Reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the Age of Trump

Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In a front-page essay in The New York Times Book Review for March 19, 2017, Margaret Atwood reflects on writing her science fiction classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Back in 1984,” she notes, “the main premise seemed—even to me—fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?” In 2017, with a simple-minded, authoritarian President holding the reins of government in Washington, DC, and all manner of intolerant extremists in the wings, that premise no longer seems preposterous.

An otherwise unnamed woman referred to as “Offred” (meaning a woman possessed by a man named Fred) relates the story of her life both before and after the shooting of the President, the machine-gunning of Congress, and the suspension of the Constitution. Her recollections of life with her lover and later husband Luke intertwine with the grim story of her enslavement as a Handmaid. In a society where the fertility rate has declined, Offred is an attractive young woman who has been attached to a household led by an aging Commander and his Wife in hopes that she will become pregnant and bear the Wife a child to raise. Atwood introduces us only gradually to the full extent of the horror in which Offred and other women live in the Republic of Gilead. Though Atwood based much of her story on elements of the Puritan religion that once held sway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the novel is set, there is a greater resemblance between the sect that governs Gilead and both ISIS and Boko Haram. In all three societies, women have been reduced to the status of chattel, viewed as vessels for bearing children.

Offred is “a refugee from the past.” As she reflects, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Aunt Lydia, one of the taser-bearing older women who indoctrinate younger women like Offred, justifies this state of affairs with allusions to the prevalence of rape and pornography before Gilead was founded: “‘There is more than one kind of freedom,'” she asserts. “‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.'” Offred’s response to this logic typifies that of other women: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

In her New York Times Book Review essay, Atwood poses, and answers, three questions. Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist novel? The author’s response suggests that depends on what’s meant by “feminism.” Second, is the novel antireligious? Atwood at length says no. “It is against the use of religion for tyranny, which is a different thing altogether.” Finally, third, is The Handmaid’s Tale meant to be predictive? “No,” the author explains, “it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities.” To that I say Amen.

Those commentators who liken the Trump Administration to the Fascism of Benito Mussolini, much less to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, are far off base. Whatever might come of the would-be dictatorship aborning in Washington, DC, today will be unlike anything that has come before. I’m sure Margaret Atwood would agree. In concluding her New York Times Book Review essay, she writes: “In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere—many, I would guess—are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can [as did Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale]. Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall? Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.”

For other important dystopian novels, see my post, A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios.

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Mal Warwick