Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has for years been a favorite of feminists, summarizing so well their criticisms of the status quo. In all fairness, the book isn’t an accurate representation, and it shouldn’t be considered one, but instead relies on hyperbole to convey its points.
The novel stars an unnamed (except for “Offred,” essentially her ‘slave name’) protagonist living in a near-future dystopia. It’s a combination of Stalinist U.S.S.R.—replete with military control, purges, and all the paranoia that inspired Orwell’s 1984,to which The Handmaid’s Tale is often considered a feminist counterpart— and Bible Belt conservatism stretched into gross, Taliban-like fundamentalism. Actually, I invoke fundamentalist Islam because the handmaids are required to don garb analogous to burkhas, but really, the monotheocratic state church/government is more like Fundamentalist Mormonism: leaders in the church/government are allowed to take handmaids in order to get them pregnant, because low birth rates (following a war of some sort?) so negatively affected populations.
What really frightens about the book is the sheer offense of it all: women are so debased, the society so hysterically patriarchal, that it becomes difficult to read. I found myself uncomfortable at the very thought of such a thing ever coming to pass.
What surprised me, however, was Atwood’s approach to the work, which was a combination of stream-of-consciousness (ostensibly, we’re reading a transcription of an audio tape) and Atwood’s gorgeous prose, which is too floral to be feel spontaneous. This bothered me until the transcription revelation, at which point I realized that the nature of the prose was a good reflection of the protagonist’s mental state while recounting her story.
In a strange touch, Atwood tacks on a final chapter in the form of another transcription, this time of a 22nd-century academic speech which explains the preceding tale and finally gives more context to the plot. I had mixed feelings about this convention: on the one hand, it spoiled the mystique; on the other hand, it felt good to have such things put into context. It introduced one other problem for me as a reader though, which is that the destruction of our current democracy comes about at the hand of a single military general in a coup not entirely unlike those of many Central/South American countries in the 1970s. The problem I face is that the ultra-Christian1 state the book describes does not necessarily logically follow a right-wing takeover of the government. The protagonist’s flashbacks to her previous life and the fall of society as we would know it detail the erosion of women’s rights in much the same way that 1930s and 1940s German Jews were persecuted in increasingly severe ways—suddenly, women couldn’t hold job or own property. Before you knew it, they were literal slaves to the patriarchy. I found that such a transformation required a logical jump that wasn’t quite easy to make, even though I understood in principle what Atwood was trying to say.
Some parts of the book highlighted issues that exist even today, outside of the context of a patriarchal police state: during the handmaids’ indoctrination, one recounts to the class that she was gang-raped at 14 years of age, and the girls are required to chant that she deserved what she got for dressing like a slut—God was teaching her a lesson. If there’s one thing that gets the goat of the gals at Feministe, it’s rape apologists who blame a woman’s dress instead of the man’s sexual violence.
The temptation to keep talking at length is inviting, but I will instead close by saying that The Handmaid’s Tale one of the more riveting—in an excruciating way—books that I have read in a long while, so I finished it in a single night. I think it’s a modern classic, and encourage all my readers to pick it up.
- I should point out here that the discussion of religion in the book was vague—we are told that most Christian groups as we know them, like Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics, are hunted down and killed for resisting the state church. However, the monotheist form of government in power is ostensibly Christian: Commanders read the Bible and quote the old testament as precedent for their ‘polygamy’. Again, I would say that the closest real-life analog of the book’s dystopia is the Fundamentalist Mormon Church, which is Christian in declaration only.[↩]