My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.
Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.
The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.
Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.
While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.
Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.
Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.
There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.
Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.