written by David Steffen
The Handmaid’s Tale is a near future dystopia published in 1985 about a United States of America that has become an oppressive theocracy. ((It has also very recently become a TV series streaming on Hulu, but I haven’t seen the show so I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about that)
Offred lives in Gilead, the theocratic country that the United States has become in a near future. The Christian Bible is the rule of the land, or at least a very strict interpretation of a very selective subset of the Christian Bible. Tales of the “way things used to be” are a constant mantra told by those in power to justify the extreme measures taken to uphold the current law, tales of when women could not walk the street without being harassed, when women were expected to paint themselves for beauty, when women had to fear rape and assault. Women are safe now, they say, treated as the precious vessels they are meant to be, to bear children as God intended. There is a wall in town where the body of criminals are hung on display: atheists and homosexuals and adulterists and traitors and others. All for the safety of the good citizens of Gilead, of course.
A lingering effect of the way things used to be is low fertility across the population, caused by some mixture of chemicals, diet, medications, intentional blocking of fertility, and other causes. In the new world women who can’t produce children are unwomen, sent to labor camps to live short miserable lives. Lower class women, at least. Upper class women may be assigned handmaids who, inspired by the tale of Jacob’s handmaiden in the Bible, may act as a pregnancy proxy for an infertile wife (according to the dictates of Gilead, no man is infertile, it is always the wife).
Offred is a handmaid, assigned to a military officer. The rise of Gilead is recent enough that she had had a family before the change, a family that was torn apart as Gilead declared second marriages void. Even her name has been taken–“Offred” is not the name that she had before, but is derived from the man she is beholden to, as in “of Fred”. She is watched very carefully, as she is considered a valuable vessel, and she is protected from everything, even herself–her room has shatter-proof glass in the windows, the ceiling fan removed, and the knives in the kitchen are locked away. Every month when she’s ovulating, she performs her duty in order to become pregnant, and time is running out before she is declared an unwoman.
In the prologue to the book, in the copy of the book that I read, Atwood talks about some of the narrative choices she made. When she decided to write a dystopia, she decided to do it without predicting any future technology, so nothing in the book is anything that wasn’t possible with technology at the time the book was written. This sets it apart from stories like 1984, which depends on the possibility of thought control, or The Hunger Games, which uses various future technologies.
Another thing that sets it apart was that Atwood wanted to base the theocracy of Gilead on actual scripture, and to base all the things people do to each other on actual things from history. This gives it a very different feel from many dystopias, because it feels like it could be just around the corner. The book was published more than thirty years ago, but I’m not surprised that it has become a recent show, because many of the concerns and issues at the root of this book are still concerns today–especially with too many members of the US government passing laws based in theocracy. Despite the separation of church and state inherent in the founding of the country, there are those who cling to the Puritan roots of that more than the word of the Constitution.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling cautionary tale about where we could end up if we are complacent in the face of the rise of fascism. I can’t recommend the book enough–it is a dark read, so brace yourself. It is very well written, chilling, poetic, and moving. I don’t have Hulu but I’d like to pick up the show when I can, perhaps if it comes out in a box set.