ARTS + CULTURE
Book Review: Revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale
8th January 2021
I first tried to read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 18 or 19 and on a break from university. I couldn’t get through it, in part because it was too hard for me to handle how mean the women in the book were to each other. In the years between that stage of my life and the present, I avoided it as much as possible, though it was everywhere – in bookstores, on television, and more recently, on Netflix. In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election in the US, I suddenly became interested in reading it, because I felt that it was time to delve into what was really going on beneath the surface.
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is also one of the creepiest. The most striking reason for the book’s creepiness is obvious: the United States has descended into a civil war, and the Republic of Gilead has taken over. Those who have not managed to flee are forced to remain in Gilead to assume new social roles, which in part are defined by their sex. While the book focuses on women, it also raises issues that affect the sexual and reproductive rights of non-binary and transgender people. The book’s intersecting and intertwining themes are many: repression on the basis of sex; social caste; envy, scorn, condescension, and cruelty between women on the basis of their fertility levels and/or ability to bear children; government surveillance; militarization of society; lack of due process, etc.
“It is increasingly important to remember that the progress we have made has been hard-won.”
Margaret Atwood, the author, says that she drew inspiration for the novel from Dutch religious iconography. I was a bit surprised by this, because I had automatically associated the book’s plot – revolution, the regression of women’s rights, forced coverages of their bodies with clothes, repressed and controlled sexualities – with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. For me, the parallels between this book, the timing of the book, and the 1979 Iranian revolution are undeniable. The parallels between them, the themes, and my life are also undeniable as well. At times, the book was traumatic for me personally to read, as I saw a lot of myself in the main character and a lot of the repression that she experienced in my own life. The main character, Offred, lives as a concubine as one of the Handmaids in the Republic of Gilead. As readers, we know that prior to her life in the new social order, she had a husband and daughter and that her mother was a feminist who was active in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the book’s main themes is the oppression of women on the basis of their reproductive capabilities. This theme is of relevance to today’s society. It is increasingly important to remember that the progress we have made has been hard-won. I think that most young women and girls in the United States and the West do not know enough of what it is to be completely oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capabilities to empathize with the women’s rights movement of previous generations. I also do not think that most women and girls are aware of the threat that is posed to their rights, personal and collective, not only by patriarchy, but by the militarization of patriarchy.
Most young women and girls today, at least in the West, have grown up with relatively liberalized identities and practices regarding sexual identity, gender, and access to birth control. These are all positive things. Thankfully, many young women and people with uteruses have not had to get through a large number of the difficult and dangerous experiences that come from being oppressed and at times having your life threatened on the basis of your sexual reproductive abilities. For example, many of us are now able to take some things for granted, such as having access to birth control, having access to abortion, and not being forced into an arranged marriage. Perhaps most importantly, access to birth control has allowed younger generations to avoid a grim fate: being a young, unwed mother who is left with a baby after the child’s father and potentially family refuse to accept responsibility for the child – and here in Ireland, being pushed into one of the Mother and Baby Homes, or the Magdalene Laundries.
The book was first published in the 1980s, which provides a different point of reference for the book, though stunningly, it is still just as resonant and relevant today as it was then. Offred’s mother is portrayed as being openly in favor of women, but she appreciates Luke, her son-in-law, who participates in household chores and in other domestic activities. It is important to remember that many men, even baby boomers and men of my generation, still expect their mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and even nieces and cousins to clean up after them, to do all the cooking and cleaning, and to defer to their inherently superior judgment on all matters. We have come far since the 1980s, but not far enough.
Featured photo by Victoria Pickering