite a stir, I'm happy to note. After this message we resume. So resume with Margaret Atwood and "The Handmaid's Tale". Ofglen obviously had another name and another life and every now and then wonders what happened. Her mother, let's talk about her mother first, who is quite a character.
Margaret Atwood Well, her mother, the past of the people in the book is our present. So her mother is around now. You probably know her mother or somebody like her mother. Her mother was an active feminist, but by the time we get to the book, the time of the book or the time just before the regime takes over, she's older. She still has her friends, she's a bit of a free spirit. She's brought Offred up by herself. The father is off on the West Coast somewhere, and she's quite a feisty old lady. In fact, she acts more like the child and Offred acts more like the mother. So that's her, and then there's Offred's friend Moira, whom she went to college with, and Moira in addition to being gay, is also a member of a women's press just before the regime takes over, and it's very interesting to note what happens to people like this under those sorts of regimes. You know that when regimes like that take over there are a few people who are really targeted to be closed down fast. One group are artists and journalists, and another group are labor union leaders. And the third group, strangely enough, are members of the legal profession: lawyers and judges are high on the hit list, because any state that wants total control wants to get rid of any sort of independent representation for individual clients. They want administration of the law to be firmly under their own control. So Moira, of course, is a member of the first group, she's in journalism and information and so they have to close that down right away. Moira goes underground. They eventually catch her, and I'm not going to tell
Studs Terkel And she's imaginative too. Very gutsy, of course. She's very gallant and very funny and witty and tough. And she--obviously something happens to Offred in meeting Moira. And then there's her friend Luke.
Margaret Atwood Well, Luke, yes. Luke was her husband, because Luke had been divorced before he married Offred, and this regime does not acknowledge divorce, that makes Offred unmarried, and since they have had a child together, it also targets Offred as somebody who can have a child, so that's why she gets picked up as a handmaid, but Luke is trying to get her out of the country. But they fail, you see.
Studs Terkel Something's happened in your book. Events occur. And I say it'll occur gradually, you are implying that anyway. And there's a job. Things are popping quickly, suddenly. There's a baby they have, too. Things are popping quickly and she's out of a job. But the whole staff is out because of, is it the new machinery? Is it the--
Studs Terkel That was it. Now, this is what's happened. That's the edict. Now, here's where the today matches your book: and very close to home here, might I add. That is, she said, "Well, we're given 10 minutes to get out." I know a place very close to home where people weren't given 15 minutes to get out, and a lock was changed immediately after, so they could not get back in. That happens now. And so when I read that 10 minutes for her to get out and her colleagues were being booted out, I said, "I know that. That happened very close to home."
Margaret Atwood Yeah.
Studs Terkel "I know that." So that's what I meant by those little seeds are there. Well, as you know I'm not telling you anything new. So this is, so she's thinking, "Whatever happened to Luke and the baby? Are they alive?" 'Cause there was an attempt at escape. They almost made it. And caught.
Margaret Atwood Yes. Well, as you know, in several countries we've seen regimes that have taken children away from their mothers and have redistributed them to members of, powerful members of the hierarchy. We saw that in Argentina under the regime before the one that's in now.
Margaret Atwood Yeah. That sort of thing was happening, and that happened also in Poland under the Nazis. The Nazis took little blond Aryan-looking Polish kids and they just took them, and they placed them with high-ranking German families to be brought up as Aryan children. It's not an--as I say, there's nothing new in this book. There's nothing we haven't done. It's a different combination and it's relocated here, but we're very smug in North America. We're always saying, "It can't happen here." It's just because we haven't thought of the ways in which it can happen to us. I think we've been so freaked out by the idea of, you know, the Communist menace, that other things
Studs Terkel You know, there are repressive Communist regimes, repressive, the heavy hand of government. We don't have that. Ours is something else that you, you've heard this many--you took part in PEN, PEN is an international gathering of writers and you were on the panel dealing with censorship. There's something else, not a heavy hand of government. Something called self-censorship.
Margaret Atwood Oh,
Studs Terkel Self-something.
Margaret Atwood Yes. Once you, once you have, you know, penalties of one kind or another for stepping out of line, then most people will take care not to step out of line publicly, no matter what they may think privately.
