I’ve started off 2014 with a bang with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. When I was reading the last hundred pages of the book, I frequently closed it and put it down and buried my face in my hands and said, “I can’t take it. The pressure is too much.” It’s frightening at times but unlike 1984 (my guidepost for all things dystopian), the frightening aspects are not tied to the plot exactly, but rather, the fear lies in the elements of the world itself: Atwood has created a world in which women are truly second-class citizens, in which they are valued (or not valued) for the ways in which they are used sexually by men.
There are the Wives, capital “W”, who are revered. There are the Daughters, clad all in white and kept completely separate from the world. There are the Unwomen, those who cannot produce children and who are shipped off to the Colonies to perform dangerous and menial tasks. And then there are the Handmaids, dressed all in red, like our protagonist, Offred.
Our setting is Gilead, a new nation instated after the President and Congress have been annihilated, after the Constitution is suspended, and after a theocracy has been established. The birth rate has plummeted and the Handmaids are those women who have been assigned to copulate with the high-ranking Commanders, to have the children the Wives cannot, and they only have three chances (three cycles of Commanders) to birth a child before they are deemed Unwomen and shipped off to Colonial hell. These women don’t even retain their names; Offred is called such because she is the handmaid “of Fred.” This is a world where a woman’s worth is tied to her purity and/or fertility, and she has no identity independent of her assigned Man.
The present narrative of Gilead is punctuated by Offred’s nostalgic recollections of a normal 1980s American existence. She fought with her feminist activist mother, debated with her outrageous best friend Moira, conducted an affair with a married man and when he divorced and married her, Offred can remember her five-year-old daughter, who was taken from her. She remembers being placed in the Red Center, where other future Handmaids were taught to think of themselves as empty vessels to be filled with babies. They were taught a strict Christian ideology, taught to be pure, that sex is not to be enjoyed, and that rape is their fault. Stripped of all natural human rights, of their previous lives and loved ones, controlled by fear, Offred’s tale is a haunting one full of truths of what would happen if contemporary abuses against women become not only the norm, but the law.
Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (127)
As a dystopian tale, the novel is lacking in several ways. The voice of the speaker, whose real name is never revealed, feels distant and somewhat unrelatable. The world she builds is also riddled with holes and feels allegorical. I tend to think these features are deliberate, however. I feel like Atwood used the dystopia trope to highlight more important issues, and her undeveloped world may be due to the narrative method: Offred, as a sheltered Handmaid, doesn’t know what is actually going on in Gilead. We see what she sees. We know only what she knows.
The Handmaid’s Tale feels more like a collection of all the ways women can be abused/controlled/exploited than a novel with a tight plot and exciting characters. It’s a cautionary tale more than anything else, but in this way it seriously delivers. I judge a dystopian tale by the terror it instills in me and the amount of despair it manages to elicit in the reader (I like depressing, soul-shattering reads, apparently). In the first respect, The Handmaid’s Tale receives top marks; in the second, thankfully, it sort of falls flat. Offred’s fate is left uncertain but there’s nothing like that one-two punch at the end of 1984 where the reader realizes that there is no escaping the strong arm of the government. I feel like an ending like that is powerful for a reason: it is much more effective in ramming the message down the reader’s throat that this world is possible, terrible, and must be actively warded against.
A Commander on the status of women in Gilead:
This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook? (219-220)
Atwood, M. (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.