The Handmaid’s Tale is a story I’ve reread three times, each time slower than the last. At this time in my life I am struck by the final line of its Orwellian appendix, an academic conference that forces us to consider how to ‘explain’ the totalitarian government of the text. After the witty flippancy of academic exchanges, it provokes us to ask: Are there any questions?
And that leaves us in a peculiar position indeed. What kind of questions would we want to ask of Offred and the lifestyle she suffers? To what extent can we judge an entire society through the eyes of a suffering underling? Are there darker and wider pragmatisms in a society threatened by pollution and terrorism with which we might downgrade, or at least explain, her suffering? And is an academic response an apt approach to explain the perception of others?
Atwood challenges the desire for any kind of response with this difficult and fragmented text in which the protagonist’s actions undermine any idea of rebelling profoundly against the order. The suffering that unsettles me more than any other is our protagonist’s (Offred, literally a woman ‘belonging to Fred’) acceptance of casual humiliation in order to survive. As Western society guts industry jobs and encourages dangerous levels of consumer debt, such humiliation should be increasingly recognizable to a Western reader. It is a recognizable part of being a citizen of a modern democracy. A less recognizable, but terribly empathetic event, are the particutions where women kill men who have been judged (without apparent evidence) of heinous crimes. In these motifs we see how Gilead, the totalitarian state of the novel, normalizes both hatred of others and the acceptance of a life that belies experience.
I think the cleverest resistance against the unnaturalness of a Handmaid’s life is revealed through the bizarre and fragmented slowness of the narration. Without reading this novel with care, clear events and memories are easy to conflate incorrectly. Offred herself laments she is unable to explain her experience with any kind of coherence. I think Atwood’s message is that citizens experience no real coherence within totalitarianism. Such incoherence is also hinted at with the clear bastardisation of biblical script, damning those who subvert spiritual ambitions for arbitrary political gain.
Reading this in 2018, I also thought this text reflects how there are there are many people who would like to return society to a pre-civilised state. Some of those in influential positions in Western society seem to be increasingly operating on a platform of high-emotion, low-information (as Scaramucci says of Trump voters). These are people in insecure jobs and relationships, challenged by poverty, assailed by consumerist marketing that mock their inability to overcome invisible barriers, who are taunted by Hollywood to just ‘break the rules’ to better themselves. These people are mocked implicitly yet incessantly by Western society where it is a (consumerist) sin to be poor and that self-improvement and wealth creation is divine (often through engaging in the seminar circuit and people-farming/house-rental market). The life-coachy discourse of this demonized demographic (i.e. most Western citizens) is of platitudes and metaphors. These are entirely separate from situated realities of being poor and raising a family. With temptingly existential affirmations of taking responsibility for EVERYTHING that happens to you, such discourses promise self-improvement (again by people-farming or selling books and seminars on how to get better).
Let’s move to the other end of the scale of self-improvement (and away from the text for a moment…) I am reading the diary of an international school Headteacher. It is as contentious as it is interesting: he states that ‘education was never for the masses’. Perhaps a full and difficult humanities education possibly requires more stimulation and support than an average classroom, particularly for the teacher who has to get class 9.5 to enjoy Shakespeare last thing Friday afternoon on a windy day. However, whilst education and reading are both difficult and deprioitised for those busy trying to survive, it is still necessary for any society that wants to recognize the warning signs of a Gilead state. Therefore, although difficult and unlucky to be read by many (despite its multi-million selling print-runs), it should be read by all.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an important feminist text, but it does not appear to be discretely anti-male. Instead it operates as a warning for feminists to not rescind on gains made: as I have said elsewhere, feminism often falls short when it absorbs itself with the immediate concerns of rich and educated women, albeit the people who have the time and space and ability to challenge inequality. Such people, realistically, will find more in common with people of the same status and education in society than those of the same gender who are not. It is this hidden face of class within feminism that also drives the MeToo movement. That class and status did not stop powerful women from being abused is galling. This is a point where gender is at its sharpest, and one which feminists can, and should, duly leverage challenge against patriarchal acceptance of the worst excesses of male aggression and privilege.
