The Handmaid’s Tale

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.

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17 Responses to The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Jeanne says:

    Hear, hear. I taught this book for years and on one of the days we discussed it, I brought in articles from the 1980s showing the students what kinds of things Atwood had based her speculative details on (there’s an interview where she talks about that).

    • Teresa says:

      I read somewhere that she said everything in the book was based on something that had already happened, and I could come up with examples for a lot of it.

  2. Hi, Teresa. Though I have never watched the mini-series, and so am analyzing from a position of comparative ignorance, I was surprised that they chose this book to make a series from. But my concern is that to make a series from it is to wallow in the “bad news” angle of the book (which I too read quite some time ago), to almost indulge in masochistic behavior through using the plot skeleton of the book to make up further material that wasn’t originally there. Maybe I’m becoming concerned unnecessarily, and they stick closer to the book than the tv industry is wont to. Can you speak to that?

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t seen the series, and I don’t know if I’m going to see it soon. (I don’t have Hulu.) Pretty much everything in the trailer comes from the book, but some of it isn’t described in detail the book because Offred isn’t there to see it. I’ve also heard about a few things that weren’t in the book but that were kind of hinted at. So I don’t know. I feel like seeing some of this stuff is going to be shocking enough, without adding more violence.

  3. Michelle says:

    I am almost finished with a re-listen of this right now, and I find I am having a similar reaction to it as you did. The first time I read it, I was terrified. This time around, I see it as a learning tool to know what types of rhetoric and actions to watch for in the current administration. I agree that the ease with which the citizens capitulate is probably the most frightening part of the story – how easily they adjust to a scenario that was considered abhorrent a few months ago. I do think that when looking at the current political climate, the capitulation is not there. We continue to resist and fight and demand change from an administration that pretty much everyone feels is surreal. This is a good thing and one that reassures me. The minute we start giving up and letting the administration do what they want, then something like this becomes a greater possibility.

    • Teresa says:

      I do hope people can keep up the resistance, especially when it’s going to be a long haul to get new people in power (two years at the very least). That’s probably where books like this provide a service, showing the importance of staying awake and recognizing how the administration is manipulating facts and speaking up when we see it.

  4. Rebecca says:

    For me, the book was terrifying. I see it as a cautionary tale but I don’t see the chance of it happening here very high. In other countries, however, I think similar scenarios are happening. The details might be different, but other religions already treat women as chattel and wombs – nothing more.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, absolutely. I was watching an interview with Malala Yousafzai the other day, and the way she talked about the Taliban made me think of Gilead. I know there are people in the U.S. who’d support similarly oppressive states, but I do hope they stay far enough out of the mainstream. The mainstream misogyny we’re dealing with is bad enough.

  5. Jillian says:

    I really need to read this book. I started it a while back, but I set it aside and never got back to it. I can see why so many are reading it right now…

  6. It’s one of my reading goals for this year to revisit this. I haven’t yet had the heart. But your review reminds me to view this book through the lens of resistance, of never letting go of our ideals, as you put it. Terrific review!

  7. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Very interesting. I haven’t reread the novel in years but of course with it everywhere these days I too am tempted. Your point about adjusting reminded me of how we take for granted now all the invasions of our privacy, as well as all the “small” coercive elements of things like air travel now. There’s a moment in one of Sara Paretsky’s novels where V.I. Warshawski says something like “one of these days they will insist we go naked through security and we’ll all just go along” — because when safety is the argument, as you rightly note it so often is, it is really hard to take back any control. Those full-body scanners are awfully close to nudity!

    • Teresa says:

      I am legitimately frightened of what might happen if we have a major terrorist attack, not because of the terrorists but because of the government’s possible response.

  8. It’s the ability to see the truth clearly that seems so terribly fragile right now. During the election season last year, I remember talking to my dad about Clinton as a candidate, and saying that I felt absolutely unmoored from reality. I couldn’t tell if she was actually the worst candidate in history (aside from the one that won), or if her being a woman was causing her to be held to an insane, impossible standard that men were never held to. I suspected the truth was somewhere between those two things, but I couldn’t figure out *where* in between. And now it seems more and more like commitment to facts is a partisan issue, and not supported by the people in power, and that really really fucking scares me.

    • Teresa says:

      I keep thinking back to how we had lessons in fact and opinion in third grade, and now it seems like facts aren’t even a thing. I know it’s not always possible to agree on certain facts, but it seems out of control now. I can’t decide how much is willful refusal to see the facts and how much is stupidity. And I also can’t decide how much of the misinformation is deliberately misleading and how much is a sincere misunderstanding of the facts. Probably all of the above, but it makes it hard to know which fronts to tackle.

  9. I read it when I was too young, and probably couldn’t really see beyond the dystopian vision. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for ages – perhaps now is the time, you post has persuaded me of that.

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