Unraveling the Handmaid’s Tale
Featuring an interview with Renee Nault about her graphic novel adaptation
By Min Chen
Written by celebrated novelist Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th century literature. It has been translated into over 40 languages and adapted into a film, opera, ballet, Hulu television series, and–most recently–a graphic novel.
Published a year after the imaginary future depicted in George Orwell’s classic 1984, the book explores second-wave feminist ideologies and is often viewed as a response to the Western world’s move toward hyper-conservatism led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But what keeps readers coming back, adaptation after adaptation, is the universality of its themes–social hierarchy, complicity, language as power, women’s ownership of their bodies–and ultimate message of hope.
The Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive, totalitarian regime that rules over what was once the United States. Pollution and disease have led to low fertility rates, leading the upper class to bear children through Handmaids–women who are enslaved for the sole purpose of reproduction.
Offred–the protagonist and narrator–is a Handmaid who was forcibly separated from her husband and daughter during the Gilead insurrection. After her capture, she was detained at a re-education facility, the Red Center, to be indoctrinated as a Handmaid and sent to the home of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy.
Offred is only able to interact with others when she leaves the Commander’s home on shopping trips and even then, the state’s secret police–the Eyes–watches her every move. She becomes entangled with members of Mayday, an organization working to overthrow the Gilead government, and must reconcile her passive inclinations with an environment of resistance.
The book’s epilogue, ‘Historical Notes,’ is a transcript from an academic conference in the year 2195, after the fall of Gilead. Professor Pieixoto, the speaker, analyzes the regime and the historical authenticity of Offred’s story, noting that her fate is unknown.
The Tale is an exemplar of the feminist and dystopian genres; the latter fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction–encompassing fantasy, sci-fi, alternate history, and horror–which has played a defining role in the course of Western literature since the 18th century. With roots tracing back to Jonathan Swift’s A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms (1726), speculative fiction is, by nature, an exercise of imagination that evokes values relevant to a contemporary audience.
Instead of merely being a snapshot of the times, the Tale goes a step further to become a means for readers to make sense of their existence, irrespective of time and place. The New York Times published an essay by Atwood in March 2017, where she addressed inquiries into the book’s genre. She suggested that it fits under “the literature of witness” because “Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it.” This, Atwood explained, is “an act of hope.”
Similarly, David Ketterer argues in Science Fiction Studies that ‘Historical Notes’ sets the Tale apart from other dystopian works because it reveals that Atwood was not only concerned with the events that led to the formation of a despotic state, but also the circumstances that paved the way for its eventual demise (‘The Handmaid’s Tale: A Contextual Dystopia’). He adds that the implied cyclicality of power points to the notion that all sociopolitical systems will one day become yet another page in history.
Perhaps what endears the Tale to subsequent generations is how it has become a vehicle for readers to bear witness to and rectify the injustices they perceive. To many, it’s a profound reminder that civil liberties, which took decades or even centuries to establish, can be eroded before our eyes.
In 2017, a group of women protesting a U.S. Senate healthcare bill that cut funding for Planned Parenthood dressed up as Handmaids while demonstrating on the steps of the United States Capitol. Similar events have taken place across the country in what is viewed as a unified pushback against the patriarchal values that have bled into U.S. politics in recent years. In Ohio, it was to protest a bill criminalizing abortion and in New Hampshire, it was to call for the resignation of a state representative who participated in a Reddit forum that shares misogynistic content.
To say that Atwood’s book–or any speculative work for that matter–is a cautionary tale would be overly simplistic. With its far-reaching influence, speculative fiction can be molded to the readers’ world, engendering new meaning with every reading and adaptation.
The most recent interpretation is by Canadian artist and illustrator Renee Nault. She began her career as an illustrator after graduating from Sheridan College in Ontario, and her work has appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements around the world. Primarily working in watercolor and ink, Nault is known for her use of vivid colors and the imaginative worlds she creates.
Her interest in comics led her to study the storytelling medium. Nault’s interpretation of the Tale, which was published in March this year, is her first graphic novel.
What led you to pursue adapting the Tale when the publisher contacted you?
I was very excited to adapt this book. I first read it in high school and I’ve loved it since then. I was really honored to be chosen to turn it into a graphic novel.
What notable challenges did you face in taking on this project?
There were many challenges. One of them was to compress the novel, which is quite long, into a much shorter form without losing the essence of the book. Another was to find ways of conveying the main character’s inner world, since so much of the story takes place in her thoughts and memories.
Did the source material’s socio-political themes affect the way you approached this project?
Yes, very much. Unfortunately, the themes of the novel resonate just as strongly today as when it was written. In America, the rise of far-right extremism seems to eerily mirror the rise of the Republic of Gilead.
What does the medium of art offer that is missing from novels or television?
Graphic novels offer a completely different way to experience a story. They can flow seamlessly between reality and more surreal, fantastical imagery. They offer the reader a chance to follow the panels at their own pace, pausing to absorb the images that impact them personally.
Have you always been drawn to the dystopian genre?
Yes. I think dystopian narratives attract us because they present a worst-case scenario. If we can see this scenario play out in our heads, we can imagine how it might be prevented or changed. At worst, we can imagine how we might survive it.
Where do you draw inspiration for your artwork?
My visual inspiration comes from many different places–Art Nouveau and Art Deco, early 1900s book illustrations, Ukiyo-e prints, fashion, and cinema. I also travel a lot and take a lot of pictures.
What is your storytelling method?
In the book, a lot of the story takes place in Offred’s inner monologue. I wanted the art to reflect that inner world–to be personal, symbolic, and surreal.
I would describe my storytelling in this book as very intuitive. I let Ms. Atwood’s prose inspire images in my mind, and tried to translate those images onto the page as naturally as I could.
An artist wears many hats, exploring every aspect of life from identity to politics to faith. How do you view your role as an artist?
I’m not sure, and it’s something I struggle with a bit. There are stories in my head that I want to tell–some might be important, others less so. I think, as an artist, I have to follow my inspiration and hope others are also inspired by what I create.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a series of short comics to be published as an anthology. I’m also continuing my watercolor fantasy series, Witchling. There are interesting projects coming up that I can’t talk about yet.
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.
Nault will be attending the 19th annual Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which will take place from November 1 to 10, 2019. She will be speaking on the ‘The Looming Shadow of Dystopia’ panel on November 4 and will be holding two workshops over the course of the festival. Visit [festival.org.hk] for more information.