(Continuing my exploration of classic bestsellers I’m now reading for the first time…)
If a committee had gathered in a dark room to ask themselves, “What book can we write that will fuck Laura up?”, the end result would have looked a lot like The Handmaid’s Tale.
This book crystallized something I hadn’t put into words before: my life so far has been, in essence, an embrace of secularism over religious fundamentalism. I do not mean I’m an atheist now — simply that my Christianity is compatible with swearing, rock-and-roll, short skirts, red lipstick, and wicked fantasies of many colors.
Not all religions or denominations demand a renunciation of Things of The World, but that’s how it was for me growing up, and it was in junior high that I faced that demand and thought, No.
I have always been grateful that I live in a time and place where I could make that choice, and that I was given avenues to abide by it, where my success — even my very life — did not depend on religious conformity.
Margaret Atwood painted a vivid, terrifyingly realistic picture of how I could lose all of that.
What made this book so scary for me is that I know plenty of people who would think the society described in this book a grand idea. They might quibble with one thing or another (one would be opposed to public displays of the executed, another with the psuedo-threesome arrangement of handmaids), but the whole idea of restoring Traditional Gender Roles and sharply narrowing women’s tasks — returning to a “biblical model” of “be fruitful and multiply” as the focus of a woman’s existence, so her value rests entirely on her ability to breed — to them, that wouldn’t be bad at all.
(Also I only realized three-quarters of the way in how the handmaids’ names were constructed — Of-Fred, Of-Glen — and was nearly ill again.)
Normally I dismiss apocalyptic or dystopian scenarios as completely unlikely, not worth serious consideration. But the fact is that none of this particular dystopia is nearly as outlandish as it appears on the surface. Not when it was written in 1985, and not any less thirty years later. Plenty of countries in today’s world forbid women’s freedom, such as the right to drive. Even here in the U.S., when my mother was born, women couldn’t open their own bank accounts (i.e., the first step that allowed the Sons of Jacob to subjugate them). Not until 1974 did the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allow a woman to have a line of credit without a man signing for her (source, with a larger timeline of women’s rights around the world).
These rights and freedoms we have, that feel so guaranteed and are so easily taken for granted, are brand new from a historical standpoint. Of course it’s plausible they could be swept away, in another historical blink of an eye. And we know all too well that violent religious fundamentalists bent on creating such hellscapes for women are very, very real.
I am not prepared to dwell on this for long (especially not as powerless as I am to help the women trapped in those nightmares around the world). Instead I take refuge in a wonderful fantasy combining a couple apocalyptic/dystopian worlds, so I can at least fix the experience of this book in my head and maybe not have so many nightmares. Consider:
Imperator Furiosa gains access to a time machine, but it won’t let her save her own world. It only gives her access to another, to which the full manuscript of The Handmaid’s Tale is her guide. So she uses the machine to drop in on the Sons of Jacob during one of their first planning meetings.
She has a machine gun. No man leaves the room alive. Furiosa exits back through her time-travel portal.
Everyone carries on in that world — the narrator, Moira, Janine. They are more or less happy, carefree. No one realizes what almost happened.