You know that unit in high school English class, where you read 1984 and Brave New World and you discuss the differences between the two dystopic visions? Okay, I guess I can’t speak for your high school experiences, but that was one of mine and I doubt my school was alone in this one. So, if I am ever somehow put in a position to determine a high school curriculum, The Handmaid’s Tale would be right there next to them, as the cornerstone of that lesson plan. I want to make this book required reading for everyone.
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was probably a little too young for it, and I didn’t necessarily “get it”, I guess? I understood it as far as “this is bad and scary and wrong and shouldn’t happen”, but there’s an additional layer of visceral horror that is added when you read it as an adult. I should note, there is also an additional layer of terror and immediacy and closeness in reading this book in the current climate of events in the world. To me, the worlds of 1984 and Brave New World never felt particularly close, and they still don’t even now. There were obvious parallels with the modern world, but it always felt a few degrees removed. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale feels like it could happen tomorrow. I am not exaggerating.
As is revealed in snippets and glances throughout the book, a far-right Christian extremist group coordinated a mass attack on the President and Congress of the United States, killing them all (and successfully blaming it on Islamic terrorists, naturally). They take over the government and literally suspend the Constitution, implementing complete and total religious law, including banning women from owning property and annulling all divorces and second-and-beyond marriages. The main character, Offred, becomes what is known as a Handmaid – one of a very small number of fertile women (in a world of nuclear radiation and pesticides and extremely virulent STDs, sterility is common) who are basically sold into reproductive sex slavery by the government to appease rich and powerful men. If the name “Offred” seems strange to you, it’s because it is not her name. It is the name she is given when she becomes the property of Fred. Literally “Of Fred”. Offred.
I’m not going to talk much about Offred’s journey through this book – I know that I will not do it justice, and you ought to read it for yourself. But I want to talk about the things that stuck out to me the most, and the things that hit a little too close to home. It’s been… 32 years since this book came out, and nearly every part of it rings true. But I think different people will find different parts of this book to latch onto (if the popular highlights feature on my kindle book is any indication) (yes, I leave it turned on; I am interested to see what other people find significant).
Some books color your perception of the world after you read them. I’ve talked before about the books that rewired me. This is one of those rare books that rewired me while I was reading it. I read part of it on my lunch break at work, sitting in a crowded cafeteria area at a busy grocery store. It looked… impossibly fragile, like all it would take is one bad day for it to be completely disrupted, this thing that we take for granted every day. I thought about everything that keeps a place like that running, all the countless threads that come together to make “ordinary” life exist. I read 90% of the book on what was coincidentally, payday – I thought about all of my “assets” insofar as I have them being frozen, the control given over to my father or brother or boyfriend. I think about no longer having ownership of even my body, a threat that looms ever closer each day. I think about even my name being taken from me. I think of “belonging” to the men in my life; if my identity was replaced with “Ofjohn” or “Ofbill” or “Ofgreg”.
None of it sounds that far-fetched right now. It’s so, so easy to fall into the trap of thinking “it could never happen here.” It’s a fallacy and an alluring one. It’s very desirable to think of the place you live being above it somehow. Of being above dystopia. It’s not. I have found myself thinking lately of what it was like to be civis romanus during the last days of the Roman Empire. Did they see it coming? Did they think “it could never happen here”? I don’t know. Everything changes, it quickly becomes the status quo, and then it’s assumed that it’ll never change again. It always does.
I was struck by the male characters in the book, and how I saw in them reflections of so many men I know too. They weren’t all monsters; men are not a monolith. There were the monstrous ones, sure. There was also the well-intentioned one who never really gets it, who never understands why you’re scared, why the actions of the other men intimidate you. “I’m not like that,” he says. “I’ll take care of you, I’ll protect you.” There’s the one who acts benevolent, possibly even kindly towards you, but still has bought into the system just as much as the rest of them, and has absolutely no interest in changing the system to benefit you. His kindness towards you is a whim, and should you violate his image of what you should be, it will be revoked. There’s the ones you choose to trust even when you know you shouldn’t, because what are the alternatives?
Then there’s the ones who got us into this situation in the first place. For a long time, I refused to believe how deep the hatred of women goes in some men. But it’s there. Some men seethe with it, you can feel their anger at your existence, at your freedom, at your choice (specifically your choice to be unlike what he wants), you can feel it from a mile away; it’s broadcasted far and wide without them ever realizing. But we realize and those are the men we’ve all learned to avoid on instinct alone. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, as in reality, perhaps the worst of them mask their hatred with religious piety. The religion in question doesn’t really matter. Christianity, Islam, different trappings for the same thing. “The religious right” is the same everywhere, and they are dangerous everywhere.
The stratification of women in The Handmaid’s Tale is based on religion and on race and on class, and it seemed at first to me as an exaggerated version of the way women are classified now. Upon finishing the book, I’d like to revise that assessment. The stratification of women in this book is exactly how we are seen now, silently, because they know that if they voice these thoughts, it will have consequences (although who knows how much longer those will last). Handmaids, breeders, mothers, concubines. Wives, who stand by you as ornamentation and make your home comfortable, but are otherwise unable to step out of line (including Econowives, not as good, but they’ll do for a lesser class of man). Marthas, maids, housekeepers, completely disposable, but they keep you from having to do “women’s work”. Daughters, your property through and through, to do with as you please until you can marry them off and turn them into some other man’s Wife (or cast them off if they disobey you). Aunts, stern and sexless, who keep other women in line. And then the miscellaneous whores, of course. And that’s it, those are the only kinds of women that exist. No one is permitted outside of their neat little box and their neat little role.
It is possible that what scared me most was the epilogue. The book has a “Historical Notes” epilogue, presented in the form of a lecture given by an academic, a scholar, well over a century later. I remember the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I found the epilogue comforting. Gilead eventually ended, their barbaric practices were stopped, they rejoined the rest of the world. It’s even confirmed that the van that Offred gets into at the end does in fact belong to the Mayday Resistance. This time, I was struck by the tone of the academic as he gave his lecture. He’s so distant, so removed. It’s clear that the people of his time no longer feel the threat or the pain or the suffering of the Sons of Jacob and their administration. He even says, “Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are more happily free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.” Hey. Hey, fuck you, man. Historians, go right ahead and judge Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and, to be quite honest, Trump America. You can try and understand if you want, but your main goal should be “helping others prevent this from happening again.” Neutrality is an unacceptable stance to take in the face of fascism, of religious extremism, of terror.
It is no coincidence that I feel the urge to reread Kelly Sue Deconnick’s and Val DeLandro’s acclaimed Bitch Planet comic series, a science fiction story of the same strain, that was in some ways inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale. Science fiction often explores the concept of parallel worlds, multiple universe theories, worlds only one or two choices away from our own. I see a lot of people referring to the recent big changes in the world with the comment “we’re in the darkest timeline now”. This is what they’re referring to. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale just slid that much closer, and it was never comfortably far away to begin with. Offred’s tale of uncertainty and fear and being completely and utterly trapped rang true with me, far more than it would have even just a couple of months ago.