It was Christmas 2014 when I opened up one of the many packages that was undoubtedly a book and saw the tan and red cover I’d been pining for since college. It was a book that always passed by me like a ship in the night and while I sensed that we would find one another when the time was right, I had no way of knowing when that time would come. I had almost bought it a dozen times but held off, not quite knowing why. But now I know that this was the time… I now know why everyone tells me that they remember where they were when they read their first Atwood.
Yes, I’ve read my first Margaret Atwood. It was The Handmaid’s Tale and it was during an unseasonably warm winter. I had watched the Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson movie (1990) in college on a similarly warm winter break and I liked it, but assumed the book and film would be different as they so often are. However, the movie intrigued: what was this world the Handmaiden was trapped in? What were they calling her? Didn’t the sudden romance with the driver sort of undermine the basic principle that a controlling misogynistic populace was intrinsically dangerous for women?
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale is intoxicating and mesmerizing the way any good dystopian novel can be—half the fun, intrigue, and primal fear of reading any science fiction is the possibility of living to see a dystopia actualized and the way Atwood writes about Gilead is truly terrifying in its plausibility. I expected that a feminist powerhouse like Atwood—in a groundbreaking work like Handmaid—would have a strong female voice as the lead narrator, but her strongest female characters were fringe characters. It was the narrator’s passiveness, her submission, that were the most compelling aspects of the narrative and also inspired the single greatest sense of fear: how many of us would be indoctrinated into a new life out of fear of loss, fear of being overpowered, fear that resistance was futile, or simply out of fear of the rapid change around you? It is easy to say that I wouldn’t act _______, but I think of this urge as essentially childish, denying a basic acknowledgement that we crave a continuance of our life as it is and if that cage is rattled we may do just about anything to maintain stability.
Gilead is what becomes of the former United States under the regime of religious extremists the Sons of Jacob who establish a new moral utopia in the now defunct land of sin. I was in middle school when 9/11 happened and most of my sentient life has been spent either being aware of religious prejudice or religious extremism: if we aren’t afraid of religious extremists encroaching on us we are borderline religiously extreme in our own domestic politics. The homophobic, sexual restrictive, and religious (as well as ethnic) cleansing of the Sons of Jacob doesn’t seem far-fetched—it seems like what a powerful, armed, well-organized religious sect could do in the face of a demoralized and physically weakened army. Because the world before Gilead suffered from an increasingly low birth rate (and an increasingly high birth defect rate) there was a growing population crisis—and Gilead’s older, sterile leadership required a method of reproduction. After all, children represent the single greatest way to indoctrinate a new mindset: raise a new generation with a specific mode of thinking and you can change the past.
The focus on reproduction is what creates the Handmaids.
These are women who are proven fertile (they have birthed a living “Keeper,” or defect-free) who have not undergone elective sterilization. They have been selected to undergo Handmaid Indoctrination during which they are stripped of their identity and their own control over their sexuality and their reproductive system is utterly stripped from them, never to be returned.
Perhaps among the most subtle and most beautiful aspects of Atwood’s writing is that she writes from within the mores of her created universe, adopts them so utterly that I failed to notice for a duration of the book the significance of how the Handmaid’s names were assembled. We know them as Offred and Ofglen because they are now the property Of Fred and Of Glen. Much like a prized mare they are only valued if they reproduce: if a handmaid fails to reproduce in three years she is recycled, and as useless is sent away with other unwanted, misbehaved, or unsalvageable women to become the janitors of nuclear wastelands—a task that kills them slowly, tortuously.
Shockingly (or not), Offred discovers perilously paralleled underworlds: the underworld of MayDay, a rebellion offering the Underground Femaleroad (perhaps what I thought was Atwood’s only heavy-handed use of symbolism) to countries free from Gilead’s policies, and the secret world of prostitution visited by the high ranking men of Gilead (and policed by the same Aunts who trained the Handmaids). When I was reading about the whore house, I had a moment of wondering why it was included because I never thought that the Commander (or any of the Commanders) weren’t hypocritical—I knew they must be harboring something that existed in stark contrast to the über-conservative regime they were propagating. But really seeing the Commander—many Commanders—enjoying themselves among the prostitutes (or, as Offred’s Commander does, smuggle in their Handmaiden in some twisted game of sexual domination and social demonstration), really seeing the hypocrisy so closely brings all of its pores into focus. There is no such thing as purity or perfection—there is always a line, a seam, a wrinkle in the mass that is being somehow shaded, averted, or ignored in favor of a grander scheme. What Atwood does is masterfully expose the seams and really make you wonder how distant a dystopia this is. When was the last time you looked at our own world intentionally seeking the seams?
If you don’t remember your first Atwood, it is definitely time to start.
Margaret Atwood is one of the most awarded female writers in the last thirty years, primarily getting recognition in the science fiction genre though she also writes poetry (and an opera). Beyond Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has the popular trilogy of Oryx and Crake, which begins with its namesake novel, progresses to The Year of the Flood, and only recently published MaddAddam. She famously re-wrote The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective in The Penelopiad. Also popular are Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, and Cat’s Eye. Atwood is a politically active environmentalist and inventor currently living in Toronto.