The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Review by Chris White
“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket.”
I’m disappointed to say I’d never read this book until now, for my Year of Reading Women. I’d heard of it, of course. A United States that has fallen, the President assassinated, Congress assassinated – the Pastors step in. Dystopian, fundamentalist Christian enclaves spring up. This novel is a warning, and a reminder, like all good science fiction (or speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood would insist.) It is also brilliant and has fantastic literary qualities, beautiful prose (which are perhaps why Atwood strives to avoid the SciFi Ghetto). It reminds me of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, but with Huxley’s inherent racism turned around, as a misogynist society strives to keep women in their place. An American Taliban.
The Republic of Gilead is a white Christian man’s paradise. Offred is a Handmaid, in the service of her Commander and his Wife. She is allowed to leave the house only to go shopping for what meagre rations her coupons permit her. Each day, permit in hand, head lowered, she passes the Guardians, teenage boys with submachine guns. In her blood-red habit she meets with another Handmaid (they can go nowhere alone, they are women, after all) and they go shopping.
The Handmaid’s only task is to bear children. They’ve taken all the ceiling fixtures, the rods from the cupboards. She is not allowed a knife – they’ve lost too many Handmaids.
This novel is gripping, a terrifying glimpse of dystopia, of control and of hidden societies.
Right up my alley, then.
I loved it.
This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.
2 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood”
This is easily one of my favorite books, and I can report that Atwood’s short fiction (I’m currently reading her ‘Moral Disorder’ collection, and have just finished ‘Wilderness Tips’) is completely fantastic (sadly, it’s not SF, so can’t be reviewed here). Personally I feel it’s long past time for the SF community to reclaim the prodigal daughter, especially given her recent “In other worlds” book of essays on SF, which was clearly something of an olive branch. When someone offers us an olive branch, I’m of the opinion that we should take it (though I’m not sure who ‘we’ is here, because these days I’m increasingly leary of the SF community myself).
Which brings me to the problem I have with this review…
# The Republic of Gilead is a white Christian man’s paradise.
Really? Has the reviewer met many Christians? I’m an unbeliever myself, but I’m pretty sure most of them would find this accusation deeply offensive. The reviewer is a white man himself, and he doesn’t think it’s paradise, so I’m guessing it’s the ‘Christian’ thing that he thinks turns people into happy citizens of Gilead.
It’s difficult not to be unfair on the reviewer here, because this kind of statement is so widespread in the SF community that everyone starts repeating it sooner or later. The statement doesn’t come out of one person, it comes out of a remarkable culture of racial/gender/religious/whatever prejudice that has become endemic. And I can’t be too high-and-mighty, because in my younger, more radical days, I was an angry atheist, blaming everything upon the two dominant Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam). However, these days I’m increasingly alarmed by how easily statments like this flow from people’s mouths or keyboards. The casual depiction of men, or white people, or religious believers as ‘the enemy’, as the source of all the world’s woes, seems to have become the dominant creed.
Now, yes, I’ve met Christian extremists who were basically fascists-for-jesus, but they were the crazy minority that all groups have. (Unfortunately, the crazy minorities tend to be loud, and so people think they represent the majority view). I also don’t think that most men would consider Gilead a paradise (a point that I think Atwood addresses very well in her book). I don’t. The reviewer doesn’t. I know the site-founder doesn’t. So, where are these guys that the reviewer claims speak for all of us? Oh, I’m sure there’s some out there, on a planet of 8-billion there’s always some of anything you can imagine, but what proportion are they, and are their attitudes truly representative of their entire gender, race, or religion?
The reviewer is probably nearer the mark in the invocation of the Taliban, because that’s a subgroup that, I believe, has a broadly binding radical ideology. However, it he’d spoken of ‘Islam’ he’d probably have been off the mark, as there are a great many people in the Islamic world who don’t subscribe to the harsh ideology of the Taliban, so you can’t generalize across that entire group. (Again, in my younger days I might have said such things myself, but you know how it is: when I was an angry atheist, I thought as an angry atheist, and I spoke as an angry atheist, but now I’ve set aside angry things). Similarly it’s wrong to characterize all men, all Christians, or all white people, or even all white, Christian men, as supporters of something like Gilead.
Furthermore, I think this is a profound misreading of Atwood’s book. If there’s one thing that’s clear in the story, it’s that Gilead is a paradise for no-one. The ‘Guardians’, the soldiery of Gilead, look upon the narrator as something as unattainable to them as a suite in Dubai’s Buraj-al-Arab hotel (As I recall it, the narrator even rubs their faces in that fact a little). There’s no possibility for them of being husbands or fathers, they are just soldier ants, existing to serve the state. The ‘Commander’, who I found the most interesting character of all, appears wracked with guilt for his part in what Gilead has become, and seems to be seeking some form of forgiveness from his handmaid. The only through-and-through believer that we see in the story is the Commander’s wife, a woman who has thrown her all into believing a lie because there’s no truth available that she can invest in. No one is having a good time in Gilead, and no-one planned on getting what they’ve now got. Atwood’s story demonstrates how dystopias are built by everyone doing what they think is best, within their narrow worldview. Gilead doesn’t spring from a vacuum, it’s a response to a state-of-emergency, to an unforeseen threat that knocks American society of it’s moral foundations and leaves it grabbing wildly for solutions, no matter how desperate and dangerous those might be. (In this regard, sadly, The Handmaid’s Tale has proved to be a very prescient book). In this regard it’s a more compassionate and generous work than this review implies: it doesn’t apportion blame to any one group, doesn’t think in terms of ‘them or us’, but instead recognizes that things go wrong because we all collude collectively in emergent systems of our own oppression, and because we panic and reach for desperate, radical solutions, that promise utopia, but deliver catastrophe.