The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985. Winner of the Governor General’s Award (one of Canada’s most prestigious awards for literature) as well as the winner of the very first Arthur C. Clarke award, the title was inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, essentially a concubine in a near-future monotheistic dictatorship. It is a story of subjugation and the struggle of one member of this society to retain some small measure of agency and will.
A rare narrative style
It’s rare, it seems, to find the first person limited narrative in modern fiction. It presents a number of challenges as well as benefits. Atwood uses this style to wonderful effect in The Handmaid’s Tale, and it seems like a very good choice for this kind of dystopia in general. The primary double-edged sword of this narrative is the severe limits of information that we the readers have access to. We are exactly as aware or in the dark as our protagonist, and Offred is in the dark indeed. We make it through the entire book with pretty much no idea where she is, what’s happening around her, or even the state of the world at large. It builds the exact sense of tension and isolation that Offred feels throughout, and really nails the vision of a monotheocratic society where an entire class of people are kept deliberately ignorant in order to maintain the social order.
We don’t even know what Offred looks like beyond a short simple description of her height and hair colour. Even that comes many chapters into the story. For the bulk of the narrative we know essentially nothing whatsoever that is not happening, right now, in Offred’s sight, or some rememberences of her past that she even freely admits are likely not how those events actually occurred.
Another dark vision that ages uncomfortably well
It’s always a good gauge of the progress of a society to see how poorly the going version of the terrible future ages, when examined in modern times. By those standards, The Handmaid’s Tale is still pretty concerning. We live in a world that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly liberal over time socially and morally, but we also live in a world where gay rights, women’s rights, and even basic civil liberties are still under regular attack even in the most “enlightened” nations in the first world. There are many people throughout the West who would have no problem with a world like the Republic of Gilead coming to pass. Indeed, Atwood states in interviews that there is not a single element of Gileadan society that has not literally happened somewhere in the world. She draws many comparisons to Iran and other theistic dictatorships, but it’s not much of a stretch to put some of the words of the Aunts and the Commanders into the mouths of the Religious Right in America, let alone the more conservative elements of France or the UK.
The truth is that this kind of world, based in ignorance and abuse, is still a very real threat in today’s world. As I’ve mentioned in other articles in the Dystopia series, the increased level of technology we have today acts as a great stopper on these kinds of abuses because it is incredibly difficult to silence a society in the Internet Age. But we still need to be vigilant against this kind of suppression and oppression.
Perhaps the ignorance is a little too deep
My one critique of the story is just how quickly the women in this society descend into ignorance. While I have (thankfully) no experience with any kind of systematized oppression or subjugation, these are women who were living normal free lives less than a decade earlier. If this book had picked up the tale of a woman a generation or two into the system, it would be much more believable the extent to which they’ve already lost the ability to read or to remember things that would have been trivial and frequently accessed things.
I’m sure that on the balance, the problem is less with Atwood’s presentation of the descent of women in this society, and more to do with my own inaccurate impression of just how long people would be able to resist this kind of systematic enforced ignorance. I probably delude myself into thinking that it would take a lot longer than 5 or 6 years to break me down to that point, but the truth of the matter is that very few of us with the luxury to read this book have or will ever face anything even remotely similar to this kind of situation.
In all honesty, the degree to which this bothered me is really a testament to how effective it was at showing this kind of society, and an even more effective caution for the dangers of this kind of society. Atwood seems to be saying, “Watch out. You think this can’t happen, you think this is unrealistic, but this is already happening in the world, and could happen anywhere.” And it’s pretty chilling.
Why should you read this book?
My usual admonishment accompanying all the reviews in this series applies: “Every reader and free person should read each and every future dystopian novel they can, if simply to inform themselves of the kinds of risks that could lead us down these paths.”
As well, The Handmaid’s Tale really is an exemplar of the genre. The storytelling is wonderful. Offred is courageous in the face of a level of systematic oppression that challenges any that have ever existed. She is in many ways worse than enslaved, worse than oppressed, because the level of societal force dictating that not only is this how it is, but this is how it should be is overwhelming.
As a character study alone, this work stands a cut above. As a dystopian world, it fills one with the kind of unease that challenges you to resolve to never allow such a thing to happen. It deserves every accolade it has received and then some.