I’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale on my shelf for many months now, but I’ve been avoiding starting it. I wanted to read it, but I felt like I had to be in a certain (untroubled) emotional state to face it, and that’s been a tall order these past couple of years. I recently braced myself and got down to business.
Of course I already knew the premise: In the near-future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown and replaced by a patriarchal, Cristhian theonomy, women are stripped of their rights, and those who are able to bear children are assigned as “handmaids” to the commanders of the ruling class. One can understand why, during these troubled times, I didn’t want to face such a dark premise. Women’s rights are precarious all over the world, including some U.S. states, so the plot is beyond troubling. The lie the handmaids are fed is that the new regime is better for everyone, because the women are safe now. Offred, the narrator, ponders, “I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. . . .Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. . . .If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go to the laundromat by yourself, at night. . . . 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.”
The lie is that women are required to submit to one form of subjugation or another. Either accept man’s protection and enslavement, or assert independence and endure physical and emotional abuse. Independence inclusive of respect is never an option.
The betrayal of the handmaids by other women is a common theme: the Aunts strive to brainwash them into believing their positions are exalted and holy; the wives despise them for being living embodiments of their own perceived failures to conceive; the Marthas look down on them as being little better than prostitutes. In the passage where narrator Offred describes the monthly “ceremony” in which she and the Commander have intercourse, assisted by the Commander’s wife Serena, she says, “My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and the product.” This theme was one of the most distressing aspects of the television series for me (I made it through almost two seasons). And I’m sure, pressed for examples, we could all cite instances where we believe women sold out their gender for fame, or money, or security, or political success. The reality is that women are taught to compete with each other from an early age, and it takes a strong woman to learn to build up rather than tear down those of her sex. So, this theme, though it made me sad, didn’t surprise me.
Where this novel gave me greater pause was when it examined women’s feelings toward men. There are no mustache-twirling villains to be found here; at least, they aren’t drawn that way. The Commander, who has dominion over the entire household, including his handmaid and his wife, is almost pitiable. At times, Offred admits that she almost likes him. When she looks back at the time when women first lost their rights, when their bank accounts were switched to their husbands’ names, she remembers how her husband Luke (whom she loves) said he would “always take care of her.” The words rankle, but she doesn’t call him out on them. When Serena, desperate for Offred to conceive a child, asks her to sleep with the Commander’s driver Nick, Offered delicately soothes Nick’s ego. At one point, when the Commander is justifying the current state to Offred, he says, “The problem wasn’t only with the women. . . .The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore. Nothing? I say. But they had. . . .” The final implied “everything” goes unsaid, and the Commander dismisses it.
At one point Offred remembers a documentary she once saw that featured a Nazi war criminal’s mistress, who insisted that her former lover was not a monster. Offred muses, “Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. . . . Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him either. The instinct to soothe, to make it better. There there, she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. Things are so hard for you.”
This tendency for women to exist to make men feel better, to put aside their own feelings so that the men are less likely to suffer, that’s the most difficult truth this novel articulates.
All told, this book could have been much more of an emotional nightmare; it is much more gentle than I expected, yet every bit as powerful. If you have been avoiding it the way I was, I encourage you to put your misgivings aside. It may surprise you.