2015 Reading Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale

A book you can finish in a day:

Began my 2015 Reading Challenge with a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, written by an author whose prose and poetry both move me profoundly: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Illustrations from Anna and Elena Balbusso

Published in 1985, this novel was later dubbed by critics to be just like ‘Orwell’s 1984, but for women.’ It’s telling that women have their own special kind of dystopian hell, because it simultaneously signifies a kind of oppression that men simply do not face in reality, as well as the ghettoisation of women’s literature that so often discounts the universality of female authorship and experiences.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where ecological disasters and modern lifestyles have created a vast decrease in birth rates and widespread sterility. In order to ensure our survival as a population, a new order is born where non-elite women who are found to be fertile will serve as Handmaids, essentially a birthing machine for the upper class families. In this society, men of a certain rank are entitled to a wife, who takes care of the household, a Handmaid, who serves as a vessel for birth in cases where the wives are sterile (cos in this society it’s never the man who’s sterile yeah), and a Martha, who is an older, non-fertile woman who does the cooking and cleaning. It’s the trifecta of oppression for womanhood – of our wifely duties, domestic labour, and reproductive responsibilities. For these men and their Handmaids, sex is never romantic or lustful; it’s simply a means to an end, taken place in a Ceremony where the Handmaid lies as a conduit between the wife and the husband.

After finishing the book, I saw that someone online had called it ‘the dumbest dystopian story ever written,’ and I immediately thought: he must be a dude. Because as a woman, the book is terrifying because of how possible it is. Because institutions such as nations and public spaces staking a claim on female bodies is something that every woman goes through, to some extent. As a Singaporean woman, we are always called upon by the nation to do our duty by creating more babies. Such a duty is simply not placed on the shoulders of Singaporean men, despite their part being equally essential.

Yet, at the end of the day, dystopia is dystopia. Just as it is terrifying that society organises women via their fertility (the Unwomen are ferried off to the Colonies to do cleanup work), it is frightening in equal measure that men are expected to behave without love, lust, morality, affection, greed, freedom, envy… So many dystopian novels are similar because all extreme ways of organising society can never snuff out humanity, in all its shortcomings and all its beauty. Atwood succeeds at this: revealing the true nature of mankind, and how many parallels our current society shares with this dystopian imagining.

My favourite part of the book is Atwood’s decision to explore this new society at its very beginning. The protagonist Offred (literally ‘Of Fred,’ her Commander) is the very first generation of Handmaids, and she still remembers a past life of normalcy, freedom, a husband, and a child. She remembers how it was like before, and she still holds on to fragments of her family. As I read the book, I kept waiting for the next moment she would find her husband or her child, but thinking back on this, I should have known that it was damn near impossible, and even Offred was resigned to leaving them behind in her memories, even in the very same moment she relished them. I love the consistent shifts between the dystopian present and the nostalgic past, and the talking about them in the same breath, precisely because were they really so different?

When the very first moves against women were made in the novel’s universe by freezing their bank accounts, Offred is terrified, but her husband Luke doesn’t get what the big deal is. He can just support them, he says. That crippling feeling of having no power is female-specific in this book, while the men can never truly understand, because they benefit from the system, or appear to. As Offred says,

“I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.” (also see: Gaslighting)

One of the most interesting things to me was how Offred was brought up as very much a second-generation feminist. A part of the book shows us Offred’s mother in flashback, who reminded Offred that many women’s lives and women’s bodies had to be sacrificed in marches, protests and rallies in order to even get to a stage where her husband would do some cooking. This is something Offred doesn’t recognise or bother to recognise, even just as she benefits from the gains of feminism, of all the things women of the previous generation have achieved for her. And this reminds me so much of a quote from Amy Poehler:

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And of course, it also reminds me of how many women of my generation are so complacent of our place in the world today, saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist; it’s too strong a word’ even as the privilege to speak their minds, to have that very opinion, to be heard, to debate, to insist on their stand, even as this very privilege was something that feminism fought for them.

In Offred’s case, she quickly learns that what feminism gained can quickly be dismantled and transformed into a nightmare that simply won’t go away. For some of us in real life, this nightmare continues to stay. For others, we are lucky enough.

The Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous in its prose – rich in detail and bursting to the seams in emotion. While Atwood’s intricate writing is hardly naturalistic, and can be overwhelming at times, I promise you following it to the very end will be worth it.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood