(1985; Houghton Mifflin 1986; Fawcett 1986). The book was shortlisted for a Retrospective Tiptree Award, won the 1st annual Arthur C. Clarke award in England, nominated for Nebula, Best Novel and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian tale of life in the Republic of Gilead, The Republic of Gilead is based on a patriarchal Old Testament life-style. In this world women are no longer allowed to read or write, especially not the bible. The book was writen in the 1980's with the resurgence of the (Christian) Religious Right and the Moral Majority during the Reagan/Thatcher era. This book explores the issues of women's right to control her body, religious bigotry, racism, and portrays a chilling view of life under a fundamentalist theocracy.

The story is told from the point of view of Offred, one of the many Handmaids who are valued only for the chance that in a time of declining male virility they may produce children (note the inspiration for the handmaids comes from the stories of various biblical matriarchs such as Sarah or Rachel who followed the practice of sending a maid or slave to bear children in their place when they proved infertile.)

In The Handmaid's Tale, the inspiration for the handmaids comes from the Biblical story of Rachel. Rachel, who was barren, married her husband Jacob to her servant, Bilhah, so that Bilhah would have children in her place. In the book, the relevant passages are quoted as:

Give me children or I will die. Am I in G-d's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

These passages are excerpted from Genesis 30:1-5. (from the New American Standard Bible)

1. Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die.''
2. Then Jacob's anger burned against Rachel, and he said, "Am I in the place of G-d, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?''
3. She said, "Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.''
4. So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her.
5. Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son.

In some ways, the Gileadeans of The Handmaid's Tale were very literal in their interpretation of these passages. For example, when a handmaid gave birth, she did so physically squatting between the knees of the wife to whom the baby would belong, so that she would literally "bear upon.." the wife's "knees". However, the handmaids were not actually wives in the families that they served (as opposed to Bilhah and Zilpah). As soon as a handmaid gave birth, or if sufficient time had passed to indicate that she would not succeed in conceiving, she was traded to another house, to try again.

1990 German-American production, directed by Volker Schlöndorff (Palmetto). The screenplay adaptation is by Harold Pinter (The French Lieutenant's Woman). Natasha Richardson (The Parent Trap) plays Kate (Offred in the book) the handmaiden. The Commander and his wife are Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.

Atwood's book is somewhat distilled into "Look at the bad,bad fascist fundamentalists and the destructive effect they have on society." It goes into blatant cliches with the Ruling Elite attends a decadent orgy, meanwhile ordinary citizens are executed for fornication out of wedlock and other crimes against morality. It would have been ten times more chilling if these blaring abuses were toned down with more realism.

 

Imagine: You go to the store. When you attempt to ring up your purchases, you find that your card keeps being declined with a cryptic "invalid number" message, even though you know there's more than enough on your account. The man at the till - who has without comment replaced the woman who worked there just yesterday - seems to know a bit more about your debit card woes than he's letting on. After you, and all your female colleagues, are sent home from your office on the orders of rather inhospitable-looking gentlemen with automatic weapons, you find out that all of your assets have been frozen and can only be released to your husband or closest male relative.

And that's just the start...

Even two weeks after finishing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in a 24-hour flurry of pages, I find that the profound sense of dread I have felt creeping into the back door of my consciousness is making it quite hard to approach the book with any semblance of analytical distance. In part, this is due to Atwood's beautiful writing, which creates such a powerful empathic bond with the narrator that I felt as if, instead of reading the memoirs of Offred, I lived them. And like an all-too-plausible nightmare, part of me remains stubbornly unwilling to partake in the profound relief I should be feeling that the world of THT is in fact not (yet?) a reality.

But: Even before opening THT, I was acutely aware of the beating that the rights of women have taken over my lifetime. In 2008, women have already lost the right to sue for pay discrimination (rendered a practical impossibility by Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co.). In 2008, the state has already been given a green light to dictate what medical care we may receive without regard to any attendant risks to our health (thanks to Gonzales v. Carhart), and the same decision, reached by an all-male majority, spends about as much time on the "feminine mind", deemed too emotionally immature and indecisive to make important medical decisions, as it does on actual constitutional issues. In 2008, we have a Supreme Court Justice who believes a man should have as much power over his (adult) wife as he does over his (minor) daughter.

