Image Systems in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, is undergoing something of a revival these days. Reading the novel in search of practical wisdom for novelists, I was most struck by Atwood’s use of image systems. I’ve written about image systems before—here’s a quick introduction to the concept if you’re interested—and the ways in which they represent one of the writer’s most powerful instruments for conveying a novel’s subconscious impact. 

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses a highly effective image system to reinforce the novel’s prevailing mood, provoking a series of subconscious reactions in the reader that dovetail with her more explicitly presented themes and subject matter. The image system is easily spotted in passages like this:

The sun is out, in the sky there are white fluffy clouds, the kind that look like headless sheep. Given our wings, our blinkers, it’s hard to look up, get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world in gasps.

And this, as the novel’s protagonist eats breakfast:

In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an eggcup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt.

In these passages Atwood uses descriptive detail to capture the claustrophobic mindset of her protagonist, a woman who is kept as a reproductive slave who must get pregnant in order to survive, and whose masters, along with the cooks preparing her food, are single-mindedly focused on the overriding goal of fertilizing the egg inside the woman. Atwood’s images are powerful because they show the reality of this emotional situation in a sensory and visceral way without alluding to it directly.

The shadow side of fertility is barrenness, represented in the novel by the protagonist’s mistress, the vengeful Serena, as portrayed in this passage set in the garden as she deadheads tulips:

She was snipping off the seedpods with a pair of shears. I watched her sideways as I went past, with my basket of oranges and lambchops. She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers?

Oranges and lamb chops: a bounty of luscious fertility and recently slaughtered new life. And the shearing of the seedpods, the “swelling genitalia of the flowers”—well, it’s pretty much on the nose. But again, the imagery is a powerful subconscious way of reinforcing the unspoken emotional dynamics at work beneath the story.

But there’s a deeper thrust to Atwood’s image system as well. Remember that an image system consists not so much of repeated images as it does recurring riffs on categories of images. We can get a good sense of what that can mean in these passages, taken almost at random from the pages of the novel:

I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either sides is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half-dead; flexible and pink, like lips.

It’s Nick, I can see him now; he’s stepped off the path, onto the lawn, to breathe in the humid air which stinks of flowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea.

The doctors are still in their van; their faces appear at the window, white blobs, like the faces of sick children confined to the house.

We go along the corridor and through another flat gray door and along another corridor, softly lit and carpeted this time, in a mushroom color, browny pink. . . We emerge into a central courtyard . . . There’s a fountain in the middle of it, a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed.

So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters, or, better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.

Writing, and especially descriptive writing, is all about making choices. A well-constructed image system is an essential ingredient in the recipe for the mysterious, cumulative power that the best novels achieve. To build an image system, one must begin with the understanding that the reader’s subconscious mind can by played like a musical instrument. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood clearly knew this. Her image system is one of sexuality tainted by sickness, cloying bloodlessness, parasitism, squandered fertility, and death—all of which resonate perfectly with the themes and subtexts of the novel.

If you go back and look at it, so much of the meaning of The Handmaid’s Tale is carried in this image system, which is defined by the novel’s subject matter and works to greatly amplify that subject matter in the subconscious mind of the reader. Without the image system, the book would lose much of its oppressive emotional impact, an impact that lingers on far more than it would by simply coming to understand the sketched-in outlines of Atwood’s peculiar dystopia.


Launching a Novelistic Love Affair: Character Creation & Romantic Attraction in John le Carré’s The Russia House

As with every John Le Carré novel, there is so much brilliance in The Russia House: the dialogue, the pacing of the scenes, and most of all—as in anything by this master craftsman—the characters. In The Russia House I was especially affected by the love affair between two principal characters: Barley, the hapless British publisher who is recruited as a spy, and Katya, the idealistic Soviet literary professional who tries to help her friend and former lover, a government scientist, get his vitally important work out to the western world.

