I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and I can tell you it’s not a book you review without doing a bit of research. Of course I knew that going in.
I’ve been peripherally aware of both Atwood’s novel and the television series on Hulu but didn’t give either much attention. Then I read a few stories about this year’s Women’s March and noticed in the news photos amid women dressed in vagina hats and full-body vagina costumes, there were groups who wore the red and white wardrobe of the handmaids (I assume the protestors’ inspiration was more the TV series than the book but I have nothing with which to back that opinion).
Since the Women’s March largely is a protest against the administration of President Donald Trump, I became curious as to the connection (I already knew what the vagina costumes were all about).
Fortunately, my local public library system had a copy, so I reserved it and when it arrived at the designated branch, I eagerly began reading. I’m going to break down this review into sections both to make it more readable and to keep things straight in my head. It’s not that I found the book itself so complex, but there are wider social implications to consider.
Low hanging fruit first. How readable is Atwood’s novel? I had read from other sources that Atwood’s language was nuanced and subtle so I prepared myself to read much more slowly than I normally would so I wouldn’t skim past anything important. As it turns out, although some of the language is poetic, it’s not that difficult a read. I spent about a week of lunch hours going through the pages, so I’d have to say it was fairly easy.
The pacing was painfully slow but I attribute that as deliberate by Atwood in an attempt to convey to the reader the slow, orderly pace of life in fictional Gilead. The scenes where the Commander took Offred to the “men’s club” with her all dressed up as a “hooker” seemed to the be liveliest section which you’d expect given the change of tone and locale.
Like a good many other readers, I thought that Offred’s liberation (I can’t call it an escape because she had no hand in it) came rather suddenly and if there hadn’t been the final “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” section which offered a fictional analysis on the events reported by Offred, I would have wondered if she really made it or not. Actually even that section leaves her fate somewhat up in the air.
Bottom line is that if you just want to read the book as a book and not a social or political commentary, particularly one you may want to apply to the current state of American politics, likely, you’ll do just fine and experience the novel as interesting and entertaining.
There have been any number of favorable comparisons between Atwood’s novel and George Orwell’s 1984. Since I make it a practice to read Orwell’s novel on a more or less regular basis (at least once a decade), I have a somewhat recent memory of the content. To me, it seems like Orwell and Atwood approach dystopia from two very different political and ideological directions.
For Orwell, the dystopian world is ruled by a Communist/Socialist dictatorship which seeks to control the language of its population and through language their thoughts. Personal freedoms are limited and there are informers everywhere including among one’s own children. The archetypal leader/villain is “Big Brother” who observes the actions of the population, punishing the non-compliant. The novel has a protagonist who, in the end, succumbs to the State’s authority.
Atwood’s world is ruled specifically by a white, male, fundamentalist religious nation which again seeks to control thoughts and behavior primarily through applying highly selective portions of the Bible. In this case, the protagonist is a woman of childbearing years who is enslaved due to her fertility, reproduction having been severely curtailed by radioactive and chemical pollution among much of the population.
The commonalities between the two approaches have little to do with ideology and everything to do with extremes and techniques. My takeaway is that ANY social, religious, or political system when taken to its farthest extreme and imposed on the will of the people against their wishes creates a dystopia. There are no exceptions.
The Humanity of Offred’s World
I give Atwood credit for creating a complex collection of characters, all of whom possess many human flaws. There are obviously clear good guys and bad guys but only up to a point. As much of a victim as Offred may be, along with the other Handmaids and Marthas, the Wives and Commanders also lead miserable little lives as do the various functionaries within the Gilead power structure. I ended up seeing just about everyone as a little pathetic at times.
The most emotional portions of the book for me had to do with Offred’s daughter being taken away from her, being (supposedly) told that her mother was dead, and then being raised by (infertile) strangers. I have an eight-year-old grandson and a two-and-a-half year old granddaughter and I know how devastated I would be if I could never see them again.
At some point in the novel, I expected Offred to break down under the tremendous emotional stress of her existence, especially after seeing a photo of her daughter, but she never really does. She shows her vulnerability in many other ways, but she had learned to hide any overt expression of her feelings in order to survive, possibly just as any other prisoner of war or concentration camp inmate does.
Influences and Biases
From the book’s Introduction written by Valerie Martin (I had no idea who she was so I looked her up), it seems that Atwood’s inspiration for crafting the society of Gilead comes from the early Puritans of New England (the book is set in New England) although it’s been suggested elsewhere that just about any fundamentalist Christian religion would be an apt model.
In a 10 March 2017 New York Times article Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump, Atwood herself states that:
The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? (They were.)
Atwood goes on to say that the novel is feminist in the sense that women are depicted as real human beings with differing motivations and behavior rather than them all being “angel/victims.”
Is her novel anti-religion? Her answer is:
The second question that comes up frequently: Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” antireligion? Again, it depends what you may mean by that. True, a group of authoritarian men seize control and attempt to restore an extreme version of the patriarchy, in which women (like 19th-century American slaves) are forbidden to read. Further, they can’t control money or have jobs outside the home, unlike some women in the Bible. The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.
I disagree with that last bit and shall address it presently.
The last question she addresses is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a prediction? She says “no” since it is impossible to accurately predict the future, though she goes on to say that if this possible future can be described, maybe it won’t happen.