The fundamentalist clerics who had just begun their ascent to power in the mid-80s, when Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, far from being thankfully raptured out of existence on 1 January 2000, have had plenty of reason to celebrate. From the grip they now have over our Air Force to the indoctrination centres featured in the documentary Jesus Camp, from the pressure they now exert over our educational system (getting science out of our schools and taking the sex and the ed out of Sex-Ed), the dream shared by the likes of Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye of becoming one of the most powerful reactionary forces in our society has come frighteningly true.

Thus, in reading The Handmaid's Tale, I found that I perceived the fundamentalist Christian theocracy it described (which came to power by suspending the Constitution after an alleged Islamic terrorist attack) not as speculative fiction, but as a warning of an entirely possible future.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred ("of Fred"), told as a first-person, oral memoir. In "the time before", Offred was a university-educated IT professional who worked at a local library, and was married with a 5-year-old daughter. What we hear of her life in "the time before" (as she always calls it) is told in brief, disconnected flashbacks, distant recollections of a time that hardly seems real to her anymore. And understandably so. In the time in which the principal story is set, she has lost all she once had. First, she lost her bank account (transferred to her husband, Luke). Then, she lost her job (it is now illegal for women to work outside the home). Then, she lost her home, her husband, and her daughter (Luke was previously divorced, rendering the marriage adulterous and thus criminal in the new order). Not only that, she has lost the mystery novels she used to enjoy reading (women are forbidden access to reading or writing materials in an effort to eliminate female literacy), and every last vestige of control over her body.

Offred's new status, which brought with it her new name, is a great honour. Or so she is constantly told. She is a Handmaid, a fertile woman assigned to a member of the élite of the new regime, a Commander of the Faithful, so that he might use her uterus to conceive a child. If she fails to conceive - by definition her failure, as official doctrine holds that there is no such thing as male infertility - she will be sent to the Colonies, the slave-labour camps of the new regime, as an Unwoman. If she does conceive and give birth to a healthy child, she will be spared this fate. Her posting in the household of Commander Fred is her last chance.

She is not the only woman-in-captivity in Fred's house. Together with her are two Marthas, infertile women used for domestic services, and Fred's wife, whom she calls Serena Joy. To the Marthas, she is a pariah, though fraternisation with them is illegal, anyway. To Serena Joy, she is the object of resentment, though Serena Joy has plenty of resentment to go around. In "the time before", Offred remembers seeing her on television, copiously made up, evangelising to women about the joys of staying home and being submissive to one's husband, joys in which she did not herself partake. Now, she - like all women - has been completely banished from the public sphere, and divides her days between knitting the same scarf over and over again, smoking, and making Offred - with whom she must now share her husband - feel as unwelcome as possible.

Offred's days are spent in mind-crushing boredom. Most of the time, she stays in her room, which has been carefully rid of any potential instrument of suicide, with the only reading material she has left: a pillow embroidered with the word FAITH and a hidden inscription in the closet reading Nolite te bastardes carbondonum, a message she surmises was left by her predecessor, who was found hanging from a light fixture that has since been removed. She wears the same thing every day: a blood-red ankle-length dress designed to obscure every contour of her body below the neck and a bonnet designed to cover her hair and eliminate her peripheral vision. Once a day, she is allowed to leave the house to do the day's shopping, accompanied by another Handmaid to ensure mutual surveillance.

Her partner on these daily shopping excusions is Ofglen. After enduring multiple painstakingly orthodox conversations about safe topics ("Blessed be the fruit", "May the Lord open," amongst other gibberish), Ofglen begins outing herself as a member of a resistance group known as Mayday, thus becoming the only person with whom Offred can speak with anything approaching candour. From Ofglen, she learns that Mayday is bringing women to safety in Canada (or "removing our precious national resources from the country" in official regime parlance). On their excursions, they always pass by the Wall, where the recently executed are hanged, allowing Offred to ascertain whether any of them is her husband.

