I feel a little rusty discussing a book, so bear with me if things seem disjointed or janky today.
A few months ago, I was over at a friend’s house for a small get together, and I noticed they had a very well worn copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on their bookshelf. I’d been itching to re-read this book for some time, but I was a little downtrodden to realize that I got rid of my own copy at some point in the nebulous past, so I was at something of a loss; spotting the copy belonging to my friends was a boon, and so I asked if I could borrow it, to which they said yes.
I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale about two months ago, and while I meant to write up some thoughts on it then, I let the idea slip away in the milieu of a new school year and new responsibilities (Rachael and I restructured the chores to accommodate her more demanding grad school schedule, and one of the things I picked up was meal planning and preparation; that’s why I’ve been posting pictures of dishes I’ve tried out in the last few weeks). Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking a little bit about The Handmaid’s Tale again recently as I’ve begun exploring how to foster better emotional labor habits in myself (that’s a topic for its own post, I think).
So, this is the third time I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, and my biggest impression is how much better its themes resonate with me now. The first time I read the book, I was a senior in high school taking AP English, and it was the third dystopian novel we read for a unit on the subgenre (the first two were, predictably, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World); I developed a deep love for dystopian fiction, but teenage boy Jason was at a loss for exactly what was horrifying about the Republic of Gilead (besides the religious oppression; this was also the height of my atheist period, and all the societal problems depicted by Atwood seemed to stem directly from religion to me at the time). The second time I was in the middle of my conservative evangelical period, right after I had graduated from college. I still enjoyed the book then, even as its feminist themes seemed directly contrary to what I was being taught by my religious subculture (ironically, my perception of the problems in the book this time was that it was religious fundamentalism that was the problem; I didn’t have any context to demonstrate how being an evangelical was extremely similar to being a fundamentalist, with the most significant difference being a matter of degree rather than kind).
Now, after having spent several years trying to cultivate a feminist outlook, I read The Handmaid’s Tale and I kept being taken aback by how horrifying the scenario was. Gilead is a terrible place, especially for women, but the religious aspects of the dystopia ring as secondary; the current political climate in the U.S. presents several parallels to what goes on in the book, and my cynicism about the religious right leads me to think of the novel’s setting as more a matter of convenience than ideology; the faceless leaders of Gilead just wanted to seize power, and they made use of religious dogma as a means to an end rather than as true believers (the sequence where the narrator is taken to the brothel to see how powerful men flaunt the rules of the society they’ve created just brings that interpretation home more strongly for me).
It’s not just the book’s present that hit home more for me this time; reading the flashback where the narrator describes the sudden retraction of women’s rights carries more uncomfortable parallels with present-day America. Yes, much of the scenario in the book is tied up in the paranoia of the ’80s surrounding the transition from a cash currency system to a fully electronic one, but the way the men in power just seem to flip a switch and wipe out decades of societal progress still feels relevant in light of the persistent attempts at curbing women’s rights through practical means that go on today. The whole scene reminded me of a line from James Tiptree, Jr.’s short story “The Women Men Don’t See” (that link leads to the full text of the story online) where the protagonist Ruth explains to the narrator Don:
“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”
Atwood’s characters actually live through such a scenario, and the matter-of-fact execution drives home its continued plausibility.
Fortunately, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a totally bleak story. The narrator suffers through a lot of things in her time as a handmaid (not the least of which is sheer boredom; I can’t remember where now, but I recall reading somewhere that female centered dystopias often deal with the loss of the past through a contrast between the static, mind numbing present and memory of what was lost in a way that male centered dystopias tend to gloss over), but we get a hint from the book’s epilogue that she is eventually able to escape, and even in the time when she’s still captive, she taps into a community that helps keep her from becoming totally beaten down by the status quo. She even comes across a bit of graffiti in her room that serves as a connection between her and her predecessor in the house of Fred.