It isn’t too difficult to draw parallels between our times and the dystopian world in which Margaret Atwood’s (The Edible Woman, Hag-Seed) The Handmaid’s Tale takes place. That would be chilling enough if it was written recently, but as it was published in 1985, it’s downright creepy. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that it’s maintained its status as an important – and controversial – work of fiction, even forming part of required reading lists or banned ones. I’ve always wanted to read a book that’s been banned in the West. I’m glad it was this one.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a woman that’s been assigned a position as a concubine for one of the highest leaders in the new regime. She wasn’t always a handmaiden; once she was a wife and a mother. She was college-educated and had a career of her own, until the United States government was overturned and a new order was created. Not overnight, of course, but in small increments that many applauded until things spiralled and even the most basic freedoms were stripped away.
Women were reduced to vessels – property, not people. Offred’s life then becomes a waiting room (no really, she literally waits in her room, out of sight, until she’s needed), and her survival depends on her compliance, her silence and her ability to bear a healthy child for her Commander. The question is, can she accept this life?
Up until that frightening switch in government, the history of the world is the same as ours. It was jarring to read references to Charles Dickens, Tarzan, Vogue and even Scrabble when my mind was caught up in this grim world that I wanted to hold at arm’s length from my own.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Ms. Atwood was asked if her haunting tale was based on real life.
“For sure… The fact that, in the United States, teaching a slave to read was against the law. And then sumptuary laws – who can wear what. Who can cover up what, who has to, and can, cover up what part of which bodies – that’s been a part of human culture for a very long time.”
It’s terrifying to think about, and it’s easy to dismiss The Handmaid’s Tale as another dystopian work of fiction, but let’s remember that it was released in 1985. It’s taken its enduring place of honor in that genre for a reason. It would be a waste to shut our eyes, plug our ears, and claim that it could never happen. It already has, in some ways.
In one scene, the handmaids are encouraged to victim-blame a woman that was gang-raped. In another, Offred’s bank account is surreptitiously drained. In one night, her ability to support herself is transferred entirely to her husband. In our increasingly digital age, it’s startling to realize how easy it would be to be cut off from everything we rely on. Another scene reveals that the government has restricted freedoms in response to terrorist attacks. Restricting freedoms and increasing surveillance in the name of protection? Sounds familiar.
Perhaps that’s why The Handmaid’s Tale is experiencing a renewed surge of popularity. I’ve heard a lot about this book recently, so much so that I thought it was a new release, not a thirty-two-year-old classic. I’ve seen passengers reading it on the Tube, glimpsed it propped on special bookshop shelves as a staff favorite, and highlighted on several reading lists and magazines. In light of that, or perhaps because of it, the mini-series based on this novel is set to premiere at the perfect time. It’s scheduled to air on Hulu in April 2017.
The novel really lends itself to television, especially in our current fascination with dystopian tales (Hunger Games or Divergent, anyone?). Atwood writes in a nonlinear style that’s both abstract and poetic as she switches between Offred’s present situation as a concubine and her life before the coup. A life that was full of laughter and arguments with her best friend, trouble with her mother, intimate moments with her husband and tender memories of her daughter.
Unfortunately, Atwood gets bogged down in detail of the how’s and why’s of the unfamiliar world, quickly making for a very cerebral read. It was tough going at some points I’ll admit. I don’t usually read sci-fi/ speculative fiction, so this style of writing was a bit more difficult for me to latch onto. There are lots of tangents within Offred’s stream of consciousness as she fixates on an image that reminds her of her past or someone in her present that is largely unknown to her.
I did wonder if I would have ploughed through this novel as quickly without the deadline of the tv series approaching, but Atwood manages to balance exposition with plot advancement in a way that just works, in spite of the many details. And I did try to give her the benefit of the doubt – she’s constructing a world that’s (thankfully) different enough from my own.
That’s what makes this tale hit home. We always think that this sort of wild and strange obliteration only happens to other people, but it doesn’t. That inspires gratitude in my heart, and a fierce desire to protect what we have. To value the people around me and affirm their dignity in every way I can. It’s something simple, yet powerful.
After all, what good are cautionary tales if they don’t help us to make our world a better place?