Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic. I hadn’t read it before and I haven’t seen the series. I was triggered because Atwood has a new book out, The Testaments, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future version of the US. A revolution has taken place and the result is a dystopian society.
The population is shrinking so much that the government is interfering to make sure that as many women as possible get pregnant. To achieve this, powerful childless couples are assigned handmaids. Our protagonist is one of them. Her name is Offred. That’s not her real name, but her commander’s name is Fred, which makes her Offred. She is dressed in long red dresses and coats and wears red flat shoes, like all the handmaids. On their heads, they wear white caps that cover their hair and that stick out well past the side of their faces, so they can’t easily look around and others can’t see their faces.
It’s creepy, it would be reassuring to think that this can’t happen in real life, but real-life has gotten to a point where it’s often weirder or crueler than most stories are. I no longer think things can’t happen. Many countries do terrible things to (part of) their people and we mostly let it happen. Leaders can order hitman to kill their subjects abroad and we only complain for a few weeks. World leaders are openly misogynist, racist and foul-mouthed. They break the laws of the country they are supposed to lead repeatedly and they can stay in office.
There are people who are trying to rebel against the regime. Some are actively fighting near the Canadian border. Moira, our protagonist’s friend, escapes and lives an undercover life. Ofglen is part of a resistance organization that exchanges information. It’s unclear if any of it has any significant impact.
As time moves on our protagonist starts breaking more and more rules, but not with the intent to hurt the regime. At first, her commander and his wife ask her to break the rules, both in different ways. Because the commander and his wife have the power to get her shipped off to the colonies or worse, she doesn’t really have a choice. Later on, temptation gets the best of her and she breaks the rules for herself. For love, to break the monotony of her terrible life, as a distraction? Maybe for all of those reasons.
She apologizes for her behavior to us, the readers, suggesting that it doesn’t paint a very positive picture. I felt it did make her more human though. I can easily put myself in her place and imagine doing the same. At the risk of starting to sound like a broken record for those who regularly read my posts: I would very much hope that I would actively try to contribute to bringing the regime down. But if I’m completely honest I think it’s more likely that I’d behave exactly as Offred does. I do hope they would come up with a better naming scheme though. And like our protagonist, I don’t look good in red.
I would have expected to get upset by the story but I didn’t. I felt detached. Maybe that’s also because so many horrible things are happening on a daily basis that I’m numb. Maybe it’s because it seems to me that everyone’s life in the post-revolutionary society is terrible. Not just the lives of the handmaids or even just the women. It doesn’t feel right to get upset on behalf of a single person.
I’m also developing a theory that I have trouble getting emotionally involved in a story when the narrator narrates mostly thoughts and theories instead of conversations. I’m not sure about this yet. The feeling I had while reading The Handmaid’s Tale is similar to the feeling I had while reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. If you have any ideas about the commonalities between Less and The Handmaid’s Tale I’d love to hear them.
I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a very interesting story and the world that Atwood creates is very thorough and plausible. There’s no need to read it as a warning, you can just turn on the news for that, but it does invite you to think about where we could be heading in more concrete terms and examples.
The ending leaves a lot of room for a sequel and I’m curious about what will happen next, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading The Testaments too at some point.