Consider the scene where we meet Katya for the first time, at a Moscow book fair. In the scene, she approaches a minor character, Landau, about her urgent desire to publish her scientist friend’s “novel,” which contains highly combustible secret information about the shortcomings of the Soviet nuclear program. Here’s the encounter:

She was earnest. She was intelligent. She was determined. She was scared, even though her dark eyes were lit with humour. And she had that rare quality which Landau in his flowery way liked to call the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow. In other words, she had quality as well as strength. And since in moments of crisis our thoughts do not run consecutively but rather sweep over us in waves of intuition and experience, he sensed all these things at once and was on terms with them by the time she spoke to him again.    
 ‘A Soviet friend of mine has written a creative and important work of literature,’ she said after taking a deep breath. ‘It is a novel. A great novel. Its message is important for all mankind.’    
She had dried up.    
‘A novel,’ Landau prompted. And then, for no reason he could afterwards think of, ‘What’s its title, dear?’      
The strength in her, he decided, came neither from bravado nor insanity but from conviction.     ‘What’s its message then, if it hasn’t got a title?’  
‘It concerns actions before words. It rejects the gradualism of the perestroika. It demands action and rejects all cosmetic change.’      
‘Nice,’ said Landau, impressed.  
She spoke like my mother used to, Harry: chin up and straight into your face.    
‘In spite of glasnost and the supposed liberalism of the new guidelines, my friend’s novel cannot yet be published in the Soviet Union,’ she continued. ‘Mr. Scott Blair has undertaken to publish it with discretion.’    
‘Lady,’ said Landau kindly, his face now close to hers. ‘If your friend’s novel is published by the great house of Abercrombie & Blair, believe me, you can be assured of total secrecy.’ 
He said this partly as a joke he couldn’t resist and partly because his instincts told him to take the stiffness out of their conversation and make it less conspicuous to anybody watching. And whether she understood the joke or not, the woman smiled also, a swift warm smile of self-encouragement that was like a victory over her fears.

The key thing to notice here is that Le Carré is introducing Katya in such a sympathetic and accurate way that we immediate feel we know her, and at the same time we really want to like her. Le Carré can do this because he’s such a gifted novelist, which in itself is a helpful thing simply to acknowledge and witness. But let’s break it down a little bit to see if we can figure out exactly how he does it.

The first thing he does, through Landau, is to tell us directly about the essence of her personality: “She was earnest. She was intelligent. She was determined.” As it happens, these are all qualities that readers are likely to find highly sympathetic in a fictional character. She’s also scared, which both plants a question and heightens our sympathy for her. And she’s got a sense of humor about the situation (“her dark eyes were lit with humour”), which makes us admire her all the more. So already, in just a few lines, there has emerged from the story this extremely compelling, sympathetic, interesting character.

Another writer might have left it at that and gone back to unspooling the plot, but Le Carré knows better. He has Landau dwell on her more, deciding that, “she had that rare quality which Landau in his flowery way liked to call the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow.” Because of the accurate way le Carré portrays Landau’s thought process—“ since in moments of crisis our thoughts do not run consecutively but rather sweep over us in waves of intuition and experience”—and because of various other things the author has ensured we know about Landau—he’s a widely experienced and notably discriminating sexual adventurer—we trust this judgment. Perhaps we think of other people we’ve encountered in our lives who have “the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow,” and perhaps this further cements Katya’s attractiveness as a character.

What Le Carré is doing is stacking one positive character trait on top of another, but it’s far from haphazard. Katya’s making sense to us as a human being even as she emerges as the kind of person we’d very much like to meet. Our recognition of the internal logic of the character, combined that character’s basic attractiveness, draw us irresistibly toward her.

After several lines of unmediated dialogue we get another stroke: Katya’s strength, Landau observes, “came neither from bravado nor insanity but from conviction.” Yet another point in her favor—we admire people whose strength comes from their convictions—but think about the ordering here. If the strong sense of conviction had come before we perceived her determination, her vulnerability, and her “Class that Only Nature Can Bestow,” she might not have been so immediately alluring.

It’s interesting to note that up until now most of what we know about Katya (aside from the fact that she has dark eyes) comes in terms not of her physical being, but of the content of her inner character. Now, we get a more imagistic stroke: she speaks “chin up and straight to your face.” This physical description is vague enough that the reader is allowed to construct his or her own uniquely vivid image of Katya, and it’s of a piece with what we know about her essential character. By this point in the scene, I would venture to say, we’re sold on Katya. We want her to be our fictional friend, and we may even—because a novel is a vicarious experience, after all—want her to be our fictional lover.

At the end of the scene, we have Katya’s final introductory stroke:a swift warm smile of self-encouragement that was like a victory over her fears.” Again, this is a brilliant physical description, because it mirrors her internal conflict—her determination struggling to overcome her fear—and, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, a character’s internal conflict is intrinsically fascinating in fiction.

