It is not so often that a single work of art manages to capture the Zeitgeist; it is even less ordinary when a book written as a speculative warning decades ago becomes more applicable now than at the time of its creation. Published in 1985 in response to the social, political, and religious trends in the 1980s America, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has become a symbol of the changes transpiring in 2017.
The worldwide protest that followed the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States earlier this year was named the Women’s March. It was a global event that took place on all seven continents (including Antarctica) on January 21st, and while the participants were not strictly female, the agenda was strictly feminist. The protest was a reaction to the policies proposed by Donald Trump, including his intention to defund Planned Parenthood; it was also fueled by Trump’s personal sexist actions and opinions — see this very long article for a full collection of those. The misogyny and attacks on women’s rights predetermined the nature of the global demonstration of solidarity: it had to be the Women’s March.
The March was colourful — largely pink — and carnivalesque, with knitted pussyhats and witty slogans. Carrie Fisher, who had passed away in late December, looked from the Princess Leia posters that said, ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance’ — in contrast to the traditional ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. Another poster read, ‘Make Margaret Atwood FIction Again!’, paraphrasing Trump’s campaign motto ‘Make America Great Again’ and alluding to Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
What is it about that book that makes it so uncomfortably timely and real?
In a society where procreation is seen as rare and divine, women are treated as ‘national resources’, vessels and bodies. The pears on the cover symbolise womb and its fruit, while the red half-moon stands for the menstrual cycle.
The narrative takes place in near-future New England, in what used to be Cambridge, Massachusetts. The United States government had been overthrown and replaced by a Christian fundamentalist movement ‘Sons of Jacob’ who are in charge of the new Republic of Gilead. The order is militant and military, hierarchical to the extreme and restricting to the point of contained delirium:
Even his singing worries me. We’ve been warned not to look too happy.
The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 96
There are rules regulating what you wear and how you move, where you look and how you speak, some universal, some dependant on your position within the hierarchy. The protagonist is a Handmaid, one of the class of women kept for reproductive purposes. As such, she dresses in red, eats well, has regular health checks, is not allowed to read or write or have a personal name which instead had been replaced by a title: Offred, ‘of Fred’, ‘belonging to Fred’, her Commander. Neither can she bathe on her own or use knives, lest she tries to kill herself. She is perfect breeding material and that is her purpose:
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. 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. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.
The Handmaid’s Tale, pp. 104–105
That is the description of the Ceremony, the ‘mating ritual’ introduced in Gilead. Attraction has been removed and intercourse exists as, supposedly, God intended it: for procreation needs only. Other things that had been removed include libraries, money, board games, and women’s agency.
Atwood has maintained that no plotline in The Handmaid’s Tale is without historical precedent. In an interview given in 2004 on the topic of her other dystopia Oryx and Crake (2003), she stated the following: ‘As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.’
The Handmaid’s Tale borrows from the culture of early American Puritans, the people who founded New England and later became the glorified and abstract figures of Thanksgiving school plays. Among the first European immigrants to America, they are often seen as dissenters fleeing persecution to establish a religiously tolerant society, the future United States. However, an alternative view — one shared by Atwood — suggests that the Puritans were in favour of their own restrictive theocracy.
The parallels between the Republic of Gilead and 17th century Puritan New England are many. The latter is embedded in the former: a pair of Russian dolls that share the geographical location, the fashion style, the distaste for music, and the belief that greatest female virtues are submissiveness and humility. Atwood uses the Puritan ideals as an underlying condition for her dystopian future that would have to be particularly American: a dictatorship based on religion, on a certain understanding of tradition, with a selective use of Bible texts.
Handmaids-in-training recite this passage every day, after dessert: ‘From each, according to her ability; to each according to his needs.’ They are told the saying comes from St. Paul while, in fact, it is a slightly tweaked Marxist principle: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ The invention of gender dichotomy introduces an hierarchy. The new ideology is not too picky with its means.
