Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991


"Metaphysical Romance": Atwood's PhD Thesis and The Handmaid's Tale

Two recent essays in SFS study Margaret Atwood's view of history in The Handmaid's Tale (1985). David Ketterer labels it "contextual dystopia';'1 Patrick D. Murphy discusses its "pseudo-documentary framing."2 Both affirm Atwood's own implied attitude to historical process, an attitude at once "cyclical" (Ketterer 214) and "dialectical" (Murphy 33). I would add that Atwood's text, grounded in a theory she proposed while a graduate student, at once recalls the historical situation of late-19th-century and Modernist England and alters it with reference to contemporary issues.

In the summer of 1973—12 years before publication of Handmaid's Tale—Atwood sent an incomplete draft of a PhD thesis that she never completed to her supervisor at Harvard; this draft is now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Toronto.3 The thesis's title is "Nature and Power in the English Metaphysical Romance of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." In the section called "Aim of the Thesis" she writes that "the label `metaphysical romance' has been chosen as a convenience and because a preoccupation with the nature of good and evil and with human destiny in its supernatural aspect seems characteristic of the form" (page not numbered). As we shall see, Atwood's interest in nature and power, good and evil, vis-à-vis the particular kind of novel she describes as "metaphysical romance" persists in Handmaid's Tale.                

Atwood's interest in the play of meaning between concepts of nature and power is of course not limited to Handmaid's Tale. The narrator of Surfacing (1972) seems on a kind of quest for understanding of the interplay between those two terms, as do the speakers in much of Atwood's poetry, especially in the volume Power Politics (1971). But because Handmaid's Tale is generically closer to the objects of her doctoral study, and because the contrasts between the terms appear most starkly in her dystopic novel, Handmaid's Tale deserves special attention under the rubric "metaphysical romance."               

In a rather untidy sentence beginning the second large section of her thesis ("The Nature of Power"), Atwood explains that "insofar as story line is quest, [it is] likely to be a Mother story; insofar as it's Battle, a father one." The thesis then begins to trace quest or female stories, and battle or male narratives, in selected works of George Macdonald, Rider Haggard, E.R. Eddison, Herbert Read, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. In the first section of the thesis ("The Power of Nature"), she discusses "The Victorian Motherworld" and "Green Girls, White Goddesses, Snow Queens," while in the second part she treats "The Fair Order" and "Dark Lords, Dark Hordes, Dark Towers."

Her strategy is to choose figures—from the works of the six men—which fit her conceptual frame, rather than to treat the entire canon of each writer  exhaustively. A source study, determining the precise influences of these  men's works upon Atwood's own metaphysical romance, would thus seem  less productive than my method: to suggest what seem distant but unmistakable echoes between her thesis topic and her dystopic novel.                

Her distinction between nature as female and power as male does not correspond neatly to the other broad categorical opposition she outlines in her statement of aim, that of good vs. evil; for nature is not wholly good, and power is not essentially evil. Instead, she argues that the political position of the homeland of these writers during their lifetimes affected the production of fictions which examined, through their characters and themes, England's "destiny" as an imperial power. She concludes that not only is nature threatened by power unchecked, but also nature without the conscious exercise power remains inhuman.                

I would propose that the political situation of North America, especially the US, at the time of Atwood's writing of Handmaid's Tale affects theme and characterization in the following way: in order to promote its imperialistic cause, the Gileadean regime attempts to control natural process—and indeed the course of human nature itself—with its greed, caprice, and drive to self-expression, but nature survives in the affair between Nick and Offred. In the introduction to her thesis, Atwood explains that the first theme dealt with is that of Nature as embodied in various superhuman female figures. The country of origin, England, was remarkable during the latter half of the nineteenth century for its increasing, if muddle-headed, expansion of its overseas empire, for the social theories either outraged or generated by this expansion, and for the problem of power and its uses thus raised. The second theme traced is that of Power, as projected in a number of supernatural male figures, who are either good kings [?1 or their evil opposites. (6; the last relative clause is handwritten in the MS, and I am guessing at the word "kings.")

American imperialism and nationalism account for the repressive order which becomes the Republic of Gilead in Atwood's novel; and although neither male nor female supernatural figures appear in her text, Offred, Moira, and Offred's mother can be described as questing or Mother figures, associated with nature, and the Commander and Nick as battling or Father figures aligned to power (to borrow from Atwood's notes to the second section of her thesis). To complicate further the binary pairs nature/power, good/evil, female/male, Atwood creates the Aunts and Commander's Wives, whose oppressive power over female nature identifies them more closely with the male-war narrative than with the female-quest.                

