At the end of 2018, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. After 15 years (and this time picking it up because I wanted to, not because I needed to for a class), I found it extraordinarily powerful and prescient. I then wrote this review but never posted it. Oops. I figured I’d post it now with some edits because these thoughts weren’t doing anyone any good sitting on my hard drive.
If you’ve never read it (and haven’t watched the first season of the Hulu series or can’t be bothered to pull up the Wikipedia page), Atwood envisions a future where the United States has fallen and become The Republic of Gilead, which is dominated by a brutal regime called “The Sons of Jacob,” who are basically modern Puritans, interpreting the Bible literally and implementing an extreme patriarchal social structure in which women are horribly subjugated. Using a reproductive crisis as justification, The Sons of Jacob have overthrown the U.S. government and have forced society back to the “old ways.” At best, women are wives of the elite, and they run the household but have limited power otherwise. At worst, women are sent to the Colonies, where they are forced into laboring in toxic radioactive zones until they die. The main character, Offred (we learn her name is June in the Hulu series), is a handmaid, and she faces a miserable existence with no power or property. Her only value in society is her womb. She’s expected to bear the child of her commander (Fred, see what they did with the names and such?), and she’s running out of time; if she can’t conceive, she will be replaced and sent to the Colonies.
Even now, in 2022, as I reread my thoughts from 2018, I sometimes think of a guy who once told me he didn’t see the relevance in The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, not all fiction is intended to be relevant. Much of it is meant to just tell a story. Atwood, though, very deliberately meant this story to be relevant. It’s worth pointing out people like The Sons of Jacob, who believe in a literal translation of the Bible and that people should fulfill “traditional” family roles, actually exist today in the United States. It doesn’t matter that it is unlikely the United States would ever descend into a society like the Republic of Gilead. What matters is there are people in this world who might read this book as pure fantasy and don’t see the obvious relevance.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been widely regarded as a work of contemporary feminism because it depicts a feminist dystopia. It even contains overt feminist themes manifested in certain characters, such as Offred’s mother, who never actually appears in the story, and Offred’s friend Moira, the specter of whom presides over the entire narrative.
It is absolutely clear in the tale that Atwood was writing primarily about her anxieties about women and their future.
However, I think the notability of the feminist element tends to obscure the broad condemnation of human belief. It’s also a story about the horrible potential of dogma, the consequences of faith, and the manipulative base of religion. Yes, this is a feminist story, but feminism here is a product of the demagoguery and authoritarianism fundamental to human belief in the absence of reason.
I think this helps explain the resurgence of The Handmaid’s Tale in popular culture. No, we aren’t living in an extreme patriarchal, fundamentalist Christian society, but we do live in a patriarchal, Christian society in which extreme fundamentalists have an outsized influence. Current events and the state of American politics have dredged up these issues from the mucky river bed and brought them to the surface.
It almost seems Atwood wrote this novel for modern day America instead of 1980’s America (especially since Roe was overturned this summer). That isn’t to say today is worse in terms of women’s rights or religious secularism. Those issues just seem to be more present in popular discussion, the former to a much greater extent (again, especially since Roe was overturned this summer and will heavily influence the midterms, and you should probably vote).
That is, we are reckoning with them, and there is a reckoning.
Beyond content, Atwood’s technique is excellent in The Handmaid’s Tale. She tells the story in first person perspective, and while we are always in Offred’s head, Atwood executes some fascinating immersion maneuvers. For instance, Offred may be going through her routine, trying not to violate any of Gilead’s laws, shopping for eggs at the market, and then a thought slips in about how her daughter used to like eggs and how she liked to play at the park. Offred’s daughter is nowhere to be found in the story, though, and we understand how Offred feels before Atwood makes it known explicitly that the regime took her daughter away and Offred doesn’t know where she is. Atwood works this to devastating effect.
Furthermore, there are passages of two or three pages in which Offred is thinking about random ideas or objects in her room, and then it occurs to the reader: Offred is thinking about killing herself, but Atwood never writes it, almost as if Offred, herself, is reticent to admit it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a spectacular example of that old stalwart craft wisdom “show, don’t tell.” Atwood gives us teasers and tastes of the tragedy that has befallen Offred and her world. It’s backstory we both need and want to know. She is so measured in disseminating those facts that we almost forget our desire for them, and when they come, they are incredibly powerful. When there’s even a hint of revelation, I feel it as Offred does.
The writing is tight and deliberate. I often say I and other writers I know like to say we agonize over every word in our writing to ensure it’s perfect, but Margaret Atwood actually did that. There isn’t a single word in here that doesn’t need to be there, and most scenes end with such a guttural yet understated punch.
The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately a story of emptiness, a story about people who’ve had virtually all of their power stripped from them to serve a function. It’s a story about what we are capable of doing to each other under the influence of blind faith and unwavering belief or, as Atwood makes clear, an instinct to eke out survival whatever the cost. It isn’t so much a warning of a potential future as it is symbolically revealing about our present.