the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.
Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.
And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.
Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.
Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.
In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.
First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.
Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.
I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.
It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.
It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.
With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:
With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…
The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.
Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.