A second very interesting progression in the development of our fictional love story is the meeting scene at a crowded Moscow literary event between Katya and Le Carré’s protagonist, Barley, the British publisher and newly recruited spy. We observe the meeting from an omniscient (or alternatively put, because we only enter two mindsets, a dual close third) point of view:

As actors Barley and Katya were dressed for different plays: Katya for high drama in her blue dress and old lace collar that had so taken Landau’s fancy; and Barley for low English comedy in a pinstripe suit of his father’s that was too short for him in the sleeve, and a pair of very scuffed buckskin boots by Ducker’s of Oxford that only a collector of bygones could have regarded as still splendid. 
When they met they surprised each other. After all they were still strangers, closer to the forces that had brought them here than to one another. Discarding the impulse to give her a formal peck on the cheek, Barley found himself instead puzzling over her eyes, which were not only very dark and full of light at the same time but heavily fringed, so that he couldn’t help wondering whether she was endowed with a double set of eyelashes.  
And since Barley on his side wore that indefinably foolish expression which overcomes certain Englishmen in the presence of beautiful women, it was Katya’s suspicion that her first instinct on the telephone had been right and he was haughty.  
Meanwhile they were standing close enough to feel the warmth of each other’s bodies and for Barley to smell her make-up. The Babel of foreign languages continued round them.  
‘You are Mr. Barley, I think,’ she told him breathlessly and laid a hand along his forearm, for she had a way of touching people as if seeking to assure herself that they were real.  
‘Yes indeed, the same, hullo, well done, and you’re Katya Orlova, Niki’s friend. Wonderful you could make it. Masterpiece of timing. How are you?’    
Photographs don’t lie but they don’t tell the truth either, Barley was thinking, watching her breast rise and fall with her breathing. They don’t catch the glow of a girl who looks as though she’s just witnessed a miracle and you’re the person she’s chosen to tell first.
 It’s essential that we get both characters’ interiorities here, so that we can understand, and even to some degree FEEL, their mutual attraction. And Le Carré is such a skilled writer that we DO feel it: the cautious first reactions, followed by the increasing sense of intimacy—the way they stand close enough together they can feel the warmth of their bodies and Barley can smell her makeup—and finally, on Barley’s part at least, the dazed stirrings of infatuation: “the glow of a girl who looks as though she’s just witnessed a miracle and you’re the person she’s chosen to tell first.”

In the rest of the scene and subsequent scenes, we get more conversation and interaction between our prospective lovers, and a sense of increasing familiarity between them, though explicitly at least they’re just doing business. Katya’s trying to get Barley to publish her friend’s explosive treatise; Barley’s trying to get urgent information from her about the author for his British and American spymasters. And then we get this:

He loved her grave silences while she stared at him. He loved her listening with her eyes and the sense of recovered companionship each time she spoke.

See how much Le Carré is capturing here in these two simple sentences? The description of one half of the love affair, filtered through the perception of the other half, is so accurate, so true to life, so alluring on a basic human level that the reader simply cannot resist it.

And so Le Carré’s espionage-based love story is off and running. Not only do we no longer question it; we actively believe in it. Because we’ve experienced the attraction for ourselves, we can’t help rooting for this star-crossed coupling to succeed.


Mixed Points of View & Theme in Philipp Meyer’s The Son: A Structural Analysis

Writers are used to thinking about a novel’s point of view as belonging to a single easily labeled category—be it omniscient, first person, close third, “alternating third,” “multiple first,” or something else. But point of view doesn’t have to be uniform or consistent over the length of a novel; it can just as easily be a pastiche. Phillipp Meyer’s bestselling family saga The Son is a good example of this phenomenon. It consists of a regularly alternating trio of distinct point of view types, functioning together as a unitary whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At 560 pages this book does qualify as a saga, and its length gives Meyer the freedom to really let his characters stretch out and come alive. Each point of view shows us something different, not only about the character narrating the story but also about the particular flavor of that character’s experience. So we get to see the family that is the subject of the novel from a variety of angles and at many different moments in time, and by the end of the novel we feel as if we’ve lived through that family’s emotional history in a way that has been both comprehensive and intimate. This is possible because while the three story lines take place in different decades over a period of more than a century and a half, the characters’ lives frequently manage to bump up against one other. The major events of the past linger on in the story, resonating down the years in ways that deepen the overall experience and allow for the emergence of a unified and powerful novelistic theme.