Atwood's concept of metaphysical romance as exploring "the nature of good and evil and...human destiny in its supernatural aspect" reappears in the romantic quest story which becomes Offred's taped autobiography. Appropriately ending with a rescue by a male power figure, Offred's quest teaches her that, while heroes and villains rarely exist in supernatural form, they can be discerned—rather, perhaps, like the heroes and villains in a C.S. Lewis or a ToLkien novel. That balance which characterizes Offred's quest—the balance between things natural, maternal, and questing, and things powerful, paternal, and warring—appeared initially in the opening comments of her unfinished PhD thesis. Thus while her success as a novelist and poet foreshortened her career as a literary critic, it did not terminate an interest in the study of the interactions between nature and power, interactions limned with the boldest colors in Handmaid's Tale. -- Shannon Hengen Laurentian University

1 David Ketterer, "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: A Contextual Dystopia," SFS #48,16(1989):209-17.
2 Patrick D. Murphy, "Reducing the Dystopian Distance: Pseudo-Documentary Framing in Near-Future Fiction," SFS #52, 17(1990):25-40.
3 The manuscript consists of "Aim of the Thesis," pages not numbered; "Introduction," about ten pages; Part One, "The Power of Nature," 84 pages, completed; Part Two, "The Nature of Power," 40 pages, not completed; plus a conclusion, two appendices, notes, and bibliography.

On Kepler's Somnium

I was pleased to find in your November 1990 issue (#52) an article on Kepler's Dream, but I was surprised that the author, Roger Bozzetto, called it SF's "Missing Link." It is only "missing" to those who have not yet noticed it; but it has been enjoyed by SF buffs for many years now, and is mentioned in the standard histories of the genre. And the line of direct influence, Lucian-Kepler-Wells, is hardly news, either. (By the way, Bozzetto makes a slip in his note 3 [379]: Wells's epigraph in First Men in the Moon is from Lucian's Icaromenippus, not from Kepler. But Wells credits Kepler as the source of the idea of a hollow moon in the text of his novel: "Kepler, with his subvolvani, was right after all" (Atlantic Edition VI:110). The 17th century SF tradition was studied by Marjorie H. Nicolson in her Voyages to the Moon (NY, 1948), and she says, "Wells's real master in the tradition ...was Kepler" (248). I spell all this out in detail in a lengthy article which must have appeared by now in the 1990 Wellsian (though I haven't yet seen a copy); but I have been telling my students about it for years.                

I realize, of course, what Bozzetto means by a "missing link" from his first paragraph—a link between pure fantasy (Lucian) and later hard SF. But even that is not quite true: Kepler is just as much a link between ancient and modern serious lunar astronomy. Plutarch's dialogue "The Face in the Moon," which Kepler reprints with his Dream, is a significant source for his own fictional frame, and it is at least in part a serious essay in ancient astronomy. Plutarch, early in his work, shoots down the theory that the markings on the Moon are simply a mirror-reflection of earthly geography, and he does so by good scientific reasoning. Kepler is in that tradition, too. He is indeed the link between ancient and modern lunar astronomy, because his main text was written in the "ancient" situation—before the discovery of the telescope—but the footnotes are post-telescope.

Anyhow, it's nice to see an article on Kepler's Dream, a delicious work which every SF buff should read for sheer pleasure.
-- David Lake, University of Queensland

David Lake's remarks, posted from Australia on December 11th, did not reach Montréal in time to be forwarded to Roger Bozzetto in France for the reply that they call for. It may be just as well, however, that the burden of responding to them should thus fall to me, since I am responsible for the one error in Bozzetto's essay that Lake singles out. Relying on my infallible memory(!), I changed Bozzetto's note 3 into the objectionable form that appeared in print; and only yesterday did I verify that I was wrong to alter Bozzetto's text, which properly referred the reader to The War of the Worlds (in the epigraph to which, Wells quotes Kepler by way of Robert Burton). Compounding that lapse of mine, I also had managed to forget that I myself, in Into the Unknown... (Berkeley, etc., 1970; 2nd ea., 1983), took cognizance of Wells's acknowledgment of Kepler in chapter 12 of The First Men in the Moon.               

As for Lake's objection to calling the Somnium "SF's missing link," it is true that the term in question ("chaînon manquant" in Bozzetto's original) suggests some kind of general ignorance of Kepler. But in view of Bozzetto's argument, such an innuendo seems to me quite justified. To be sure, I cannot marshal data to dispute Lake's claim that "SF buffs" have enjoyed the Somnium "for many years now" (though I doubt that very many anglophones read it before 1967, when the first of two English translations appeared). I would point out, however, that the word "mentioned" in Lake's phrase "mentioned in the standard histories of the genre" needs to be taken rather strictly. My Into the Unknown, for example, says very little about Kepler; Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven & London, 1980) says even less; and John Pierce's three-volume IMAGINATION AND EVOLUTION (Westport, CT, 1987-89) gives it all of a quarter of a page. Indeed, the only relatively lengthy studies of the Somnium I know of in English are Nicolson's (in which see pp. 41-47 et passim as well as the page Lake stipulates) and Gale E. Christianson's "Kepler's Somnium: SF and the Renaissance Scientist" (in SFS #8 [1976]: 79-90)—neither of which attempts to make Bozzetto's case for the Somnium as SF. Furthermore, while I am not conversant with the relevant German scholarship, I would be willing to wager that Bozzetto's article is without precedent in its examination of the structure of the Somnium by way of proving it to be the "missing link" between Lucian (and More) and H.G. Wells.                

