Dark Futures Book 13: The Handmaid’s Tale

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week the world had gone to hell and only oppressive sexism could save it. Er, what?

Margaret Atwood is clearly a huge fan of George Orwell’s 1984. I think that The Handmaid’s Tale stands on its own as one of the great Dystopias, but it borrows much from Orwells defining classic, notably the broad structure, tight subjective focus, and burning sense of being a modern cautionary tale. But where Orwell is railing against the failings of the lefts “fellow travellers”, appeasers of totalitarianism and those that idly felt that “it couldn’t happen here”, Atwood is warning the progressives of the 1970s that their battles aren’t won, and their victories not permanent, and wrapping it up in a dark religious parable aimed squarely at women.

First thing that came to mind when I was thinking about the book was that one of the most disturbing things is that the narrator remains unnamed. There is little direct dialogue in the book anyway, due to its conversational style, and in the Republic of Gilead the Handmaid’s are known by a possessive name based on the man of the household, in this case “Offred” (Of Fred). It seems deeply wrong, somehow, to refer to her by this name, but equally calling her “the narrator” leaves her similarly nameless and identityless, the intent of the society she is stuck in, but the latter is, I think, less bad so I’ll go with that.

So, our narrator lives in a future where society was starting to collapse from a wide range of demographic, environmental and I guess pretty much any other factor you care to mention. A far-right, isolationist religious group rides a wave of fear and paranoia and stages a bloody coup, gaining control of a significant part of the US, and setting up a totally new society based on extremely strict, biblically inspired gender roles, with the men firmly on top, and the women firmly subjugated. With massively declining fertility (which is held to be definitely the womens fault even though it clearly isn’t!) powerful men have “handmaids” assigned to them of proven fertility to allow them to have children, alongside their assigned “Marthas” (domestic servants). Everyone has their dress codes assigned by colour, and in a particularly nasty bit of social engineering the lower classes only get “econowives” in stripy dresses, signifying that they need to cook, clean, and have sex with, their husbands.

(Hint to Men: Do not joke about this with your actual wife.)

It’s a horribly joyless world. It’s made pretty clear that even for the men this is a grim process; undergoing “the ceremony”, a heavily ritualised and functional sex-act sounds like one of the most un-erotic things I’ve heard and can only service to drive all three people involved further and further apart. The narrators master (owner?), known as “The Commander” is portrayed as deeply lonely and isolated, his Wife is bitter and angry, the other women of the house alternating between contempt of the narrators position and jealous of her rarified status. In fact I think one of the hardest things in the book is the lack of “sisterhood” when they’re all victims; how their oppression has driven them apart, not together.

In fact it’s not until right towards the end my sympathy for the Commander is broken. He’s an interesting character and really the only man we get to know – clearly an important and influential figure in Gilead yet radiating a desperate sense to be loved, to experience a little companionship. For a while you almost see men as victims here too; nowhere near as much, but in their own way just as controlled and repressed, their behaviour just as regulated and their transgressions just as strictly punished. And then there is Jezebels. Because of course the rules don’t really apply to men, and of course they need “natural” outputs for their “natural” urges. After that, he’s just another oppressive hypocrite and I couldn’t really care less.

A couple more points before I finish off. Firstly, I mentioned that this owes a lot to 1984, and it comes out in unexpected ways. Structurally the book mirrors the first two “acts” of Orwell’s classic, it’s first half being the narrators routine life, the second her gradual, creeping passage into dissent and rebellion, although Atwood doesn’t mirror the final act of 1984 in which the state asserts its dominance over the lives of its citizens. This oddly makes it a slightly more positive book, a sense that rebellion can succeed, reinforced by another lift from 1984, the metatextual historical note at the end, trying to put some context onto the narrators story.

The other thing is the gender politics. This is clearly the sort of book that you see labelled “feminist” and that’s definitely a valid filing for it, but it cleverly shys away from being just plain man-hating. It’s likely – though never clarified – that the narrators husband died trying to get his wife and daughter to safety, and it is a man, in the end, that is the instrument of freedom for her. And the enforcement of strict gender segregation when it comes to childbirth, for instance, is the sort of thing that I’ve seen seriously argued and I doubt that it Atwood would be unaware of such debates within the feminist movements of the 70s and 80s. The character of Monica, as well the narrators mother, and indeed what you know the narrator herself, all reflect opinions of that movement and add to the cautionary tale element of the story.

In fact it’s the mother that verbalises it – don’t think that you’ve won these fights. Don’t think that it cannot be reversed. Don’t forget what people had to go through to get this far. The Republic of Gilead is an extreme – in cases too extreme to feel totally plausible – but the attitudes that it espouses in extremis still exist today. In some ways it’s not a book just about the oppression of women, it’s a book about any group that has had to struggle for anything approaching the equality that has been denied them, and how fragile their victories can be. And that’s a sobering thought.


Next time:  Back to post-nuclear fun times, with Louise Laurences’ Children of the Dust.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.


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  1. Excellent review. This is such a terrifying read, and I didn’t even really realize just how terrifying until days and weeks were going by and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

    • dwgrampus /

      yeah it does linger with you, which is a credit to it.

      also, as a bloke i can only imagine how freaky some of the stuff in it must be to women. * shudders *

      • Yeah, the whole loss of identity thing is really scary. More scary than the forced sex and stuff (not that that isn’t scary). You make a really good point about the women being worse to each other than the men are to the women. There’s no way the men in this story could have gotten away with what they did if some of the women weren’t complicit. And that scares me in our world today. Feminism’s biggest obstacle isn’t men, but other women.

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