“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”
–The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
This week’s Origin Story is a little different. For one, this is in no way a kids’ book. It’s not something I read very young and fell madly in love with. It’s not something that, when I read it now, I have different feelings about it. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale as an adult, I am just as terrified and angry and worried as I was when I read it as a child. Maybe more, but the base emotions haven’t changed at all.
I’ve said to friends and coworkers my whole life that I think The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate feminist dystopia. It is, in short, a distillation of all the contradictory doublethink (I use that phrase for a reason, which we’ll get to in a minute) things culture says about women, twisted and shattered and reflected back to us in a broken mirror, cloaked in religion and faux empowerment. It is terrifying, and it is beautiful, and it is one of my favorite books of all time.
It is also the book I read most recently (or, that is, that I read latest in my childhood) for this project. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in bits and pieces throughout seventh grade. I was too afraid to check it out of our school library, so since I didn’t have friends I went in every lunch break and read as much as I could until the bell rang. I would speed-read through as many pages as possible, and fold the tiniest hint of the corner of the page down. I shelved it back in its proper spot and walked out, trying desperately not to look guilty. This is also how I read The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror and The Shining. I felt, in many ways, like Offred using butter to moisturize her hands: rebellious, sinful, and excited about it.
That’s what the story is about, sort of: about rebellion and shame, about feminism and fear, about faith and religion and love and sex and misogyny and rape. Fear, though, I think, is what the book is most concerned with in the end. Fear is the important word here. Margaret Atwood has created a portrait of fear: men’s fear of women, women’s fear of men, women’s fear of women, fear of religion and control and rape and of fear itself. Everyone in the book is afraid of everyone else in the book, and of the world in which they live. And that fear oozes out into the reader until, for me at least, you leave the book afraid yourself, of what might be.
I guess I should do a plot summary? Just in case you’ve missed it in school. Offred (not her name) is a handmaid in”¦ you know, actually, no. That road leads to chaos and madness. So the United States has at some point become the Republic of Gilead and is run like a funhouse-mirror version of the Old Testament plus, like, indentured women who are raped and forcibly impregnated or else sent to work in labor camps. If you’re still fertile after whatever nuclear event happened (like Offred probably is, but then, this is a big part of the story so I won’t give it away), you get to become a handmaid and have very ritualized sex with a high-ranking married (possibly sterile) man while his (infertile) wife is literally in the bed with you, holding you down, because that’s obviously what the Bible tells the Republic of Gilead to do (ref. the verses about Sarah and Hagar/Rebecca and Leah and their handmaids. Um. That happened a lot in the Old Testament, now that I think about it).
So anyway, the book follows Offred as she maneuvers through this world that makes no sense at all and yet is totally realistic. And we become very invested in Offred, because she remembers how it used to be, and has lived through the huge shifts in society, and will sometimes talk about how the changes were sort of sudden, but seemed to make sense at the time, and by the time anyone thought to protest we were the Republic of Gilead and all was pretty much lost (which, reading it now, makes me shiver with fear and think about Planned Parenthoods being defunded across the nation, because how dare women have even a modicum of control over their bodies).
And because, like 1984, it’s a book that is in many ways concerned with a frighteningly realistic portrait of a future, there is an appendix. In this case, the appendix is a dissection of the records that we’ve just read (Offred’s book which, it turns out, was mostly audiotapes) to try to prove or disprove its veracity. There are implications about the future of the Republic of Gilead and what happened to Offred, and it’s just as interesting as the book itself was.
It’s”¦ indescribable. Incredible. This book, you guys, is, as I said, the ultimate feminist dystopia. And having read it the way I did – like a secret, hiding in the corner of a library, praying no one would find me – just amped up my reaction to the book. Because there are secrets upon secrets, and fear upon fear, and self-loathing and hatred and anger and despair and they’re all so beautifully written and discussed and it’s just amazing.
1984 may be the quintessential dystopia for most people, but I will always hold The Handmaid’s Tale up, mention it in the same breath, because it is just as frightening, just as prescient, just as true as Orwell. And Atwood is such a magnificent writer (really, read her, almost anything, it’s just all wonderful) that The Handmaid’s Tale has burned images and ideas into my brain that no other book can even touch.
