The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the story’s frightening relevance in Trump’s America has led to a resurgence of interest in the original book. I read it back in high school, but watching a couple episodes of the show rekindled my interest in reading it again. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a copy of the audio book. Atwood’s magnificent prose delivers a chilling, timely tale of a world where women have lost all control over their own lives and bodies. Despite its 1985 publication date, the book engages with numerous issues that remain relevant today, especially in light of current events.
Warning for discussions of slavery and rape below. And, of course, spoilers through the very end of The Handmaid’s Tale novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Offred, a Handmaid in the early years of the dystopian, theocratic Republic of Gilead that rose up to replace the United States in the late twentieth century. The world was experiencing a fertility crisis, and Gilead’s form of addressing it was by finding women who had proven themselves, through a previous successful birth, to be fertile, and forcing them to bear children for infertile couples in the upper echelon of Gileadean society. These were the titular Handmaids, and Offred (not her true name, which is never spoken in the book, only implied; it’s a portmanteau of “Of” and “Fred”, the name of the Commander she serves) describes their plight, as well as that of Gileadean women in general. Women are relegated to domestic roles and are no longer allowed to read, write, own property, or hold money or jobs. Uniform, conservative dress is enforced upon everyone, with Handmaids wearing long red robes and white bonnets with “wings” on the sides as blinders, to inhibit them from seeing too much of the world. Offred eloquently describes the agony of being treated as merely an object, a vessel to be filled with a child that will not even get to be hers, but rather will belong to the Wife of the Commander. All this is made even worse by how she reminisces on her previous life, when she had a husband, daughter, job, and above all freedom that she took too much for granted. We don’t know how her story resolves; at the end, a member of a resistance group comes to her rescue, but we don’t know whether the rescue was successful. According to the “Historical Note” at the end of the book, Offred then records her story on audiotape, and leaves it to be found by future generations.
The first thing that struck me upon my reread—or, well, re-listen—of this book was that I was way too young to fully appreciate it when I first read it. Basically, it didn’t make me as angry as it should have. I was a teenager with a very naïve understanding of sexuality, and while I identified as a feminist even then, I could not yet fully comprehend the issues the book was engaging with. I don’t remember thinking of Offred’s situation as either slavery or rape, probably because Offred herself never called them that. Many things like that remained unsaid, but hung suspended between the lines of Atwood’s gorgeous prose, comprehensible only to those of us who have lived in a patriarchal world long enough to experience some of Offred’s fears (though, fortunately for most of us, to a much lesser extent).
For instance, upon my first reading, I didn’t truly understand Offred’s hatred for the Commander, or his role as rapist and oppressor. I read about their developing “relationship” with interest, as the Commander secretly invited her into his office to play Scrabble and let her read illegal magazines from before Gilead. He seemed like a crack in the facade of the Gileadean elite, and I thought perhaps he could be part of its downfall. His treatment of Offred only seemed patronizing upon a second reading, and it turned out that he was instrumental in establishing the regime; he had no interest in toppling it. Late in the book, Offred and the Commander begin sleeping together outside of the once-a-month official Ceremony when they’re supposed to. When I first read the book, I was surprised that Offred couldn’t get into it. The Commander had been so kind, and seemed to genuinely care about her. Only now do I realize that he cared for her as one does a pet, and only gave her things to make himself feel better about her misery. Only now do I realize that Offred couldn’t enjoy the sex because it was rape. She never said it, but it was one of those words hovering between the lines. She has no choice. The power imbalance is ever before her. It can’t be anything other than rape.
Contrast this with the fond (if regretful) way Offred describes sex with Nick, the chauffeur. Their first tryst was sanctioned by the Commander’s Wife, who thought her husband may be sterile, and wanted Offred to try getting pregnant by some other man. After that, though, Offred returns to him several times of her own free will. This is not rape, and it shows in Offred’s narration. What was scary about this, though (and it’s another thing I failed to notice as a teen), was the way this source of at least physical affection helped to make Offred so complacent. She begins to hate her life less. She loses her will to fight. She refuses to spy on the Commander for the resistance. Because things are getting better for her, she seems to feel no need to fight to make things better for anyone else. And all it takes is regaining a modicum of the privileges she had lost, small pleasures that feel a bit like the love she craves. She does report feeling ashamed, but we never see her breaking out of this complacency–unless you count the simple fact that she recorded her story at all. To a reader, it’s scary how easy it was for Offred to give up her fight, because if it was so easy for her to accept her lot, then it might be that easy for anyone. In our own world, it’s all too easy for us to be content with whatever privileges we have, whether that be whiteness, maleness, wealth, etc., and thus fail to help fight for those with fewer privileges. This is exactly how Gilead managed to gain and maintain power.
