APRIL 28, 2018
“AND SO I STEP UP, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The famously ambiguous ending of Offred’s narrative in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale sees the putative “Handmaid” stepping into a van that has come for her at the home where she is being held as a concubine for an unnamed “Commander” in a post-collapse, post-democratic future United States that has been renamed Gilead. Believing herself to be pregnant by Nick, the Commander’s driver (who may or may not actually be an agent of the state secret police), Offred climbs into the van hoping that Nick is telling her the truth when he whispers to her that the van is actually with Mayday, the anti-Gilead resistance organization, and not from the government. Offred’s tale thus ends not only without resolution to most of its major plot threads but also as a kind of personal philosophical challenge to its reader: having had all your political optimism crushed time and time again throughout the novel, will you allow yourself to nurture one last bit of hope that perhaps Offred’s story might yet end differently?
Of course, this spirit of ambiguity has typically proven difficult to retain in the novel’s filmic adaptations. The 1990 Handmaid’s Tale movie flattens the mystery into an affirmatively happy ending in which Offred slashes the Commander’s throat with a knife before escaping to safety in the mountains (definitely pregnant, by a Nick who is definitely a Resistance hero, in a Gilead where the revolution has already begun). The Hulu series, now entering its second season, has made the questionable decision to extend the story significantly beyond the book’s lady-or-the-tiger ending, with results that are yet to be seen. And the book itself does not actually leave you trapped permanently in suspense, either; the Handmaid’s narrative is followed by a bizarre epilogue set in-universe approximately two hundred years after the events of the novel, titled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” Neither of the film or television adaptations have yet found themselves able to incorporate this part of the novel; even the original Claire Danes audiobook adaptation has Danes read this part too, breaking the spell of her performance as Offred. When I last reread the novel on my iPad, I was surprised to find the Kindle app spit me out to the “rate this book” page after Offred’s last words, as if the “Historical Notes” were mere appendix, or perhaps not even properly part of the book at all.
I confess I find the sheer weirdness of the “Historical Notes,” and readerly resistance to their message, completely fascinating — all the more so because the far future “Notes” are not simply an odd narrative choice by Atwood, but because they raise all sorts of new and urgent questions the novel also refuses to resolve. The “Historical Notes” take place at a Gileadean Studies conference at the University of Denay, Nunavit; they provide a transcript of the keynote address of Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University, who, we come to find, is the person who discovered the original audiocassettes recorded and hidden by Offred and transcribed and edited them for publication. Thus we discover that The Handmaid’s Tale has been, all along, a novel-within-a-novel; what we have been reading all along is Offred’s testimony as later published by Pieixoto and his collaborator in this post-Gilead future. From Pieixoto’s talk we discover that Offred did escape from the Commander’s home to a place of safety, at least for a little while — long enough for her to record 30 audiotapes telling her story — before disappearing again into the anonymity of history, for good or for ill.
In addition to providing a definite “happy ending” to the events of the novel — however partial, incomplete, or temporary it might have ultimately proved to be for Offred as an individual — the “Historical Notes” also provide a utopian glimpse of a radically reordered post-Western future. Most of the names we see recorded in the “Historical Notes” are non-Anglo in origin, and a high proportion of the professors bear First Nation names (like Professor Maryann Crescent Moon or Professor Johnny Running Dog) and/or they work in postcolonial academic fields that study “Western philosophy” and “Caucasian Anthropology” (rather than naïvely taking European-American intellectual traditions as a human universal). While Cambridge clearly remains a major university, other references to the University of Denay, Nunavit; the University of Baroda, India; and the University of San Antonio, Republic of Texas in the chapter suggest a similar decentering of the assumed supremacy of the West. Best of all, we learn in the “Historical Notes” that the misogynistic, theocratic nightmare of Gilead has itself collapsed, and is now widely perceived as a historical anomaly, a mere bump on the road of progress.
