Last night I completed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopic vision of America’s near future as governed by the religious right. Some time in the 1980s, I suppose, “feminist” became a dirty word. It is an insult, spat with the same venom as “liberal.” It is no surprise that Atwood’s novel was published, then, in the 1980s, during the Reagan-era bashing of both feminists and liberals.
According to Webster’s, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” I am a feminist. I think a great many people today are misinformed about what feminism really means. They will say they believe in gender equality, but they are not feminists. What’s the difference? It’s a matter of connotation.
The Handmaid’s Tale centers around Offred, a handmaid in the near future after ecological disaster has decreased fertility among women and viability among infants. Offred has viable ovaries, so she, along with her fellow handmaids, have been given the task of producing children. In fact, their lives depend on it. Political disaster occurs when the president is assassinated and Congress is slaughtered in a rain of machine-gunfire. The Constitution is suspended. In a cashless society, it is easy to cut women off from their money. The way Offred tells the tale, it seems as though freedoms eroded bit by bit. One day, she turned around, and she was divested of all her rights. She no longer lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, but in the Republic of Gilead. And there is no balm in Gilead.
I find it very ironic that Atwood chose to set her story in Cambridge, a city known for its liberal views — so much so, in fact, that it is often known as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.” Atwood seems to be saying that the events in her book could happen anywhere — even in one of the major strongholds of liberalism. In her novel, Harvard ceases to be a university and becomes the headquarters for the Eyes, the (of course) omnipresent force of spies that keep the citizens of Gilead in line… or else they wind up hanging from hooks on the wall by Harvard Yard. During my recent trip to Boston, I walked along Massachusetts Avenue, right by that wall. I didn’t go inside the campus, but one of my students did. She made a very interesting observation — moreso to me now that I’ve read this book. She said once you go behind that wall, it is quiet. You can’t hear the traffic flying by on the other side of the wall. What an ideal setting for Atwood’s Eyes.
The title of The Handmaid’s Tale hearkens back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I think that is appropriate. In some ways, Chaucer was attacking his own society’s views through humor, and Offred’s “gallows humor” contributes much to the book’s success. I found her to be a very human character. She does not always make admirable choices, but she makes believable ones. She is not an epic heroine, but rather a woman living under extraordinary circumstances.
If Atwood is not quite fair to the religious right in America, one cannot deny that there are women in this world who live very much like the characters in this novel. I do not think most people in the religious right, especially women, would like to live like Atwood’s characters. However, I think this novel serves as fair warning to the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world. Atwood does not limit her critique to the religious right. She also takes feminists to task for their staunch opposition to pornography. Atwood insinuates that it is dangerous to censor such material, regardless of our thoughts on the issue.
This novel was frightening. As I read, I was not so much scared that this will one day happen in America. What really scared me is that it is happening in many parts of the world, right now, as I write this. I don’t know what can be done to change that, but I think we need to try.