“What, you didn’t read that when you were a teenager?” scoffed two people (in slightly different words) when I mentioned I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale this week. The reason? Margaret Atwood’s book is a set text on many high school and undergraduate English Literature courses, though not on any of mine. Thus, this harrowing and deeply involving novel about religious extremism and the mass subjugation of women is a canonical book I’ve never read. And what an omission, because The Handmaid’s Tale is really very good.
The plot of the novel is basically what’s actually happened irl re: ISIS, only with Christianity, diminished fertility and set in the USA. In a near, alternative future, fertility has – Children of Men style – become prized, but the country has been taken over by outrageously strict Christians, who disenfranchise all women, turning them into property, and deport all non-white people. Dissenters are killed or sent to work cleaning up toxic waste on the outskirts of the country, there are many public executions (some of which are communal killings), there is heavy indoctrination, weird new rituals, and all sexuality is considered evil, immoral, unacceptable, with no purpose other than procreation. Which most people are unable to do anyway.
The narrator – known patronymically as “Offred” (as in “of Fred”, “belonging to Fred”) – pines for her lost husband (Luke, not Fred), her lost daughter and her lost friend, Moira. She is isolated and alone, as everyone is meant to be. No one is safe, everyone is a potential spy, every rule is strict and pretty much nothing outside of the prescribed task of being a fertile vessel is allowed for her, certainly no activity is encouraged. The man whose household she lives in is referred to as “The Commander”. He is high ranking in the state, but he breaks many of the rules he enforces, including trying to craft a more traditional relationship with “Offred”, as if she were his mistress in the world before the governmental change.
Society has only been how it is for half a decade or so – it is still early days, and memories have not yet been destroyed, indoctrination through fear is still essential. The reader stays close and tight with Offred as she seeks moments of felt and/or imagined freedoms. We feel excitement as she hungers for long-banned foods, as she daydreams happily of her destroyed family, as she makes human connections with other unhappy souls w/in the weird, unpleasant society she has ended up in. Atwood’s prose is evocative and emotional, the world she imagines is rich and its detail haunting, painful, feelable. In a postmodern coda we read the transcript of a university lecture given two hundred years in the future, looking back on the events of the main novel. Here, we are given clarification and explanation of the ideas Atwood was building on – innate racism and innate misogyny, harnessed by violent demagogues in pursuit of power. Taking advantage of weird nostalgia for a golden age that never existed, looking to ideas associated with the past that were not real, were not truly lived, were imagined. The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifyingly prescient novel to be reading in 2016. Prescient for now, despite it having been published in 1985…
Religious extremism and nostalgia-tinged conservatism is sweeping the world. In the UK we’re not quite being bashed by godded-up wacko Christians to the point that we can’t ignore them, but they are here, and what they always want to talk about is what people do with their own bodies. Ireland still bans ALL abortion, for example, and here you still get people speaking against homosexuality, y’know. WHY? Why do religious extremists care so much about what two consenting adults do in private? Micro-control of adherents’ lives, that’s the kind of religiosity The Handmaid’s Tale is about, the kind of religiosity forced upon people in the lands captured by ISIS, where – like in this novel – people are publicly executed for homosexuality to set an example. These un-free regimes, these repressive and controlling conservative states, these are what the world is gently ticking towards. Crawling towards, edging towards, sliding and slipping and helplessly collapsing into. People campaigning against transgender people using whatever public toilets they want to1, people telling women how to dress, it’s all happening… Everything in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened/is happening, though in a slightly less extreme way. As the UK moves towards closing our borders, making us flash ID cards for hospital treatment and fucking education, we are moving towards Atwood’s dystopia. As non-Christian religions are vilified and discriminated against and told not to practice and express their faith in the way they want to. There’s even – bleak bleak bleak – a reference in The Handmaid’s Tale to boats of refugees sinking, thousands of people drowning as they flee repressive regimes. Atwood’s nasty future is unpleasantly like our real now. If human fertility was in danger, this book would already be happening.
Atwood’s prose is great, her characterisation warm and believable. Little details express great emotions: in a society where self-expression is illegal, the protagonist must rely on the tiniest signs to understand the world around her. The Handmaid’s Tale is touching, but also painful and depressing and bleak, and all too often its world is recognisable and redolent of a potential societal collapse that very much could happen here.
A great read, highly, highly recommended it. Though I’m sure you all read it when you were teenagers too, right?
1. I’m trendy and East London based. We don’t tend to have gender-segregated toilets here. ↩