Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopia too close for comfort
I don’t read much current fiction (the 1980s are pretty current for me), but I had heard so many good things about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that as a fan of dystopian novels it seemed inevitable that I would get around to reading it eventually. I approached the book with trepidation, however, as I tend to have a “Don’t believe the hype,” attitude when it comes to books hailed as “modern classics.” Such reluctance quickly disappeared, however, as The Handmaid’s Tale had me riveted from page one. This is a book that truly deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it and can wear the mantle of modern classic with pride.

The novel is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, which used to be the United States. A Christian theocratic regime has overthrown the government and established a totalitarian state. A civil war is still being fought somewhere out on the periphery between this military theocracy and a rebel resistance, but where the story takes place (likely in Maine), the new order is firmly established. The Gilead regime’s ultra-conservative “family values” have rolled back feminism at least a century and established a rigid class hierarchy in which the female population is allocated to a few regimented societal roles. The narrator of the story, Offred, has been forced into the caste of the Handmaids. Disease and environmental degradation have caused fertility rates to drop drastically. The Handmaids are assigned as surrogate mothers for the important Commanders of the religious oligarchy. Offred is a member of the inaugural class of Handmaids, meaning she can still remember the old order before Gilead—the world as we know it today—and her former life of freedom before she was forced into the role of a birthing slave.

Of all the dystopian futures I’ve read, this is perhaps the most disturbing because it’s the one that could most likely actually happen. Within the 20th century we’ve seen religious revolutions (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and the rise of totalitarian regimes (too many to list). When such fascistic regimes take power, women’s rights are often set back decades. In the United States, a male-dominated Congress continues to display antediluvian views on women’s issues, influenced by the ever more vocal religious right. Even in our comparatively free society, one can see inklings of Gileadean policy. Civil liberties are no longer something to be taken for granted. The fact that Atwood’s vision of the future has a firm grounding in reality makes it all the more frightening.

There were a few moments in the book where I felt like the plot was treading water a bit, but such passages were few and far between, and as soon as I was lulled into a false sense of complacency the story would go off in an unexpected and sometimes shocking direction. Atwood’s prose is superb throughout. Though narrated in the first person, the plot doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of stream-of-consciousness rambling. There are many brilliant, subtle touches that exquisitely enhance the verisimilitude of the story, like a scene where curious Japanese tourists want to snap pictures of the Handmaids, as if they were curious oddities from some exotic third-world kingdom.

Though published in 1985, I have no doubt people will still be reading this book 200 years from now, much like the scholars who debate the story’s historical significance in the book’s epilogue. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a clever vision of the future or an alarming thriller warning us of what might happen if we’re not careful. It’s a reflection of our times that presents powerful lessons to be learned.
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