Studs Terkel But since we're dealing with flesh-and-blood people here, humans who some have been accustomed to think of it now and then, you're not dealing with zombies yet. 'Cause Janine became a zombie, see, so therefore now, Offred, as she walks to the store, what's the store called, "Lily of the Valley"?
Margaret Atwood Oh, there are various stores. Since women can't read, none of the stores have printing on them anymore. They don't have lettering, there are no street signs in this regime. It might tempt them too much to read. So the stores are known only by physical symbols. The butcher store has a big porkchop hanging outside it. The clothing store is called "Lilies of the Field." The butcher store is called "All Flesh." Everything is a quote from the Bible. All the names of the stores
Margaret Atwood Yes. Ofglen is in fact a member of the underground, because there's two things you always find in very repressive regimes. One is a black market and the other is an underground. They're always there in greater or lesser extent. So there is an underground in the Republic of Gilead as there would be.
Studs Terkel No, no, it's not a question of that, it doesn't matter, because it's gripping in any event, but stuff may be popping, but she's thinking of in the room where she is, Offred, the central figure, the room is handmade. She finds an inscription in the closet, doesn't she? By someone who had been there before, the previous occupant.
Margaret Atwood Yes. She is not the first handmaid that this commander has had. And of course she doesn't know who the other one is, but the other one has left a little message scratched with a pin into the paintwork of her cupboard and it's in Latin.
Margaret Atwood Yes.
Margaret Atwood I took Latin. Now, Offred did not take Latin, but those of us who took Latin there are all these sort of funny Latin jokes and puns and things that would get connected with Latin class. But when my character runs across this quote, of course, she doesn't know what it means, because she never studied Latin and she has to--she eventually finds out what it means. I'm not going to tell how.
Margaret Atwood Well,
Studs Terkel We're going to come now--there are more aspects tying in, not loose threads, it's a tightly, tightly wound-up bound book. Margaret Atwood my guest, it's called "The Handmaid's Tale", Houghton Mifflin the publishers, and the last lap. One more message and the last lap. And so as we come to the last part of our just reflecting on this book "The Handmaid's Tale", it's the last shot for Offred too, since she was with the other commander and no baby forthcoming, you speak of the nature of certain--we see childbirth taking place in certain areas. And what's happening. But there's also a danger, since you speak of toxic waste and things happening, there's a pretty good chance the kid might be born in one way or another deformed.
Margaret Atwood Well, he gets the sex anyway, you see, although it's rather unsatisfactory sex, because the handmaids are never allowed to be alone with the commanders. The wives don't want any romance going on, you know. No falling in love, none of that stuff. And since it's quite a puritanical regime, its sex is supposed to be without pleasure, only for procreation. I've often wondered how that translated for men, but such is the edict, and so that's not what he wants from her. What he wants from her is human companionship, and of course, since it's forbidden for women to read books or have anything to do with written language, something he finds quite erotic is to play Scrabble with her.
Studs Terkel But, you know, there's something else here. So, if you fuse every aspect of what's happening today in popular culture, sudden celebrities, rich and famous, profiles that we see continuously, "National Enquirer" stuff, everything, as well as what is happening politically or apolitically and there the commander's going to take her out one night. Never been out. To trespass and go to places
Margaret Atwood Yeah, well, of course in any repressive regime, those at the top reserve some privileges for themselves that aren't allowed to the general populace. What's the point of being at the top if you don't get extra goodies, right? So the extra goodies, some of the extra goodies that the commanders have, they have the kind of women for them that we now have all over the place. We've got them in nightclubs and we've got them in, you know, "Playboy" magazine and all that, all of which is strictly forbidden under this regime, but there's a little enclave of it where the top guys can still have access to it.
Margaret Atwood Yes.
Studs Terkel Does she, there's a question of, you use the phrase, "they hoarded sanity." Hoarding sanity. That's another aspect of it, that we're talking about, aren't we? Every now and then a guy, the guy me in this case, I feel more and more like McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". You know, McMurphy wants to bust that window to let the air in. I says, "Hey! I'm McMurphy." You know. And I think, so there's a hardening of sanity here, where when you're considered, of course, eccentric of course, or strange or different or even at times a little troublesome.
Margaret Atwood Subversive.
