Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale

In 1985 Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel depicting a future United States (and most particularly, the New England area) where the government has been overthrown and replaced by a theonomy called the Republic of Gilead. It is implied that this has taken place in part as a response to the growing numbers of infertile people and those who have deliberately chosen not to have children. The new regime affects women to the greatest extent. It is now illegal for women to hold property, work at paid jobs, read and write, or have any autonomy at all really. They are divided into various classes--women of the ruling class who may or may not be capable of bearing children; Handmaids who essentially serve as broodmares for those in the ruling class who are infertile; Marthas who do all the household chores for the ruling class; Econowives, legitimate wives of the lower classes; Aunts who train and discipline the Handmaids in preparation for their lives as broodmares; and the illegitimate women (Unwomen and Jezebels), those who fall outside the boundaries of these highly regulated categories.

The story follows Offred, a woman in her thirties who remembers what it was like before the militaristic theonomy took over. She had a husband, who was not allowed to keep her because he had been divorced, and a daughter, who was taken from her parents and given to one of the new regime's Commanders. She had work and money of her own. A great deal of Offred's thoughts makes it appear that she is trying to accept the new order and just fit in and yet she also speaks of wanting shears or scissors (anything with a sharp blade). We're sometimes not sure if she wants them to do away with herself or if she wants to use them on the Commander or his wife though she often makes a point of how anything that might be useful to a suicide has been kept out of her reach.

I thought this was a shatteringly good novel when I first read it for a college English class in 1988. At that time it was an interesting look at a dystopian society that could happen, but to a child of the 70s and early 80s it seemed unlikely. Though positive change was slow, it was happening and seemed to be trending to keep happening. So, I read it as more of a cautionary tale. Reading it now with the background of the United States from 2016 on, it is even more shattering. It doesn't seem so far-fetched that so much could change so quickly--that a free woman could find herself stripped of her autonomy and enslaved in the ways that Offred and her fellow Handmaids are. Because so much has changed so quickly in the last three years. It is so easy to take a way of life for granted--but this book (and current events) show us has dangerous it is to take anything for granted...even the basic rights promised to us in the Constitution. Even battles already fought in the courts can be reversed and taken from the victors.

It also teaches us how easily humans adapt--how quickly we conform. How much the average person doesn't want to upset the apple cart...even when the cart becomes filled with rotten apples.  There will always be those who will take advantage of opportunities to wield power over others (the Aunts and those who inform on anyone who steps out of line). There will always be those who assume it isn't really as bad as it seems and will buy the party line that things are "better now." But as the Commander says, “Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.”

This is an incredible story made even more incredible by how very relevant it is thirty-some years later. ★★★★

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