I first read The Handmaid’s Tale about 20 years ago. At the time, I found it more interesting than frightening. I was very familiar with the patriarchal side of Christianity, and, as frustrated as I was with their attitude toward women, I didn’t really see things going as far as they do in Margaret Atwood’s novel.
Now, however, the new mini-series and the new political reality in the U.S. has put The Handmaid’s Tale on everyone’s mind. And it got me wondering if I would find the book more frightening now than I did then. After rereading, I can say that I did find it more frightening, but not for the reasons you might think.
In case you don’t know, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future version on the United States, now called Gilead. An environmental catastrophe has made it difficult for women to bear healthy children. A simultaneous attack on the president and Congress caused a suspension of civil liberties and the eventual establishment of a theocratic state where behavior, particularly of women, is strictly regulated. The narrator of the novel, known only as Offred, is a handmaid. Her job is to have a healthy baby for one of Gilead’s commanders. She lives in the couple’s home, and each month there is a “ceremony” in which the commander attempts to impregnate her as she lies in the lap of the commander’s wife.
When it comes to the novel’s prescience, I can see it in bits and pieces. There’s the strict regulation on women’s dress and behavior, common across cultures in the past and present and, I’m sorry to say, probably in the future, too. This careful monitoring of behavior is often couched in terms of keeping women safe, a refrain that recurs in this novel. Throughout history, people have risen to power on platforms of fear, just as the leaders of Gilead do—and there’s reason to imagine that they’ve manufactured most of the fear to gain power.
As for the theocratic angle, I suspect that the powerful in Gilead manufactured their piety, just as they manufactured the fear. The goal is not godliness but power. It is, in my opinion, only manufactured piety that would take things this far. As infuriating as their views about women often are, most devout conservative Christians I know would find this world shocking and want nothing to do with it. However, plenty of power-hungry people use religious language to manipulate true believers and obfuscate what they’re really doing. Once people wake up, it’s too late.
So, no, I’m not afraid that we’re moments away from becoming another Gilead, although there are trends that bear watching, just as there have always been. What terrified me about this novel is what living in Gilead does to people, and how quickly and easily people adjust.
For much of the novel, Offred and others appear to be behaving as they do only because they’re afraid of being caught and punished. There are spies everywhere. But, as the book goes on, it’s clear that they’ve internalized much about Gilead’s ideals. We see it early on in Offred herself, when she is shocked at the exposed legs of some Japanese tourists. Before that, as soon as the patriarchy becomes policy, Offred senses a new barrier between herself and her husband, Luke:
He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.
Later, Offred finds herself acting in ways she considers horrifying. Even the commander and his wife seem trapped in something they don’t much like (although they also don’t seem to regret it). They’ve let something become normal that should not be normal—and that’s the cautionary tale.
The likelihood that specific elements of this dystopia will come to pass in the U.S. is less important to me than the notion that we need to cling to our ideals and see the truth clearly. We need to watch carefully, without assuming that the worst could never happen. The potential is always there, even if it doesn’t look exactly like Atwood’s vision.