For the kind of patriarchal oppression seen in Gilead to become society-wide is a terrifying threat for the kind of people that will read this book. It is also not one entirely impossible, as some critics have attacked Atwood for: a control of the Western media is increasingly agitated for as I write this in 2018. The Netflix series, Designated Survivor, taps into this thought with its strangely compelling soap opera presentation of government. For those who have not seen it, Designated Survivor sees a principled if underwhelmingly mild-mannered politician promoted to POTUS after a terrorist attack that wipes out the entire Congress. There are many threats to America’s democracy from those who seek to exploit such chaos, but the viewer is presented with many scenarios where this new everyman-POTUS continually makes the ‘right’ moral choices (presumably), often solving personal issues comfortably within the 25 minutes or so of each program.
Where The Handmaid’s Tale taps into this low-information method of ruling is in the sycophantic enforcing of the rules by Aunt Lydia, whom Offred informs us has internalized Gilead’s self-justifications: ‘Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.’ It is not only the female-on-female oppression that disturbs the reader, but the embracing of brute and stupid pragmatism.
At the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale is this attack on dichotomies, of how they lead to political and social degradation and danger. To her immense authorial credit, Atwood enjoys promoting the experience of life’s complexity, and she does so in a range of non-intrusive and relevant examples. A judicious one is Offred’s contemplation as to whether her snatched relationship with Nick is love or convenience, or both, or even something else, is both dark yet revolutionary: it can be all these things, for better and for worse. In contrast, a society with concerns about procreation, and therefore fears extinction, can very quickly see its people embracing repression with fearful thinking. In the state of survival, instincts that contrast and compete with morality can all be accepted as legitimate. It is Offred’s final rejection of rebellion prior to her escape that equates with Frank’s ‘final victory’ over himself in 1984: a desperate failure of the human spirit.
It is between the genders that instincts perhaps compete most diversely. A patriarchal society, taken for so long (and somewhat correctly) as being oppressive towards women, should be carefully framed. A society, in the form of a family unit, needs a relatively formal head. That head needs to take responsibility in time and energy and economy to protect and look after the family’s wider interests, not just their own. The privilege of leadership should come with a cost – heroic Greeks would often pay for their success and position with their life, or at least fantastic suffering. In contrast, our modern heroes often enjoy great rewards with little personal cost – ‘break the rules and get the extras’ (and often at the expense of other too foolish and naïve to break the rules too etc…). Perhaps it is this sentiment that corrupts any -archy (be it Matriarchy or Patriarchy), as the given gender (almost always men) enjoys the position without feeling any real call to provide or protect as much as they should. And it is the failure of men to hold each other and themselves to account that is most damning of this condition.
It is within this flawed patriarchy that we can appreciate how Atwood exploits the emotional weakness of the socially-connected commander, Offred’s master. While the commander initially seems satisfied with the monstrous arrangement of impregnating a Handmaid, he lacks both an authentic and nourishing intimacy with others. In some way this suits him. He reveals that women pre-Gilead wore varied clothing, claiming it was a desire to please the patriarchy: “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”
Studies demonstrate (sadly) that male potency declines with single partners, or rather that potency increases in the short-term when enjoying multiple partners. In Gilead it is men rather than women who suffer sterility; expressing such truth, however, is dangerously illegal. Therefore, the framed denigration of women in place of recognizing male weakness (such the male inability to take responsibility in a patriarchal family) is seen in Gilead as jolly and trivial, and maybe even perceptive and wise. It has to be that women are sterile because otherwise the patriarchy would be challenged and society could fail (even further). Ultimately, though, it masks an aggressive desperation, and the commander’s blasé attitude over the suicide of the ‘’last one [handmaid]’’ is damning. This male weakness is also present in the Angels who are unable to attract partners freely, and instead suffer the frustrations of forced abstinence: Offred somewhat revels in this for a few snatched moments when shopping, her gaze turned on male sexuality for a few moments of rebellion. The hopelessness of a barren emotional life for the men in the lower-class is never really explored let alone expanded upon – this can be said to be a weak deprioritisation in Atwood’s text.
