I recently read Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian plot is largely bleak and unhappy, but powerfully so. Atwood’s primary concern lies less in emotional or narrative descriptions and more in ideas and the psychology of power. The prose is heavy and makes for slower reading, but it’s unquestionably worth the effort.
The novel centers on an unnamed narrator dubbed Offred (derived from the name of her owner – Fred), who is rapidly understood to be a cog in the wheel of a monstrous theocracy. The tale is set in post-1980s America. The country has been renamed ‘Gilead’ in the wake of a revolution that overturned the democratic government and established in its place a religious order that strictly enforces a cruel and effective oppression of women.
Other things are hinted at, but Atwood has stuck largely to the aspects of life in this world that concern the narrator. The women are assigned clothes and strictly defined roles. The narrator is a Handmaid, whose job it is to become pregnant by a childless man of stature and give birth to a healthy child, to be raised by his Wife. Other women become Marthas, who cook and clean in richer homes, or Econowives, who are married to men of lower stature. The women are publicly visible for what they do, stripping them of their uniqueness and of their privacy. They are essentialized via uniforms, with the narrator, for instance, reduced to a walking (and occasionally talking) womb.
The descriptions of the ‘learning center’, the birthing ceremony, sexual intercourse, and the collective murder of a rapist demonstrate the mandatory presence of a group of women for any expression of feminine power. A woman exists alone, physically, only in her room, and psychologically, in pockets of her mind, if that. On the contrary, the men in the novel are almost never shown in association with one another. They are largely solitary founts of power, and spend their time in the narrative wielding it, benevolently or otherwise, over the women under their jurisdiction. The Commander is shown in the narrator’s life to possess the capability to both enforce the rules and, at his discretion, break them with little consequence to himself. In his character, we see that in every man is embodied the entirety of manhood.
It is through the Commander that the simplest of power dynamics is made terrifyingly clear: the re-framing of women’s rights as privileges. The author continuously rails against betrayal by her own mind (more on this later), denying herself the comfortable acceptance of the Commander’s ‘kindnesses’ as ‘benevolence’, reminding herself that in her old life, such ‘kindness’ was expected, was a woman’s right to demand. This reminder proved useful in what, to me, was the climax of the novel – the discovery of brothels. It rendered the author unsurprised by the revelation that the Commander’s actions to her were part of his own small entertainment. Her resilience is awesome.
The story includes Offred’s growing attraction for Nick – a male member of the Commander’s staff. Along the way, she discovers the existence of a secret underground group working against the government, and attempts to remain within reach of them. These risks create much of the tension in the novel, along with Offred’s inability to have a child and thereby save herself from a slow and painful death. Her story ends in a question mark, but the book feels far from incomplete.
I found myself hoping that Offred would conceive, and felt mortified when I became aware of it. That was the power of Atwood’s creation, and the power that Offred, passive though she appears, resists so successfully. She fights the structure through discipline and realism. She beats and bribes and cajoles her mind into submission. She creates spaces of grief that she visits with strict curfews. Her priority is to survive, certainly, but also to preserve. She remembers by (paradoxically) refusing to visit her memories at leisure, because she accepts that the oppression is too overwhelming to resist. She knows she will repaint, and re-characterize, if she is not careful with her psyche.
Consequently, she analyzes the past with shocking clarity. She is able to remember that even during the height of the feminist movement, women did not do enough. There is no untrammeled romanticism, not even in her memory of her husband. She experiences beauty and joy in small, harmless forms – largely through her enjoyment of flowers. Her ruthlessness with her own mind triumphs, while the open revolution and badass-ery of her best friend Moira crumbles.
The women’s rights movement has, to some extent, succumbed to guilt and exhaustion, and to the lure of ‘girl-power’ sentiments furthered by the consumer market. In convincing women that impossible beauty standards, single-handed success at both career-based and home-based life, and new forms of sexual objectification are things they want, patriarchal institutions have managed to capture our minds without having to exert as much external oppression. It is important for women in our own world to strive to be like Offred. To remain vigilant. To refuse to be betrayed by feelings of guilt, or seduced by too-simple solutions. Margaret Atwood’s novel is difficult, and dark, and forces the kind of introspection that isn’t always pleasant. But it is an important book. It was when it was written, it is today, 30 years on, in a world that still condones blatant sexism, and it will continue to be in the decades that follow. If nothing else, the multi-layered The Handmaid’s Tale should teach us one thing: there is much work to be done, and no shame in admitting it.