The Handmaid’s Graphic Tale

The enduring power of reading and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale lies in both her gifts for storytelling and her love for language revealed in her playing with words.

Regardless of the genre or form, Atwood loves to make us flinch with the turn of a phrase:

“You Fit into Me”

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

When I was teaching Advanced Placement Literature for high school students in the rural South, I found one of the best lessons revolved around Atwood’s investigation of graphic language during The Ceremony in Chapter 16:

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

My students and I also found the wordplay throughout the novel as engaging as the characters and narratives, notably the scene when the Commander ushers Offred to his room for a rendezvous that turns out to be a surprising form of infidelity, Scrabble:

“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.

I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble! I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair….

Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’s offered me drugs….

What does [Nick] get for it, his role as page boy? How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint. Well, he wouldn’t be far off at that….

Caught in the act, sinfully Scrabbling. Quick, eat those words. (pp. 138-139, 181)

This language-rich element of Atwood’s fiction as well as her wordplay poses a challenge for adapting this novel to film and more recently a series. Adaptation, however, allows a seminal work to grow, expand, and even change, as the series now moves beyond the original narrative in ways similar to The Walking Dead.

Atwood’s interest in blending and breaking genre and her work in graphic media suggest that the latest adaptation fits perfectly into the expanding body of work drawn from The Handmaid’s Tale:

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel): A Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault

As part of the adaptation process from novel to graphic novel, Renée Nault notes that she did not watch the Hulu series, but the process entailed:

Nault worked first-hand with Atwood to pare down the story — about a dystopian future where America has become a brutal theocracy and fertile women are the property of powerful men — then bring it to life on the page.

The resulting tome…is 240 pages of arresting watercolor illustrations, depicting the novel’s grim world in muted grays and browns with shocks of red from the handmaids’ distinctive red cloaks.

“Some books would be very hard to adapt in this way, but ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is awash in visual symbolism — partly because women in it are not allowed to read,” the 79-year-old author said.

They were also able to convey some things that text — and even a TV show — never could.

My love for Atwood’s work and comic books/graphic novels informed my reading of this adaptation. Yet, I was initially concerned about how I would feel since much of the adaptation involves the loss of Atwood’s rich language, although the artwork is stunning in its place:

Language does not suffer, however, since Nault’s use of language includes a judicious series of decisions about when to be sparse and when to swim in Atwood’s language. As well, the graphic adaptation allows a diversity of fonts and word placement, notably in the Scrabble scene, that amplifies the power of language.

This graphic adaptation adds diversity of narrative pace and framing through Nault’s choices about page layouts, even, at time, conforming to fairly standard comic book panels:

Since Atwood uses iconography and color throughout the novel, the adaptation is rich with both:

One of the earliest versions of a first-year writing seminar I taught was grounded in works that are in multiple forms of adaptation, such as a novel to a film (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner, for example). Often we examined the fidelity of the adaptation—the novel and film of World War Z come to mind—but we also tried to work toward evaluating adaptations on their own merits, not just “Is this a good adaptation in terms of remaining true to the original?”

My strongest quibble of the graphic adaption is that the Historical Notes section feels far too clipped, but in many ways, in the novel, it serves to reinforce much of the language and academic elements of the story. Noting this small weakness also highlights that the graphic novel tends to lose the humor, albeit very dark, weaved throughout by Atwood.

Ultimately, as a reader and a teacher, I think this graphic adaptation soars as a work on its own and as an introduction or companion to Atwood’s original work. Reading or teaching these works separately or together still leads to the final and haunting line: “Are there any questions?”

Thirty-plus years since Atwood raised this ominous question, we are finding ever-new and disturbing ways to shake our heads and wrestle with hard questions and maybe some answers that help us overcome our current nightmares depicted off kilter by speculative fiction, text-only or graphic, and avoid some Other World that feels just over the horizon.

Recommended: On Peer Review and Gatsby

I was surprised and humbled to discover through social media two excellent blogs that included some of my blogging in order to extend the conversation about peer review when teaching writing and teaching The Great Gatsby.