In The Handmaid’s Tale the ease and the speed with which a long-established democracy can descend into a dictatorship is astonishing, but not too removed from the communal experience of humanity. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in an Islamic theocracy that is institutionally opposed to women’s rights. The practice of policing women’s bodies remains widespread enough that the legality of abortion varies from country to country worldwide, with a distinct correlation between the legality and the influence of local religious groups. It follows that a fundamentalist government would also be patriarchal.
TV series Desperate Housewives (2004–2012) opens with a chronological sequence of eight pieces of art displaying scenes of domesticity and providing examples of heterosexual partnerships through the ages. The show itself is a study of female attitudes, both feminist and anti-feminist, located in a white-picket-fence version of the American dream.
It would be wrong to see Atwood’s novel as merely a thought experiment and political speculation. Her book is prefaced by a quote from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal but, although both texts take a certain prevailing attitude to its logical extreme, Swift’s is a satirical essay, while Atwood has provided us with a delightful example of flowing fiction.
The relationships and the settings of The Handmaid’s Tale are described in a precise, yet succinct fashion. Although often given scarce information, or a single detail, it is never difficult to imagine the rest. The first conversation Offred has outside the household, with another Handmaid, reads like a lie, from the first word to the last:
‘Blessed be the fruit,’ she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
‘May the Lord open,’ I answer, the accepted response.
‘The war is going well, I hear,’ she says.
‘Praise be,’ I reply.
‘We’ve been sent good weather.’
‘Which I receive with joy.’
‘They’ve defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday.’
‘Praise be,’ I say.
The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 29
Such is that world, with coded phrases and coded dresses, with everyone adhering to the formulae which have excluded decision-making except in the most trivial of matters: you can hide your butter in a shoe, to use it later as face cream, in an invisible act of defiance. A Handmaid is little but a walking uterus, her face should not enter the equation.
Stylistically, The Handmaid’s Tale is a treat to read, but it rather feels that the narrative drive expires when the protagonist loses the desire to change her circumstances. The ending, while not quite giving the answers, comes at a logical spot: there would be nothing new now, just more of what we have already learned. A suspended moment in a book full of memories, waiting, and suspended moments, rather like those of secular Renaissance paintings.
A new TV series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has been produced by Hulu and will air from April 26th. Margaret Atwood served as a consulting producer for the show.
The Handmaid’s Tale offers a critique of both extreme conservatism and second-wave feminism. Although there is a number of female attitudes present, all of them presuppose a division into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and an elevation of ‘us’ at ‘their’ expense.
In Gilead, Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Econowives resent each other, divided in their oppression. Prior to the revolution, the protagonist’s mother takes her to a public burning of erotic magazines; later, speaks of men, including Offred’s father: ‘But there’s something missing in them, even the nice ones. It’s like they’re permanently absent-minded, like they can’t quite remember who they are.’ (Offred’s husband retaliates: ‘he teased her by pretending to be macho, he’d tell her women were incapable of abstract thought’.)
It starts small and slow. It is internalised misogyny and casual sexism of all kinds. It is our everyday attitudes to gender roles taken to the extreme. It is the quiet sort of betrayal, like when upon learning that his partner just lost her right to work or own property (or vote, or to be free from sexual violence), the man replies, ‘You know I’ll always take care of you’.
I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.
The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 188
The Handmaid’s Tale is a gripping experience devoid of catharsis. A beautifully written, coming in and out of focus account of events set in a version of the near future, complex, and all too believable. The book reminds of 1984, but Atwood’s novel is much more physical and, therefore, abhorrent. As other dystopias, it contains the answer to the ‘How did we get here?’ question. (‘Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’) Imagined horror is something of a vaccine against horror real; it is our chance to prevent the very circumstances that make a tragedy seemingly unavoidable.
Bibliography: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Canada, first published in 1985. My copy published by Vintage, Random House, London and printed in the UK by CPI Bookmarque, Croydon in 2007. ISBN 9780099740919. (On Goodreads)
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