Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed a classic. I read it years ago but didn’t remember much of it. With the Hulu series coming up, I decided to re-read the book before watching the series. I’m so glad I did because I don’t think I fully appreciated the insidiousness of the story on my first reading.

For the uninitiated, The Handmaid’s Tale’s publisher’s summary is below:

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and literary tour de force.

So, how did I react when reading it? I was struck by how very timely it is for this part of our history. While I’m no conspiracy theorist, and while The Handmaid’s Tale projects an extreme outcome, we are not far off some of the mentality that lead to this society.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time (174).”  

The Sons of Jacob manipulated the country, creating destruction and fear of another whole group of people, in order to take control.  Where else have we heard that recently?

The crux of the story is the theocratic Gilead run by the Sons of Jacob, where gender roles and castes are distinct and rigid. Legitimate marriages, those of one woman and one man who had only been married to each other, never divorced, are the most highly regarded. Women who do not fall into this category may be designated “Unwomen”, women  defined as “Sterile women, the unmarried, some widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic’s strict gender divisions. Gilead exiles unwomen to “the Colonies”, areas both of agricultural production and of deadly pollution. Joining them are those handmaids who fail to bear a child after three two-year assignments. (wikipedia)”

Or they may be a Handmaid, the surrogates who get pregnant and have children for the Wives.  It is their only worth. But it is a practical need, not salacious.  The birth rate has declined. Pollution has led to birth defects and non-viable babies. Many of the Wives and Commanders are unable to have children on their own.  Those Commanders and Wives who rank highly enough receive a Handmaid.  The Handmaid belongs to the household. Her own name-her “before name” is irrelevant. Her names becomes her home: Offred, Ofwarren, Ofglen.

The ick factor is big in this one, folks.  When Offred is in training to become a Handmaid, the class harshly rebukes Janine, who, in the Before world, had been gang-raped at age fourteen, and had an abortion. Whose fault? Her fault, the class chants in unison. “Men are sex machines” later in the class.  The Handmaids dressed in neck to ankle dresses, and head coverings that obscure their faces, expected to look down, not make eye contact.  The women need protecting.  It is almost absurd as you read it, until you realize that this thinking is quite prevalent among some groups in the  US today. You can read about it here, here, here, and here for just a few examples.

This is what Atwood does so well. She picks out a few things, things that may appear innocent on the surface, and shows how insidious they can become.   You feel Offred’s desperation, her longing for freedom, her resignation to her fate, her desire to survive. While only a flashback in the narrative, Atwood shows how easily fear leads to complacency. The population has been taught to fear Islamic extremists, so when the Sons of Jacob execute their coup, there is a ready made group to blame. In the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s easy to look to others for guidance, to give away a few freedoms for the “safety” of all and the “greater good”.

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood gives a perfect example of what can happen when these attitudes are taken to an extreme.  It is a quick read, and at times an uncomfortable read. But more importantly, it is a necessary read.