Margaret Atwood’s Frankenstein-ian Speculations

As The Handmaid’s Tale kicks off its second season this week, it’s worth looking at the interesting connections between author Margaret Atwood and the work of an earlier female writer of speculative…

As The Handmaid’s Tale kicks off its second season this week, it’s worth looking at the interesting connections between author Margaret Atwood and the work of an earlier female writer of speculative fiction, Mary Shelley. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its television adaptation follow the story of Offred, a handmaid and one of many women enslaved by the government of Gilead for her reproductive abilities during a time when fertility is at an all-time low.

Margaret Atwood, a renowned Canadian author, has long played with the Frankenstein myth. In her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, Atwood tells the story of Crake, a scientist who develops Crakers, genetically altered humanoid creatures perfectly suited to a new environment defined by pollution and climate change. The Crakers might not be stitched together on the outside – they are actually inhumanly beautiful – but their DNA is certainly Frankenstein-ian. The Crakers contain all the attributes of humans and animals that Crake, their creator, deems valuable.  They purr to heal themselves (suggestive of cats); they reproduce in heats to avoid sexual competition (claimed to be the cause of violence); and their skin produces a citrus smell to repel insects (remarkably practical).

Crake’s friend, Jimmy, questions Crake about his creations, unable to escape the feeling that “some line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed. How much is too much, how far is too far?” Crake dismisses that there is any such line to be crossed; no God and no Nature exists to determine such limits. Or as he puts it, “I don’t believe in Nature either… at least not with a capital N.” Crake is Atwood’s update of Shelley’s “pale student of unhallowed arts.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that Atwood also took on the persona of the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, in “Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein,” a chapbook reprinted in her Selected Poems 1965-1975. This series of 10 poems explores Victor’s act of creation, the connection between creator and creation, and the revolt of the creature, who finally demands his autonomy: “I will not come when you call.”

But what does all this have to do with The Handmaid’s Tale? Offred and Frankenstein’s creature both exist in the world as outcasts. Their social conditions are completely determined by the status society assigns them based on the appearance and function of their bodies. Offred is seen as nothing but her reproductive capability, the creature as his horrible countenance. Both are denied access to community and autonomy based on traits they did ask for and have no control over. Offred refuses to look at her own body because she doesn’t “want to look at something that determines me so completely.”

More importantly, The Handmaid’s Tale and Frankenstein are texts about knowledge – about language, the act of reading, and the relationship between knowledge and power. The creature reflects on the knowledge he gained while watching the DeLacey family: “The words induced me to turn towards myself… When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?” During the course of his reading, the creature never recognizes a being like himself in any of the texts he encounters. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred offers a similar reflection: “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print… We lived in the gaps between stories.” Those that exist at the margins – the outcast and the oppressed – do not find their own experiences reflected in the stories a society tells itself about itself.  Shelley’s and Atwood’s texts give voice to these marginalized characters and emphasize language’s ability to give power through both knowledge and the potential to share one’s own story.

As you watch the kick-off of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale this week, consider the many connections between these two gifted writers of speculative fiction as their texts challenge us to think about the boundaries we’re willing to transgress during acts of creation, the power of literature in defining our identities in relation to the world in which we live, and literature’s power to give voice to the voiceless.

One State / One Story: Frankenstein is an Indiana Humanities program and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the Indiana State Library and Indiana Center for the Book. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.