Literary Wonderlands: The World of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
“God is a National Resource” in this remarkably powerful, feminist dystopian novel about a repressive American theocratic dictatorship.
In 1984, when Margaret Atwood began writing her dystopia set in a near-futureAmerica, she made the decision not to include technology that was not already available, nor anything human beings had not already done in some other time or place, so she could not be accused of, as she put it, “misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.”
The transformation of the U.S. into a theocratic dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead has been brought about by true believers, religious fanatics driven by a determination to establish God’s kingdom on Earth, much as the Puritan settlers (who included some of Atwood’s ancestors) were determined to do in seventeenth-century New England.
Prior to the beginning of the novel, fundamentalist Christian extremists assassinated the president and Congress, pinning the blame on Islamic terrorists and allowing their army to declare a state of emergency, in which the Constitution is “temporarily” suspended, news is censored, identity cards issued, and, with the new religious rulers in place, new rules imposed. Overnight, women lose the right to have jobs, or bank accounts, or to do anything except submit to the will of their husbands. And all are subject to the rule of the Commanders of the Faith, who claim biblical authority for every act, having abolished any distinction between church and state.
The narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is a young woman known only as Offred—“Of Fred”—designated as the legal concubine of a high-ranking Commander whose first name is Fred. Only a few years before, she had a name and a job, a husband and a child, friends, and freedoms she took for granted. But the family left it too late to cross into Canada with fake passports, and now her husband is either dead or in detention, her daughter adopted by a childless couple. The only thing keeping Offred from being shipped off to perform slave labor in “the Colonies” is the possibility she might bear a baby for the Commander and his wife. For another major element driving this bleak vision of the future is that from a multitude of causes—including radiation, pollution, and untreated STDs—there has been a steep drop in human fertility, so women of child-bearing age and proven fertility are very valuable.
The biblical book of Genesis includes the story of Jacob, who married two sisters, Rachel and Leah. When Rachel produced no children, she told Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah: “and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Thus, under a regime that fears and mistrusts all science, preferring to find the answer to every problem through selective reading of an ancient book, the solution to childlessness, at least in the upper ranks, is to establish Rachel and Leah Centers for the indoctrination of “handmaids” to be assigned to the households of all childless Commanders. (Naturally, the centers are not named after the handmaidens who had Jacob’s children, but after his wives.)
In Gilead, society is rigidly hierarchical and divided by gender: Commanders of the Faith at the top; below them the Eyes (secret police), then Angels (soldiers), Guardians (low-level police duties), all male civilians, and all women. Women have no power of their own, and are valued only as wives and the producers of babies. Some unmarried women are assigned other roles by the state—the “Aunts” who indoctrinate and control those who have been selected as potential surrogate mothers and “Marthas” who work as cooks and cleaners. A few women survive by practicing the oldest profession—a brothel known as Jezebel’s is permitted to thrive, and the men in power take liberties forbidden to others.
If a handmaid fails to conceive after three different postings she is declared an “Unwoman” and sent off to “the Colonies.” This is a euphemism for forced labor camps, where lives are brutal and short. Women likewise become “unwomen” if they refuse to submit, or the men in power have no more use for them.
Women are not the only victims of this repressive, rigidly stratified, coercively heterosexual, white dictatorship. Enemies of the state regularly tortured and then executed include Catholic priests, Quakers, doctors (if they ever performed an abortion, prescribed contraception, or are accused of having done so), and “gender traitors.” African-Americans, called “Children of Ham,” have been resettled in distant, underpopulated areas such as North Dakota, now designated a “National Homeland,” and Jews were given a choice between conversion and emigration to Israel.
Offred’s life as a handmaid is relatively easy, but deeply boring. Most of her time is spent waiting. The occasions when the Commander must attempt to impregnate her are as de-sexualized as intercourse can possibly be (“This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty.”) and she wonders if it is worse for his wife, or for her. Her room is as bare as a prison cell, almost everything we would take for granted is classed as a luxury (hand cream) or a sin (reading). She is marked out by her red robes, as the wives are by their blue ones and the Marthas in green. Her daily walk is taken with another handmaid, and they are expected to police each other: If one tries to escape or does anything wrong, the other will be punished, too.
No one is allowed to suggest that a man could be sterile—infertility is always the woman’s fault. But of course it is known, and the Commander’s wife is desperate enough for a baby to arrange for Offred to spend time alone with Nick, their handsome young chauffeur. Their intimacy, after so much deprivation and misery, is almost enough to reconcile her to her situation. How little it takes, to make someone stop resisting. How easy it is to be distracted.
Although every aspect of this society is supposedly justified by the Word of God, as presented in the Bible, only the Commanders are allowed to read it, and they use it selectively, to say the least. A famous line from Karl Marx, changed to include the expected relationship between women and men, is attributed to St. Paul when repeated to the handmaids-in-training: “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”
The city where Offred serves is never named, but it is evidently Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. The university where Margaret Atwood once studied has become the seat of oppression, a detention center, and the site of mass executions. Atwood has said that one of the elements that inspired her to write The Handmaid’s Tale was a fascination with how dictatorships work (“not unusual in a person born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II”). She explained: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. The deep foundation of the U.S.—so went my thinking—was not the comparatively recent eighteenth-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of seventeenth-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”
- First published by McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
- Margaret Atwood dedicated the book to Mary Webster and Perry Miller. Mary Webster, believed by Atwood to have been one of her ancestors, was hanged as a witch in Puritan New England, but survived.
- A 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) national survey conducted on U.S. Republican voters found that fifty-seven percent wanted to establish Christianity as the official national religion, and only thirty percent were opposed to the idea, which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution.