Margaret Atwood * Novel * Dystopia * 1986
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an undetermined future American society in which the country is renamed “Gilead,” the government has been replaced by a pure patriarchy, and war is always on the periphery. This society is a rigid caste system, in which the various social roles are split along gender and class lines. Men are either soldiers, servants, Commanders, or hung from a wall. Likewise, ladies are either housekeepers, Wives, or Handmaids, which is a very nice way of saying State-sanctioned mistress, or, again, hung from a wall. It is implied that some very bad things happened in the recent past, and now childbirth is a rare and difficult thing. When society was restructured, women were assigned roles based on fertility and class. The ruling class became Commanders and Wives while those who were not were either killed or assigned servant roles in the new society. In a fun religious twist, everything in this society operates under strict Biblical guidelines (at least those which are convenient for the new power structure, because obviously), so sex has become a strictly mechanical, unemotional act strictly for the birthing of children.
The story follows Offred, a Handmaid, through her daily routine. She goes shopping, looks at corpses the State has hung up on the local oppression wall, and wonders what happened to her child after the traumatic events which precipitated this new world order. The reader is introduced to a few other characters along the way, which serve to further illustrate how the society is constructed. The Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy (so named because Offred remembered her from the before times as a televangelist), Nick, who is the family driver and servant, and Ofglen, who is another Handmaid who Offred hangs out with on occasion. And by “hangs out with” I mean “goes on mandated shopping excursions with a State provided companion.” Flashbacks provide illumination about the indoctrination process, Offred’s life before the societal change, her rebel besty Moira (a characteristic that goes over in Gilead about as well as you’d expect), and of course her child, who was taken and placed with a Commander’s family shortly after the big takeover.
The story, then, is a very clearly composed dystopia patterned after Orwell. It is essential that the novel begins with a stark portrait of this society gone wrong. Likewise, it is essential readers are presented with a protagonist they can identify with, someone who looks around and goes “waaaait a minute….” That’s Offred. There comes a point in The Handmaid’s Tale where our protagonist begins to ask questions of herself, and things take a turn, as they must. The portrait of a dystopian society is only that: a static picture. What makes them important is exploring what happens when there is pushback.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about the aftermath of a feminine apocalyptic event. Sure, it can be argued that the dudes don’t necessarily have it all that great in Gilead, but the focus is squarely on the feminine experience. The world Atwood has constructed here is essentially what would happen if every aspect of American life was twisted to reflect the desires of a pure misogynist. This is not a knock against the work, of course, but is rather how dystopias work. The author examines one negative aspect of a society and lets it run rampant to its worst case scenario ending. In this case, Margaret Atwood took a look at American society in the 1980s (yes, Ms. Atwood is very Canadian, however this is not a book about Canada), saw an alarming trend of latent misogyny under the surface of that plastic 80s pop culture, and drew her conclusions in the form of a story about a woman turned State-sanctioned breeder.
The dystopian examination begins by turning women into literal manifestations of general feminine tropes. You’ve got your Mothers, Wives, Mistresses, Homemakers, and Whores color-coded and stratified into social castes. Well, except the Whores, who get to hang out in a wink-wink unofficial capacity and as such are able to smoke and drink and wear whatever they want, so long as it’s sexy. Well, sexy if you’re a twelve year old boy. And Mormon. And whose only experience with crass secular titillation came from that one time you went to a slumber party at Jimmy’s house, and they had cable, and you watched so much 80’s MTV. Nothing but lace and hairspray and synthesizers. Anyway, you’ve got all the feminine bases covered except, interestingly, the Maiden. However, given the reasoning behind the genesis of the dystopia, which is to say that fertility rates have plummeted, it is implicit that feminine virginity is unpatriotic. Therefore, if you’re of age, you’re either cranking out babies for the state, working as the lamest prostitute ever for some shlump who gets all hot and bothered over Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video, toiling in some kind of wasteland work camp, or hung up on The Wall.
This harsh black-and-white world of the dystopia is, of course, not practically workable in an actual, human society, and as such it’s notable that Offred’s world is very small and constrained. Part of this is because as a Handmaid, Offred has no knowledge of the outside world after she was abducted and converted. Such is part of the horror of the dystopia; genuine information is at a premium, and what one thinks they know, well, that information is probably wrong. Yet beyond Offred’s bubble, the world of Gilead seems limited in scope. If the dystopia expands much beyond the immediate, it starts asking questions that the author and the reader can’t really answer, and that’s not the point. Gilead is small because everything Atwood wants to portray, the death of womanhood (in the guise of celebrating it), is best done in small, intimate surroundings as opposed to the world at large.
Offred and the other female occupants of Gilead are held in these close quarters under the guise of protection, because, well, it’s easy to rationalize slavery if it’s being done for the slave’s own good. However, the true effect is to strip everything that’s threatening about femininity away from the women. To bring this all around, what the overlords of Gilead have done is magnified the above tropes of femininity, turned them all into proper nouns and sanctified them under God and country and therefore reserved use of these traits for the good of society. The woman as an individual is irrelevant at best and deadly at worst, and so they are therefore rendered obsolete. Under duress and threat of death, of course.
Such tools of repression only work for so long, however, and as the novel closes Offred is given an opportunity to break out and be an individual again. She manages this in two ways: being good at Scrabble, and being good at fucking. I’m not sure what either of those things have to do with being a lady, but they are both behaviors reserved for individuals with intelligence (Scrabble is hard!) and passion (so is sex!). Offred exerts her will and humanity in these behaviors, until her desire to be free outweighs her desire to live safely. Is the force of her will enough to overcome the repressive strength of The State? Perhaps. The ending is ambiguous, and even though the appendix points out that Gilead was fallible in the end collapsed, it is also noted that as a society it lasted a really long time. Individuals were able to triumph here and there, certainly, but as a social structure, the sacrifice of womanhood seems to have held up surprisingly well for an extended period of time. And that’s the final twist of the dystopia: individual struggles are almost always trite and meaningless because of the overwhelming power invested in the State. Whether or not Offred was able to escape is irrelevant in the face of 400 years of domination, and the only change she was able to truly effect was her own individual circumstances. Isn’t that nice?