Let’s take a closer look. (Cautionary note. This analysis is a bit longer than usual as I found quite a lot to chew on. If you’re a novelist thinking hard about your craft, you will wish to read on. Others may want to stop right here—but please know, before you go, that I consider this a highly recommendable novel, certainly one of the best I’ve read in the last year or two.)

The three major points of view are:

1. Eli McCullough’s first-person “long” retrospective. As is the case with many if not most first person points of view, this one purports to be a “found” document: an oral history recording of the recollections of a 100-year old man made in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. Eli is the charismatic, curmudgeonly patriarch of the McCullough family, looking back on his life from 1849 to the 1880s:

“Spring 1849, the last full moon. We’d been two years on our Pedernales acreocracy, not far from Fredericksburg, when our neighbor had two horses stolen in broad daylight. Syphilis Poe, as my father called him, had come down from the Appalachian Mountains, imagining Texas a lazy man’s paradise where the firewood split itself, the persimmons fell into your lap, and your pipe was always stuffed with jimsonweed.” (13)

2. Eli’s son Peter McCullough’s first-person “short” retrospective. This is another “found” document, a daily diary written over a relatively brief span between 1915 and 1920:

“March 25, 1917. Drought is back but cattle remain high due to war. Woke up after a night of vivid thoughts, pulled the curtains expecting the green country of my youth and of my dreams. But with the exception of the area immediately around the house, there was nothing but sparse brittle grass, thorny brush, patches of bare caliche. My father is right: it is ruined forever, and in a single generation.” (264)

3. Eli’s great-granddaughter Jeanne McCullough’s third-person recollections. In effect, Jeanne’s sections of the book are rooted in the moments preceding her death in 2012, though Meyer doesn’t insist on that and it’s done subtly. Most of Jean’s story is told in the third person past, a point of view common in fiction due to its transparency and flexibility in both time and psychic distance:

“When she was a child, her father often gave her orphaned calves to look after, and, every so often, she would fold the grown ones in with the steers when they were shipped off to Forth Worth. She made enough money off her dogies to make investments in stocks, and that, she told people, is what taught her the value of a dollar.” (49)

Each of these points of view accomplishes something very specific that contributes both to the unfolding of the story and to the manifestation of its theme. Let’s consider each POV in more detail to get a feel for how they work together.

In Eli’s story (first-person “long” retrospective POV), the central event is his brutal kidnapping and subsequent adoption as a young teenager by the Comanche. The story goes on to trace the effects of this searing experience on his life and on the family dynasty he founded. In part, we are motivated read on by such questions as: What formed him?  How did he start his dynasty? What does he really believe? Eli is brutal but resourceful, and he makes his way in the world through violence. His point of view is often quite in-the-moment, and with his sometimes quirky diction, it’s the most “voicey” of the three POVs. It’s also the most prevalent in the book, weighing in at 236 of the book’s 560 pages, or approximately 42 percent of the story.

First person retrospective is capable of an up-close, minute-minute-by minute narration, such as this scene taken from shortly after Eli returns to Anglo “civilization” after his years with the Comanche:

“The judge pointed out a squirrel that was high up in a live oak and I shot it off the branch and then shot a dove off a different branch. The onlookers applauded. Not far from them was a black eye in the grass that I knew belonged to a rabbit so I put an arrow through that as well. Several of the eastern reporters looked sick at the rabbit shrieking and flopping itself into the air but the judge laughed and sad, He’s got quite an eye, doesn’t he?” (326)

It’s also capable of highly digested, philosophical, “wide-view” retrospective musings laying out the story’s historical milieu:

“The best of the Texans were dead or had left the state and the ones who’d run things before the war came back. The cotton men wept about paying their slaves, but they kept their land and their Thoroughbreds and their big houses. There is more romance roping beefs than chopping cotton, but our state’s reputation as a cattle kingdom is overboiled. Beef was always a poor cousin to the woolly plant and it was not until thirty years after Spindletop that even oil knocked King Cotton from his throne.” (499)

And the history it presents is far from dry. It’s compelling because it’s highly defamiliarized, allowing us to see the world from new and surprising angles:

“In 1521 a dozen Spanish cattle were landed in the New World; by 1865 there were four million living wild in Texas alone. They did not take to domestication; they would happily stick a horn through you and go back to chewing grass. Your average hayseed avoided them as he might a grizzly bear.” (517)

