“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Random House
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” published originally in 1985, was more than a successful novel, winning several prizes and short-listed for the rest; it was and continues to be a phenomenon.
There have been a feature film (1990), a radio play, a stage play, an opera and a ballet based on the book, and the first season of the TV adaptation, ten episodes, won an Emmy.
Since the author, Margaret Atwood, was a writer-in-residence here in 1985 and has returned for a visit this week, it seems appropriate to give “The Handmaid’s Tale” a fresh read and see how it holds up, now 31 years since publication.
It is as chilling as ever.
Although the book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, Atwood insists this is not a science fiction novel. She strongly prefers the term speculative. The difference being, besides an absence of space ships, aliens and time travel, that the conditions in this futuristic, dystopian novel could exist.
Those conditions are horrible.
The United States has undergone a period of wrenching social trauma. There have been radioactive spills and other toxic events, with the food supply compromised. New strains of sexually transmitted diseases are widespread. The birthrate had already gone down some, voluntarily, through choice and birth control; now live birth rates are plummeting.
In these conditions of fear and disorder, there is a fascist, totalitarian takeover.
The new Regime, called The Republic of Gilead, although not Christian in any way civilized people would recognize, leans heavily on cherry-picked passages from scripture, especially the Old Testament, most especially Genesis 30: 1-3, passages in which Jacob, after his wife Rachel proved barren, “took” her handmaid Bilhah, to bear children. These and other passages are used to establish a fanatical pseudo-theocracy and, especially central to this novel, the obliteration of all women’s rights.
Women are forbidden to own property, vote, or learn to read and write, even to keep their own names. All women, and all men for that matter, are assigned to a caste, with a very few at the top enjoying privileges, the rest in various states of servitude, slavery or incarceration.
Each stratum has its assigned chores and uniform; Handmaids wear red cloaks and white cowls: Hester Prynne as a nun, all in scarlet.
Women who have been proven fertile by having had children, or are potentially fertile, are the Handmaids. Each is assigned to a Commander, to be used by that Commander for purposes of reproduction only. They are property, called by the names of their Commanders. June, the heroine of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” belongs to a Commander named Fred Waterford and thus is called Offred. Selfhood for women is to be obliterated.
The Commanders’ Wives are in on this but, needless to say, don’t like it one bit.
Success is a healthy baby; the others are “shredders.” Failure is blamed on the Handmaid, since by law men are not sterile.
A particularly striking element in this novel is the question of blame.
It has been decreed that men are not to blame for anything. Any system of fantastic repression and cruelty—chattel slavery, or the Holocaust death camps, for example—calls for fantastic rationalization, which in the case of Gilead goes roughly as follows: in the recent past, women had a lot of freedom. Women could work at jobs, maintain their own households, live lesbian lives if they chose, dress conservatively or provocatively if they chose. There was in this period a good deal of sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse, beatings and rape.
Who were the guilty parties in this culture of harassment and abuse? Not the men who perpetrated the crimes, but the women themselves. Gilead has perfected the assigning of blame, asserting that those we would normally have seen as victims were actually to blame.
Now, however, women, for their own good, are cloistered, behave with perfect humility and dress with extreme modesty. Now women are “safe” from the attacks which had been, in the past, their fault anyway.
Women should be grateful but in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” few seem to be.
Given a choice, one sees, the women would rather return to the freedoms and risks of the recent past rather than the repression and physical safety of the novel’s present.
Psychological safety is another story entirely. The Handmaids and everyone else in Gilead live in a state of tense anxiety.
Life is so bleak, in fact, that great pains are taken to prevent Handmaids from committing suicide: knives are forbidden; there are no glass mirrors; windows are shatterproof, chandeliers or anyplace else one might tie a rope, removed.
In this novel, Atwood has created a society which is part Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, part ante-bellum South, part fundamentalist Islam.
Around the country, pockets of armed rebellion against the Regime still exist; Florida seems to be holding out.
There is also a secret Resistance Movement, called Mayday, but penalties are harsh, usually death, and the secret police, the Guardians, have spies everywhere. No one trusts anyone. Paranoia is a survival mechanism. (In interviews Atwood has mentioned Romania under Ceaucescu as one of her models.)
The boldest try to escape to Canada and there is an underground “femaleroad,” organized mainly by Quakers.
The future setting of this 1985 novel is actually right about now, the early twenty-first century, and although things are not this bad, the reader still comes away with the uneasy feeling that, at least in parts, it could happen here.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.