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The Handmaid's Tale ()

New York Public Library's Books of the Century

Many of the great dystopic novels of this Century--George Orwell's 1984 (review) and Animal Farm (review), A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (review), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (review), Ayn Rand's Anthem (review)--are still as timely and pertinent today as they were on the day they were written.  Their endurance is a result of the eternal and universal theme that each of them addresses: the fundamental human conflict between the desire for security and the aspiration for freedom.  On the other hand, Margaret Atwood's feminist take on dystopia, while still an interesting and entertaining read, now feels dated and parochial.  It is essentially just an expression of liberal fear of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980's;  its concerns are too limited, temporary and, ultimately, misguided.

Atwood posits a future Republic of Gilead run by a conservative Christian dictatorship.  As a result of exposure to chemicals, nuclear waste and other pollutants, female fertility rates have fallen to catastrophically low levels, so the government forces fertile women to go to reeducation camps.  There they are trained as handmaidens, sexual surrogates for powerful men with infertile wives.  Infertile women are sent to clean up toxic wastes or are trained as Marthas, household servants.  Female sexuality is completely forbidden, indeed most sexual expression that does not serve the Republic's purposes, including pornography, homosexuality, etc., is banned; sex is permitted for reproductive purposes only.

The novel tells the story of a handmaiden named Offred (she is intended to bear the children "of Fred", a Gileadan General).  The General though sees her as more than simply a surrogate.   He gives her gifts, plays forbidden word games with her and eventually takes her to an underground nightclub where officials can treat women as sexual beings.  The General's wife, Serena Joy, is naturally jealous of Offred, even without knowing about the special attention that the General is giving her, but she is desperate for a child so, when Offred fails to become pregnant, Serena Joy arranges for her to sleep with the chauffeur. Offred becomes pregnant and finds some happiness with her new lover, but when Serena Joy finds the cocktail dress that the General gave her for their nightclub trip, she denounces Offred to the authorities.  A van comes to carry Offred away to her certain death, but she realizes that it is actually manned by rebels who will spirit her to safety.

We'll cut Atwood some slack on the sheer silliness of the pollution subtext.  Recall the hysteria of the Environmental movement when Reagan was elected and essentially staffed the EPA, Interior and other key positions with crooks and industry shills.  What with Three Mile Island, Love Canal, the Cayuhoga burning, Bhopal, Nuclear Winter scenarios, etc., the Left was still deeply in thrall to Rachel Carsonesque visions of Silent Springs and the like.  That Atwood fell prey to these lunatic concerns is regrettable, but understandable given the times.

Less excusable is her fundamental misreading of the gender politics of abortion and reproduction.  The great irony of abortion is, of course, that, largely  due to historical circumstances, each gender is temporarily on the wrong side of the issue.  Abortion happens to have become technically feasible and safe at just the moment in history when women are asserting their political power.  And there is no more profound assertion of power than the ability to wield life and death over fellow beings.  Political institutions actually came into being in the first instance in order to secure individuals from the threat of death at the hands of the powerful.  The state's ultimate power is expressed in death-dealing, both war and capital punishment.  Given this perspective, it is not surprising that newly assertive womankind should have seized upon, and should so zealously guard, a right to kill as the central expression of their newly granted powers.  Conversely, men, threatened by this naked and brutal display of the new feminine power, took up a largely reactionary position in opposition to its exercise.   However, the natural positions of the respective genders on this subject are actually the exact opposite of these current stances.

The two competing forces in human affairs are, as mentioned above, security vs. freedom, and they are largely, though not exclusively, gender derived.  Left to our their own devices for thousands of years, men were the dominant gender and oppressed women to one degree or another.  It is, therefore,  only natural that women as a broad class focus on gaining security; security from violence, poverty, hunger, etc..  Meanwhile, men, for whom the natural state of affairs was not too bad a deal, favor the greatest freedom possible.  There are, of course, exceptions to these general classifications.  For instance, men who lack confidence in their ability to compete in an equal and free environment, or those who simply despise the people who succeed in such an arrangement, have tended to favor security.  Confident and capable women, on the other hand, who believe in their own capacity, and that of their fellow women, to thrive in an open contest, have supported the cause of freedom.  But, speaking in general terms, this gender categorization is extremely useful when analyzing human history: men/freedom, women/security.

Applying this conceptual dichotomy to the issue of abortion, it seems obvious that the natural position of women should be one of opposition to abortion, where men should support it.  Indeed, the unintended consequences of the era of abortion demonstrate why this has been such a pyrrhic victory for womankind.  In the first instance, men have been virtually absolved of familial responsibilities, destroying one of the historic fundaments of security for women.   The explosion in fatherless families and the surge in women and children living in poverty are an inevitable consequence of the position that women are exclusively responsible for child-bearing decisions.  But there is an even more insidious force at work that may prove truly disastrous for women in the long run.  It is an issue that is so politically explosive that it is rarely ever addressed--gender based selection of fetuses.  The rise over the course of this century of the Social Welfare state in the West and of authoritarian and totalitarian security states in the East has been, by and large, the result of the enfranchisement of women.  It is a simple fact of life, or seemed to be for several millennia, that there are more female births than male births, and men have shorter life spans than women.  Thus, women vastly outnumber men at any given time in any given society and where elections decide power distribution, they have a significant advantage.

