The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was once, via a review of her work, once taken a bit publicly to task by Ursula K. LeGuin for not wanting her books (specifically The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood) to be labeled “science fiction,” because, LeGuin speculated, Atwood did not want to be relegated to the genre ghetto. Atwood, however, responded that it was merely a definitional issue. She preferred “speculative fiction”— which she read as fiction that really could happen but hadn’t — rather than “science fiction” — which she read as things that could not possibly happen. Eventually she and LeGuin talked it all out at a conference, determined they had different and at times overlapping definitions/interpretations, and they ended up at the pub doing lattes and whiskey chasers (OK, I made that last part up).
So to this review’s subject — The Handmaid’s Tale. Is it science fiction or speculative fiction? Well, turns out it’s neither because Atwood has coined a new word (damn writers!); what we have in The Handmaid’s Tale is a “ustopia.” As Atwood explains in her recent collection of essays In Other Worlds, ustopia is a mash-up of dystopia and utopia because she believes each always has elements of the other embedded within it, though one might have to look hard to find it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future United States, part of which has been taken over by a fundamentalist totalitarian group. Because of a plummeting birthrate for a host of societal and environmental reasons, fertile women are a rare commodity and so these “handmaids” are rounded up and divvied out to the select powerful. The story is told from the first person POV of one of the handmaids.
So what is The Handmaid’s Tale: science fiction, speculative fiction, dystopia, ustopia? To be honest, I’m not all that invested in the argument. Authors are free to label (or not) their works whatever they’d like, and we readers are free to accept that or disagree, calling them “science fiction,” “literary fiction,” or “Maude” if we so choose. If I had to pick a side, on this one I’d go with Atwood. There really isn’t a lot of “science” in the fiction here: no far future, no advanced technology (a souped-up credit card system is about it), no strange creatures. Even the social system isn’t particularly unusual. In fact, Atwood is often quoted as saying she put nothing in the book that hasn’t appeared somewhere somewhen on this planet. So no, it really in my mind doesn’t fit the science fiction label; it’s much more a thought experiment — a “what if” idea that leads to a wave of questions and answers. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Because what The Handmaid’s Tale is is great.
The writing is simply superb — vivid, precise, poetic in places, filled with evocative similes and metaphors, such as when she describes a set of tulips:
redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards
Beyond the sharp image itself, note the color red (specific to the handmaids), the wine and chalice (appropriate image for a book focused so much on religion), “thrusting” (appropriate for a book focused so much on sex), “”empty” (appropriate for a book where infertility is so key), “explode . . . shards” (fits not only some of the players, but also echoes the terrorism that occurs throughout the book). We get this sort of layered imagery/symbol/metaphor throughout the book, making it wonderfully rich. Just as we see patterns layered throughout as well, such as all the ways the narrator is linked via language or image to being like or treated like a child or a doll. The short chapter dealing with the actual sexual act involving the Handmaid, her Commander, and the Commander’s Wife in its very few pages is fodder for an entire thesis examining the use of language for effect as Atwood finds all sorts of ways — word choice, image, simile, white space, sound, etc — to make this the least sexy sex scene ever presented on the page.
The structure, which alternates between three time periods adds to the sense of rich complexity as the reader moves with the narrator through the time prior to the coup, the time shortly after the coup during her handmaid “training,” and finally through present time. It also does a nice job of keeping the reader wondering about how all this happened, about what happened to the narrator’s husband, her daughter, what happened during their failed escape attempt. The answers get teased out slowly.
The narrator herself is a wonderful construction. Atwood takes a real risk by not making her heroic in the way we usually think of it. Most authors would have had their character working hard to overthrow the cruel regime. The narrator’s focus, though, is on survival. And she is, realistically I’d say, a very passive kind of character. That isn’t to say we don’t get other sorts in here. Her friend Moira is more the stereotypical protagonist in this kind of work — the one who simply refuses to bow down. The narrator’s chief trainer, Aunt Lydia, is also a strong, active character. The same is true of the wife of the commander to whom the narrator is assigned. Both also show Atwood’s refusal to take the easy way out by making this merely a screed against men; in this world women are both oppressed and oppressor; and the women like Aunt Lydia are fervent believers in what they do. The commander, one of the higher-ups in the new government is also a believer, but things, as the book soon reveals, are a bit cloudier in that regard.
The book is chilling, moving, thought-provoking. Like all good dystopias (or ustopias), all good (dare I say it) science fiction or speculative fiction, it doesn’t present you a society to criticize for all its obvious flaws; it presents you a society that like a funhouse mirror offers up a reflection — warped sure, distorted sure — of our own and makes you see our own flaws, makes you question our own societal fixtures. If you read 1984 and criticize Big Brother, you’re missing the point. It isn’t the Big Brother in his fictional society Orwell wants you to worry about; it’s the Big Brother in our own, or potentially in our own.
And Atwood takes a page from Orwell as well at the very end of the novel, giving us in effect two endings, just as Orwell did with his Newspeak chapter at the close of 1984. And I think for the same purpose, though for spoilers’ sake I won’t go into the details.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a true modern classic and should be not just on everyone’s “to-be-read” shelf but on everyone’s “must-read” shelf. Though perhaps Atwood would object to those labels and come up with one of her own…
What more can be said about The Handmaid’s Tale, 30 years after publication? I’m very late to this party (if reading grim dystopian novels counts as a “party”), and feel ashamed that I didn’t read this book earlier. It’s a provocative thought experiment that posits a fundamentalist Christian military takeover of the United States which strips women of all political and economic freedoms, leaving control of their bodies and minds in the hands of the Republic of Gilead. However, Margaret Atwood is far too thoughtful an author to be pigeonholed as simply writing a feminist diatribe against men, because much of the oppression is also perpetrated by women.
