Literature, with the naughty bits

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1986

In a Nutshell: Atwood creates a future dystopia in which the United States has just become an oppressive fundamentalist dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. Women are no longer allowed to read, work, or hold property; rather, they are property, assigned to men, and their sole purpose is to reproduce. Our guide through this world is Offred, the handmaid to a high-ranking Commander in the regime. (Offred is not her real name; the handmaids' names depend on their Commanders' names. Atwood never reveals Offred's real name--which, of course, makes it that much easier for the reader to substitute her own.) Despite extensive reeducation she remembers her life before, and pines for escape.

Censorhip History: It's always ironic when people try to censor a book that is, ultimately, about the futility of such efforts. Almost every character here finds a tiny or not-so-tiny way to defy the oppressive system, just as almost every interested 10-year-old finds a way to read what's on the school library's age-restricted shelf.

What's here to raise hackles? Well, the sexual content, of course. It's hardly the sort of sex you encounter in Valley of the Horses, but it is sex, and it takes place in a world defined by sex. Or, rather, defined by the renunciation of sex for purposes other than procreation. So it doesn't paint the most attractive picture of the Abstinence-Only movement, or of the loudmouth extremists who like to wave their Bibles around while they denounce other people's choices. (Not that Abstinence-Only deserves a flattering portrait.) A major character is a lesbian, and not in any way that might lead kids to think lesbianism is a sinful choice--she's a total badass, the one you want to be. (Not that lesbianism is a sinful choice.)There's also some incidental use of the f-word. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In Atwood's future, Texas is an independent republic again. You'd think that might have won some points with Texans. Not so: The San Antonio public schools considered banning The Handmaid's Tale on the grounds that it contained graphic sexual content and was offensive to Christians. One would-be censor, in what could be a verbatim line from the reeducation center's Aunt Lydia, claimed, "I have a responsibility to the country and our community to speak up for the values that will strengthen our society." (In an open letter, Atwood responded wryly, "It's encouraging to know the written word is still taken so seriously.") Texas isn't the only case--Handmaid is high on the ALA's list of most censored books--but it's one of the most recent.

Is it just the sex? There's far more graphic sexual content out there, and some of it is in classrooms too. I think the real problem is closer to what Atwood describes: women's liberation makes certain people very, very uncomfortable.

Fundamentally, this is a book about power--the forms it takes, how we wield it, who suffers under it. It explores the essentially benevolent motivations of the people who have created the new regime. If you care about government or civil rights, this is a great read; it's a glimpse inside what Paul Johnson calls a utopian dictatorship. And if you care about women's rights, you must read this, no question. (Atwood's status in the historically male-dominated genre of literary sci-fi has to count as another victory for feminism.)

That said, it's not really a book for kids. No one below high school is likely to grasp the real horror of the government's imposition into women's lives and bodies (though here's a blogger who read Handmaid at 12 and thereby gained her first real feminist awareness). It may take a serious relationship or two before you understand how awful it is for Offred to be torn from her husband and daughter or for the Commander's Wife to watch the Commander's forced procreation with Offred. It may take several years of earning your own living before you feel in your gut the utter betrayal of having the rules changed to take all that away from you. I first read Handmaid in high school, read it next as the Taliban was blowing up statues, and just read it again; different parts have hit home each time. As Clifton Fadiman points out, "When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before." But none of that is an excuse for censorship.

Real-World Correspondences: Of course, any story about the future is really a story about the present. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood takes numerous social trends of the 1980s and extends them to their logical and chilling conclusions. But she also works within the known world so well that it's not hard to glimpse the borders of Gilead as you walk down your street.

The Reagan era was not a happy time for reproductive rights. Nor was it a particularly promising time for women, period. There were rumblings about the dropping U.S. birth rate (though in fact it remained at replacement level. As Susan Faludi documents in Backlash, many religious and political ideologues, unhappy about the recent gains of the women's movement, exhorted women to remember their sacred duty of motherhood. (The embittered Commander's Wife, a former televangelist, is a clear nod to figures such as Beverly LaHaye and Tammy Faye Bakker; she seems to have realized too late that achieving her goals would require her to stop working.) Women's newfound sexual freedom and abortion rights were particular sticking points. By the decade's end, "fetal rights" activism was responsible for several forced cesarians and at least one pregnant woman's being shackled to her hospital bed.

Of course, the fetal rights folks--who sometimes referred to women as "incubators"--knew the value of nomenclature. That preoccupation carries into Handmaid's Tale. Like much U.S. culture in the 1980s, the Republic of Gilead is a triumph of marketing. Extensive market research has gone into the definition of roles, the design of uniforms, the naming of events.

Atwood also explores the Reagan-era nuclear nightmare: part of the reason the birth rate is so low is that the rate of birth defects has skyrocketed. Toxic waste from industrial pollution and a series of nuclear accidents has contaminated nearly everyone. Other people have fallen prey to that other Reagan-era nightmare, AIDS, or a drug-resistant strain of syphilis. Atwood understands the decade's neuroses so thoroughly it's a wonder she doesn't also create some surprisingly lethal side effect of wearing shoulder pads.

If the women's uniforms--voluminous, shapeless, all-concealing, with mandatory hats and veils--remind you of chador, that's no accident. Atwood drew a great deal of inspiration from a 1978 trip to Afghanistan. Some details also, clearly, come from the Holocaust: the new regime is purged of blacks and Jews, and the handmaids all receive identifying tattoos. In fact, when people argued that the book should be censored because of the horrible inhumanity it depicts, Atwood pointed out that it doesn't show anything that hasn't actually happened.

Just think about that for a second.

Eerily Prescient Bits: The coup that leads to the creation of the Republic of Gilead is initially blamed on "Islamic fascists" so the new government has a scapegoat as well as an excuse for suspending the Constitution. And the new government creates some "National Homeland" something-or-others, which hits a bit too close for comfort.

Atwood also accurately foresaw the dominance of paying by electronic debit rather than cash; in Gilead, this allows the government to freeze all women's assets. I still occasionally get a what-if chill when I reach for my debit card.

What Else: I can't believe I just posted a link to Beverly LaHaye's site. From an anti-censorship blog, at that. I feel filthy.

And Perhaps You'd Like to Pair That With: Backlash, for a sobering look at the real-life trends behind the made-up world; The Kite Runner, for an example of life under the Taliban; Brave New World and 1984, for other classic fictional dystopias.