Some spoilers below.
My wife attempted this book a few months ago and it devastated her. For her, it was an unremitting wasteland of degraded women that, instead of highlighting the great strides towards equality that we’ve made, emblazoned the vast distance we’ve had to travel to become a society barely cognizant of the barriers still firmly in place. To read such a visceral recitation of subservience and lack of empowerment endangered her emotional equilibrium.
So, despite near universal acclaim, I was somewhat reticent about delving too deeply into this book. But, overall, I’m thankful that I did.
The plot to The Handmaid’s Tale is almost incidental to the raw emotive power of Atwood’s writing, but it bears some description. The book is set in a dystopian near-future where the United States is broken by terrorism (blamed on Islam, no less). A military junta takes control, and a theocratic dictatorship is set up along clearly prescribed Old Testament lines. There are vague implications of an on-going territorial dispute between Gilead (the newly defined country in which the story takes place) and its neighbors, but the broader scope of this world is barely touched on. Atwood walks a delicate line between leaving the world vague and translucent, and hinting at just enough detail to give a rich yet imprecise depth to the story. The sumptuary laws and caste system are a clear focus of hers, and everything is girded by Biblical overtones.
What struck me, from the outset, was not the highly detailed and clear world-building (which is so often the focus of genre fiction), but how world-building is eschewed in favor of emotional resonance. This book is not about the world as much as it is the effect it has on the people; most specifically on the narrator, Offred. Her name is a great example of this – it’s never given. We don’t know who this woman is – or was, before the cataclysm – except that she is “of-Fred”. She is his property. She exists solely as a vessel for his children. Women in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale come in two forms: legitimate and illegitimate, and can more generally be divided by whether they can produce children and serve their societal function, or can’t (or, even worse, won’t). These latter women are sent to “the colonies”, areas deemed unsuitable for civilization because of industrial need or pollution.
And life for the women of Gilead is nothing short of horrendous. It’s legislated servile functionality familiar to anyone even tangentially familiar with chattel slavery. Anything from which a rope can be hung has been removed from the girl’s dormitories. The windows are built with shatter-proof glass. This is a world where women can’t kill themselves, which only needs to be a reality in a world where they so often want to. The social hierarchy exists to enforce the status quo by setting women apart from and against one another. The wives hold a higher station than other women, and serve a controlling function when the men are breeding the Handmaids during what is known as “the Ceremony”. Offred describes one of these events with the dispassion of someone utterly withdrawn from how gross it is. It’s not “rape” because there is no other reality for her, but something so cold and impersonal can’t be considered “love-making” or even sexual. She is simply a repository for his seed, and her sole function in life is to nourish what he gives her – all under the pretense of Biblical duty. The Ceremony is described in stark detail: Offred lying between the legs of Serena Joy (Fred’s wife) as the Commander thrusts into her mechanically.
It’s a draining experience, reading this book.
I sometimes found it hard to focus on what I was reading, and had to re-read passages to figure out what was going on. Time is fluid and immaterial in this book, which I found befitting for a narrator utterly untethered to such prosaic concerns as linearity. Offred’s existence is monochromatic and listless. Her days are marked by whether she can sneak butter into her room as contraband for future use as lotion.
Written in an almost epistolary fashion, this is essentially Offred’s diary, and she jumps back and forth between the “present” and the past without hesitation. Memory and observation are interconnected and indistinguishable, giving the narrative an almost dreamlike incongruity.
It’s tempting to look at this book as a product of its time: the sexual liberation and resurgence of female empowerment in the ’60s had given away to Reagan’s America: silence on AIDS, televangelism, coalescence of the religious right and the embracing of masculinity through mass media. Someone as obviously socially conscious as Margaret Atwood, I’d imagine, would naturally respond polemically to attitudes so outmoded and obviously anachronistic as religious fundamentalism, environmental indifference, and sexual conservatism. But I think it’s deeper than that.
The language is crisp throughout this novel, clipped and angry. Possibly it’s Offred’s voice recounting a distasteful life in an out-dated, uncaring, and oppressive regime. Or, possibly, it’s Margaret Atwood seething at thousands of years of servility to men and the cold indifference of a society deliberately holding women back. Adjugation to ancient mores, and sexual repression. Rape. Illiteracy. Arranged marriages. Humiliation. Lack of reproductive rights. Victim blaming. Slut shaming. Objectification. Foot binding. Female genital mutilation.
I think the ending is kind of perfect. We make it through this book – this book where almost nothing happens apart from the constant downward force of society on women – only to be left without an explanation for what happens to Offred. She possibly makes it out of Gilead, but the narrative just…ends. The book itself ends with an academic presentation of the diary. There’s some humor, here, and the narrative is seen as a case study for Gilead society. I think the whole point, here, is that we prefer detachment to active engagement. Instead of explicating Offred’s fate, Atwood leaves it a mystery, and then provides an academic analysis of the text as though none of this is real. As if these people aren’t real. As if women aren’t actually treated this way. It’s not something we need to do anything about, it’s something we need to study. Study because it’s in the past (for the characters), study because it’s literature (for us), study because it’s something “they” are doing. It’s not us, it’s them. It’s always them.
Except it’s not.
This book, for me, embodies the anger that must be a response to what women all over the world, both in the past and in the present, have been and are forced to endure. “We’ve made great strides” is a consolation prize for not doing enough, and The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t haunting because it could happen, it’s an indictment of what fucking has happened and is happening.
No one has so perfectly nailed a tone as Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, and may its keening resonate.
Reviewed 4 times previously (5 star average)