I first read The Handmaid’s Tale around the time it was published in 1986. I was just 22, a sheltered young thing. I recall wondering what everyone was raving about, since only the top story layer of the book connected for me. Now, with decades of life experience behind me, I see that this is a deeply moving, complex book. I’m so glad I decide to read again just at this moment in time.
You would think that something written thirty years ago would seem dated. But that wasn’t the case for me. If anything, I think there are so many things imagined in the book which have become more possible today instead of less. In a sense, this is a cautionary tale that a large art of the population ignored or misunderstood.
More than ever, we should be reading this and sharing it with the young women in our lives. And discussing it with them, so they see more of the depth than my 22-year-old self did.
Margaret Atwood imagined a world where a totalitarian power went into action against foreign zealots and their own people’s “wanton” behavior. This power was meant to make the world better, but it also created a world of highly distinct “haves” and “have nots.”
She says, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” It might be just me (although I suspect not) but this sure sounds like what we often hear today on the news and in conversations.
Reading this at the end of 2016 after a brutal election cycle, the following quote from Atwood seems both wise and horrible. Have we not been hearing about people who feel invisible?
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
Atwood’s Republic of Gilead gives people one-dimensional functions. Correction – she gives women one-dimensional functions. They are Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, Aunts, or Unwomen (and a few more which would be spoilers). Unwomen are rebels, likely to be banished to the toxic waste dumps of the colonies. Everyone else plays a part in the singular female focus – procreation. As I read, I wondered what category I’d fall into should I have the bad luck to land in Gilead. The women there have no layers of life or experience. They are expected only to fulfill their narrow role.
Why is procreation such a focus? Because of falling birth rates among white people. This book doesn’t discuss race except one small spot near the end. It’s as if there is only one race in Gilead. And the only people in that race with any power are men.
The main character, Offred (literally of Fred named after the Commander she serves) is the perfect blend of weak and strong. She tells us of her past and says, “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” But her life is not beautiful. And Atwood straddles the line of past and present, sending back and forth in a way that keeps you wanting more. Just as Offred wants more. Just as we all want more for ourselves and the generations of women coming after us.
If you read this book long ago, pick it up again. If you haven’t yet read it, move it up to the top of your TBR. Buy it for friends. Buy for your sons and daughters. Use it to teach and to learn what kind of world we could be if we stop valuing the diversity of all people.