May 30

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Guest review by Mr D.

I resisted reading The Handmaid’s Tale for a long time.  I can’t quite put a finger on why.  In part it was because of my ignorant understanding that it was some sort of totalitarian chic-lit.  In part, I have to also admit there was something I didn’t quite like about Margaret Atwood.  Something undefinable about her always struck me as a bit creepy, though I freely admit that’s hardly a basis not to read her writing.

Two things occurred this year to change my mind.  First, my oldest daughter was reading The Handmaid’s Tale for Year 11 English and I enjoyed reading her marked up copy (with words in the margin like “fertility”, “garden is organic” and “vagina is wound”).  The other thing was that I enjoyed watching bits and pieces of the TV series, which was originally created for Hulu, a US streaming service and is now available in Australia on SBS.

Consistent with the frequent confessions required of the less privileged residents of the Republic of Gilead in the book, I have to self-flagellate and repent of my sins.  Margaret – I was wrong.  It’s a good read.

Atwood has created a plausible dystopian future, in which women’s rights have been effectively extinguished, so that their only worth is as a partner to or servant of a man.  Atwood never fully explains how we arrive in the Republic of Gilead, but she provides hints along the way.  References are made to all women suddenly being told that they were no longer permitted to work and summarily dismissed.  Bit by bit, all rights were stripped away, including the right to read, the right to choose one’s clothing and the right to free expression.

Something catastrophic has happened to the United States, so that very few women are left fertile.  While most men also seem to have been rendered infertile, the strictures of permitted behaviour prohibit reference to a man as sterile.  There are only women who are fruitful or barren.

Those few women who are still fertile are assigned to each Commander and his wife to serve as a hand maid.  The hand maids’ only role is to produce offspring and as a group, they are treated accordingly.  They are tended like breeding stock, with their every meal and movement monitored.  The Guardians, under the watchful view of the Eyes ensure that no-one steps out of line and those who don’t behave compliantly and piously enough quickly end up hanging on the Wall, with a white bag over their head and a sign indicating the nature of their offence.

The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, the handmaid assigned to a particular Commander and his wife Serena Joy.  Offred tries to survive day to day, while mourning the loss of her partner Luke and her young daughter.  The story of how they came to be separated is told in bits and pieces through flashback.

What I particularly liked about The Handmaid’s Tale is that Atwood uses various set pieces and devices through it that are clever but also ring true.  While I might have regarded the world of The Handmaid’s Tale as too far-fetched to be plausible a decade ago, that is not the case now.  In Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, it is believable enough that it would only take a couple of autocratic impulses to go unopposed for things to quickly slide into something like the Republic of Gilead.

Without giving too much away about the book, the religious element woven into things like the men’s and women’s Salvagings when public spectacles are made of those breaking the moral code and Ceremony, when the handmaids are put to breeding work, is nicely deployed.  Some of it is perhaps a little heavy-handed, like the solders of the Republic of Gilead being known as the Angels of the Apocalypse or the colours chosen for the uniforms worn by different members of society.  The fact that I’ve had to struggle to come up with things that I didn’t like indicates that the book is otherwise beautifully constructed.

Returning to the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale, I like the fact that Elisabeth Moss, who played Peggy in Mad Men, plays Offred.  The world Peggy so skilfully navigated in Mad Men isn’t so different from the Republic of Gilead when you come to think about it.