The Handmaid’s Tale is frequently called a modern masterpiece and a dystopian cautionary tale that compares to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. It certainly packs a lot of punch in a short novel and the recent acclaimed TV adaptation has seen it return to the best seller’s lists over 30 years after it was first published.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the testimony of Offred, a Handmaid living in the Republic of Gilead; a Christian totalitarian state in what was once part of the USA. We are only given hints of what precipitated the collapse of the US and the establishment of Gilead; a series of social, political, environmental and military disasters. One of the crises is a decline in fertility. As a woman of child-bearing age, who had a child before the revolution, Offred was forced into being a Handmaid; an exclusively female social class created for the purpose of bearing the children of high-ranking men based on an interpretation of the story from Genesis of Rachel and Jacob. Her assigned name, Offred, is a contraction of ‘of Fred’; the man who is now her master.
Offred’s story begins with her new assignment which is unlike most others. Like all Handmaids, she must live in the home of her master and his family and routinely perform the acts that may result in her conceiving in a highly ritualised ceremony. She is not permitted out of the house alone but must be accompanied by a Handmaid from another home on her errands. Her living arrangements are analogous to a prison; there are many precautions taken to prevent her from committing suicide, a path many Handmaids apparently take. Her role also requires a number of other responsibilities, both in public at mass gatherings and in relative privacy with other Handmaids. Like other Handmaid’s, she is looked down upon by others despite the official sanction of her role. Women of other classes seem to despise her and men seem either awkward or leering.
While she shares her present experiences, Offred also shares her memories of the past. Of growing up, her mother, her husband and daughter, and her best friend in a world much like ours in her recent past. She also tells the story of how she and others were indoctrinated as Handmaids; at special facilities run by the ‘Aunts’.
You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.
She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.
Offred’s new master is particularly high-ranking, a Commander in fact. His wife, Serena Joy is recalled by Offred as being a prominent televangelist and an early advocate of philosophy the Republic is founded on. In the world Serena helped create, her status is now stripped of her while she has to suffer the indignity of housing the woman who will procreate with her husband.
She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.
While Offred’s initial experience in the house is standard enough, soon the Commander begins offering her small luxuries and freedoms. To what purpose? Offred hardly knows, but the possibility of entrapment means she can hardly let her guard down. Meanwhile, the Handmaid who accompanies Offred on her errands, Ofglen, also begins to share things with her, giving the slightest hint of the possibility of subversion.
The first aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that readers will notice is its style. It is written in a first-person narration from the point of view of Offred and is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, though nowhere near as difficult to read as that term might imply. The adjective I kept wanting to use to describe the style is ‘punchy’. It is clearly written to be impactful; Atwood uses short sentences of provocative messages that land hard blows.
Offred’s retrospective observations are dense with ideas and themes, page after page of them, many of which could individually make the central theme of a book on their own. If, like me, you try to be a conscientious reader, noticing every little thing; this can become overwhelming, even tiresome. I had to force myself to let go and just read without dwelling too much on every little point that gets raised. I think it is for this reason that I found The Handmaid’s Tale just a little bit easier to put down and harder to pick up than I expected.
The Handmaid’s Tale does share a common technique of much of dystopian fiction in inventing its own language. As well as ‘Handmaids’ we learn about ‘Aunts’, ‘Unwomen’, ‘Marthas’, ‘Econowives’, ‘Jezebels’; and events such as ‘Salvagings’ and ‘Prayvaganzas’. Offred frequently plays with words in her testimony and the power of words and of language becomes a key theme in the novel.
With any alternative setting on Earth, the question is inevitably asked about whether the world the author has created is realistic or plausible. Overall, though it is extreme, I would hesitate to call it unrealistically impossible (more on that later). The one thing I questioned, as I was reading, was that the world Offred lives in seems too pristine. The thing about police states is that the cracks emerge almost immediately. All that surveillance and policing of people’s behaviour carries an inordinate economic cost with no economic benefit and ignoring the obvious cracks in the façade becomes a dominant theme of the state propaganda. Offred’s world is far from cracking but perhaps it is still in its early days. Perhaps her experience is too narrow, even with everything her Commander shows her.
