I first reviewed The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, here.
It was a difficult read so I gave the novel a bad review. In hindsight, I can see how good this novel is. Why?
A whole new world – Aladdin
The society Offred lives in, the house servant who’s imposed role is to have a baby with the Commander, the master of the house, is a fundamental Christian version of a near-future-US undergoing a fertility and population crisis.
State imposed breeding must happen under conditions as un-sexy as those sex-Ed videos you watched at school. In Offred’s case, it is a delicate power dynamic, between Offred, the Commander and his infertile wife. Who has the power?
You could argue the Commander does, yet he is vulnerable because he craves intimacy and tenderness from Offred. His wife has some power, as Mistress of the house, but she cannot conceive and must allow her husband to penetrate another woman. Offred has zero choice in the situation and is entirely at their mercy. She tries to claw back some power by acquiescing to the Commanders requests for intimacy, as a means of bartering some liberty.
The novel is certainly a comment on religion. The society is a Christian, Fundamentalist theocratic regime in a future with a fertility crisis. What would really happen if this came about?
When there was a population crisis in China, the one child policy in 1980, led to abortions and abandoned babies in orphanages. It isn’t so far-fetched to imagine a government intervention in the reproductive rights of the population.
In 1985, the year this book was written, EMILY’S List was founded, with a manifesto to elect pro-abortion female Democrats to office, for example.
Punishment for non-compliance
Offred was married to Luke, who she met while he was still married and their subsequent daughter is taken from them and given to a good Christian couple who cannot conceive. Offred is stripped of her job, her bank account, her husband, even her name and is essentially sold into sex slavery by the state.
It is Christian moralizing that I believe is the crux of The Handmaid’s Tale. If you do not follow a very strict and narrow Christian path, you will be punished, in Offred’s case mentally and physically. Public hanging is brought back as a deterrent. Again, this isn’t so far fetched. In 1985, 258 people were sentenced to capital punishment in the US
Offred is synonymous with the Biblical maid to Rachel, Bilhah who bears children to Jacob when Rachel cannot. Offred’s husband is called Luke. The Book of Luke teaches sinners how to pray for repentance with The Lord’s Prayer.
Luke 11:2 “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us….thine is the Glory”
Indeed, “Blessed be the fruit” and “praise be” are two of the acceptable phrases to utter in public. Their everyday language – like their civil liberties – are stolen, a similar conceit used in Orwell’s 1984, and Dalcher’s 2018 novel Vox.
In the US and UK alike, certain sections of faith communities are in direct opposition to campaigners for women’s right to abortion for unwanted pregnancy, contraception and even in some cases, the right to say “no” when someone grabs you by the p***y, for instance.
This dystopian future with a very narrow margin of error for expected conduct is a society where no one wins, and everyone is unhappy.
In the decade that began with Lady Diana removing the verb “obey” from her wedding vows to Prince Charles, and ended with the US banning all abortions in public hospitals, this is an important book that was crying out for progressive conversations around the reproductive rights of women, nearly 40 years ago.