Welp, I just picked up The Handmaid’s Tale this afternoon, and finished it in one sitting. Not because I couldn’t put it down, but because I absolutely refused to stop, let it percolate, and dare to wonder at what could be coming.
Honestly, it’s too believable. I knew that it would be; you can’t avoid talk of the story these days. But it’s strikingly real, and for that reason, downright horrifying. I never caught myself picking apart the believability, or the potential. This is dystopian fiction at its most stripped-down. There are no remarkable flights of fancy, no absurdist guesses at future technologies. Atwood is brilliant and prescient. She is all too aware how slowly things move, and how quickly they can change.
And, ultimately, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
This story, written in 1985, takes place in the not-too-distant future of that time, which is, well, now. Political maneuverings, a few well-organized assassinations, and control of the banks lead to martial law, the stripping from women their rights, and then the labeling as criminal anyone not adhering to the strict doctrine of the Christian fundamentalists calling themselves The Sons of Jacob. Swathes of the population are methodically arrested and either executed outright or placed according to their determined “best fit.”
The stakes are incredibly high, emotionally and physically. We never learn the narrator’s name (probably June?), but she has been dubbed “Offred,” a patronymic referring to the Commander to whom she has been assigned, first name Fred, last name unknown (probably Waterford). The assignment is, exclusively, for the purposes of child-bearing, in this brave new world in which women’s bodies are not their own, and fertility is a near-impossible commodity (toxic waste, etc and so on). Offred is in a class of women arrested for her crime of “adultery” (her husband has been married before, but divorce is now illegal), known to have borne a child in the past, and so she is selected to be a Handmaid, the alternative being certain death.
As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.
And Offred says early on,
I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.
But it is clear, though the lens I’m privileged to have, that of course of course of course this is rape. The choice to be someone’s property or be dead is no choice at all. And ultimately, that makes this a story and study of survival, in a world I hope that we can avoid.
I’m looking at you, Mike Pence.
One final thought: it is not only the relevance of the story that makes this book so wonderful. Atwood is an outstanding storyteller and I’ve been a fan for a long time. Her craft is at peak excellence here, with lots of calm and quiet references to the repetitive nature of history. There is a particularly poignant anecdote about the mistress of the commander of a concentration camp during World War II who appears in an interview in a documentary Offred saw as a child, explaining that she didn’t know what was happening in the camps; the interview cuts away to photographs of this woman lounging by a pool adjacent to the camp. These open-ended questions about the self-protections that we exercise at the scary and sad expense of others, and of course, the leaning into the isolation measures that a totalitarian regime will institute for control, are haunting. And very, very important.