Such concerns of fertility and potency can be seen disturbingly in the angry diatribes of the contemporary, and irresponsible, Alt-Right entertainer Alex Jones. Continually using fears of repression, and seemingly promoting free-speech in all things (against the actual wording on the American constitution that calls for lawful self-regulation, but hey…), Jones makes millions. He further supplements his wealth selling expensive vitamins from jars plastered with his red angry face. However, when Jones was challenged in court by his ex-wife who questioned whether his racist and anti-social sentiments fostered an environment suitable for raising children, he capitulated and legally declared he was only saying what he says to make money. Like Hopkins, another dangerous and ultimately disingenuous provocateur, his discourse deliberately exploits our basest emotions of fear and hatred to make money. In Gilead, these people would be right at home, despite their pronounced anti-establishment mentality.
A great and more wholesome character is Moria, the best friend of Offred. A socialist with a punk heart, her escape serves to thrill the reader and offer some hope that quiet defiance against tyranny is possible. Her free and easy attitude towards property in Offred’s flashbacks, often offering cigarettes owned by others, is both vivacious and delightful. Her ending in Jezebel’s offers a blind hope that rebellion is possible in this society.
As I mentioned early, one profound critique of The Handmaid’s Tale is whether this kind of society could realistically occur in America where there is great pride in the robustness of political systems. I think Black Mirror takes the same view as this story that most people actually enjoy the rude vitality of personalities that buck institutions and rail against order. It is in most people’s natures to like to see others defy those whom we (wisely and mature) don’t do ourselves. I personally think this type of society could quite easily exist in the exploitation of a crisis, although in a manner quite different and perhaps not so symbolically coercive. From the point of view of this narrative, I think this rapid change is important in order for the characters to appreciate the dissonance in their memories: I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Having used a laundry/laundromat myself, I know these are amongst the most tedious and depressing of places (don’t read Camus whilst waiting for your socks to wash). This mundanity of choice in sings to the Western spirit which sees dignity as inextricably tied into freedom. Against this very Western notion of dignity, it is the final notes are most telling: all the professors are native Canadian. Reversing the narrative to have current ‘others’ observe white, this dig at Western culture calls into question the arbitrary ways that some societies rise and fall (not just a Guns, Germs and Steel determination…).
Ultimately, what I found most interesting in The Handmaid’s Tale is the idea that internal narrative and personal experience do not need to resolve into nothingness with death. They can continue. However, internal narrative cannot escape sensory experience, as we can see from Offred’s narration of walking through the Commander’s house in the first scene:
Once, though, I heard Rita say to Cora that she wouldn’t debase herself like that. Nobody asking you, Cora said. Anyways, what could you do, supposing? Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice. With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all? said Cora. Catch you. They were shelling peas; even through the almost-closed door I could hear the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal bowl. I heard Rita, a grunt or a sigh, of protest or agreement. Anyways, they’re doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger.
This is indicative of the power of Atwood’s writing: in itself, this is apparently not literary writing. It seems simplistic in structure and the perceptions noticed mundane. Yet this is the authentic narrative of an everywoman/person trapped in a totalitarian state: fragmented, sensory and overwhelmed by others. Against the fantastical writing of sci-fi and the improbable impositions of speculative fiction, Atwood focuses on the psychological damage to human life done in the name of civilization and civilizing and exploits the difficulty of the post-modern novel form to provoke our defiance to this damage. It is this framing that makes Offred such an interesting character, and it is this mission that makes The Handmaid’s Tale so worthy of its apparent difficulty.