Studs Terkel Subver--Oh, that, of course, that's understood. But coming back to--the so we don't quite know how someone who may or may not have played a role, was this guy a secret police or not. Was this guy eye or is he a member of the underground, there's a certain guy there, and it leads--that's how it ends. We don't quite know, but you've got an epilogue here that to me very fascinating. There's a seminar. There's a meeting of professors at the end discussing Gilead, the time--
Margaret Atwood After Gilead. Yes, 2195. The seminar is actually taking place in a country called Nunavut, and Nunavut you might be interested to know is the name that the Indians of northern Canada would like to call their country if they had a country. So I've given them a country and they now have a university and they're having an, history seminar and the professor is from Cambridge, England, which never changes. So he talks much the same as a professor from Cambridge, England would talk now, and he's talking about how he discovered and edited this book that we have called "The Handmaid's Tale". He also named it.
Margaret Atwood That's right. And he is able to tell us some things about the regime that Offred herself could not tell us because she wasn't in a position to know them. Nineteen eighty-four, by the way, ends more positively than some people think. It doesn't end with Winston Smith loving Big Brother. It ends with a note on Newspeak, which is written in standard English in the past tense. So even in Orwell, we have a point of view from which the regime is a thing of the past, and that's where the optimism of such writers as myself comes out.
Margaret Atwood Yes.
Margaret Atwood Portuguese.
Margaret Atwood Well, he's actually, the name is Portuguese, but he's a professor at Cambridge University, England. So he's a sort of an, he does have a last name that isn't actually English, but he is a Cambridge professor, and you know what they're like.
Margaret Atwood Sure.
Margaret Atwood Well, they do what academics do, which is to try to figure out what was going on and why it was going on and what related to what and just exactly what the truth was, and there's a place in our lives where people who are trying to find out what the truth actually was.
Studs Terkel And where we're coming on now, we come to the book, your, perhaps reflections, thoughts on "The Handmaid's Tale", Margaret Atwood my guest. In doing this book, the reactions have been, well, overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but people are disturbed by--I say this is, they speak of this as a chilling narrative, don't they?
Margaret Atwood And I think that's because it seems to have touched a nerve in the American psyche. I think a lot of people feel that we're a little bit too close to this kind of regime, that it sort of snuck up on us without our noticing it. Do you know, did you see "Time" magazine about four weeks ago? It had a cover on it, and the heading was "Politics, Religion and Money". And one thing that the revolution of 1776 did in this country was separated church and state. And I think that if you bring those two things together, church and state, you have a potential for a much more repressive regime than you have if you keep them separate.
Studs Terkel There's also the other aspect, I know I'm, perhaps, emphasizing this too much, is that people say when something happens, a repressive regime happens, they speak of Germany or of the Soviet Union or other countries, of Latin American countries, they speak of coups, something wholly alien to us. And I know that's not it at all.
Studs Terkel Hitler got elected, that's right, yeah. In fact, as an old-time correspondent and photographer here the other day was saying, he was there during the Anschluss in Austria, he was in Vienna and the cheers for Hitler were thunderous, the same people who cheered the socialists a week ago. So. But coming back to this here, it's a easy, gradual--I use the word benign. Self-applauding thing, and I can't help but think of Erich Fromm's comment at the very beginning of this program. In fact, we might just end with playing that again. I think let's end where we began, with Erich Fromm's comment, this by way of thanking Margaret Atwood for a powerhouse of a book. "The Handmaid's Tale", Houghton Mifflin the publishers and we listen to Erich Fromm, and thank you very much.
Erich Fromm A man who is poor and ignorant and has an unhappy life has to be really insane to say, "I'm the most wonderful man in the world." But if he can feel "My group, my nation, my religion, my race, my political creed is the most wonderful thing in the world, and I am part of it," then he can experience that very same narcissistic madness but with much more reality behind it so to speak, because while he is a poor devil, the group is after all something big. And there's another thing: if I get up today and make a speech and say, "I am the most wonderful man in the world. My family, my father, my mother, and my cousins are the most wonderful people," everybody knows where to send me. But if I make the same speech and say, "My religion, my nation, my race is the most wonderful thing," there are millions of people who a) agree with me, and secondly, I'm considered to be particularly virtuous.