So The Handmaid’s Tale, though published way back in 1986, is having something of a moment these days. For numerous reasons, chief among them Trump’s nascent presidency, lots of folks have been talking about this book and how “timely” and “prescient” it is, and all this talk has only been bolstered by the fact that there is a new dramatization of the story recently released on Hulu, which I have not yet watched.
As I’ve said before, I love me some dystopian-future fiction. Everyone mentions 1984 and Brave New World as the classics. But having now read The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it too deserves its place among the greats. In 1984, we’re living under the thumb of an omnipresent repressive governmental superstructure. In Brave New World, we’re living under the tyranny of our own desires and distractions, and that’s how they get us. The repressive government in The Handmaid’s Tale, though, is significantly more old-school, quaint event, one might say. The powers that be rely on good old-fashioned public hangings and a network of matronly narcs to discourage dissent. There is no need of all-watching cameras to monitor for out-of-line behavior; folks will rat on one another. And there is certainly no indulging of every desire, for in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, almost everything is prohibited, even reading.
The novel is set in some vaguely-defined future time period. It takes place in what used to be part of the United States, but is now the religiously conservative Republic of Gilead. Part of the eeriness created by Atwood in this novel is that it’s all told from the perspective of one particular Handmaid, and her experience of the world is quite limited, so we readers don’t really quite understand the superstructure ourselves. We know only what she knows, the small prison of her small world. She lives in the home of a Commander. The Commander has a wife. The household, like all households, is run by women known as Aunts, who are the middle-class enforcers of society’s rules, and staffed by Marthas, the lower-class cooks and cleaners. In fact, the Commander and his wife are the only two upper-class folks we really meet in the novel.
Now, Handmaids, like our protagonist, are middle-class, and the importance of their role in Gileadean society comes from the fact that, in this future, pregnancy is quite rare. Owing presumably to environmental devastation wrought by humankind, there are very few women who can get pregnant, and these are the Handmaids, and they are assigned and belong to particular Commanders and their Wives, and there occur these bizarre, creepy ritualized attempts at impregnation wherein the Handmaid lies atop the Wife, who sort of holds the Handmaid’s hands and serves as a kind of human puppeteer while the Commander penetrates the Handmaid. And the Handmaids, it should be mentioned, literally belong to their Commanders. Their names signify the name of their Commander. For instance, our protagonist is named Offred. She is literally is of Fred, which is her Commander’s name.
It’s all very creepy and horrible. Additionally, Atwood intersperses in the present narrative of the novel various flashbacks in which our protagonist remembers her life, with a husband and child and freedom, before the rise of Gilead. It’s all very disconcerting and uncomfortable and, in that regard, quite masterfully done.
Apart from singing its praises, I won’t say anything specific about the plot here, as I truly recommend that you read it if you haven’t. As I’ve said, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves its place in the canon of dystopian-future novels. However, I do want to say this before I sign off:
Throughout the novel, I experienced a steady sensation of discomfort owing to the fact that so much of the current hype around the book of late seems to center on a kind of fear that such a situation as that which exists in the novel could possibly happen in our world, that such a thing could come to be, that such extremes of human subjugation and cruelty could possibly maybe happen, if we’re not careful. But what I kept feeling as I read was: Offred and her subjugation is basically the same subjugation that actual house slaves actually experienced right here in the actual USA in the actual past. This, to me, is not so much a novel about some horrible imagined future as it is a tale pulled right from our shameful history. Now, I know that, in fact, it’s a novel set in the future, but what I’m saying here is that the cultural moment that The Handmaid’s Tale is experiencing at present seems, in some way, a little tone-deaf. Offred is white, and it seems to me, to be blunt, that some white folks are reading it as a horrible cautionary tale, which it is, but failing to acknowledge that, for many folks of color, it reads a lot like history.