13 replies on “Origin Stories: The Handmaid’s Tale”
Margaret Atwood is my favorite modern writer. I have all of her books, except the latest. I’ve heard a lot of people say that she’s too dry and ‘cold’ and for that reason they don’t care for her, but I love her style. It speaks to me, because I’m kind of an aloof type myself, and her way of addressing very real and tough emotions, but from a distance, is something I find especially poignant. So many of her characters have incredibly hard things to deal with, but they are pillars of strength in their own ways. She has written several books that have deeply disturbed me because I indentify with them so strongly. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely one of them (along with Edible Woman and Oryx and Crake among a couple of others).
Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I read, and it disturbed me and scared me. I have always felt that the world she writes about is possible. So whenever I re-read it, I get that tiny sliver of terror that this is a very real possibility. She isn’t writing some totally out there piece of fiction – this could happen. As we give up our liberties piece by piece, totally voluntarily in some instances, we are getting closer and closer to the dystopian worlds that Atwood writes about. For that I both love her and find her disturbing. She has incredible insight into the human condition.
God, this book terrified me when I first read it. It still does. It is so easy to look around yourself and see the steps to Gilead everywhere. Part of my reason for becoming such a vocal feminist then, and now I suppose, is because it helps ease the fear I have deep down that I will one day be Offred.
I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale until last spring when it was one of the books in Middlemarch Madness.Â I was so strongly affected by it.Â Everyone, especially every woman, should be required to read it.
Like you, for me it’s a dystopia that is more terrifying and IMO, more imminent than 1984. It’s horrifying.
You sort of touch on it being about rebellion. As much as it’s about shame and fear, it is definitely about resistance as well. The very act of telling the story is an act of resistance. Towards the end of the novel Offred talks about how by telling her story she wills a listener into existence (something like ‘I tell therefore you are’). Whether or not the narrator realizes this I think it places the text/story in the realm of subversion. She is sad and apologizes for the horror within the story, but the very act of saying it out loud (even if to an imaginary future reader/listener) is an act of if not hope, than at least refusal to be completely defeated.
Storytelling is political/ideological and this novel does an excellent job of showing that truth.
I read Handmaid’s Tale for anÂ interim class in college, we didn’t have nearly enough time to discuss it. That was 3 years ago, but I still think about it often, because it’s haunting like that. And I get an eerie feeling when I hear about these proposals the Conservatives/Republicans want to pass to enforce their ideals against woman. Gilead isn’t that hard to imagine, really… which is terrifying.
So, so much love for this book, and really anything Ms. Atwood does. Oryx and Crake is/was the only book to give me nightmares that I wake up crying from.
O&C is on my nightstand as one of the next books to read … I can’t decide if you comment is making me excited or reticent to get to it.
Excited. It should make you excited. Especially if you love love “Oh god we’re killing our world” kinda dystopia haha.
Margaret Atwood is utterly fantastic, and her portrayals of women struggling against societal rules and norms are spot on.Â The Edible Woman, her first book, remains one of my very favourites.Â See also her defence of public libraries in Toronto.Â I <3 her very, very much.
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, and I got it and was terrified by it, but I was naive enough to not realize how…. tangible it was.Â It’s not like it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to see how Gilead could be real — and that’s what makes it so terrifying.Â I intuitively mentally parse Offred as “Off-red” rather than “Of-fred” or “Off[e]r-ed,” and it always felt like stealing a little bit of her back for herself (especially since she is made to wear red all the time).
I love dystopias and have read dozens and dozens of them, but Handmaid’s Tale is always the most terrifying to me. Mostly it’s because not only have all these women’s agency been taken away from them, but because it wasn’t always like that. Offred once had an actual name in her own lifetime. She wasn’t born into this society or raised in it; it grew around her as an adult.
When I see what the right wing is trying to do in this country, I feel like a lobster slowly being boiled, but the water was cold when I jumped in.
That’s a terrifying image, but I feel that way too.
That right there is not only a terrifying simile, but an uncomfortably true one.
By far my favourite book … even though it’s terrifying.