Cover image via.
I had always heard Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a disconcerting dystopian novel. Nothing encouraged me to pick it up, though. It was simply a book written before I was born about some hypothetical “What if.”
And then Donald Trump was elected president, a man who multiple women have accused of sexual assault, and yet he gets to sit in the Oval Office and enact laws (or attempt to). If anything is illustrative of white male privilege and the need for feminism, it’s this, our new reality.
“I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”
Knowing things could somehow still be worse, and having seen previews for the Hulu adaptation, I asked my sister to buy The Handmaid’s Tale for me for my birthday.
I read the book on my deck in the warm sun. I read it snuggled on my couch under cozy blankets. And yet, I couldn’t quite shake the chill that crept up my spine with every page.
Atwood thrusts you into the life in the new United States–Gilead–a nation that has been taken over by a religious right that strips women of their rights. They are no longer able to own property, make their own decisions about money, or even read. Women (the lucky ones? It’s hard to say.) are classified into three categories: Wives, Marthas (housekeepers), and Handmaids (breeders). Human reproduction has plummeted, and now Handmaids, those women with the most viable reproductive systems, are tasked with conceiving children. Not for themselves, but for the families they are tied to.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”
You almost want to read the novel at arm’s length. The main character, Offred, describes things with almost detached interest that makes you similarly want to detach yourself. But you can’t. Especially when Offred tells the reader, “I don’t want to tell this story.”
Those parts, the parts Offred doesn’t want to tell you, are where the novel gets too real. The flashes of life before Gilead are an America that looks remarkably similar to our own. There are subtle, slow changes that are easy to overlook, that everyday citizens think they’ll work through. But then it’s too late and too much is different and resistance isn’t just a hashtag or a march but a death sentence.
Offred’s tale isn’t one of information and facts, but of humanity and emotions that can’t be undone by a religious regime. It shows the dangers of a few at the top holding all the power, and how the erasure of science and reason in favor of piety can have devastating consequences for society.
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t as far away as it should be. But living Offred’s story through her eyes ensures I will fight tooth and nail to keep that reality far, far away.
“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”