Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

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