Given how many dystopian books I’ve read (I even have a whole shelf of them on GoodReads), the recently released adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu,
and the fact that I had a free Audible credit, the circumstances aligned to let me spend the last week or so working my way through The Handmaid’s Tale in audiobook on my way to and from work. Surprisingly, considering it’s a bastion of the genre,
and the inspiration for a whole slew of books that I’ve read and enjoyed,
or outright loved (Only Ever Yours for love, Bumped/Thumped for enjoyed),
I actually didn’t really like this all that much.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
So the basic story of this book is that there’s been some kind of revolution, and women have had all their rights removed, and are reduced to single functions – wives, daughters, Marthas, Aunts, Econowives, or the titular Handmaid that Offred’s first person account introduces us to.
While lots of the themes of the book were chilling and offered a stark and bleak look at the position of women and their subjugation as they are reduced to their reproductive capacity, or menial labour. Not permitted to read, associate, work, the feminist themes of this book are strong. From that point of view, it’s a strong piece of work, iconic in its field as a piece of speculative fiction which takes to its logical end the worrying attitudes towards women, and even men, in the 1980s, accelerating forward to a point (probably around 2005) where society has utterly changed, and the Republic of Gilead has created this stratified society where women have very little status, and men are strictly divided into different classes and categories.
So from a feminist perspective, it was hugely interesting, but as a dystopia, I just didn’t buy it. Offred is young enough to remember going to college, marrying, having a child, and the freedom of association, dress, and conduct which was expected and normal in her own childhood and early adulthood. And yet she has been so totally subjugated, indeed many women have, that society has been entirely revamped, and it’s just accepted that this is the new world order? In a timespan short enough that Offred is still in her childbearing years? I just don’t buy it.
The governmental overthrow and coup was orchestrated by a fundamental religious group known as the Sons of Jacob, who eliminated the President and the Cabinet in one fell swoop, giving them the chance to enact martial law and suspend the Constitution, then create the Republic of Gilead, prizing fertility massively and taking proven fertile women as the handmaids of those families deemed to ‘deserve’ a child. But there’s just a lot in this that I don’t understand. If Moira was in the red centre with Offred, she must have also had a child, or else how did she end up in that centre? Plenty of other handmaids are mentioned, but their existing children aren’t given more than a passing thought.
I just don’t understand how more than 50% of the population could just roll over and accept that they’re no longer allowed to have jobs, money, read, or choose their own clothes. And in a short enough time that Offred’s daughter is still a child? We’re talking less than a decade here. Surely change cannot be enacted that quickly. I realise that all dystopia requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but I really feel like The Handmaid’s Tale was taking this too far.
At least with Only Ever Yours, it’s explained that women are actually manufactured, so that gives some explanation for why they just accept this as their lot, but The Handmaid’s Tale is women who’ve lived and loved and had the chances that are expected and deserved, so why did they just accept this sudden denigration of all their rights?
The lack of racial diversity in the book is also bizarre – there’s only a single mention of non-white characters, and they’re just dismissed as segregated into the midlands. Much like the case of women, I find it incredibly hard to believe anyone would just take this, whether they were those affected, or those close to them.
Structurally, then, I also didn’t particularly like the way the book was framed. Interestingly, because I listened to it on audiobook, it was actually closer to the way it is portrayed in the book itself, because Offred’s story is said to have been found on cassettes in a safehouse from the Gileadean period. The final twenty minutes of the book are presented as a discussion of these tapes and the attempt to verify their authenticity, by academics many later, in 2195. It’s implied that a more equal society exists now, but that grated with me. The final chapters are largely an information dump about the development of Gileadean society and the issues they faced with infertility etc in the time of the overthrowing of the government. Those final chapters felt, to me, like an easy way to fling in a lot of information which supports the shoddy world building in the tapes themselves. Funnily enough, I think I would have actually appreciated the book more without the final commentary – a world built by the recollections of a similar woman who doesn’t understand how it happened either is much more believable than a bunch of academics then trying to justify how this happened, and I was left kind of cold by the end of the book.
I appreciated a lot of the ambiguity of the book, the seedy underground which existed regardless of how strictly life was regulated, or how harsh the penalties were, the non-personhood of women (highlighted in particular by the character Ofglen, Offred’s shopping partner, in the final chapters), and the brutal, animalistic rituals which bonded the women together. The biblical undertones were hard to miss, with the Sons of Jacob, the use of biblical names and concepts, and the nature of language used throughout the book (including everyday greetings), and they underscored how patriarchal the society was, with men holding property and being the head of the household, sterility being attributed only to women, the prizing of male children over female, etc. There was loads in this book that was really, really great, and chilling to think about. I just don’t think that the framing was particularly stellar.
I can absolutely see why this is a cornerstone of dystopian fiction, a feminist holdfast, and still wildly popular thirty years after it was first published. I just didn’t really love it. Perhaps part of that was due to listening to an audiobook version, that I lost some of the impact it would have had on paper, or it was just that I’m a cantankerous old sod. Alternatively, it could be that because I read this book after I read others that were acclaimed as retellings of the handmaid’s tale, I was already jaded to the story. Whatever it was, while I acknowledge that this is definitely an important, chilling, and skillful book, it was definitely not for me.