George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, while not the seminal work of dystopian literature, is certainly one of, if not the most influential. The premise a thought experiment wherein an authoritarian government monitors its citizens’ behavior for purposes of subjugation, it puts freedom at the ultimate premium: a person’s ability to comprehend reality. Wholly politicized, Orwell delved deeply into the individual aspects of replete authoritarianism, but left gender as a sub topic. In 1985 Margaret Atwood produced The Handmaid’s Tale, and in doing so foregrounded gender in a dystopian setting just as powerfully disturbing and politicized as Orwell’s.
Not an imitation, The Handmaid’s Tale, while borrowing the geo-political premise of Orwell, remains unique. North America at war, differing religious and political factions have taken pockets of power after a mass assassination of the American president and senate. The Gileadans one of the major players arising in the aftermath, they enforce their religion on the society they rule. Nuclear weaponry having been used in the aftermath of the assassinations, the Gileadans sequester their women and heavily regulate behavior to the point of making them prisoners under the guise of protecting the procreation of mankind. This protection in the form of moderated ovulation, copulation, and conception, each woman is in fact a baby factory, disposed of when they pass the age of child bearing, sent to clean the radiation belt in the zone beyond. Power and control wholly in the hands of men, it is in the house of a Gileadean commander that the story of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place.
The titular handmaid is a woman named Offred, and her voice narrates the story. The Commander’s concubine, she spends her days trying to follow the innumerable rules imposed upon her by Gileadean code: covering the head and body, remaining silent, eating what is provided, paying obeisance, doing the grocery shopping, and participating in the rituals and ceremonies that are propagated as a means of ritualizing, and therefore subjecting, the women’s lives. Part of her daily walk for shopping taking her past the Gileadean court, the bodies hanging from the hooks on the wall serve as strong reminders of the penalty for breaking the rules. Complicit, Offred’s life goes smoothly in the home, that is, until being invited into the Commander’s office for a private meeting one evening. His request taboo in itself, granting the request could get her in as much trouble as rejecting it. Though taking time to play out, Offred’s decision settles her fate in Gilead.
Atwood effectively mixing in pieces of backstory through memories and daydreaming, a significant portion of The Handmaid’s Tale tells of how Kate—as she was known before the revolution—came to be in the Commander’s house. Once having a daughter and a relationship with a man named Luke, slowly the reader learns how they were separated after the assassinations. Characters from her past not devices in place to produce a syrupy ending, Kate/Offred’s former life instead serves to contrast her life among the Gileadans. Personal freedom and the difficulty of being separated from family and loved ones not the only ideas under discussion, Atwood, thankfully, adds several more significant layers.
Reduced to a literal sex object, the main theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is what it means to be a woman in a world utterly controlled by men. Offred’s recollections of the past not reflecting a perfect societal image, but compared to her life at the Commander’s, the juxtaposition becomes black and white. Offred states at one point: “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me completely.” Bizarre sex scenes with the Commander’s wife, the birthing party, the temptations she is faced with that normally would mean nothing, hiding butter in her shoe—the lights hitting Offred’s reflect with questions regarding what it means to be a woman. The idea of being a human incubator only part of the meaning, community, self-perception, love, family and relationships, communication, self-determination, and a variety of other topics round out Atwood’s agenda.
It would be remiss were I not to mention the denouement. Entirely unpredictable, Atwood looked at the dystopian scene and chose to go a different route. Where Orwell chose tragedy and other writers go the more heroic path, Atwood delicately threads the needle, taking a middle road. To give particulars would ruin the story, so I will suffice at saying it’s an event to think upon—not in the sense of ‘What happened?’, rather ‘To what end did Atwood conclude the story as such?’. And it is deliberate. A springboard that transcends plot, it forces the reader to think upon all of the aforementioned issues, begging the question: what more could one ask for in a book?
Atwood receiving a lot of praise for her prose, I went in with expectations of a certain variety. They were not met, but that is my fault. Rather than lush or poetically fluid, Atwood writes The Handmaid’s Tale in a deceptively flat tone. The words Offred uses to describe her life and memories appear limited, but resonate subtly to the point of complete empathy before the reader realizes. The daydreaming and memories of the past are garbled with the present narrative, but that is only realistic; our brains do not perform recall in linear narrative form, which Atwood properly represents. It is thus in the “epilogue” that her talents as a writer become most obvious. The style contrasting due to the prior mood of the text (it would spoil the story perhaps to say more), it makes clear what came before was the narrative of an average woman. To make this point more obvious, it was not a woman coincidentally able to express herself in the most beautiful of prose, or a journalist who just so happened to be captured by the Gileadeans and therefore able to offer the most crystal clear narrative. No, Offred is a quotidian woman, and her story and voice, as contrasted by the “epilogue”, give evidence with a quotidian voice. Atwood hit a note (perhaps c minor?), and stuck with it throughout, completely to the novel’s success.
In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale is a core sample of feminist literature no matter whether the perspective is genre or not. Though written in the tradition of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, Atwood’s is a dystopia of strictly feminine perspective that challenges down to the last detail. Written in relevant prose, it should be required reading in schools alongside these other authors.
Side note: the copy of The Handmaid’s Tale I read was second-hand, and the previous owner had filled the margins with notes and gone through in a red pen underlining passages and phrases. I have read such marked up books before, but generally the person starts with good intentions, and by page 50 the handwriting peters out. Not the case with this copy. Front to back, nearly every page had a mark of some kind. From paragraphs of notes to comments such as “Guards: sex”, “Flirts”, “only has body to barter with”, “prison. violence and isolation”, “no name. national resource. womb” there was a complete immersion. The notes served to motivate me: I had to heighten my awareness to match the previous owner’s attention to detail and sub-text. I appreciated it. So, to whoever you, former owner of The Handmaid’s Tale who writes in neat print with blue and red pens and so carefully underlines, thank you for the inspiration.
Side-side note: there was a Hollywood rendering of the novel done by Volker Schloendorff. Not the best or worst adaptation, the script writers and director saw fit to change a few things, but kept the majority in line with the book, the overall result a bit of a shoehorning. One of the annoying things changed is the ending. Building Offred’s character to a ‘woman with agency’ throughout the film, the final minutes undercut the development with a classic ‘woman in distress-dependent on man’ scene that doesn’t quite fit. If that scene can be ignored, then all else is true enough, more or less, to the book.