Atwood’s style of writing also struck me deeply. I haven’t read a book like it in a long time. It’s full of poignant, resonant metaphors, and buzzwords related to issues of gender and sexuality that she uses in a surprising manner. For instance, when Offred relates the story of how her best friend Moira escapes from the center where Handmaids are indoctrinated, she says, “Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.” The narrator is playing with the different meanings of the word “loose.” Moira set herself loose in terms of freeing herself from the center, but a “loose woman” is also one of the many insults used against women who choose to have multiple sexual partners. In Gilead, a free woman is automatically sexually “loose;” she is considered dangerous, out somewhere where her body cannot be strictly controlled, and cannot be used just for the pleasures and progeny of men. Atwood says none of this directly; it’s all implied in those few simple lines I quoted. This happened again and again in the book, and it takes familiarity with these words and experiences to catch it.
I’m more aware now of the issues Atwood raised in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I see them all around me much more clearly than I did in high school. The Religious Right is still prominent, and some of them are spouting out nonsense about complementarianism, a philosophy about how the sexes are “different but complementary”, that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would in fact lead to a society like Gilead’s. Women continue needing to fight for autonomy over their own bodies, and sometimes conservative voices in the abortion debate sound as if they only value women as vessels for babies, just as the Handmaids are treated. Sexual slavery and forced prostitution continue to be terrible things that already exist in our world. And with the internet amplifying the voices of anti-feminists, and with an assaulter of women in the White House, Gilead seems even closer to reality now than it did when I first read the book. Its message remains extremely relevant.
Of course, the book has its share of problems, too. Because it has no prominent characters of color, it does not engage at all with the fact that the oppression of (white) women in Gilead isn’t new; it’s just like the oppression already suffered in the past and present by women of color. Did it take the slavery of a white woman for us to finally pay attention to it? To some extent, Atwood explains this in her “Historical Note”, in which a professor speaks about the discovery of the Handmaid’s Tale tapes in the year 2195, after Gilead has fallen. There, we learn that Gilead was in fact a racist society, and that the fertility crisis seemed to affect only the white population, leading to a racial panic that helped the Gileadean regime gain power. We hear echoes of this in today’s world, with worries about how the white population of the United States will be outnumbered by people of color by 2050, and with cries to “Make America white again.” But just because a fundamentalist Christian theocracy is likely to be racist is not an excuse to erase people of color entirely. We could have had an additional story parallel to Offred’s about a woman of color, labeled as a “Child of Ham”, forced to migrate to “National Homeland One”, which is all we hear about people of color in Gilead.
We also get very little from the perspective of LGBTQ+ people. They are of course considered abominations in Gilead, labeled “Gender Traitors” and, if caught, executed or sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste. If they are fertile women, then the regime enslaves them as Handmaids. Offred’s best friend Moira is a lesbian who worked harder than any other character in the book to fight back, even escaping from the Handmaids’ indoctrination center. Offred spends most of the book terrified that she’ll find Moira strung up on the gallows, until she finds her friend working as a sex slave at a club for Commanders, among other “incorrigible” women. There, we learn that Moira has resigned herself to her fate, thinks this club is “better” than her other options (i.e., dying in the Colonies), and will not try to escape again. After all she went through, this is understandable, and the burden of toppling oppressive regimes shouldn’t fall on the backs of minorities alone. But the problem is that since we only see Moira through Offred’s eyes, we miss out on the point of view of LGBTQ+ people who likely had to endure even worse horrors than Offred did, like attempted “conversion” therapy.
I was also frustrated that Offred was such a passive protagonist, and that we didn’t get to see her rebelling against Gilead, or, really, see anything leading towards its downfall. There are hints and whispers of a resistance, but the story ends before we get to see anything that they actually do. In the Historical Note, we learn that Gilead did indeed fall eventually, and the Commander was executed during a “purge”, which is encouraging, but I wanted to see the rebellion. That would have been so much more empowering than just Offred’s passive descriptions. Those were important too, but I felt like they were only the beginning of the story. Maybe the Hulu show will provide more direct rebellion against Gilead, but I’m not sure I should pin my hopes there; it has already bungled the race issue.
All in all, though, I still think I would recommend this book—though it is best appreciated by mature audiences. Atwood’s writing conveys beauty and emotion that I don’t think the show will ever be able to match. As long as women need to fight to control their bodies, and as long as proponents of patriarchal theocracy remain a threat, this book will stay relevant. Pick it up if you get a chance, maybe listen to Claire Danes’s reading of the audio book like I did (after all, The Handmaid’s Tale was “originally” on audiotape!), and don’t give up on the fight like Offred did.