May 6, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book cover for THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood
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Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.

Massachusetts Becomes Saudi Arabia?

More than thirty years have passed since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, but many still think of it as the go-to book for feminist fiction. It makes numerous “best of” lists, the kinds with 99 other books everyone should read before dying. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale frustrates me a lot—and not only because it contains run-on sentences and needlessly abandons quotation marks. (This is no train wreck like José Saramago’s Blindness, but it’s bad enough.) Simply put, if you can ignore whether you agree or disagree with Margaret Atwood’s ideas about politics, religion, and women’s rights, the plot and setting make no sense.

The religiosity of the Reagan era inspired Atwood’s dystopia, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over society. While that premise does give me the heebie-jeebies, Atwood’s taken the idea to a literal extreme to make a point. This ruins the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale because most American fundies would balk at this world. Atwood imagines the extreme of the extreme and in the process completely misunderstands American evangelicalism.

Gallup's U.S. map of weekly religious service attendanceI’m a heathen bastard and no fan of religion. Fundamentalism has hurt people, particularly women, for millennia. Extremism continues to hurt people every day, especially in some parts of the world, especially in some states. Even so, it’s hard to accept Atwood’s dystopia when it’s set in the U.S., in the near future—and in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the country, one of only sixteen states in the union with state constitutional protections for abortion (since 1981, I believe). Massachusetts is a liberal bastion when it comes to American women’s reproductive rights, so it’s an odd setting for this brand of nightmare. In recent decades, Massachusetts is also one of the least religious states, so it’s an odd setting for a theocracy, too.

Atwood chose Massachusetts for its puritanical history. I can embrace the connection to the Reagan administration, in the same way I can embrace Orwell’s fear of communism in 1984, but to imagine an unchanging, puritanical Massachusetts requires a bit too much.

Societies Don’t Change Overnight

The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first person by a woman who’s lived in our present day (more or less), as well as in this dark fundamentalist Tomorrowland. She’s gone from wearing flip-flops and sundresses to a full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient role. She was married once, had a child. Now she’s another’s property, one of the handmaids sent from one man’s house to another. The hope is that she will become pregnant when a prominent man’s wife cannot. Her life has been flipped and made forfeit. She lives in fear and depression and abuse. This is meant to make me unnerved, and it does.

But.

Simply because an author wants to comment on society doesn’t mean he or she can ignore important, logical story elements. The logic part should be emphasized here, I think, given this is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy. (Although Atwood does insist The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, because that further legitimizes her story…or something? Never mind that sci-fi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction.)

There’s a question I have that never gets answered, not properly at least. How did this happen so quickly? How did we go from “burning bras” to having every part of our lives regulated? Why did it take Massachusetts decades, centuries, to reject puritanism, but only a few years(?) to reject liberalism?

Rights can erode, but you don’t see it happen on such a large scale and so seamlessly, and not overnight. Nothing happens overnight, especially not governmental takeovers in relatively stable, secular societies, which is the book’s scenario.

Societies evolve, one way or another, usually rather slowly. Civil, moral, and regime changes don’t sneak up on you. It wasn’t the case in Germany before Hitler, in China before Mao, in Afghanistan before the Taliban, in Syria before its civil war. It’s not the case in 2016, with people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump leading in GOP primary polls. The world may be disappointing and horrible sometimes, but it is rarely surprising.

If Atwood had built her dystopia on a chain of events that occurred over a longer period of time, or explained how everything unraveled so quickly, I might have been on board with the premise. That isn’t how The Handmaid’s Tale is written, though. The explanations for the sudden changes are fantastical, at best, dependent on evil, digitized money—be careful with the mobile payments and bitcoins, ladies!—and misogynistic, conservative conspiracies that readers are to believe could bring millions of people to a stupefied halt and change culture in the blink of an eye. Apparently it’s easy to gun down all of Congress while it’s in session. Who knew?

I don’t buy it.

You can change laws all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow the most drastic changes. (This is why the American Drug War has never worked, why prohibition of alcohol never worked, why banning abortion didn’t work.) Why was modern American society so willing to enslave women?

Atwood chucks a plot point at you here or there, hinting at a larger, more complex world through her main character. There’s a vague fertility crisis (of course). There’s conflict somewhere between some people about some stuff, but details are never given. Some of this can be excused, what with the limited point of view, but not all. Plot holes aren’t mysterious or clever. They’re just plot holes.

By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, I feel the book is less an exploration of religious extremism and feminism than it is a narrative written for shock value. It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn—especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Nowhere is safe. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. (The rest are idiots, I suppose.) He doesn’t care. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.

Except it is.

Asides

  • For a slightly more accurate portrayal of American Christian fundamentalism and its very awkward relationship with women, see Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. It makes several nods to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale—and better understands its villains and their behavior.
  • Two nonfiction books, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Ned & Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will show you what it’s really like to live in a society where women are chattel.
  • Some think that because I dislike this book I’m not a feminist, or am a bad feminist. I hate to break it to everyone, but Margaret Atwood is not feminism’s god, and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a religious text. If I must attach labels to myself, feminist would be one of them, and I’ll say and think whatever I damn well please. And as a feminist, I hate how one-dimensional the men are in this book, just as much as I hate how one-dimensional women are in far more books, TV shows, and movies. Deal with it. Or don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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