Or at least this used to be the case. But now two female triumphs threaten that very base of power.  First, the gender based life span gap is closing as women join, or are forced into, the workforce.  Second, the gender gap in births is closing or has been reversed wherever abortion is generally available.  In nations like China the numbers are truly startling with as many as 750,000 more male births than female in some years.  These two trends portend the eventual arrival at a set of circumstances that would enable men, even in democratic societies, to seize back power and dismantle the institutional security structures (the welfare net, the vast skein of government rules and regulations and the newly created gender, sexual orientation, race, handicap, etc. based "rights") which has arisen over the past 70 years to provide the losers in society with a safety net when they prove unable to compete.  It, therefore, seems inevitable that over time the genders will reverse their current positions and eventually it will be women who are prolife, in order to safeguard their own security, and men who advocate abortion, as a means of securing greater freedom for themselves.

What then are we to make of Atwood's imagined future where men are in control of a society which is totally controlled and freedom is unknown?  This runs counter to the long arc of human history, which has seen men struggle for ever increasing amounts of freedom, even to the point where they liberated women and granted them the vote and access to the workplace, despite the obvious threat this posed to freedom itself.  Moreover, the driving force behind this evolution towards freedom has come from Christianity.  The concepts of the infinite perfectibility of man and the capacity of every individual to form a relationship with God, without any intermediary, underpin both Democracy and Capitalism, which are essentially just the political and economic expressions of these religious ideals.  Therefore, the rise of a Republic of Gilead strikes me as extremely counterintuitive.

More likely, and pleasantly honest on the author's part, is the collaboration of women, as wives, Aunts, etc. in such a regime.  The book would really be more plausible if a matriarchy had arisen in this future and imposed similar restrictions upon men.    As it stands, the book is a clarion call to fight a future that is pretty difficult to imagine.

Virtually any story that portrays the tragic results that will follow when men exchange freedom for security has something to recommend it.  But The Handmaid's Tale is most interesting as an artifact expressing the hysterical concerns of the Left in the Reagan Era.  It has simply not withstood the test of even a brief time very well.


Grade: (C+)


Margaret Atwood Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Margaret Atwood
    _ESSAY: I INVENTED GILEAD. THE SUPREME COURT IS MAKING IT REAL.: I thought I was writing fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale. (Margaret Atwood, 5/13/22, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: ‘Enforced childbirth is slavery’: Margaret Atwood on the right to abortion The US supreme court draft ruling on abortion is an assault on fundamental individual freedoms. The Handmaid’s Tale author reflects on the issues at stake (Margaret Atwood, 7 May 2022, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: A letter to America: You're the 21st-century Romans. Your admiring friends used to know you well: land of the brave, home of the free. Now, as you obsess over the omens of war, we wonder if you know yourself. (MARGARET ATWOOD, March 28, 2003, Globe & Mail)
    -ESSAY: Napoleon's Blunders: A tale of preemptive strikes gone wrong (Margaret Atwood, March 16, 2003, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: “When? Where? How?” Margaret Atwood Considers the Burning Questions of the Writing Life: “Failed again to find recipe box. Used this as an excuse for not working on overdue bird piece.” (Margaret Atwood, March 1, 2022, Lit Hub)
    -INTERVIEW: Margaret Atwood on feminism, culture wars and speaking her mind: ‘I’m very willing to listen, but not to be scammed’ (Hadley Freeman, Feb. 19th, 2022, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Hand-Wringer's Tale of Tomorrow: Margaret Atwood explains why her new novel, in which mankind faces extinction through its own devices, should be called speculative fiction. (MEL GUSSOW, 6/24/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Margaret Atwood’s frustrating feminism: Her work can't be reduced to an ideology (KAT ROSENFIELD, 3/06/23, UnHerd)
    -REVIEW: of Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 by Margaret Atwood (Sarah Ditum, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Burning Question (Maggie Armstrong, Independent ie)
    -REVIEW: of Burning Questions (Susan McKeever, Independent ie)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Margaret Atwood Home Page
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Margaret Atwood  (NY Times Book Review)
    -The Unofficial Shrine of Margaret Atwood
    -Margaret Atwood (Sarah Rice)
    -Margaret Atwood: WWW Resources (links)
    -INTERVIEW : Buttons have always fascinated Margaret Atwood. She likes the way they can be used to reveal and conceal. They have featured before in her fiction, and they are a central image in her new novel, The Blind Assassin. Canada's most famous writer undoes a button or two for Eileen Battersby (Irish Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Margaret Atwood on famous Victorian murderesses, her claim to Connecticut, and the deep satisfaction of a clean, folded towel (LAURA MILLER, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: Margaret Atwood: The activist author of Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale discusses the politics of art and the art of the con  (Marilyn Snell, Mother Jones)
    -INTERVIEW:  Margaret Atwood Returns to the Crime (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Lit Kit)
    -PROFILE : Alias Atwood (KATHERINE VINER, The Age)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Handmaid's Tale  by Margaret Atwood (Selena Ward, Spark Notes)
    -Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Utopia:
    -Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1986)
    -Reader's Companion to The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (from Random House)
    -ESSAY: Surrogacy: The Handmaid's Tale (Margot Dame)
    -ESSAY: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale offers us not so much a realistic vision of the future but an analysis of the oppression of women through institutionalized sexism and patriarchal beliefs (Clare Witcombe)
    -ESSAY: Gabriele Twohig:  The Politics of Language: A Device of Creativity and  Power in Margaret Atwood's Novel The Handmade's Tale
    -The Handmaid's Tale: More than 1984 with Chicks (Angela Gulick)
    -ESSAY: Feminist Science Fiction: The Alternative Worlds of Piercy, Elgin, and Atwood ( Sema Kormal, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
    -Modern Angels and Dystopian Dreams
    -READERS GUIDE : The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Book Browse)
    -INTERVIEW : with Margaret Atwood (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of  The Blind Assassin (Dorman T. Shindler,  The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Blind Assassin (Linda Richards, January Magazine)