The chilling thing about The Handmaid's Tale
is not the oppressive misogynistic regime of the Republic of Gilead, but how effective it is as a police state and how plausible its operation if not its genesis is. All the small ways in which Gilead dehumanizes and isolates, turns women (men too, but especially women) into empty vessels, tools, nameless, faceless units of biological function. This is a dystopia that is actually scary and horrible because unlike Panem or, for that matter, certain other feminist dystopias written by authors named Sheri S. Tepper or Suzette Haden Elgin, this one requires minimal suspension of disbelief. Gilead is not a lot more extreme than certain Islamic regimes, the FLDS, or North Korea. Could the United States literally turn into the Republic of Gilead? Atwood proposes a massacre of the Executive Branch and Congress as the incitement for the takeover of the government by right-wing theocrats. Things get worse bit by bit, in backstory narrated by the Handmaid of the tale, until we arrive at the police state in which the nameless protagonist finds herself trapped.
Offred ("Of-Fred") never tells us her real name. She remembers the time before Gilead, when life was "normal." She had a husband. a daughter, a job. Now she is a Handmaid, a forced surrogate who, because she is one of the few women in the country who still has viable ovaries (Atwood never really explains what caused this widespread sterility, though it's implied that it's a result of pollution and radiation), is obligated to attempt to become pregnant by one of Gilead's Commanders. This obliges her to live in the Commander's house in a sort of veiled purdah, suffering the resentment of the Commander's wife, who has to participate in the humiliating procreation "ceremony." The way in which the Wives, supposedly free women of much higher status than the Handmaids or the Aunts or the "Marthas," are little better than chattel themselves despite their privileges, is something Atwood draws our attention to without spelling it out or hitting us over the head, but it's how we come to feel sympathy for the Commander's wife, Serena-Joy, former evangelical singer and advocate for a "Godly" society who is now angry, resentful, and bitter now that she's gotten what she supposedly wanted. Serena-Joy is just as oppressed and constrained as the Handmaids, she just has a prettier cage that lets her see sunlight through the bars.
Atwood has taken some flack for claiming at one point that she didn't write science fiction. Although she later backed off from that a bit, after reading The Handmaid's Tale
, I can kind of see her point. The Handmaid's Tale
is a lot like 1984
, a speculative look at how very badly wrong things could go in our society, given a few flips of the historical dial, and the point is not the "alternate history" it creates but what this look at a dystopian society that maybe could be tells us. Is 1984
science fiction? Kind of — Orwell creates a new society, a new language, and mentions a few bits of technology that were futuristic at the time he wrote it. But it would be fair to say that it's not a conventional sci-fi story, at least, and that's also true of The Handmaid's Tale
. Atwood isn't making up this fictional off-the-rails version of a future U.S. to do worldbuilding or as a vehicle for a tale about rebellion or resistance. The small bits of resistance in this book consist of a thought, a whispered conversation, a glimpse of a banned magazine, and like 1984
, we never know if the supposed resistance is for real. Offred is no rebel; she pines for the old days, she hates her "reduced circumstances" and the reeducation she undergoes at the Rachel and Leah Center, but she is mostly a passive chronicler of her age, a vessel, a Handmaid. Things are done to her; she doesn't do things, though she occasionally fantasizes about doing them.
Atwood writes in descriptive literary prose; Offred's thoughts are poignant, heavy, mournful, occasionally smart-ass, but mostly you just feel the oppressive claustrophobia, the daily dehumanization and erasure, and how readily a modern 20th century woman with a brash feminist mother can find herself submitting to such wholesale, brutal oppression as the new normal, clinging to memories of her old life while slowly forgetting who she used to be. Her oppression is a hundred small humiliations every day, none really cruel or violent, just things reminding her of her status, all the things she is no longer allowed to do (read, write, show her face to men, use hand lotion, talk to anyone about non-trivial matters). In this environment, the smallest conversation, a meeting of eyes, can become an act of rebellion, and Atwood shows us that repeatedly, how defiant and rebellious can be the simple act of asserting, "I am here, I exist, I am a person."
This was a chilling book precisely because there are no action scenes, there is no grand escape, there is no uprising, and you keep wanting Offred to have some way out, to see some way out for any of the people of Gilead, but there is no cavalry coming to bring down the tyrants, no Katniss Everdeens or District 13 here. It ends, arguably, on a more hopeful note than Orwell's book does, but then we've been told repeatedly by Offred herself that she is an unreliable narrator.
It was much less of a feminist polemic than I expected it to be. Yes, the points about right-wing Christians and their various fetishes were made, and Gilead is definitely a nightmare product of the very worst woman-hating religious extremists, but Atwood shows them slaughtering Catholics and Baptists as zealously as they kill abortionists and homosexuals, and there is relatively little soapboxing on the part of the author. The story says a lot of things about what happens when you take certain ideologies seriously, but it does not serve as a vehicle just to knock down those ideologies and push the author's own dubious ideas like certain other authors who tread the same ground broken by The Handmaid's Tale
(I am looking at you, Sheri S. Tepper).
So, this book really does deserve to be read. I didn't even read it as a "cautionary tale," per se - it stands on its own as a work of fiction. The characters stand out as living human beings who talk and think like real human beings, because they are so ordinary, in their extraordinary "reduced circumstances." Is this science fiction? Kinda not really. But it is a very dark Bible-thumping dystopia, by a literary author who writes better dystopias than all those trying-too-hard SF authors.
4 stars because it was very well-written and impressive in its execution, but the story, while I realize not the point, was too flat to hook me and make this a favorite.
And I'm shelving it as "science fiction" just to annoy Margaret Atwood.