I read Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE in the early ’90s and connected with the dystopian but not the human aspect of it, and found it somewhat light fare compared to giants in the genre. I didn’t enjoy the movie, which I felt only emphasized the things about it I didn’t like, notably how this oppressive world keeps giving breaks to an entirely passive main character. Rereading it again over the past few weeks, I connected with it in a much deeper way. In my view, it’s an ingenious book, and far more prescient than Orwell’s 1984, which has been selling like hotcakes in the Age of Trump. I’m now curious to watch the new Hulu series coming out.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE tells the story of “Offred,” a young woman living in an America that has become a theocracy more brutal than Iran’s at its worst. The President and Congress have been assassinated, nuclear accidents have spoiled parts of the country, and pollution has put fertility in decline. The military takes over and promises to restore law and order, and boy do they, instituting the Republic of Gilead, a nation of laws based on the Old Testament, and with order enforced by fanatical paramilitaries and secret police.
Women are deprived of all rights and most privileges, unable to own property or work. Instead, they must serve their husbands and bear children. Gays, doctors who once performed abortions, college professors and outlawed sects like Quakers are shot and hung on meat hooks on walls in towns as a warning to obey. (Even the Baptists are being suppressed and in revolt.) Money is outlawed, books are burned, passes are needed to go anywhere, there are curfews, and women aren’t even allowed to read. Feminists are hunted down and put in work camps. Even religious women who had their own TV ministries and spoke out against women’s rights must now tow the line and live the life they prescribed for everyone else. Women who are arrested but are fertile are trained to become Handmaidens, forced to ritually copulate with rich men who have barren wives, so they can have more children.
Offred (a ritual name based on the name of the family that owns her) struggles to survive with the memories of losing her husband and daughter and getting through each day by behaving properly. She is, self-admittedly, a passive character, a bit emotionally distant despite what has happened to her and her country. We want her to fight back, but she doesn’t know how without ending up dead almost immediately, and she intends to survive. Things happen to her, and she exerts little influence on them, which can be frustrating for the reader but is simply the result of the life she is forced to live within a heavily policed and stifling society. (The movie is even worse, a stunned woman tossed around by events and other people.) In fact, everything good or bad that happens to Offred is initiated by men, even the Commander who runs her household. She is a very good observer, though, and that is where the character and the book shines.
Atwood doesn’t moralize with any big conclusions, in fact the ending is (for many readers) disappointingly out of left field. What she does is ask us to imagine a world in which every aspect of a woman’s life is regulated by the government in accordance with religious law. And a world dominated by an authority that not only suppresses women, but enforces all aspects of society to conform with a single religious truth and law (even for Christians, one cannot have a Christian republic without the laws being based on a single Christian sect’s interpretation of the Bible and God’s will.) For that alone, it is a remarkable work, and one worth reading for anyone, not just fans of dystopian fiction.