The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’m not quite sure why I never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmail’s Tale until earlier this month; it was published almost 30 years ago. And it has lately been made into a very popular T.V. series. But maybe this new popularity is because the world seems to be going towards the horrific future Atwood foresaw.

The vision of the future of women in this book is horrific: they have no careers and no rights, function only in procreation (in some pretty weird rites), and are really pressed to get pregnant. They don’t have forever, and there are shadowy threats for handmaids who don’t get pregnant. This is a monolithic society under male military control in a world gone sterile because of various environmental disasters. The handmaids have been chosen because they are presumed to be fertile, and they are trained to be absolutely submissive, presumably with no needs of their own. They must not read nor write, and barely speak. Their red robes and headdresses make them indistinguishable. They are “distributed” to prominent military men and given a limited time to present the man and his wife with a healthy baby.

The “social life” of a handmaid consists of attending births of other handmaids, going to “glorification ceremonies” of young men back from the war, and, on occasion, participating in brutal “salvaging” ceremonies. (Yes, this is used in the Philippine sense and credited to the Philippines in the academic afterwards to the book.)

Every possible way for these women to commit suicide has been removed from their lives.

There is no such thing as contraception, nor choice. Men are in full control of women’s health, bodies, lives. I hate to state the obvious but when male dominated congressional bodies, or courts, deny women the right to contraception, this is where we are headed.

But there are shadows on the fringes: persistent rumors of battles not going well, a few freedom groups out of sight. Our handmaid and her walking partner go everyday to look at the wall where executed people are displayed for a few days, both secretly praying that the corpses not be people they knew. Most of the bodies are those of young men, presumably from the underground, but there is occasionally an older man, an unrecanted priest, or even a nun. Sometimes there are other handmaids.

Somehow I didn’t find this book so depressing, as it is written as the first person narrative of a young woman who is very passive but somehow likeable. She understates everything, giving the reader more space to feel with her. But I had a feeling of dread from beginning to end.

There are of course small subversions along the way: the pleasure of smoking a forbidden cigarette, or saving it just to know you have it, or stealing a direct glance at a young man, or playing a game of scrabble.

And the optimistic take-away is simply that there is ALWAYS subversion, ALWAYS an underground. People can never be fully controlled. Not everyone escapes the terrible fate of most of the women in this book, but there is escape as well. “There’s always a crack in everything.” And oppression cannot last forever, anywhere. When Margaret Atwood wrote this book, women’s rights were on the upswing. They’ll get there again.

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