In a frighteningly possible future, the members of the United States government have all been assassinated and the constitution over turned. In its place there has arisen the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Theocracy that ruthlessly imposes Old Testament ideals upon its entire population. The world is suffering from a sharp decrease in fertility and an equally worrying increase in non-viable babies being born. In response to this, a woman’s place in Gilead’s society is dictated by her ability to reproduce or fulfill another useful role in the production of viable offspring. All women are categorized and forced to wear clothing of a certain color to advertise their role in life. They must not stray from their roles, they must not question those in authority, they are forbidden to read and are encouraged to think as little as possible: they must simply accept the role that God has prescribed for them. This is especially true for the Handmaids who have proven that they are capable of producing healthy babies.
If a high-ranking official, like the Commander, has the misfortune to have an infertile Wife he can be assigned a Handmaid. She is a non-person, a receptacle for carrying his baby and nothing more. She is known only by the word ‘of’ plus his name. She must do nothing other than receive the gift of his seed once a month and then carry his child. If she fails in this task than she will be passed to a different man, but if she has not had a child after the third man she will be discarded and sent to the work camps cleaning up the toxic zones: for the law states that no men are sterile and so the fault must lie with her.
Offred has already failed to become pregnant with two men and we follow her thoughts as she settles into life with The Commander. She remembers her marriage to Luke, who had divorced his first wife to marry her. This made their union illegal under the new regime and allowed the state to annul it and separate them by force. She also remembers her daughter who was stolen away and given to an influential infertile couple. Then there is her mother, the raging feminist, who became an enemy of the state for believing that women had the right to do things other than reproduce. She also remembers her friend Moira, the lesbian, who escapes from their Handmaid 'training' camp in search of the resistance movement and a way to reach the utopia of Canada.
* * *
The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I had been recommended many times and I remember watching the film version many years ago, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with the Book Group. Although the book is thirty years old, I was surprised by how depressingly relevant it is to modern America, with its debates about access to birth control and abortion and the rape culture that commiserates about the sentencing of young men who make a ‘mistake’ while the victims are vilified for all the ways that they were ‘asking for it’.
I have always considered myself a feminist in that I believe that men and women should hold equal value and that a person’s gender should never be the factor that determines their role in life. As a biologist, I am aware that total equality will never be possible because of the very unequal method by which we reproduce, but other than making allowances for this fundamental difference in physiology, I firmly believe that neither sex has an intrinsic superiority to the other. These beliefs made it very difficult for me to read about a society where women are either walking wombs or solely concerned with making babies or looking after men. The later revelations about the men who go against their own rules to visit prostitutes, whilst condemning any form of female sexuality, was all too predictable to raise much more than sadness from me.
The fear of the female ability to reproduce lies like a stink over Gilead, and it is a stink that also wafts through some aspects of modern American politics, so I found it all too plausible that a democracy based upon personal freedom could be replaced by a misogynistic theocracy. When I hear absurd statements about a rape victim’s body “shutting that whole thing down”, only “sluts” wanting contraception and masturbating male fetuses (that last from a pediatrician, no less) I truly wonder if I have been transported back in time or to an alternative universe. We are bombarded by so much moral criticism aimed at the female of the species that you would think that men had nothing at all to do with the reproductive process. It is not as if contraception is a modern invention: papyri from ancient Egypt outline recipes for contraceptive plugs whilst the Greeks used an extract from the plant silphium so much that it was harvested to extinction and I will not even begin to relate the number of things that have been used to make condoms. Yet some people still think that abstinence is a viable alternative even though history has proven that humans often prefer to have sex without the chance of conception.
Women are not the only victims of the Republic of Gilead. The Sons of Jacob are given the opportunity to emigrate to Israel shortly after the democratic government is overthrown, although it seems that some enterprising captains would dump them into the sea after receiving payment and to increase the number of ‘passengers’ that they could carry. We also know that many Jews remain in Gilead but have to worship in secret because the Theocracy is exclusively Christian. The fate of the Children of Ham is far more disturbing. It seems that many of these African-Americans are considered suitable as the infertile Marthas who run the houses of their wealthy, white superiors. However, most are resettled into Homelands, mimicking the Reservations used to isolate and control the Native American population by the European invaders. No doubt these Homelands allow the people to live in the idle luxury that you would expect for those forcibly removed from a society. Again, this mirrors the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism that still pervades some sectors of US society.
I imagine that when Ms Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, she saw it as a commentary on the US of the time or the very recent past. We know that the feminism of the 1960s provoked a conservative backlash from the Christian right, and I am quite sure that she was inspired by seeing this during her studies at Harvard. I can appreciate how her Canadian upbringing would have made her very aware of the power that religious groups wield in the US, which was a shock to me when I first arrived. I find it frightening to think that many in the States would actually like to make the country into something so scarily similar to Gilead, and that it seems like a real possibility to me.
As a footnote, I was surprised and delighted that a revelation is made at the end of the book that shows that the grand state of Maine was a hotbed of moderates and people willing to help women escape to free Canada. It was particularly gratifying that Bangor itself was marked out as a particular place of tolerance.
This was not a pleasant book to read, but it was powerful in a visceral, thought-provoking way that makes me understand why so many people rate it as one of their favorite books of all time. I would recommend that every person should read it, man or woman, because it shows us what could happen to the US if the right wing, religious conservatives ever get enough power to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.