The “Historical Notes” have typically been read as Atwood’s riff on “The Principles of Newspeak” appendix in George Orwell’s 1984, whose past-tense academic narration similarly suggests that the totalitarian government of Airstrip One eventually collapses and something like the “normal” course of progressive history is restored. But there’s something wrong in the “Historical Notes,” something foul that might escape notice the first time some readers encounter the novel. Pieixoto is a disturbing figure; he makes a sexist joke about “enjoying” the female professor who has introduced him immediately upon taking the stage, and he soon admits that he has named his book The Handmaid’s Tale not only in homage to Chaucer but as a dirty-joke reference to Offred’s ass. He similarly dubs the underground network ferrying Handmaids to safety (named “the Underground Femaleroad” in the main portion of the novel) “the Underground Frailroad,” to laughter and applause, and he goes on to direct the audience’s attention not to Offred or her life but to an extended meditation on the identity of the unnamed Commander in the story, trying to narrow it down to one of two men named Fred. Pieixoto declares that it is impossible to track down Offred or learn anything about her when we don’t even know her original name — which many careful readers of the novel (including the Hulu series) have concluded is likely revealed by an early reference to a woman named “June” that corresponds to no other character. Perhaps worst of all, in a parody of academic relativism, Pieixoto soberly commands us to withhold our moral judgment of the Gileadeans, a moral judgment that (one would have thought) is the entire point of composing a dystopian novel in the first place; our job, Pieixoto says, is “not to censure but to understand.” His audience, for their part, seems more concerned with when lunch will be served than with anything else.
For the 2017 rerelease of the audiobook, Atwood has made the extremely unusual choice of extending the “Historical Notes” past the original ending of Pieixoto’s talk, which he concludes by asking “Are there any questions?” This “special edition” first eliminates Danes’s reading of the “Historical Notes” in favor of a multi-character audioplay, with a deeply British Pieixoto whose arrogance and pomposity drives home the troublingly sexist nature of this post-Western future, and then extends the narrative several more minutes with a series of voice actors (including Atwood herself) asking questions to which Pieixoto responds. Some of these audience members appear to have read the book more carefully, and with much more emotional investment in Offred’s story, than Pieixoto himself; they ask the sorts of questions we as readers have about the ending, the ones Pieixoto wrote off in favor of idle speculation about the true identity of the Commander.
The audiobook’s expanded epilogue provides Atwood an opportunity for some timely Trump jokes — including the revelation that a chain of tawdry Jezebel’s strip clubs eventually became a nationwide chain located mostly at hotels and golf courses — and some revision of the original assumptions of the novel (including a question about iPads that locates Gilead in our near-future, as opposed to a 1980s near-future). There are even some questions that ambitiously retcon the original novel, George-Lucas-style: one of the questioners suggests that Offred may appear overly passive in the novel because she is deliberately covering up her clandestine Resistance activities both before and after her capture, seeking to protect people still at risk — an interpretation of the novel that reframes her behavior in an entirely different light — while another exchange shifts the cause of the rise of Gilead from a science fictional concurrence of political and environmental crises to a much more mundane, frighteningly ordinary slide into fascism through the mission creep of the surveillance state. Another question allows Atwood to explain the unusual, seemingly arbitrary division of her book into multiple chapters sometimes given descriptive names and sometimes simply called “Night” — perhaps a point of cleverness she felt the critics had not properly appreciated. More than one response seems to promise the release of an imminent sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps also bearing the in-universe stamp of Pieixoto’s research team.
Most intriguing to me, however, is the explanation for how Pieixoto came to possess Offred’s tapes in the first place. In the original “Historical Notes,” he tells us they were found in a wall in what was once Bangor, Maine — but in the expanded version it is revealed that they were discovered as that building was being restored into a “museum complex” called “Gilead Village.” Disturbingly, Pieixoto explains that this site is being constructed “for the purposes of education as well as recreation”; he himself sits on the advisory board of the project, and the construction workers had been under standing orders to bring any historical artifacts discovered at the site to him personally. It is one thing to imagine Pieixoto as an academic researcher, however compromised by his sexism he may be, working on an editorial project releasing these discovered journals for public consumption — but it seems quite another to imagine him as someone with an economic interest in promoting a (transcendently gross) Gilead nostalgia industry!