Gradually, the situation in the household of Commander Fred becomes somewhat more complicated. Fred, it seems, would like to see Offred privately, outside of the officially sanctioned context of the "Ceremony" (the bizarre monthly ritualised rape in which the Commander attempts to inseminate his Handmaid). While this is strictly forbidden, Offred has no real option and acquiesces, uncertain what she is to expect. As it turns out, she is to expect a game of Scrabble and the opportunity to read an assortment of magazines so banal that she could barely tolerate them in "the time before", but which now are like a bottle of Perrier in the intellectual desert of her life. In exchange for this, Fred wants her to kiss him "like you mean it". She must also endure his lectures on what a lovely idea this new order was. From him, she discovers that the inscription in her closet is dog Latin for "Don't let the bastards grind you down", an enterprise in which her predecessor met with rather limited success.

To make matters even more uncomfortable, Serena Joy begins speaking increasingly candidly with Offred, and even offers her one of her cigarettes (nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are all illegal for Handmaids, and Offred spends many a paragraph talking about how much she's dying for a smoke). As it turns out, Serena Joy is convinced that her husband is sterile, as appears to be the case with many of the Commanders. In order to secure a child for Serena Joy and safety from the Colonies for Offred, Serena Joy proposes that she sleep with Fred's driver, Nick, a rather enigmatic character who is either affiliated with the Mayday Resistance or with the secret police ("the Eyes"), a proposal to which Offred agrees.

There are too many facets to The Handmaid's Tale to attempt a full synopsis without it becoming a mediocre retelling of a brilliant story; thus, I will leave the remainder to the interested reader, and move on.

Margaret Atwood's prose is a tour de force. Her style beautifully reproduces the feeling of oral recollections retold without the aid of anything but the teller's memory. The descriptions of Offred's daily life are laden with free associations of words, puns, and other verbal tics that can often be heard from a person trying to force vague or difficult memories to the surface. Her writing gives Offred's story an immediacy and an urgency that break down any analytical walls that may separate the content of the book from the mind of the reader. It is all too easy to see and feel oneself in Offred's position, to feel what she feels, to see the world and her life as she sees them. It is, indeed, like an all-too-real nightmare that leads one to spend the entire day not entirely certain whether the events in the dream actually happened or not.

I am no stranger to heavy reading material. For years, atrocities and dystopias, historical and fictitious, have been a major staple of my library. It is exceedingly rare for me to be shaken by something I have read. I was shaken by The Handmaid's Tale, and, to a certain extent, still am. One of the most peculiar side-effects of reading THT has been a heightened awareness of things that I normally take for granted (as I should be able to do).

In particular, it has made me extremely conscious of the very act of reading, even in trivial instances. Normally, unless I am reading a language I cannot yet read well, reading for me feels like a purely sensory act. I see a word. The underlying interpretive act that connects the symbolic data in front of me to the phonetic and conceptual representations and associations I have in my mind is normally reflexive and unconscious. Since I began THT, I have become remarkably aware of this process. The day I started reading it, I had to go to the supermarket to buy a bottle of red wine, where I found that I was extremely aware (and somehow rather surprised) to find myself reading the words on the wine labels. I have the same feeling, the same vague fascination and relief now any time I read something and don't need to be clandestine about it, the things one feels about something to which one is not entirely accustomed.

Perhaps, though, the greatest threat to the rights that allow us, as women, to live our lives is the fact that we have grown accustomed to them, to the extent that we often give little or no thought to our exercise of them. Even less do we think about how recent, how utterly new those hard-fought victories are. It was not until the early 1970s that the Supreme Court decided - parting with about a century of precedent and the entire enactment history - to interpret the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as even a limited prohibition on sex discrimination. The right to self-determination over our reproductive systems, now in great danger, was not officially recognised until 1973. A late-1950s business law hornbook I bought years ago at a used-books store includes a footnote in its section on "Contractual Capacity and Disability" (essentially who is legally capable of concluding a binding contract) listing the states in which as of the date of publication a married woman could not sign a contract without the written consent of her husband, even if he was in no way bound by it. In the decade that saw the publication of that hornbook, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor graduated at the top of her class at Stanford - an achievement that would cause every major institutional law firm to roll out the red carpet for a male graduate - and could not find a firm that would offer her a position as more than a legal secretary. Last but not least, there are still people living today who remember our first major victory, suffrage (which we have had for all of 88 years).