But the immaculate appearance of this world may be a point Atwood is trying to make. In fact, I think that is a lot of what this novel is about. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I felt Atwood was very deliberate in the choices she has made. The most obvious example is that this world does not really contain any futuristic technology. The point being that you do not require all-seeing telescreens to establish a totalitarian state. The Handmaid’s Tale is, therefore, not so much an alternate-future as an alternate-present. The fact that the world has changed quickly – so quickly that Offred can easily recall being an adult, married with a child, in a world much like our own just a short time earlier – is to remind us that such change can occur quickly. Perhaps the immaculateness of Offred’s world is to point out that we can be living under oppression with no outward material signs of a failing society.
This deliberateness on the part of Atwood also extends to method she employs to focus on the main theme – the oppression of women in society. Obviously other groups are also being oppressed and we are given hints in the novel about anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia. But this is a story that focuses on the oppression of women and to achieve that the author has chosen, not a comprehensive third-person view of this world from multiple characters, but a first-person narration of such an oppressed woman.
Although I did find it draining at times, and focused on just one of many stories that could be told about this world, I think Atwood should be given credit for considering a great many details about her world. It is a pretty effective way to avoid cliché in a genre that can have a lot of it.
Salman Rushdie recently appeared on an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which he said he has been borrowing something Maher said about learning the difference between an imperfect friend and a deadly enemy. Maher said it in reference to those on the political Left who could not get behind Hillary Clinton even when the alternative was Donald Trump, but it is a point worth remembering for it applies to more than that particular equation.
The aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that I liked the best was that Atwood does not paint the era before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead in rosy hues. Instead, she makes it very clear that it was no paradise and had many deep flaws. Again, I think this is a deliberate choice by Atwood making a point. There are passages that critique the past, but our main window in this respect comes from Offred’s memories of her husband, her best friend and, especially, her mother. Like the past, the people closest to her were flawed as well.
When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.
Predictably, the new authorities point to the flaws of the past as the reasons that necessitate their oppression. For the oppressed to believe this argument would be to side with a deadly enemy over an imperfect friend and be deceived by the motives of the former. This is a far simpler diagnosis to make in hindsight than before power is handed to others to remake the world.
We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
It is also difficult to ignore the fact that the two agents of oppression who have affected Offred the most personally are both women – Aunt Lydia during her training as a Handmaid and Serena Joy in the house she now lives in. Both seem to sincerely believe in the superiority of this society they have helped create despite the fact that it places women like themselves in subordination to men. Again, I feel Atwood making another point.
There is still an assumption made by prevalent social, economic, political or psychological models that people will act in their individual best interests, whether material or emotional, undervaluing the role that ideas – ie, values – play in all of our decision-making. Those who are aware that they are subordinating their own interests for ‘higher’ values – as Aunt Lydia and Selena Joy probably acknowledge – often speak of such choices as being more morally sound than the perceived selfishness of individual interests. What The Handmaid’s Tale shows is that such confidence is misplaced; selfless values are not automatically or universally morally superior to individual interests. It really depends on what values and interests we are talking about.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Much of the inspiration and substance of cultural and political movements are reactionary and so I think it is also helpful to remember the era that The Handmaid’s Tale was written in. It was first published in 1985; after it had become clear that the countercultural revolution had ended without achieving all of its goals and had left many of its own adherents disillusioned and uncertain. Instead, a more unified and focused conservative opposition now occupied positions of power, promising a return to the values that preceded the countercultural movement. In particular, with regards to the themes of The Handmaid’s Tale, this meant attempting to rejuvenate a role for Christianity in public life, advocating a diminished role for women outside of the home and attempts to restrict the freedom women have to control their own fertility.