Eli’s point of view is also capable of delving into the controlling idea of the novel, which is encapsulated pretty well in this passage:

“Even if god existed, to say he loved the human race was preposterous. It was just as likely the opposite; it was just as likely he was systematically deceiving us. To think that an all-powerful being would make the world for anyone but himself, that he might spend all his time looking out for the interests of lesser creatures, it went against all common sense. The strong took from the weak, only the weak believed otherwise, and if God was out there, he was just as the Greeks and Romans had suspected; a trickster, an older brother who spent all his time inventing ways to punish you.” (505)

In sum, Eli McCullough’s first person retrospective POV gets much of the novel’s crucial work done. It tells a gripping story, gives us a well researched and interestingly defamiliarized perspective on the historical period, and it conveys the novel’s theme, which has to do with the violent nature of the species. As a result of his formative experiences with the Comanche, Eli spends the rest of his life operating on the principle that humans are essentially tribal, and that one has no choice but to fight for one’s “people.” Pity and second-guessing are signs of weakness; you have to take what’s yours or someone else will.

Now let’s take a look at Eli’s son Peter’s story, which is narrated via diary entries written in the first person “short” retrospective. Peter is in many ways the opposite of Eli: sensitive, ethical, wracked by guilt. His part in the saga unfolds when he is a middle-aged man, fearful, gripped by remorse about the violent nature of the McCullough’s ascent to fantastic wealth, and increasingly seen as a pariah within the family. The first person “short” retrospective POV is also capable of big picture thinking, but in contrast to Eli’s long-view history and philosophy Peter’s ruminations are more in-the-moment. It’s as if he’s formulating his thoughts as he writes:

“It is as my father says. Men are meant to be ruled. The poor man prefers to associate, in mind if not in body, with the rich and successful. He rarely allows himself to consider that his poverty and his neighbor’s riches are inextricably linked, for this would require action, and it is easier for him to think of all the reasons his is superior to his other neighbors, who are just poorer than he is.” (395)

Peter’s story is propelled by questions such as: What drives him? What’s going to happen to him? And, because he stands in direct thematic counterpoint to Eli’s grasping tribal-family-first philosophy, How can we reconcile ourselves to the fact that our wealth is built on an act of brutal violence?

The novel’s third alternating character arc is that of the third-person recollections of Eli’s great-granddaughter and contemporary matriarch, Jeanne McCullough. Most of Jeanne’s story can be read as straight third person past, a very common novelistic point of view, though looming in the background is our knowledge, communicated in the early chapters, that the entire story is running through her mind in the moments just before her death. There is an inherent dramatic tension in this set-up: How did she arrive at this fatal turning point? Will she die? What’s going to happen to the family when she’s gone?

In terms of theme, Jeanne is the contemporary embodiment of Eli’s ruthless founding philosophy. The third person POV, of course, is also fully capable of big thematic ruminations, and Jeanne’s are more similar in style and content to Eli’s than to Peter’s:

“A man, a life—it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.” (415)

Jeanne also experiences an interesting thematic sideline having to do with life after death:

“She knew she was not alone, there was someone in the room, the person responsible for her condition. I’m living through my own death, she thought, and let herself drift. A cold place. An old pond. But the mind, she thought, the mind will survive, that was the great discovery, it was all connected, it was roots beneath the earth. You had only to reach it. The great hive.” (413)

Near the end of the novel a brand new point of view makes a brief appearance: Ulises, the “lost” grandson of Peter, who basically represents the prolongation and eventual resolution of the Eli vs Peter theme/counter-theme. The ending is very smart, and I won’t ruin it with a summary.

* * *

To sum up, The Son is the saga of a family, a region, and a country. It’s an entertaining and deeply immersive story, conveying resonant truths about money, violence, the displacement of cultures, and what this all adds up to, both in terms of our country’s heritage and our basic human nature. The trio of rotating major points of view—each with its own qualities and advantages of perspective—allows us to see the family, the characters, and the setting in an increasingly holistic and three-dimensional way. The structure also allows us to piece together the theme from a variety of different angles, and in such a way that by the end we are filled with a sense of discovered meaning. That theme is a grim one; this is not a light read. But it is a gripping and beautiful read, one that I can’t recommend more highly, in part because of the finely wrought architecture underlying it.