The Handmaid’s Tale is about the psychological, ideological, and physical oppression that a regime exerts on its own citizens. It depicts a society in which freedoms of any kind are subordinated to a theocracy, which reminds the reader forcefully of that greatest of dystopian tales, George Orwell’s 1984. What distinguishes Atwood’s book is her focus on the position of women in this religious dictatorship. And according to the author, every aspect of this regime has had a parallel somewhere in the real world at some point in time. While I can’t verify that, I don’t think it’s far-fetched. Even today, there are many religious regimes that treat women as subordinate to men, sometimes to the extent that they are not granted the right to be in public alone, drive cars, choose husbands, take jobs, or even attend school. Granted, I can’t think of any cases where these regimes are Christian. Instead, Islamic fundamentalist regimes adhering to Sharia law seem to be the main culprits in modern times. But if we look back further into the past, religious oppression of women has occurred under the banner of various religions.
And yet I think there’s no question that The Handmaid’s Tale is most terrifying to women, who can easily imagine themselves in the grim and powerless position of Offred, the Handmaid of this story. To be completely subject to the whims of a male Commander and his sadistic Wife, with one mission only, to bear a child for him at all costs. And failure to get pregnant would mean exile to the colonies. To not even have control over your own body and sexual choices. It’s a sickening scenario that Atwood depicts. Is it a realistic scenario in the world today? Does anyone really see a religious dictatorship taking over the US? Even though large swaths of the US populace have backward ideas about women’s freedom to make choices about their own bodies, especially abortion, I still think it’s pretty far-fetched to imagine the entire country suddenly falling under the sway of a fundamentalist militant religious minority.
I consider The Handmaid’s Tale a warning, not a prediction, which asks us hard questions about how many of our freedoms we would be willing to cede to a religious dictatorship. While the Republic of Gilead is less likely to become real than a radical Islamic state like the Taliban, what kind of political agendas are we willing to tolerate that bring us closer to such regimes? 1984 and We were both dystopian warnings about the dangers of totalitarian regimes inspired by non-religious socialist ideologies. Brave New World was a dystopian fantasy of a society that has sacrificed free will and intellectual thought in favor of a hedonistic, mindless, consumption-driven regime in which social castes dictate the behavior of individuals. In comparison, the Republic of Gilead is not a particularly well-detailed political construct. I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale was intended to present a functional political scenario. Instead it’s a warning about the elements of religious fundamentalism that we see throughout the world today (I just watched the Republican Presidential Debates and I’m thinking of the Planned Parenthood shooting recently as well as the repeated acts of violence against women in the West, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, and sadly many other countries as well).
The audiobook is narrated by the amazing Claire Danes, who brilliantly and fearlessly portrayed the bipolar and work-obsessed CIA agent Carrie Mathieson on the drama series Homeland. She brings just the right tone to the claustrophobic story of Offred, a victim of oppression who still battles against despair. I can’t imagine a better narrator for this book.
With the timely arrival of the Hulu television show, I felt it was time to read for myself Margaret Atwood‘s much-discussed novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which (among other things) has turned the sight of a red-shrouded woman with a white bonnet into a potent symbol of a woman’s control (of lack thereof) over her own body.
Set in an unspecified future after a fertility crisis has decimated the population, we’re introduced to Offred, a “handmaid” to a household in which she’s expected to bear the child of the family patriarch in lieu of his barren wife. Occasionally falling into recollections of her previous life with her husband and daughter, as well as her indoctrination at the hands of the new regime, Offred goes about her daily existence in the attempt to find some semblance of normality.
Tension is created by the dangers that surround her: in the midst of a totalitarian government, every move Offred makes has the potential to be monitored; anyone she interacts with could be a spy. Though she longs for freedom, she has no idea how to achieve such a goal — the system has been designed to keep her small and humble, and the consequences for stepping out of line are severe.
So the reader is carried along with Offred’s first-person narration, trapped within her very narrow point-of-view. Because information is scarce and reading forbidden, Offred has limited awareness of what’s happening outside her immediate surroundings, and the flow of exposition trickles through at an excruciatingly slow pace. This is naturally the point of the story; Atwood puts us directly in Offred’s shoes, sharing with us her paranoia, fear, and desperate hope.
As with Offred, we know little about what’s going on in the outside world — apparently there’s a war of some kind, as the bodies of executed enemies occasionally appear hanging from a wall that Offred regularly passes … but then this could be an elaborate trick to enforce the laws imposed upon all handmaids. Like Offred, we just don’t know.
The harrowing thing about The Handmaid’s Tale is how true it rings. Who’s to say this kind of regime wouldn’t be implemented if circumstances were different? Many aspects of the book have precedence in history and religion — in fact the title is derived from the Genesis story of Rachel and Joseph, in which Rachel insists her husband impregnate her handmaid Bilhah in her stead.
It’s a compulsive read, with the tension ratcheted up even when nothing of particular importance appears to be happening; after all, many of Offred’s days are filled with waiting — yet her mind is always racing. It’s Atwood’s skill in making her stream of thoughts so compelling that we’re drawn so deeply into Offred’s life, searching for clues within the text, and feeling the pressure of the restrictions all around her.
I haven’t yet started watching the television show based on Atwood’s novel, but I’m very glad I read the book first. I’m looking forward to seeing how the adaptation has expanded and explored the original text.
Claire Danes’ audio performance of Audible Studio’s audio version is wonderful.