I read 'The Handmaid's Tale', a 1985 novel of speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood, not only because it was a selection of an online book of the month discussion group but because it seemed timely. In fact, the book may have far more resonance today than when it was written, when its resonance was such that the awards it racked up were not just genre ones but those of literature: it's a rare book that's nominated for both the Nebula Award and the Booker Prize, for instance. In fact, this might be the one and only member of that club!
The reason it's timely is because of politics, to which a lot of writers were paying attention in the Reagan era. John Carpenter built his 1986 science fiction action movie, 'They Live', around the economics of the day, extrapolating the yuppies into the stooges of alien venture capitalists stripping our world in secret. Margaret Atwood's imagination, however, was sparked by the Moral Majority, whose focus on traditional values and religious doctrine were adversely affecting the rights of women. She extrapolated that into a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead, within which our handmaid tells her tale.
I've often said that 'They Live' gets more timely with each year that passes and any fresh viewing will be an exercise in opening eyes to what's happening today, through the power of pattern recognition. When I last watched it, it seemed to be written around the 1%, the Occupy movement and the UC Davis pepper spray incident. Of course, it wasn't, being a few decades old at the time, but it seemed to be. Sadly, I'll be surprised if 'The Handmaid's Tale' doesn't match that.
Atwood has said that she wrote it while studying the Puritans, taking the view that their goal wasn't just to escape religious oppression but to found their own theocratic state where dissent from their religious views would not be tolerated. However, she clearly found a major building block in the televangelists of the eighties, like Pat Robertson and Tammy Faye Bakker who were notably anti-feminist and wanted women to quit their jobs, go home and let their husbands provide for them. It's no accident that Serena Joy, the most important woman in this book, used to be a televangelist in the 'time before'.
The setting is the Republic of Gilead, a religious dictatorship built on the ashes of the United States after a successful coup by fundamentalists who murder the President and much of Congress and suspend the Constitution to restore order. The architects of this new nation are Old Testament in mindset, so women become property in the patriarchal society which is promptly constructed. That's hammered home in many ways through a few clever devices. For one, our protagonist is known as Offred, literally 'of Fred', a slave name. For another, we spend half the book in almost entirely female company, so we learn about all the restrictions that apply before meeting the men who crafted them. Finally, we aren't given the rules from moment one and we have to learn just how restrictive they are as they're encountered in everyday life.
Offred is a handmaid, as the title suggests, which means that she exists to get pregnant. For reasons not explained, the birth rate is almost non-existent in Gilead. As sterility is, by definition, a female condition, the inability of a couple to produce offspring must mean that the woman is barren and a surrogate has to be brought in. It isn't a sex thing, as the 'ceremony' of ritual baby-creation between man and handmaid is an emotionless act conducted in the presence of the man's wife. Handmaids are prohibited from owning anything, even reading anything. They literally exist only as walking wombs. If they don't deliver (pun not intended) in their time with three masters, then they're declared unwomen and shipped off to the colonies.
All told, there are four roles for men and six roles for women, which are each interesting in themselves, Atwood's worldbuilding here being fascinating, but I really don't see it as the point of the novel. Anyone can write a dystopian future. What really attracted my attention were other angles that come along with the dystopia, if it's written properly.
One is that these women, subjugated as they are into a set of defined roles with colour-coded uniforms and social expectations to match, are able to maintain some sort of identity. At one point, Offred describes herself as a container, as only her inside is important. As such, skincare products are banned, so she uses butter as a softener. This is such an important aspect to dystopian fiction; those being oppressed have to keep their identity in some way or they become merely a part of something else that isn't them.
Another is that this subjugation happens so quickly. This was the hardest thing for me to get past, but it is very much what Atwood was trying to get across. Offred wasn't born in Gilead, because it's only been in place for three years. She had a different name, which she doesn't tell us, though she holds onto it as an important part of her identity. She had a husband, Luke, though he was taken away because she was not his first wife; Gilead refuses to recognise divorce, so Offred is retroactively an adulteress. She even had a child, a daughter who was also taken away. While subjugation is horrific in any scenario, it's chilling for us to realise that Offred and the other women in Gilead have fallen so quickly into their new roles. Of all the lessons I learned here, one is that people are inherently good and it's difficult to truly acknowledge bad in others until it's too late. This echoes what I've read and seen about the Polish Jews, many of whom failed to acknowledge just how evil the Nazis were. It's OK, it'll pass. This is understandable; nobody can be that evil, right? Well, some people are and it's on us to notice.
The last is that even the people who orchestrated this theocracy aren't convinced enough by the rules to actually follow them. Nobody acknowledges their roles here, which hypocrisy strikes at the heart of the concept behind any state. Offred complies with the rules that bind her but she'd escape if she could. The Commander, who owns her and may have helped to shape Gilead, ignores many of its rules too. He's not allowed to interact with a handmaid outside of the Ceremony, but he finds ways to do that and there are other revelations later in the book. Of course, his wife, a former televangelist, indulges in luxuries from a black market economy and breaks the rules when they suit her, because televangelists are the epitome of hypocrisy, subverting the faith of their flocks for financial gain. Rules are not things to follow, they're things to impose on others.
It's easy to focus on the United States for discussion, because that's where Atwood set this novel and it's why the novel was written. However, this isn't an anti-American book. It's a study on the consequences of power and she references other totalitarian regimes even within the text. There are specific mentions of Islamic Iran and its religious repression of women; Ceausescu-era Romania and its outlawing of both abortion and birth control, with the horrific repercussions of those decisions; and the Philippines, with its brutal suppression of dissidents. It's hardly a stretch to conjure up the Nazis too or any one of a slew of other dictators. I once wrote a 'how to' piece for a school assignment about genocide. There are a set of steps that have to be followed if that's where a budding leader wants to go.
And that brings us back to today and a United States where the ruling elite are once more implementing anti-women policies in an amplified echo of what prompted Atwood to write this cautionary tale to begin with. Let us hope that we aren't going to end up like Gilead, that the good American people don't fail to acknowledge the evil in others and that we maintain our identities even as the powers that be attempt to suppress them.
'The Handmaid's Tale' is a beautifully written novel, in which Offred looks at everything around her with a fascinatingly new perspective; even a lush sitting room is described as 'one of the shapes money takes when it freezes'. Three decades on from its first publication, it's as fresh as when it was written and it's as timely too. Echoing my comments about 'They Live', 'The Handmaid's Tale', read in 2017, feels like it's a book about bathroom laws, Planned Parenthood and the inability to become pregnant from rape. I'll aim to re-read this five years from now and see what it's about then. ~~ Hal C F Astell