Dystopian novel for the feminists and the fearful.
Do you also have that friend or annoying family member that simply must read the book before seeing the movie? I am that annoying friend or family member. However, seeing as Hollywood isn’t getting up to anything these days except filming remakes and televising novels, I’ve not quite been able to live up to my own standards. Among the many recent dramatizations is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which we at ark books realised we had to have in permanent stock about a few months ago after a number of inexplicable customer requests for it. What was the reason for this mysterious renaissance? Ah, it was an HBO series.
Not having access to HBO, I wasn’t all that fussed until I was standing in Schönefeld Airport in Berlin, realising that I had forgotten all of my carefully chosen books for my 11-day pool vacation at home. What a crisis! But I was in luck – an angel sent from heaven, in the form of a Pocket Shop sales assistant, had stocked the tiny but compulsory airport bookstore with absolute gems – Chris Kraus, Zadie Smith, Rupi Kaur and the like all lined up for the average airplane passenger to enjoy. The shop assistant spoke approvingly in German of my final choices: Just Kids by Patti Smith, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, and (because those pictures of a red-clad Elisabeth Moss had sparked my curiosity) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I was pool-ready.
If you haven’t already read the book or seen the TV-series (and I still haven’t done the latter), The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the United States in what was, at the time of its publication in 1985, the near future. Unfortunately for the female population of the country, the United States has been replaced by the Republic of Gilead in a coup d’état which now rules its population with a totalitarian iron fist. The legitimacy of the republic is based on perverted, Old Testament dogma and the apparently desperate need for human sexual reproduction, which provides the reasons for the strict gender and labor divisions that the Republic of Gilead imposes.
Our eponymous hero is a Handmaid, a distorted version of a surrogate mother who lives in the house of a childless couple and who is, once a month, ritually fucked by the man of the house in order to spawn children. If a child is begotten and is born healthy (apparently man’s indecent environmental behaviour has led 3 out of 4 children to be born deformed), the Handmaid is rewarded by not being sent to the certain death in the “Colonies” as an “unwoman.” What a life. Among other unfortunate existences are the Wives (dressed in blue) who must take an active though non-penetrable part in the monthly ritual. For those who don’t obey, a public execution with a following public display can be expected.
Though the concept is intriguing, it is the narrative that gives the book its strength. Here we see the world through the eyes of a lonely Handmaid, placed into the sad service of a strict household. Not being allowed to write, she seems to be recounting the story to herself as it goes along, sometimes in the present and sometimes from an unknown point in the future. As a Handmaid she remains quite anonymous, mostly content to describe the scenery and the events that befall her. Lacking love or affection from everyone around her, her descriptions are full of sensuous observations and fancies. I liked the choice of this inward-looking, sensitive character, because it gave depth and nuance to the theme of resistance, and how different such a thing must look from person to person. Through the Handmaid, the dystopian world is revealed in an intriguing manner page for page, though in the kind of unsurprising cat and mouse game that an author likes to play with their readers. In short, it was the perfect pool read: Serious yet exciting.
One thing I truly enjoyed about the book was the female, perhaps even feminist, perspective on a dystopian society. As someone who returns faithfully to 1984 and Brave New World for wisdom, it was a revelation to finally experience these societies from a female point of view – one which has been mostly neglected in the canon of dystopian classics. However, though Atwood has claimed that Gilead is in many ways not fictional at all but a logic conclusion of the patriarchal structures of Western society, I still agree with the original review in the New York Times that the book lacks that kind of recognition which is experienced when seeing “our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue.”1 Even with a proud misogynist in the White House, I still had a very hard time finding the speculative world of Gilead plausible. This may also be due to the fact that I am reading the book in 2005, and not in 1985 when it first came out – and since most speculative fiction is based on trends in its immediate present, I might be missing some important clues for understanding Atwood’s societal diagnosis. However, though I still find 1984 far more chillingly realistic than the red-clad destiny of the fertile women in Gilead, I found The Handmaid’s Tale a powerful reminder of the constant vicinity of oppression.