Valerie Martin’s Introduction makes overt what is suggested in the novel in that this sort of totalitarian regime is more likely in America than in Canada. Just as during the Vietnam War when men choose to avoid the military draft by illegally (yes, Canada has immigration laws) entering Canada, escape for those in the “nation” of Gilead means fleeing to our neighbor to the north. Martin is very pointed in explaining how Canadians are not Americans (and I’ve talked to enough Canadians to convince me many have a sort of pride in not being Americans).
I’m reminded of the various celebrities in the entertainment industry who said if Trump were elected, they would move to Canada. Yet according to a 3 July 2017 article by Business Insider, Canada has yet to register a significant uptick in applications for admission from U.S. citizens. However, I digress.
Where shall I begin?
It’s difficult to know if Atwood truly believes the Bible (or at least certain portions of it) is a draconian, racist, sexist document expressly designed to make a nation like Gilead come into existence or if she were merely leveraging her perceptions of how the early Puritans may have misused the text. There’s no religion listed for her on her Wikipedia page (yes, I know, Wikipedia isn’t a great research tool, but this is a book review, not a doctoral dissertation), so let’s say she’s an atheist. Atheists tend to (although I can’t say this is what Atwood did specifically) read the Bible in English at face value rather than actually study it and it’s underlying historical, social, and theological meanings and nuances and in the original languages. Heck, a lot of Christians have some pretty funny ideas of what the Bible says which, in my humble opinion, are totally unfounded.
Nevertheless, the government of Gilead does use specific sections of the Bible to justify the enslavement of women and forced reproduction including (and I don’t know how Atwood got this out of the Bible) having the Handmaid lay her head on the lap of the Commander’s wife while the Commander was having intercourse with the Handmaid (not the wife).
I don’t think Atwood wrote her novel with a bias against all world religions, but she seems to have laid the blame squarely at the foot of the Puritans and possibly by inference all fundamentalist Christians.
Atwood stated that such a dystopia could not happen under Communism or Islam because Christian religious texts (she supposes) would be used to form such a dystopia in America. That assumes the only dystopia that could possibly occur here is Christian-conservative based. Islam has their own religious texts with which they subjugate women (see below) and history already records the abuses of whole populations under Lenin and Stalin for the good of the State if not God. “Not in America” doesn’t mean “not anywhere.”
I also found Atwood’s focus on fundamentalist Christianity odd since the novel is somewhat “anti-modesty,” not for the sake of being such, but because modesty is forced on women, the Wives included. The most apparent examples of modesty being enforced in religious communities are Orthodox Judaism (including the Chabad) and Islam. To take it a step further, immodesty in Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia is punished as a crime, as it would be in Gilead. Neither in modern Orthodox Judaism nor fundamentalist Christianity does a woman go to jail for wearing a mini skirt, although I’m sure there would be social and familial consequences (and for that matter, neither Christianity or Judaism entertains the concepts of honor killing or genital mutilation).
I will agree with Atwood, and I said this above, that her characters are wholly human, and even the heroine of the story Offred (we never learn her real name) is hardly a perfect person. If the women are depicted as people, so are the men and I’ll conclude that in her novel, none of her characters are shown to be morally superior to others. They have all fallen, though of course the society of Gilead is indeed unjust, but everyone seems to suffer as a result.
Could It Happen Here?
In the novel, in order for the nation of Gilead to rise, the President and Congress had to be gunned down and the U.S. Constitution abolished. No, that would never happen here because I don’t see any group with the capacity to form such resistance against any past (the book was written during the Reagan Presidency) or current administration. Besides, social and religious conservatives in America tend to be very pro-Constitution though they aren’t always fond of the people holding political office in Washington. A few marginal outliers (Alt-Right) tend to shoot their mouths off a lot, but they aren’t a credible threat.
Could Orwell’s novel happen here? Probably not and for the same reasons, though I must say that the concept of “Newspeak” maps reasonably well to “Politically correct-speak” or “Free speech equals hate speech,” so maybe Orwell has a bit of an edge in the particular area of controlling human thought by controlling language.
The Trump Administration
Let’s face it. Donald Trump has a big mouth (or “big fingers” which he uses to tweet on twitter) and he says some really rude and uncouth things. That makes him an easy target for just about everyone, especially late night talk show hosts and SNL. While the novel cannot anachronistically be applied to Trump’s Presidency, I have no doubt that the television series it has spawned does that very thing, which leads me back to this year’s Women’s March and the Handmaid costumes some of the protestors chose to wear.
I don’t doubt that Atwood’s novel (I have no numbers to back this up) will enjoy a renewed popularity, both because of the current television series and because of Donald Trump (perhaps Atwood should send the American President a “thank you” note for the increased amounts in her royalty cheques), just as I have heard (and again, no numbers) that Orwell’s famous dystopian novel found new popularity during the Obama Presidency (which is when I last read it).
We all have our ideas of what life in Hell would be like. I wouldn’t like to live in either Atwood’s book nor Orwell’s but if I had to write a dystopian novel, I’d have to select which ideology and agenda I found to be the most odious. I’m sure it would be very interesting, but the publishing industry being currently aligned as it is, probably not very marketable.