I just finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) for a class I’m teaching this spring. When I read it the first time I hadn’t read any of Atwood’s other novels – esp. the MadAddam series – and the explosion of dystopias hadn’t yet happened, so the experience was definitely different this time. My copy (Anchor House 1998) even includes an interview with Atwood in which she explains what a dystopia is. I’m guessing she wouldn’t need to do that today.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the teevee series…
Thoughts on this reading:
- I got a better sense of Offred as a character this time. I’m guessing I read it too quickly the first time, trying to find out what happened. She’s not just dislocated from what she knows; the process of making her into a handmaid is so thorough that she only has brief hints of who she is.
- And it’s not until the Commander takes her to Jezebel’s that she truly starts to break through and take chances. The complete and utter terror that she feels (combined with guilt) was much more evident to me, as is her descent into despair (and the chances that she takes because of that).
- She also lets us know in her narration what a failure she feels like, again especially at the end of the novel.
- We don’t get a lot about the transition to the Gileadean regime. We hear about the day in which they assassinated most of the members of all three branches of government, and we hear about a constant war, but we don’t know much about that war, and it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on daily life (except for rationing, which might be caused by the Gileadeans inability to do anything right except sow terror).
- In the academic conference lecture and q/a session that serves as the epilogue, we find out that the Canadiens were reluctant to cross the Gilead regime, out of fear. That makes me wonder if the war wasn’t something out of 1984, where we have always been at war with Eastasia.
- The degradation of the natural land has definitely been a cause, though, as we find out that fishing stocks are down and droughts are more common.
- After all, that’s why they have the handmaids – birth rates have plummeted. Even having a baby is no guarantee – lots of children are either stillborn or deformed horribly.
- And undesirables get sent to the Colonies, where some unknown environmental catastrophe has happened and prisoners are sent (without protective gear) to attempt to do a clean-up.
- And the Gileads utilized religious and racial fears to justify the takeover – there is brief mention of the threat of an Islamic takeover, and the natural resource deprivations have made people afraid, the usual story.
- This is worthy of a bigger post, but it’s especially interesting to re-read this in the context of all the dystopias that have been written (and created) recently. The Hunger Games picks up on the deliberate oppression of women in these cultures; several series continue the conversation about roles and castes; and even Atwood’s own series looks at the ways in which environmental destruction causes the type of social disruption that makes authoritarian governments (esp. those promising to get back to godliness) seem like a return to what’s normal and safe.
- Even the fact that we don’t know much about the transition is a strategy that gets pick up in future dystopias. My guess is that the general sense of we’re sorta fucked that comes with the millennial worldview has been transmitted from Atwood, whose fierceness in writing this story in the early 80s (and deliberately invoking both Brave New World and 1984, dystopias that become canonical perhaps because they feature men is only offset by her determination to speculate seriously about the future.