A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
Offred’s mother is presented as a countercultural figure and a distinctly unlikeable one. But despite her unlikeable qualities, she may be the imperfect friend we should find preferable to a deadly enemy. She is a reminder that being in a society where we are sometimes antagonised or even offended by those we disagree with is a small price to pay for the freedom to hear and benefit from what others have to say. Neither societies nor people have to be perfect to be worthy of our support. Meanwhile, the inaction, divisiveness and indifference while waiting for the perfect solution is the only opportunity a deadly enemy needs.
But The Handmaid’s Tale is not a morality tale. Its portrayal of the world is too complex and no solution is offered. It is instead a cautionary tale. Any solutions the reader wishes to find on their own are, like vigilance, neither straightforward nor easy. We can read The Handmaid’s Tale as a warning of the direction Western culture was (is?) taking. Atwood has ridden the current and taken us to an extreme, though not impossible, location. Anyone who finds the world of The Handmaid’s Tale unrealistic would best remember that we have seen something similar occur with incredible speed in a similar timeframe. The photos of women wearing miniskirts in 70’s Tehran is testament to that. The ‘it can’t happen here’ assumption is a dangerous one, and an invitation for those who would like to see it happen to test their luck.
I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.
Though they have a small role in the novel, there are other concerns, apart from socio-political ones, that were becoming prevalent in the era the novel was written. Concerns such as environmental and nuclear disasters. The Three Mile Island Accident, for example, occurred in 1979. I doubt whether The Handmaid’s Tale is alone in expressing a reaction to the abrupt shift in culture and politics of the early 1980’s, but I am not so knowledgeable as to conjure up other examples readily. The one that most comes to mind is Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (1988-89). Others probably address different aspects of the time such as consumerism, celebrity culture and unregulated finance. Perhaps The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987), Money by Martin Amis (1984), White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985) or Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984). There were also the films of Oliver Stone that were successful despite being potent reminders of the turbulent 60’s and 70’s (Platoon, 1986; Born on the Fourth of July, 1989) or being spoilers of the current trends (Wall Street, 1987).
Because The Handmaid’s Tale is so dense with talking points, there are many more things we could delve into. For example, the tendency to define women based on their biology. Given that the novel is the testimony of one woman, and an apparently extraordinary story, the issue of the incredulity, undervaluing and dismissal of women’s stories is raised as well. We could therefore flip the assumption that the world of the novel is the product of a radical revolution away from our current world and is instead a concentration of traits that are already ingrained in our current culture that transcend political and religious lines. We could discuss what the existence of a secret underground and a vibrant black market in the novel’s world means. If the vices of the previous world are deliberately built into the new one in a more dangerous form, doesn’t it make a hypocrisy of those who claim it goes against their values? Or do they hold a different standard when those vices are hidden, monopolised and exclusively for their enjoyment? Or is the claim to being held to higher values and religion simply a tool for those really seeking power? The Republic does seem to be in perpetual wars of religion with other Christian denominations. We could go on and on; there is a lot to this short novel but I will have to leave it here.
I don’t think I can say I ‘enjoyed’ The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t think it is that kind of experience we get from the fiction we read for pure entertainment. Despite its short length, it is confronting, ‘punchy’, dense, even a bit overwhelming and bleak. I’ve admitted that I often found it easy to put down and difficult to pick up again, but I think that is ok; it is part of the point of it and it was the points made that I probably liked best.
I have not yet seen the recent television adaptation. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it obviously lends itself quite well to television. Not necessarily television of the era in which it was written, but of our current era. The use of flashbacks in the novel, I imagine, will be exploited quite well for The Handmaid’s Tale as it has been for shows like Lost and Orange is the New Black. Despite finishing the novel unconvinced that I had ‘enjoyed’ it, I nevertheless found myself looking forward to experiencing the TV adaptation with the strange feeling that I will enjoy that more.