I am reposting my review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, because it’s relevant to today’s fresh content. This post was originally composed on July 7, 2017. Enjoy!
I don’t know how I missed Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, but I swear I had not heard of it until a couple of months ago, when I happened to read an interesting article on Medium.com about a woman who had grown up fundie Christian. She had gone to a Christian college and a literature professor had assigned the book, letting the class know that Atwood’s 1985 novel was pro-feminist and a reaction against the religious right. For that reason, the professor said the class may not enjoy the book. It was a statement against everything fundamentalist Christians stand for.
I was myself an English major from 1990-94. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. Somehow, in the 32 years since this book was published, I had not heard of it. However, perhaps as an explanation, I will admit that I kind of quit reading most novels after I graduated from college. I prefer to read true stories most of the time, except when I stumble across an author who is especially engaging.
Having just finished Atwood’s book, I will say that I found The Handmaid’s Tale frightening and depressing. And while it was written in the 1980s, I have seen some distressing signs that our world may one day regress to a state in which certain women are relegated to being simple brood mares. It seems like more and more people are either turning to militant atheism or extreme religions as a means of navigating life. Although I am sure there were plenty of fundie Christians back in the 80s, it seems like there are so many more of them now. Maybe it’s just because we have the Internet.
Anyway, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a young woman who is “re-educated” by a totalitarian, fundamentalist Christian government. As a handmaid, she wears a bright red dress and is of a lower rank than other women. Her purpose is to make babies with an old, high ranking, married man. She is a surrogate and worth nothing more than her ability to produce children, which will then be raised by the wife.
The woman’s name is Offred (of Fred)– her original name was stripped of her when the government turned fundie. She lives in the Republic of Gilead and is old enough to remember when times were different, but young enough to have feelings of lust and desire. Offred remembers when she had a husband, a child, a job, and money of her own. She remembers when she was allowed to read. Now, she is forced to rely on pictures.
Offred is forced to visit a gynecologist monthly, to check the status of her womb and whether or not she is fertile. At one visit, a sympathetic male doctor tells her he can “help her” if she wants. He says she’s physically ready and he is able to provide what the old fart she’s forced to fuck cannot. Her value is wholly determined by her ability to make babies. Once her ovaries stop working, her worth plummets to nothing.
Margaret Atwood’s book may seem like a fantasy, but she based this book on things that have already happened in history. She wrote her novel in Berlin back in 1984, at a time when Germany was still divided and the Soviet Union still loomed large as a nuclear threat. She based the novel on 17th century Puritan traditions, times that seem archaic and backwards to many readers. But look at what’s going on right now. That old puritanical mindset exists all over the world and it’s spreading.
Given phenomenons like the Duggar family and Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormon compound hitting the airwaves, Atwood’s novel may not be as “out there” as it might seem to the average reader. The truth is, there are already populations out there that are trying to breed themselves into majority status. There is already a “holy war” going on, with people believing wholeheartedly in the black and white thinking that can lead to revolutions. And while the Soviet Union is gone now, there are other populations in the world that would love to see women relegated to mere vessels for new life and a powerful force behind a totalitarian regime.
To be honest, I had some trouble getting through The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s definitely a dark, disturbing, and ultimately depressing read. While I’m sure that the future will never be exactly as Atwood describes it in this work of fiction, I do see why The Handmaid’s Tale is now a show on Hulu. People are relating to it. Every day, there’s something else in the news about how the government is trying to control women’s reproductive abilities and police women’s behaviors. Although women have been fighting for equality for decades, there is still an extreme segment of the population that wants to “make America great again.” They want to regress to a time when life was better for certain segments of the population, forgetting that it really sucked for others.
Although I found The Handmaid’s Tale a difficult read, I am glad I persevered and finished the book. I think it’s an important novel for today and would recommend it, especially to young people who are coming of age at this time of lunacy. We have a man living in the White House who admits to “grabbing women by the pussy”. And a significant faction of our population thinks he’s an awesome guy– perfectly appropriate as the Commander in Chief and world leader. This is a man who is openly sexist and abusive toward women. He’s in a position to influence laws. And, scarier still, is the fact that right behind him are at least two more men whose ideals are even more frightening and oppressive to women.
Young people should read this book and do some heavy thinking about what they want their futures to be. Although The Handmaid’s Tale is over thirty years old, I don’t think the subject matter could possibly be more timely.
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