The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986.
Summary: One woman’s account of life as a “handmaid” in the dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian religious society organized around the urgent problem of declining birthrates.
Many of you already know the story, either from reading the novel or the TV series or both. In a dystopian future brought on by an eco-disaster or series of disasters, the Republic of Gilead has taken the place of the United States (or at least part of it, at war with other “sects”). It is a world of steeply declining birth rates organized into a religious tyranny centered around the production of children, especially among the power elite. Commanders whose Wives ceased to reproduce were assigned Handmaids whose name became Of+Commander’s first name. This is the story of Offred. She has been trained for this sacred role by the Aunts, a severe group of women who indoctrinated them into the sacred task of child-bearing.
Offred was separated from her husband Luke after their attempt to escape this tyranny. She doesn’t know whether Luke is dead or alive or where her daughter is. Her daughter is the reason she is a Handmaid. She is fertile. Most of her life is lived in her room, or on strictly regulated shopping trips, birth celebrations, and “salvagings” where transgressors are hanged. Once a month is the Celebration, when she lays between the knees of the Wife, (following Genesis 30:1-3), while the Commander has very impersonal intercourse with her in the hope of inseminating her.
Much of the narrative hinges on transgressions, many of which become necessities either because the rigid life, or because the rigidities just don’t work–a house of prostitution where the elite men covertly go, which has become the refuge of Moira, Offred’s rebellious friend who is a survivor, doctors who offer to have sex when the Commanders fail, Wives who arrange surrogates, a Commander who wants to have a real relationship with his Handmaid, and an underground “Mayday” movement helping people escape. Atwood’s narrative explores what happens when tyrannous purity cultures bump up against human nature.
Of course the tyrannous culture has to be maintained, and it does so by “salvagings” that turn lynching into a religious ceremony, not unlike what happened in many parts of the Jim Crow south, with a system of informers, Eyes, as well as any of the people around one. The narrative develops around the choices Offred must make when presented with the demands of the transgressive system, risking life to choose survival for herself, and possibly for her daughter, along with answering to her own longings for intimacy.
As you can see, Atwood raises all kinds of questions for us. Is it possible to employ religion (or a quasi-religion) in the service of a tyranny and its aims? In this narrative, women are both close companions and the arch enemies of other women. What do we make of that? And can this dystopia happen here?
The events of the past year are too close for comfort. We have been threatened with the dissolution of our political and social order. Religion has been coopted for political ends. We are in a country of declining birth rates. We face the possibility of a global eco-disaster that many consider posing an existential threat that warrants drastic action, while others vehemently deny and defy.
Most of all, it seems to me that this is a work of resistance. Some see an illusion in the title to The Canterbury Tales. Many see in these stories subtle resistance to the existing religious and political order, even while on religious pilgrimage. Offred’s tale, a series of daytime narratives punctuated by nights, mostly given to reflection, seems also a tale of resistance, a way of fighting to maintain her identity when her life, indeed her body, is employed against her will to sustain the world order. What I see her is a cautionary tale for us all.