I just finished reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” and I wondered: how come when people speak of “utopia”, it’s implied it has zero chance of ever becoming reality, while dystopias are generally perceived as something that could happen, in one form or another? It all comes down to the fact that people are monsters.
So are the people in “The Handmaid’s Tale” who contrived and imposed a new society over an old democratic society that we all knew and know (well, unfortunately, not all of us). The time seems to be the 80’s/90’s of the 20th century; the place: Gilead, on the territory of what used to be the US. The novel opens with the protagonist’s thoughts and small revelations about her surroundings; her descriptions of what is going on seem to be devoid of feeling. She just describes the night, the long row of beds where women sleep, forbidden to speak to each other, to move freely, to do what they please. We don’t know her name, but we know that she’s describing the past, and now we’re in the present, trying to get used to a system we’ve never heard of before. Now she reveals to us her given name is Offred, she is given to a couple who can’t have children, and her main duty is to have sex with the house master, the Commander, while his wife lies behind Offred, holding her hands and making sure that there’s no shred of feeling between her husband and the “bitch” who’s having sex with him.
Something’s Rotten in the Republic of Gilead
It’s a society that lacks children and all the healthy young women who can breed are first trained in an institution called the Red Center, with many other girls in a room full of rows of tidy beds, and then sent to a wealthy couple who can afford to have a handmaid but can’t have children of their own. The handmaids are given names that are made up of the world “of” and the name of their “owner”. Offred belongs to Fred, a high official whose secrets she slowly starts discovering as the novel progresses.
The storytelling is not linear; Offred often reminisces of the past, remembering her husband, her daughter, mother, best friend, her normal life. She remembers working, having money, being a free woman. During her recollections of the past, there are snippets of events like a group of women raving on and burning porn magazines, feminists gathering to oppose anti-abortionists, Offred and her friend discussing the role of men and women and her friend smirking at Offred’s naive remark that the sexes now have equal rights. There is a mention of SM practices, porn shops on every corner and a suggestion that free sex brought to such an extreme could be one of the causes for what happened.
At one point, very late in the book, we finally hear an uninterrupted story of HOW it happened. How an anonymous group of people murdered everyone in the Senate, brought its own army in the streets, imposed order with an iron fist and took away all liberties women had: starting with their credit cards. This all happened within a very short period, but then the new “government” started implementing changes slowly and smartly, so that no one could rebel or do anything to reverse what’s done.
Women as Bodies Only
And so begins the new patriarchal era that sees women only as breeding creatures (older women are either sent to the Colonies where they clean toxic waste for a few years until they rot away, or they find work as cleaning ladies, cooks, etc.) Marriages no longer happen with the consent of the bride and groom, but are arranged between very young girls and boys who’ve never had a chance to fall in love with their peers. Women are only needed for their bodies and they should be silent and obedient. If they’re not, the punishment is death or a few not much happier alternatives.
The way Mrs. Atwood builds the story is fascinating. She takes her time, describes everything in Offred’s limited view with detail and some frightening placidity, as if the narrator has been sedated. Later on in the book we get to feel Offred’s rage and desperation, but she only lets it out for a little while, aware that she must control her feelings. She is just a body, she must remind herself.
The pace of the novel is so slow, as to create the sensation of living in Gilead. The first time Mrs. Atwood, through Offred’s eyes, describes the coitus between Fred and Offred, with not even the tiniest detail left out, it seemed so grotesque to me, perhaps worse even than a lot of disgusting porn scenes. But as the novel goes forward and we are lulled into our surroundings knowing that there is no way out, I became indifferent to those sex practices, as if Offred surely doesn’t even feel any of that anymore.
The feeling of getting used to the horrible present is amazingly matched with the pace and the voice of the novel. Somehow the reader, though horrified by an idea of any system functioning the way Gileadean does, realizes “they” have the power and there’s hardly anything to do about it but succumb.
What I missed a little in this novel was Margaret Atwood’s wonderful, sharp sense of humor. There were a few sentences that really reflected it, but not many. Of course, too much funny stuff could ruin the realistic atmosphere of Gilead. After I’m done reading it, I take in a breath full of air and remind myself how lucky I am to be free (regardless of what some people might be saying about our “freedom”; as Offred says once: playing Scrabble is freedom, being allowed to read and work and fall in love is freedom; we should respect that more.)