The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively “old” book in that it was first published in 1985, but it is still popular/well-known. This is not surprising as Margaret Atwood is one of those author’s whose work will endure as “literature” and she will still be well known in 100 years. That is, unless the Handmaid’s Tale is prophetic and all secular literature is burned.
Don’t worry, it won’t be. However, it does have some elements that could be argued as being a caricature of modern day happenings. There are plenty of reviews out there that give a run down of the plot and how they feel it’s all happening right now. No doubt many of these reviews are from women, and justifiably so since this book “speaks to them”. So I’m going to discuss the subtext of the novel, and hopefully, I can get a few guys to read this book because there is stuff in it for them.
The background story is that The United States has been taken over by religious fundamentalists. The religion is never mentioned by name, but it is clearly Christian/Jewish/Islamic. When it comes to their respective flavors of fundamentalism, they all bear a striking resemblance to one another whether they want to admit it or not. This is not surprising, since they all worship the same god and use overlapping religious texts. If you’re curious about the tale of how this happened, this is not the book for you. After all, this is the Handmaid’s Tale. All you get is the story of one woman starting probably about 10 years after an event called “The President’s Day Massacre”, i.e. the coup where the fundamentalists took over.
Personally, I do not think such a regime could take over in such a simple manner, but what followed after the coup is more plausible. As I said, we don’t get much of this story directly, but we hear snippets of how, slowly, over the course of weeks and months, oppressive policies are implemented and they are always implemented for the same reasons that such policies are implemented today. Namely, the safety of the public, the betterment of society, etc. At the same time, women are slowly and unequally stripped of their rights.
If you think that women could never be usurped of their identities in this way, and no one would stand for it, blah, blah, blah. You are wrong. All it takes is the right social pressure. Imagine a scenario where the number of women capable of bearing children is cut to a small percentage. They then become a “national resource”. (My words, not the author’s.) When it comes to resources, there will always be people (usually men, and this is coming from a man) in power who will want to exploit and seize control of such resources. This is how such things can happen. And this is the scenario used by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.
When I was younger, I probably would never have bought that line of reasoning and not terribly enjoyed this story. As I’ve aged to a venerable 40 years and some of my Platonic idealism has tarnished, I have learned to accept that “the masses” don’t get as outraged as individuals do. Most of the time, groups of people are scared when it comes to dramatic change and accept it if fed the line that it is temporary and for the good of all. Most of the time, these changes are never about being for the good of all, they are simply about control.
A past example to show even women are not above this: The Temperance movement to abolish alcohol. Propelled by religious minded women, fresh with their new ability to vote. Despite Jesus being pro-wine they felt it their duty to rid the world of drink. You can argue the details all you want, but at the end of the day, it was about asserting power and control.
A modern example: For the past 12 years, the U. S. citizens have been force fed the line that we are all living under a faceless threat of “Terror” and in this time we have fought two wars, one of which we are still fighting, and most of us don’t really know why, other than we are “fighting terror”. These wars are not as openly covered as the Vietnam War, because our government has learned that atrocities that are not visited daily are quickly forgotten because people prefer to stick their head in the sand. And so people forget. They don’t get outraged. They simply accept the situation because it is supposedly temporary, for the good of us all, for all our safety, blah, blah, blah. What are we looking to control? Some say oil, others say that the area is strategically located real estate. Regardless, it is about control.
So do I think a “fast coup” could take over and make such radical changes? No. But a slow insidious change over the course of a decade or two? Well, I have seen it with my own eyes, so yes, the scenario in The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible to me, but I know that such a shift would happen over years, not months. Anyone who thinks otherwise is sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and repeating the above blah, blah, blahs.
A possible future example that’s been a long time in the making: During the 80′s (my youth) religious fundamentalists (in this country) blew up abortion clinics because they were outraged and wanted change. Presumably, they wanted things to return to the way they were when abortions were illegal, in back allies with coat hangers. Just in my lifetime, they have since learned that getting people upset only motivates them to stand with or against you. And if you’re the one blowing up teenagers, it’s tough to motivate people to stand with you. They have taken their fight political, a realm where everybody’s eyes glaze over and become dispassionate, and they have slowly set about making laws against birth control and abortion clinics. As someone who is pro-choice, I can’t say all of these laws are bad. Many are simply requiring clinics to uphold standard medical cleanliness practices. The laws that really hurt, are the laws that reduce or eliminate funding preventing the clinics from having the money to be able to upgrade their facilities and are forced to shut down. You can tell this is about the control of others and not about any religious objection because the number one cited religious reason is the belief that life begins at conception. Rather than supporting research for birth control that simply prevents conception, they politically attack all avenues of abortion and birth control. So even if you address their concerns, it does not change the way they behave.
Leaving the examples and subtext behind, back to the story at hand. The Handmaid’s Tale is true literature, thus by practical definition, this makes the story a little slow and boring at points. When I was in college, I had to take plenty of slow and boring classes that I thought were of minimal value. However, I quickly learned that it is possible to garner lessons from and learn something from every class and that is what I set out to do. I took it upon myself to walk away with something for my time and money. This book requires that same model of thought. Even after 28 years, there is a wealth of intriguing thought experiments that went into the writing of this story and a similar trove for those willing to consider the next step of reasoning, but you have to be willing to dig for that gold.
And there you have it. The subtext of The Handmaid’s tale is a marvellously thought provoking book about the subtleties that go into how societies change, but if you’re not interested in thinking, move on to something formulated for entertainment purposes this is not the novel for you.