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The Handmaid's Tale

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Handmaid's TaleFirst edition
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First publication

Literature form

Literary, science fiction, dystopian

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 109,000 words

The sexual counterrevolution

If you're well-versed in science fiction, or speculative fiction as it's often called, and you approach The Handmaid's Tale as an sample of the genre—in the dystopian vein—you're bound to be disappointed. It's not particularly innovative conceptually, compared to the imagined worlds created by the modern giants of the field. 

Futures in which existing currents are extrapolated into society-wide dogma are staples of SF. The idea that the conservative backlash against progress might grow into a distorted kind of Christian-Right dystopia is not exactly a new one.

Moreover, it is not developed credibly in The Handmaid's Tale. The depiction of oppression focuses almost entirely on the role of women as baby-makers and housekeepers in the former United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. (Gilead, by the way, is the Biblical land in which part of Jacob's story takes place—Jacob who used his wife Rachel's maid as a surrogate mother for his children, as quoted in the novel.) But we don't see how this state of affairs came about nor get any idea of all the other massive political and social upheavals that must have been involved in this revolution.

But if you come to the book looking for a cautionary feminist tale from a writer known more for her mainstream literary works, it's easy to see how you may find the story chilling.     

Margaret Atwood's interest, as usual, is in the power relationships between the sexes. But even this is incredible in the novel. The bizarre ritual, for example, by which high-ranking men mechanically fornicate with slaves, known as "handmaids", while the latter are held between the legs of the official wives in bed is meant to shock the reader, but is awkward and, frankly, ridiculous. According to Atwood, everything in this dystopia—every anti-woman practice—is supposed to have been found in the real world, somewhere and sometime, but she's still on the hook to make it appear plausible in this reality. It's hard to imagine any party to the tryst going along with the setup. Yet somehow, in only a very few years, this fictional society has overthrown existing American power and this form of procreation has become the norm. How? Why?

But we're not supposed to ask such questions. Atwood is not interested in those issues. They're willing to stipulate the victory of religious right-wingers in order to proceed with this thought experiment examining the position of women.

What it tells us

As a narrative, The Handmaid's Tale doesn't go much further than that. What there is of a plot is designed chiefly to get the heroine, Offred (her patronymic Gileadean name from "of Fred", as her real name is never revealed), around enough to show us the various ways women are treated in this projected world. When the tour is complete, the conclusion is thrown together quickly.

Then why is this novel so highly regarded?

It does tell us something about the position of women. Half the readers may find this to be exaggerated nonsense but the other half likely find it revelatory. And I don't think the division is necessarily along gender lines. Some liberated women are likely repulsed by what they see as revelling in victimhood, and some liberated men will feel guilt over what they recognize as their fellows' attitudes reflected in the rulers of Gilead.

Atwood is also very good at drawing the reader into a character's inner world with telling details of daily life that other authors would miss. We do care about Offred. As much as we can, that is. Throughout the novel, the thought recurs: when is she going to actually do something to fight back? A vain hope, it turns out. Even her final possible escape (or is it her doom? the ending is ambiguous) is not of her own doing but at the hands of a male rebel (or agent).

A novel has to be more than a character study or social inquisition. In creating The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood was influenced by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, another novel whose plot exists mainly to show us around an alternative world, thereby revealing our own. Nineteen Eighty-Four, though, goes deeper into that other world, and thus deeper into our own. And, much as I have problems with Nineteen Eighty-Four, by the end of that story I am provoked by it. By the end of Handmaid's Tale, I am amused but unmoved.

Except the end of the story is not the end of the novel. After Offred's first-person account of her life as a handmaid, Atwood has added a clever chapter in which future academics discuss the diary we've just read. It too is apparently inspired by Orwell's book which also features appendices. However, it comes across as a last-minute attempt to add historical context. Too late. What is really wanted is a better story along the way.

An update:

Many of the criticisms expressed here, especially over putting Gilead in historical context and showing the women fighting back, are addressed in the much later sequel, The Testaments (2019)

Three women, two in Gilead and one in Canada, narrate their resistance struggles in this Booker-winning novel. Strong story lines distinguish the sequel from the original. They engage and provide much needed hope after the dismally uncertain conclusion of the first book.

— Eric


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