Thoughts: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
06 August 2013
For those who don't know, Atwood's tale takes place in a dystopian version of the United States, now known as the Republic of Gilead, in which big government has joined at the hip with big religion to subjugate women and create a kind of procreation caste system. The system "marries" one man and one woman, but gives important households a handmaid--essentially a concubine who has sex with the man of the marriage at pre-determined times to try to get pregnant. Sex is joyless, passionless, and government-mandated. Speech is limited, dissenters (including priests of certain unaccepted religions, scientists, gay people, loud people, and anyone who dares to be an individual) are hung, and handmaids are discarded if they do not get pregnant in a timely manner. It is a world based on terror, fear, and suppression, revealed to us in bits and pieces by Offred (literally "of Fred," handmaid to Fred). But when Fred shows that he himself doesn't always follow all the rules, Offred discovers a secret underworld that thrives beneath the polished veneer of government-approved activity.
While it seems far-fetched when summarized above, the beauty--and horror--of The Handmaid's Tale is in its roots in our reality. As Offred begins to reveal bits of her own past, we realize, slowly, how much her world used to look like ours--and how it was baby steps and small actions that led to the slow dissolution of society as we know it. First women lose access to their own money, then they are prohibited from working, and then, and then, and then. Until suddenly a world in which women are nothing more than child-bearing vessels is suddenly not so hard to imagine.
The Handmaid's Tale was my first exposure to Atwood (I fell in love), but it was also my first exposure to dystopian literature that was not the high-school assigned 1984. It was the first time I realized outside of a classroom how much fiction could teach me about the world. It was the first time I stepped outside my comfortable suburban bubble to think about the far-reaching implications of religion and political power. It was the first time I identified as a feminist, even if I was scared to use the word at the time.
Needless to say, re-reading it earlier this year was both thrilling and terrifying. What if it didn't live up to my exceedingly high expectations (which has happened to me before in re-reading my favorite books)? What if it didn't make my head spin the way it had the first time? What if Claire Danes' narration of the story was awful?
Luckily, none of these things came true. Claire Dane's narration of Offred was perfection; though I'm not always a fan of Danes' sometimes-simpering voice, it actually worked quite well for Offred's continuing uncertainty and confusion, for her bursts of rebellion and carelessness followed by bouts of anxiety and nervousness.
And The Handmaid's Tale proved just as haunting, just as important, and just as eye-opening the second time through as it did the first. With governments trying to define "proper" marriage on Tuesdays and states redefining abortion laws on Wednesdays and health departments making recommendations on the proper care and treatment of women's bodies for childbearing purposes on Thursdays, it is, sadly, just as relevant today as it was when it was first written--if not more so.
Of note: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is doing a production of The Handmaid's Tale this October. If anyone is local enough to go see it, please let me know how it is!
Also of note: The Folio Society has an illustrated version of this book with some truly stunning art included. Worth checking out.
The Handmaid's Tale | Margaret Atwood, nar. Claire Danes | 11 hours | Available from Audible