The Handmaid’s Tale is a quiet book with loud ideas that demand to be acknowledged, heard, and recognized. For a book that is quite clear in its message and rhetoric, The Handmaid’s Tale still has fine, subtle ideas intertwined in its narrative. Underneath its facade of the ‘feminist nightmare’ – as what many others have described it to be – I think there is more under the surface. Atwood has much to say about how society and its people adapt to atrocities and how we can make room for great injustices in our lives.
The assertion that Atwood intended The Handmaid’s Tale to be a piece of speculative fiction intended to warn us of the Islamic fundamentalists and its injustices against women would be a misguided reading of the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale does not advocate how progressive the Western world is in its human and women’s rights compared to the Middle-East. If anything, it is about how the West – or, in this book, Gilead – demonizes and antagonizes the Other to create a narrative of fear that would justify the authoritative theocracy that overtakes the United States.
Because is that not why people relinquish their liberties, their free will, and their rights? Because they are afraid of the Other, the unknown, the enemy? Is that not how normality is radically changed, because we are confused and stupid in our fear? The Handmaid’s Tale is not about how Islamic fundamentalists destroyed the United States or Western ideology. The Handmaid’s Tale is about how an enemy – perceived or real – became a key ingredient in fear politics and rhetoric to facilitate the restructuring of normal, everyday life to create the feminist nightmare that people speak of.
So let’s not talk about how the women portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale are mirror images of those in the Middle-East, and then ignore the call to be introspective. Let’s talk about how The Handmaid’s Tale and its concepts are not far-removed from Western society at all. This narrative should probe self-analysis and self-criticism within society and within ourselves.
It is true that the world in The Handmaid’s Tale requires the reader to suspend belief. After all, Atwood’s portrayal of a dystopian society was intentionally improbable with good reason. I do not believe Atwood thinks that her dystopian fantasy will come to life in the near or distant future; Atwood is not speculating the physical manifestation of such a world, but is speculating its ideological manifestation. She wrote such a portrayal of a society with such blatant, undeniable and inescapable gender inequality to show us that, even in a fantastical, extreme alternate reality that we read about, we can still locate the present, our reality, within the book’s narrative.
Something that struck me over and over again while reading The Handmaid’s Tale is how forgetful the main protagonist, Offred, was of the time before. This reminded me of a particular memorable line in bell hooks’s book Black Looks: Race and Representation: ‘Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, forgetfulness is encouraged.’ What bell hooks meant by this was that memory – remembering ourselves, our identities and therefore our power and spirit as individuals – is a form of resistance to exploitative, oppressive institutions. Memories give us autonomy.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred slowly forgets the small things in her life. The things she does remember – memories of her husband, her mother, her child, and her best friend – are precious to her, not just because they are memories in her life, but because they are a form of resistance to an institution that depends on her forgetting who she was before, what the world was before, what women had before. They are remnants of a time where she lived. Forgetfulness is a symptom of the colonization of the mind.
The Handmaid’s Tale is how dystopians ought to be; chilling in its truths through non-truths, effective in reawakening or rousing consciousness, and offer commentary on today and tomorrow’s world. It offers fantastic, compelling prose, a narrative voice with dark, wry wit, and an immersive world that is terrifying. The Handmaid’s Tale is a necessary book, and recommended for everyone and anyone interested in social issues, not limited to feminism.
Lastly, I want to implore readers that, whilst what you read may be scary and may anger you, remember that it is important to move beyond the paralysis of fear and anger, but to also find courage and voice so that there can be action, dialogue and thus change and movement.
Book Name: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anchor Books