I strongly recommend both of the following:

The Writing Fog: Flipping Feedback: Revising Peer Review, Amy Vujaklija

Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve,” Lauren Zucker

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.

In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).

Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.

Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.

Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.

Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.

All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.

During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”

Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.

As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.

But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.

And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.

So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.

From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.

The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”

In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.

So what does all this mean?

Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.

Two of the best examples of this skills plague are the obsession with prescriptive/isolated grammar instruction and the Queen Mother of literacy scams, the “word gap.”

The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]

Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.

Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.

Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.

Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.

First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.

As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.

But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.

Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.

And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.

We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.

Let me end with my graduate course.

For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.

I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.

I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.

I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”

I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.

I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.


See Also

Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

It’s finally time to stop correcting people’s grammar, linguist says

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Oliver Kamm

Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse

At the intersection of horror and science fiction (SF) lies a haunting lesson in the allegory rising from narratives such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): By the time the apocalypse happens, it won’t look like we expect, and political and public recognition of the event will come way too late.

As a life-long SF fan and educator for three decades, then, I have found that Max Brooks, in his World War Z, has inadvertently written a series of lessons for the education reform apocalypse that is already happening, and almost no one is willing to admit it.

I think we must not ignore that the zombie genre is a mythology about the brain: The infection attacks the brain and the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain. For an educator, these are not trivial matters.

Brooks crafts an oral history that looks back on the human race barely surviving a zombie apocalypse. As the snippets of interviews reveal, the political and military elites around the world failed to act with clarity and often hid the rising zombie plague from the public in calculated and horrifying ways: Decisions were made, for example, about who should survive and who was expendable.

In one section we learn that to identify infected zombies, air planes killed hundreds of people so that the infected could rise from the carnage and be easily identified.

Another response to the zombie outbreak involves the government and Big Pharma. Initially, the zombie infection is identified as rabies so a rabies vaccine is mass-produced, primarily to allay fear although the government and pharmaceutical companies knew the vaccine to be ineffective. Money was to be made and the ends justified the means.

But one of the most powerful lessons to me is in the Great Panic section, an interview with Maria Zhuganova. This oral history focuses on the actions of the military in conjunction with civilian oversite, a man call “Rat Face.”

In Zhuganova’s explanation, we discover that the soldiers are forced to enact decimation, as she explains:

“To ‘decimate’…I used to think it meant just to wipe out, cause horrible damage, destroy…it actually means to kill by a percentage of ten, one out of every ten must die…and that’s exactly what they did to us….

“We would be the ones to decide who would be punished. Broken up into groups of ten, we would have to vote on which one of us was going to be executed. And then we…the soldiers, we would be the ones to personally murder our friends….

“Brilliance….Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn’t. We went right along with it….We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was only following orders.'” (pp. 81-83)

And here we sit in the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a film version of World War Z and pretending that a horror/SF tale has no value beyond our entertainment.

While our government conspires with Big Testing to implement scorched-earth policies with our children because the public is afraid of our international competitiveness and does not question the effectiveness of testing, despite the evidence to the contrary.

And like the soldiers, teachers are compelled to be accomplices in Common Core State Standards implementation and preparing our students for the tests to follow.

The decimation of public education has infected us all.

The only real antidote, unlike the zombie apocalypse, is that educators, students, and parents must all choose not to follow orders, not to become the accomplices that allow the decimation.

Recommended Reading for Educators Trapped in the Machine

from World War Z, Max Brooks

“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say, ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was just following orders.'” (p. 83)

from Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

“[I]t is nothing short of disastrous that more than ever before, one antidemocratic system of ideas—market ideology—almost exclusively defines the terms of educational politics and charts the path of education reform

“…[I]deology is important in understanding educational change….Ideology is nonetheless often overlooked or at best misapplied by mainstream social scientists as a factor in politics. This is due in part to the dominance of quantitative methodologies in political science, which leads to the trivialization of the concept into conveniently measurable but irrelevant labels….Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage.” (pp. 3, 8-9)

from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

“For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

“The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened.” (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)