Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale

As a book that received a wave of renewed attention in the wake of the election, earlier this year i moved Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to the top of my reading list, requested it from my local library (waited a while, it was clearly surging with requests from several others also), and anticipated a reading experience more compelling than The Year of the Flood, one of only two of Atwood’s novels i had previously read.

Stylistically The Handmaid’s Tale is very much written similarly to The Year of the Flood (part of the MadAdam series–the subsequent parts of which i did not wish to go on to read), without lyricism or literary interest, with a certain coyness. Thematically also these novels cover the same ground. Hegemonic power, the ways individuals fail to resist it, or resist solely in their own minds, a fleeting sort of glance at the impact the juggernaut of rampant industry and technological advance has on the environment. Little attentiveness is paid to what is gained by the holders of such power, what motivates them. Rather the lust for and the wielding of such power is displayed as implacable.

Specifically, given the current zeitgeist, the recurring watch word having become ‘resistance’, i had an expectation of The Handmaid’s Tale that the forms of resistance, the struggles internal and external of movements agitating for change, the strategies that become missteps and those that render significant blows against the hegemonic structures and institutions, would be explored.

In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood declines all this. There is a patriarchal, war mongering government–how it came to power, who is fighting against them from beyond their borders and how–remain opaque. And whilst the intention behind this seems to be the mirroring of the experience of the people living under the regime and without access to information or the freedom to communicate with one another, to immerse the reader into this restrictive frame, i was left perplexed as to why it is that the novel has become this book of the moment of Western resistance.

This is a book about compliance, it’s various forms only superficially different, distinct only by the different categories to which individual characters are assigned. I suppose this could be an accurate portrayal of how dictatorial power functions, arranging such strenuous constraints, carefully coded hierarchies, that the people are unable to see where real solidarity might be formed, or develop the capacity to think around what is to consider what might be.

In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale strikes me most strongly as, not a dystopian future presciently foretold, nor an example of how dissidence can prevail in opposition to force, but an allegory of the world in which we live and have been living in for at least some decades. We already live in a world wrought by hierarchies fiercely imposed, by wars waged against the powerless in the favour of the powerful.

The political regimes of the West, bolstered by a populace of either unknowing or compromised accomplices, outsources pollution, refuse, the consequences of environmental destruction and the worst impacts climate change to the poorest, those with least political leverage to make their demands for a habitable land heard. When dissidents working for such necessities, considered too luxurious for them in the march of neo-liberal progress, are heard it is not with the respect of listening ears, instead dissidents are all so very often disappeared, held as political prisoners (even when some other charge is produced against them as cover to the powers-that-be), reviled as opponents of–what else–the advance of civilisation, or crassly ridiculed as lacking pragmatism (coded language, pragmatism comes to mean a staunch defence of whatever the corporations deem requisite to their expansion).

Like the Atwood’s allegorical system of government our own societal systems keep huge numbers of people in poverty whilst affording a few enormous wealth. The regulations holding this system in place are written and enforced by a certain small population of white men, mostly, in shadowy halls, far from oversight of the democratic structure we’re told makes us better than any other, except rarely is there a true opposition for which we could vote; our options curtailed once more by the classified, the behind-closed-doors-operatives engaged in illegal, unaccountable conduct. Yet we continue to believe that these are glitches to be ironed out, rather than inherent outcomes of neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism.

Another of the prominent issues Atwood focuses on is of the role of women, who are divided by the commanders into several different roles. The wives, the handmaids, the aunts, and the hidden from view class of prostituted women (the women in the colonies are too inconsequential to be categorised, noted only for what is presumed to be their pitiable state–yet although purposefully ostracised and pauperised they seem to me more free than those women caught in the systemising of men). Reflect a moment on the current global situation of women in the globalised society in which we too are enmeshed; the roles for women here too are circumscribed by the value to which men can extract from them. A certain population of women are indeed kept hidden from view, whereby they are siphoned into prostitution. Another is kept in obscure poverty where child-bearing is seen as their primary value, whether by a husband or through the expanding surrogacy market. A relatively small number of women are granted freedoms by their families and communities, freedoms that are continually facing restriction, whether via political policy or by what would sensibly be called terrorism (domestic abuse, rape, the threat of rape, stalking, virulent public pushback, prostitution and the production of pornography), if we could socially conceive of it as such.

It seems the potential of The Handmaid’s Tale, to wake its readers to what already is, the presence of hegemonic power in our polity, has been lost in a fervour of prognostication of how much worse things might yet become. Like the characters living under the nameless regime of the novel, we cannot think around our own current socio-political situation to see it for what it is, nor can we properly imagine alternative ways of being. We still believe in the commanders we cannot name.