“Gilead Village” seems to replicate a Colonial Williamsburg or a restored plantation house — aestheticizing the violence of history as if it has nothing to do with us, or worse yet, because the most privileged among us actually miss those wretched times. This idea that Gilead is a site of nostalgia for the academics at the conference, rather than a site of horror or disgust, was always implicit in the original “Historical Notes,” not only in Pieixoto’s morally compromised address but also in a bizarre, unexplained, and easy-to-miss reference to an “Outdoor Period-Costume Sing-Song” event the conference attendees will apparently be participating in. But the new “Historical Notes” puts this fundamental problem of toxic nostalgia front and center. Even more so than the original, the new notes strongly suggest that Offred’s story has been fatally compromised by its contact with Pieixoto — who, we will recall, freely admits he has done the work of organizing the unnumbered tapes into a narrative that makes sense to him. When Offred begins her story with dreamy, nostalgic memories of teenage sex — and only eventually comes around to explaining that she is being held as a sex slave by people who only three years ago were her neighbors and fellow Americans — is that really Offred speaking, or is it Pieixoto? Is the romanticized thrill of increasingly illicit sex that characterizes Offred’s narration her actual story, or simply his sick, erotic fantasy, projected on to her? What in the record has been rearranged, removed, or quietly altered? What, if anything, has been made up of whole cloth? What is this document called The Handmaid’s Tale we have spent all this time with, really — how much of it was ever Offred’s, and how much of it was always Pieixoto’s? Can the Handmaid speak? Perhaps overly optimistically, I would like to think Pieixoto and the other weirdo academics in Gilead Studies have managed to learn something from Offred, even if many of them seem to have fallen far short of truly hearing her — and when Pieixoto ends his talk, he essentially plagiarizes Offred, slipping himself into the complex imagery of darkness versus light. In a way — in a deeply unsatisfying, entirely insufficient way — she still gets the last word. But it’s a word that can only ever come down to us through him.
The genius of Atwood’s tale — a key part of the reason why it has survived so long as a classic, while superficially similar totalitarian narratives have tended to grow stale over time — has always been its refusal both of the usual closure of dystopian fantasy, in which the good guys either overthrow the bad government or at least escape to safety outside its reach, and of the more hopeless anti-utopian variety, in which the erstwhile hero is finally and forever crushed by the all-powerful regime either physically or mentally. Instead we get both, and neither, in a dyspeptic epilogue that is mostly silent on the questions that have animated the main plot and instead asks deeper metahistorical questions about memory, agency, knowledge production, and “progress.” My fondness for the “Historical Notes” is why I’ve always felt it was a mistake for the Hulu series to produce a second season, despite appreciating the first one; we unfortunately have every indication that the second season is going to flatten Offred’s story into exactly the sort of heroic melodrama Atwood’s novel was, in the end, actually mocking. Deeply suspect from the position of genre convention, and probably unfilmable from the perspective of film and television mass entertainment, the “Historical Notes” are still where The Handmaid’s Tale becomes the most beguiling and remains most provocative: this is where Atwood ironizes her own horrifying dystopia, and utterly shakes her reader’s confidence that they will ever be the master of this story. The new, expanded “Historical Notes” in the audiobook special edition reenergize Atwood’s long-running shell game, calling our attention to entirely new dimensions of ambiguity and misreading. How we can ever begin to comprehend the nightmare of history from the perspective of a present that, even now, refuses to listen or to learn, much less to repent? And the alternative possibility — that the Handmaid might be allowed to speak for herself after all, that the subaltern might actually be heard and believed — remains vital there, too, encoded and hidden but still recuperable from our position as readers and thinkers outside their doomed storyworld. Denay, Nunavit; deny none of it.