Maybe you’re watching the new TV series The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Or maybe you’re one of the many readers who propelled the novel to #5 on the New York Times Best Seller List this week (it’s made the list for the last 14.) Maybe you’re listening to the new Audible book narrated by Claire Danes of Homeland fame. Or, maybe–if you’re old enough–you remember the 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duval. The Handmaid’s Tale keeps spawning babies, but the real Birth Mother is acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Today her baby is 32 years old: potty-trained, a college graduate, gainfully employed, so why all the hoop-la right now?
This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and set in the near future, gives us a chance to talk about two issues: women’s rights and a world turned upside-down, seemingly overnight.
Imagine a government coup. It’s not hard, right? If you were half-awake in school, you learned that Tsarist Russia was toppled by the Bolshevik Revolution, that Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government and made himself a Communist Dictator, and that the Shah of Iran was forced out of power by Islamic revolutionaries. And those are just a few of the biggies. There have been coups in Africa, Egypt, Czheckoslovakia, Ukraine, etc. Comparatively speaking, we in the United States have been sitting pretty. We live in a democracy with 3 branches of government that check up on one another. It’s not perfect, and we’ve had our share of challenges–including a devastating Civil War–but we’ve never had a sitting government overthrown by an illegal seizure of power.
Fiction gives us a way to explore this. Atwood’s tale is set in Cambridge, MA, home of Harvard, where Atwood once earned her masters degree and began work on a doctorate. When the novel opens, a young woman named Offred is telling us her story–how she ended up where she is and what’s about to happen to her. Except we don’t know any of this yet, not even her name. Instead we wonder why she and other women are sleeping on cots in a former gymnasium with varnished wood floors, and why “Aunt Sara” and “Aunt Elizabeth” patrol the room with electric cattle prods. In time we learn that Offred and the gym crowd are being groomed as “handmaids,” the new regime’s term for surrogate mothers.
“Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended upon: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” from Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump, an essay in the New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2017
When she began writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood had a number of published novels to her name. The year was 1984, she was living in West Berlin for a time, and the Soviet Union was still a threat. President Reagan had not yet travelled to Berlin and famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Tear down this wall!” In countries behind the Iron Curtain–some of which she visited–Atwood experienced the feeling of being spied on. And she observed how people living there used “oblique ways” (as she said in her NYT essay) to convey information. All this played into her inspiration for the novel.
As the tale unfolds, we learn that the United States is now called the Republic of Gilead. Infertility seems to be the country’s Number 1 problem, and a group of young women who were known to be fertile are forced into service. (In Offred’s case, she and her husband conceived a daughter, but both have been taken away from her.) Who gets serviced? The elite men of society. “Commanders,” they’re called. The Commanders all have wives, older women who cannot conceive, but the new regime treats them with grave respect. The wife must be present, in bed with both her husband and handmaid as they try to make a baby. There are other rules like no kissing; all three individuals must wear as many clothes as possible. Predictably no one is happy, and a little rule-breaking takes place. First the Commander, then the wife, then Offred, each doing what they can within a totalitarian environment to feel less miserable–or just survive.
Even in fiction, how could such a scenario take place? Before the coup, the U.S. was a chaotic place: pornography was rampant, freedoms-for-all created anarchy, and environmental disasters led to infertility. “The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body. . .” Last week I read a disturbing news story–in my local Dallas Morning News, based on legitimate fact-checked sources. There’s a pesticide, CHLORPYRIFOS, produced by Dow Chemical, which is extremely harmful to fetuses and young children. At the end of March, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt announced his decision to deny a petition to ban the Chlorpyrifos pesticide from being sprayed on food. This, after the scientists at the EPA–his own agency–had concluded that ingesting even tiny amounts of the chemical could harm brain development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (66,000 pediatricians and surgeons) urged Pruitt last week to take the pesticide off the market. “Deepy alarmed” and “the risk. . .is unambiguous” were statements made in the letter to Pruitt.
Margaret Atwood has been frequently asked whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a “feminist” novel, and here’s some of what she said in that NYT essay:
“If you mean a novel in which women are human beings–with all the variety of character and behavior that implies–and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial. . .then, yes.” She goes on to say that women are not an afterthought of nature. “They are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that.”
She’s also often asked whether the book is anti-religion. In writing a novel where a totalitarian government takes power, she had to decide what kind. Not communism, she decided. Americans had already demonstrated their fear of communism through the McCarthy Era and the Big Red Scare. Her thoughts turned to the Salem Witch Trials, where religious fanaticism led to mass hysteria and the murder of innocent young women. Atwood decided a theocracy would be the most plausible regime to take over, one that used a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions. But in the novel, as the author has pointed out, the regime is annihilating other religious denominations–Catholics and Baptists, for example.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in being a conservative. Just as there’s nothing inherently wrong in being a liberal. The urgent question, I think, is: how far are we each willing to go to conform to either label? Surely we can find common ground about protecting ourselves against harmful chemicals being introduced to our environment. Surely we can find common ground in the belief that women–not just men–are human beings and their rights need to be protected.