Books are my friends. I turn to them when I need a good cry, laugh, escape from reality, and fun diversion. They teach me things, reinforce beliefs, and introduce a sense of wonder. Some I’ve reread so often their words have become a familiar soothing mantra. When I need to get away, diving into a truly good book is like submerging in the clear waters of the Caribbean–otherworldly serene and all engrossing. The rest of the universe reduces to that whispering in my head, voicing the ongoing conversation between reader and writer.
Some books, however, are that tricky friend, the acquaintance who’s way ahead of her time in a deeply clever way I don’t really understand. Then, years later, when our paths cross again, she knocks me upside the head, kicks me in the ass, and shakes me to the core. That rereading experience with its rude awakening can be painfully shocking.
With that in mind, I have to ask: have you read The Handmaid’s Tale yet?
If so, are you ready to revisit an old friend?
Growing Appreciation for Margaret Atwood’s Masterpiece
In 1985, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale. It wasn’t her first book; it was No. 20 or so, I believe, but The Handmaid’s Tale was mine and Atwood’s original encounter. I don’t know when I first visited Gilead and met Offred, the main character, but it wasn’t long after publication; I’ve always been a science fiction fan (yes, I put this dystopian novel into that category). One thing I do know is that, when I first read Atwood’s novel, I wasn’t a mother. And that makes a big difference.
The book’s basic premise is that America’s future population has suffered a societal crises. From the 1985 edition jacket:
“Set in the near future, [The Handmaid’s Tale] describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word, with bizarre consequences for the women and men of its population.”
I thought the novel was darkly extreme. It was the 1980s, after all, when women were bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan. Backsliding into repression just didn’t seem possible; there was a true sense (at least, for me) that the rolling stone of feminism would continue to bowl over misogyny and crush inequality. My reaction to plot developments involving kids and childbirth was purely intellectual. Sure, I appreciated Atwood’s craft but, as with Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” The Handmaid’s Tale was simply a mental exercise in dark fantasy. Disturbing, but not unsettling.
And then I revisited Offred and the other Handmaids after I had borne children.
Atwood’s Gilead was suddenly unsettling. My emotional connection–not just to the Handmaids but to the barren Commanders’ Wives as well–transformed my reading experience into a horrifyingly visceral experience. Margaret Atwood, you are one twisted fuck pretty much sums up that new reaction.
This book, I shuddered, was not a friend I’d seek again.
Diving Back into The Handmaid’s Tale As a 55-Year-Old Feminist
Over the years, The Handmaid’s Tale magically multiplied on my bookshelf. Perhaps my children had read it for school and then abandoned their copies. Somehow, my ancient hardback and a newer 1998 paperback copy (still featuring cover artwork depicting the red-robed Handmaid with her white wimple and basket, surrounded by the wall) sat side-by-side gathering dust. In the interim years, Atwood had doubled her book count (at least) and I’d read more of her work, most recently Alias Grace, a stunning fictionalization of a nineteenth woman imprisoned for murder (is she innocent, evil, or mentally ill?).
But in 2017, I was actively avoiding The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve been working on my own novel, and some common themes exist between it and Atwood’s classic. Rereading her book, I feared, might court some disastrous overlap, that Atwood’s chillingly original world would somehow creep into my imagination and taint the vision. Best to avoid that pitfall, right?
On Sunday, The New York Times book section featured a piece about The Handmaid’s Tale written by Atwood herself. Of course I read it. It’s a brilliant essay. As I’ve gotten older and become more of a writer, I’m fascinated by the “behind the book” stories, and Atwood writes about the craft behind her masterpiece. This struck me:
“…If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was that I would not put any events into [The Handmaid’s Tale] that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”
Immediately, I had to reread the book. I pulled the newer paperback copy off the shelf, retired to the porch sofa, and returned to Gilead. I didn’t come up for air until I’d finished.
In the years I’d been away, The Handmaid’s Tale had gone from unsettling to terrifyingly prescient. I read sections out-loud to my husband, such as this from p. 174:
“…It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control…That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on….”
This time, I fully appreciated the craft with which Atwood rolled out her story, how Offred’s actions are what introduce Gilead’s laws and her recollections, interspersed throughout, relay this repressive culture’s birth. Offred remembers that, in the beginning, citizens protested, but she worried about repercussions for her family:
“I didn’t go on any of the marches….I started doing more housework, more baking. I tried not to cry at mealtimes. By this time I’d started to cry, without warning, and to sit beside the bedroom window, staring out. I didn’t know many of the neighbors, and when we met, outside on the street, we were careful to exchange nothing more than the ordinary greetings. Nobody wanted to be reported, for disloyalty.” (p. 180).
But Offred is an imperfect narrator; she doesn’t really know the extent of what’s going on in the world, nor does she truly trust her memories. There’s an issue of false news (p.20), and women are not allowed to read and write. She recites a story, as Chaucer recorded the oral tales of the various pilgrims headed toward Canterbury Cathedral.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
I’m not the only one thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale these days. On April 26, Hulu will release a series based on Atwood’s book. The trailer reveals that much of the dialogue is pulled directly from the book’s pages. Plot developments appear to mirror the original.
If you take a look at the trailer online and peruse the following comments, you’ll find trolls railing against The Handmaid’s Tale (both the book and the series) as some kind of leftist reaction to Trump’s presidency. Most of those posters don’t realize Atwood wrote the book 30 years ago and the series began filming a year before he was a candidate.
Because Atwood based the novel in the “nightmare of history,” we can see how her ugly toads have multiplied as recent events. Intolerance, stripping away reproductive rights and access to care, and sexism–these are the underpinnings of The Handmaid’s Tale. If you can’t make the connections or aren’t struck by similarities between fiction and current political reality, you’ve been living under a rock in the desert without access to the world. We’re all triggered by the hate.
Read The Handmaid’s Tale before you watch the series. And after you read the book, take a look at Atwood’s explanatory essay. You will want to read the book again, and you should. Know that it will be harder to read the next time. But like a good friend, The Handmaid’s Tale is telling a hard truth we really need to hear.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
“Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump” by Margaret Atwood (The New York Times, March 10, 2017)