The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, but there is no year in which a woman could read it and not feel as though it were speaking directly to her. It is ever-red and ever-ready, as constantly in season as feminism and the forces against it. It’s been in the news again lately, held up as a dire prophecy of where the War on Women may lead us, if the U.S. election falls to another lifelong misogynist. It was made into an imperfect, unsettling film in 1990. It will soon be a television series starring Samira Wiley, so that another generation of viewers can grapple with the servitude of women in the discomforting closeness and intimacy of the small screen, this time adding the intersection of race to the tale, if only implicitly.
As an author of decidedly feminist speculative fiction, this book is always with me. This incendiary novel’s recent return to pop culture is fortuitous, but immaterial to me. In my life and my work, this book is the North Star, reminding me always which way I should be going and to what standard I should rise. Margaret Atwood did something practically unique and truly innovative. The subject of the apocalypse and what comes after is as old as the world itself, yet almost no other author at that time had written about the inherent asymmetry of widespread chaos and reorganization, how it always impacts women differently. The Handmaid’s Tale looks at patriarchal ideas of what is ‘better,’ and reminds us that, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” Margaret Atwood gendered the apocalypse.
She also put into words one of the most difficult concepts in fiction and in life: the impossibility of recognition for people with no example. As someone more succinct than I once said: we cannot be what we cannot see. The women of the oppressive state of Gilead, separated into brood mares, wives, and nursemaids based on their fertility and relative moral character, are personified by the main character. Her name is Offred, which is to signify that she belongs as property to Fred, her patriarch. She and a class of women like her are given to married couples to act as sexual and obstetric surrogates, as justified by the Old Testament story of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, and Bilhah. However, she and her cohort are what the book calls the “transitional generation.”
“You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way. She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.”
As part of this transition, the main character of the novel remembers the way things used to be and the period of change; she recalls lamenting to her partner when she could no longer hold a driver’s license or have her own bank account. She remembers freedom of movement, of choice, and of having her own name. However, the “aunts” of indoctrination are actively engaged in creating a system that will teach the next generation of girls that the way things are is the way they have always been, the one correct way, and the way they must be.
The erasure of history and attempted extinction of an idea is the subtlest, most insidious form of control. Most authors allow it to happen in the background, or thrust it confidently into the narrative. Certainly Atwood owes something of a debt to Orwell for her linguistic tics (noncompliant women in the new order as “Unwomen,” for example.) But few authors grasp this slippery central issue of intentionally moulding the consciousness of a people toward their own oppression. I’ve had glancing contact with it in protagonists who grope blindly toward being without seeing. Women’s lib analog Peggy Olson on Mad Men mentions in an aspirational rant the defining characteristic of career women that she thinks of as better than herself because “they want things they haven’t seen.”
It is hardest for those who know what they have lost to let it go, especially if the loss was freedom. It is impossible for those who don’t know to aspire to what they deserve. As the handmaid says, “Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you.” Knowing is temptation, and outside of a moral rigidity that makes desire into dirt, temptation is all that compels us. We must want in order to live.
The next generation in The Handmaid’s Tale is unknown to the reader. The account of the main character is presented as a primary source on the Republic of Gilead by scholars in another place, another time. The reader is lead to understand that Gilead is no more, but its tale has no handmaid of its own. The Handmaid’s Tale is an artifact within an artifact; an historical record told by an intradiegetic narrator whose successor never speaks.
Atwood, however, is ever-read and ever-ready, succeeded by others following her North Star. P.D. James’ novel Children of Men came out a decade later and picked up the threads of a gendered apocalypse, engaging directly with a crisis of fertility. Nearly every other book that speculates on the life after the end of the world follows men on their quests and casts women as objects (Ofcormacmccarthy, Ofwaltermiller, OflarryNiven) without biological function or essential character outside of their service to men. I’ve read a lot of books where women never get pregnant, never need birth control, and never seek menstrual hygiene supplies when raiding the ruins of a Wal-Mart. They do not want, and mostly they do not live.
For those of us who come after this transitional generation represented by Atwood and James, the ones who were able to make the leap and write women into apocalypses of their own, it is easier. We accept the work we must do with grateful hearts. Because we want the things they fought for then, that we are still fighting for now.
This is the work I am trying to do; to keep fighting that fight and try to see what’s beyond it. To write blind into the next world all that we cannot see and must still desire, must still become. To climb on top of the books that contain no women who are people, and catch sight of that North Star. I spent far too many years of my life with those books on my back.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is in fine bookstores today! Looking for a new book influenced by Margaret Atwood?
This one is it. Happy reading!