Lake in effect admits to this last (and correct) understanding of the primary sense of "missing link," but only on his way to his other stricture against Bozzetto's argument: that "Kepler is just as much a link between ancient and modern serious lunar astronomy." Yet apart from having no greater claim to novelty that does Bozzetto's main thesis as Lake represents it, that contention (as the phrase I emphasized indicates) does not at all contradict what Bozzetto is getting at. In fact, Bozzetto himself apparently regards "Lake's" idea as complementary (and perhaps subordinate) to his own, for on p. 373 he writes: "by juxtaposing these two texts [i.e., Plutarch's De Facies in orbe larvae and his own Somnium], Kepler purposely sought to both identify and construct a bridge between new knowledge and old, astronomy and merveilleux." RMP

Some Personal Notes in Retrospect and Prospect

In laboring over SFS #53 I take some pride in the simple fact that #52 is not essentially different in typography and general make-up from #16, the last published under my supervision, though it is of course much handsomer, with its laminated cover and better paper, more convenient for shelving in having a spine on which the issue number appears, and all in all more attractive in its wider variety and more ingenious use of type faces— improvements made by Robert M. Philmus, who for the past decade has been primarily responsible for the typographical quality of SFS, as well as its literary quality. We remain stubbornly old-fashioned in printing the table of contents on the front cover, and whimsically unconventional in one minor way: our running heads appear on title as well as non-title pages so that the page number is always in the same place. There is one little change in the present issue, not an improvement, just a compositorial convenience: the running titles, for the first time since our first issue, are not underlined.                

In returning to SFS as compositor and back-of-the-book editor I feel it necessary to make one apology and to report on one dereliction of duty. In SFS #18, I was cavalier in reviewing The Science Fiction and Heroic Fantasy Index by Stuart Wells III and mistaken in questioning the value of his use of paperback stock numbers, which I have since found to be very useful (6:22324). I wish Mr Wells had called my hand immediately so that I could have acknowledged my error when more pertinent than at present. On this general matter, I hope that the authors of books reviewed in SFS will more often in the future than in the past take umbrage at what they consider imperceptive or misguided comments and submit a vigorous defense. Although the reviewer's having the last word in such debates may seem to make such defenses unprofitable, still for readers the questions remain open—and it is possible, if barely so, that reviewer or author will actually admit to having been in error. At any rate, it is my hope that gentle controversy will rage unchecked in this department.  

The dereliction has to do with The Works of M.P. Shiel, the multivolume monument erected to Shiel's memory by A. Reynolds Morse. I was supposed to contribute an essay to the final volume of the series, Shiel in Diverse Hands (1983), but never got it written, and thereafter intended to review the work in SFS, but never got that done either. Since there would be little point in reviewing a work now eight years old, of which the hardbound copies have been almost if not completely exhausted, let me here simply say that this work is indispensable for anyone seriously interested in the author and that information on its various volumes, as well as the volumes in hardback and paperback, may be obtained from JDS Books, PO Box 67 MCS, Dayton, OH 45402.               

My procedure as book-review editor will be to read or look through each book received for review in order to decide whether a full review is called for and then, if so, to arrange for a review by the critic who seems best qualified for the task, or, if not, to write a brief note myself or ask one of my co-editors to do so, ordinarily one informative rather than judgmental. We hope to review or at least take note of all new critical or scholarly works on SF, as well as new editions of SF works with scholarly apparatus, but not ordinarily works on supernatural or mythological fantasy, though even such works will be briefly noted if author or publisher sends us a copy. Finally I would welcome suggestions on books that ought to be reviewed, and especially unsolicited reviews by young or veteran scholars who feel they have something to say that needs saying, but the latter primarily as a means of beginning a relationship that might eventuate in review assignments, for the possibility of our publishing an unsolicited review is not great.                

Off-prints of articles published in journals other than those devoted primarily to SF would also be welcome. I do not know how much Donald M. Hassler, the distinguised editor of Extrapolation, had published on SF before 1976, but I believe that the first appearance of his name in an SF journal occurred in SFS #10, in a note entitled "Two Essays SFS Would Have Liked to Publish," concerned, in part, with an essay of his in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. In those days my reading around in scholarly publications was much more extensive than it is today. RDM

Page and Chapter References in SFS

Some minor changes have been made in SFS house style to suit the inclinations of the four new editors. Readers should note that page-number brackets no longer include p. or pp., so that (8) means page 8, and (Jones 8) means page 8 in the work by Jones listed in "Works Cited." For literary works published in various editions with varying paginations (e.g., trade, book-club, paperback, US, UK), we continue to designate not only the page of the edition the contributor happens to have but also the chapter or other internal division, which would presumably be the same in the edition the reader happens to have, so that §10:250 refers to chapter 10 and to page 250 of the edition cited.


SF-TH Inc is a nonprofit corporation established to support SFS. The directors are Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Arthur B. Evans, and R.D. Mullen. The catalogue of its books for sale, which may be had upon request (address 228 South 24th Street, Terre Haute, IN 47803), lists a large number of SF titles, including scholarly works in SF, and virtually all the books of H.G. Wells.

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