Put briefly, our social and legal victories are nowhere near sufficiently settled or undisputed to be taken as a matter of course. A small, but powerful and well-funded, minority has been working tirelessly for decades now to reverse every single one of them, and their every success is thanks in part to our complacent assumption that what we have so recently won can safely go undefended. In reading The Handmaid's Tale, it is worth keeping in mind that every major feature of the society Atwood describes has been actively advocated in one form or another by the people who rejoiced at the nomination of the men who gave us Gonzales v. Carhart. It seems to me that we need a reminder of how vulnerable our rights really are (and if there's anything I felt whilst reading the book, it was vulnerable), and Margaret Atwood's excellent book is a very powerful reminder.

First published in 1985; my edition Vintage 1996 ISBN 9780099740919

Memorable quotes

Page 23. It's good to have small goals that can be easily attained.
Page 49. Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. Even when there is no one.

Critique

I found this story to be flawed in many ways. The transformation of contemporary America to a theocratic society was too swift and too easy in this bland dystopian novel. The prose style is very fluid, and it contains many interesting quotable passages (see above). However, in broad terms, the book is quite dull and kind of a slog. The premise lacks distinction. It might have been invented by a marketing hack whose statistical surveys tell her a book made of equal parts Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Stepford Wives will be a bestseller in 1985.

We are told that there were some nuclear power plant disasters, a decline in the birth rate due to disease or irradiation, and a military coup which brought down the federal government. That these events would be sufficient to enable rapid drastic shifts in American social structures - regulation of sexual practices, loss of reproductive rights, no education, no entertainment, no work other than one specific job (cook, maid, reproductive surrogate, prostitute) - is ridiculous. Women, presumably half the population in this story as they are in reality, are supposed to have been enslaved in the span of a decade.

The handmaid herself is already broken at the beginning. She tells us how her freedom was taken away piece by piece. Her accounts were siezed, and her mother disappeared. She and her husband tried to escape with their daughter but the attempt failed. Her child was taken from her and she was sent to a prison for training women to be reproductive surrogates. At which point in this story would you try to escape again or fight back? With the one exception of her first and last attempt, the handmaid is compliant, implausibly so.

The setting is very close to present-day reality with only minimal changes: a generic town on a river near the Eastern seaboard, mundane in the extreme. It is for all intents and purposes our reality, only with nearly all stimulating artifacts erased or locked up in the Commander's study. Men, too, are subject to new rigid rules. All of the male characters belong to the military or state police organizations (if there is a distinction) and have very narrowly defined freedoms.

The handmaid's memoir contains bits and pieces of the background story of how the revolution was achieved. It seems as if the author set out to describe a horribly oppressive yet familiar life and then had to cook up an explanation for how everything got to be horrible in the first place. Could our liberal Western society really twist itself into this awkward shape? Would no other country intervene?1 (As if to fill that plot hole like a shallow grave, the narrator mentions in passing that similar transformations were happening in other countries and a treaty was in place which prohibited international interference.) There is even an afterward, almost literally an afterthought, an academic lecture from over 100 years after the memoir was recorded, where we gain a few more historical facts. Other memoirs are mentioned to have survived from this period. Why didn't we get to read any of them? Why not put some of this expository lecture at the front of book?

Suggestions

As a novel, there is much room for improvement. I recommend cutting it down to the size of a novella or short story, or rework it to include other women's memoirs and more of the academic lecture. The time period is too close to present day; shift these events much farther into the future and make the transformation to theocracy much more gradual, on a more plausible timescale.


1 Certainly throughout history genocides have been committed and large groups have been imprisoned. However in the particular case the victims are the entire female population, and it is the nation's own people rather than a conquering invader, and the victims are forced back into society in new rigid roles. Has this ever been done, let alone been permanently successful?

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