Note: This blog post contains no spoilers for Atwood’s books or the television show.
Atwood’s groundbreaking dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale is proof that fiction has the ability to appear too real. Yet how realistic is The Handmaid’s Tale?
The concept is chilling: ‘handmaids’ (rejected women) are raped by powerful men, and forced to bear children. Once the child is born, the handmaid is given no time with the child, unless for breastfeeding. Women are used as cattle and breeding fodder.
Of course, in Western countries at least, women have choices and personal liberty. As a woman in Australia, I live a full life. I study at university, have hobbies, use my birth name and practice whatever faith I please. So, are they under threat? I don’t think so.
Although western politics can have sexist personalities, that does not mean there is an active force determined to treat women like livestock. I don’t think people watch The Handmaid’s Tale and thinks ‘hey, what a lovely idea.’ Atwood, rightfully, portrays the concept as disturbing.
Because of that, it is really difficult to visualize a situation where women are forced to breed with strange men for the state. So although the central plotline of The Handmaid’s Tale falls flat in many contexts, that doesn’t mean the text is 100% unrealistic.
Gilead is a patriach, with distorted biblical underpinnings and a revisionist approach to history. It’s clear Atwood wrote in a time where she saw a rise in fundamentalism. However, Gilead is not just a place for religious fanatics. It’s also medieval: with chilling punishments such as stoning and mutilation. Characters are called ‘sinners’ and told that the only way they can be saved is by enduring brutality.
Remember: in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s Gilead that is the religion, not an already existing sect of Christianity.
Whilst women are clearly not valued, you can’t say men are, either. Any man that rebels against Gilead will be executed or tortured. That’s a fascinating perspective. Gilead will value and respect men as patriachs, leaders and as ‘superiors’ but deplore them the moment they rebel.
In the book, Gilead is also extremely racist. As the United States we know is multiracial, that is not the case in Gilead. You can argue that Gilead sees no value in people who aren’t white, and if you have no value, you are not allowed to exist. Such a mindset plagues history. Although this idea is hardly explored in the television adaption, it is fascinating in how barbaric and inhumane it is.
How realistic is Gilead? Well, the tendency here is to assume that Gilead can only be realistic in the context of America. I’d argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is more realistic to other parts of the world than the United States. In a fascinating and well-written Quillette article, Phyllis Chesler argues that Gilead is more similar to an Islamic Theocracy than ‘Trump’s America.’
And Chesler is certainly correct. Issues such as genital mutilation, child marriage, unjust and cruel punishment, amputations, women covering up, lashings aren’t key features of the right-wing, Christian conservative living in rural America. But they are certainly true of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such comparisons feel so obvious, that it is shocking that Atwood never investigates this point.
And that’s where The Handmaid’s Tale, ultimately, falls apart. Atwood is so caught up in her point and analogy, that she is unwilling to use certain evidence that will support her feminism, because doing so would mean acknowledging that the right-wing conservatives aren’t necessarily the enemy she paints them out to be.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a weak book, and that’s a shame, because it shouldn’t be.
Offred is our protagonist. Her horrors- of being raped, of having no rights, and losing a child- are mirrored in our own world. There are corners of the world, so ghastly and cruel, where men and women are raped, powerless and have no control over their future.
Yet what I appreciate about Atwood is that she gives Offred an identity struggle. ‘Offred’ is of course, not her real name, but at times, she believes it is. As she sleeps in a former gymnasium, dreaming of her past and lost child, you feel her depression and horror.
Offred’s story is certainly realistic, particularly the part of fractured identity. I believe that is the strongest point of The Handmaid’s Tale. Not the weak worldbuilding of Gilead, but the crafting of characters like Offred.
Gilead is a nasty, unappealing place. I’ve read plenty of dystopia, yet Gilead sticks out as awful in every sense of that word. Atwood, thankfully, does not shy away from the horrors that exist. The end result is a sharp text that does not hold back.
Yet Atwood does not address a fascinating point. Gilead is comprised of men who, were once, regular men. Boyfriends. Co-workers. Husbands. Doctors. Brothers. Lawyers. Sons. Politicans. Writers. They lived with women, and loved them. Yet what made them into revolutionaries, hell bent on bringing down the United States of America?
The question of what turns good men evil is fascinating, but Atwood has no intention of answering it, or even acting interested in it. Whilst we get glances into the machinery of Fred’s mind, we never understand it. If Atwood wants us to believe that America could become Gilead one day, she should take the time in arguing how Gilead starts.
Instead, Atwood backs off. She gives vague descriptions of people ‘blaming terrorists’ which is unhelpful and does not conjure the imagination. Whilst the crisis of infertility is fascinating, I can’t shake the feeling that there are better books exploring it, such as The Children of Men by P.D James.
The end feeling is an unsatisfactory meal of a book. Margaret Atwood’s thoughts are never fully realised or complete. Rather, they are simplistic, as if Atwood wants to take an easy way out of answering hard questions.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not a bad book. However, it works more as a character study than a ‘realistic’ look at future politics in the West. Of course, you can read The Handmaid’s Tale in any way you like. But I find Huxley, Bradbury, Orwell and Zamyatin to be more prophetic and painful.
Comment below with any thoughts- I’d love to read them!