Confession: I have a bit of a writer’s crush on Margaret Atwood. It all started with a little book called The Blind Assassin and I have wanted to write like her ever since. I somehow managed to avoid reading The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, but now that I have, I can see why everyone I know who did read it hates it. It’s one of those books that study can destroy; exhaustive analysis ruins something of the magic in the story. And I do believe there is a magic to it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred. Not “offered,” as I first read it, but “of Fred.” As in, owned by Fred. She is a Handmaid, a fertile woman given to one of the Commanders with the sole purpose of helping him and his wife conceive a child. Because of pollution, fertility rates have fallen dramatically, to the point where children are highly coveted. To be a Handmaid is actually considered a position of privilege because, unlike a Martha (a servant) or an Econowife (a housewife), the only “job” a Handmaid has is to bear children for those couples who are having difficulty conceiving. In fact, Offred’s Commander’s Wife is so desperate to have a child that she suggests that Offred have an affair with Nick, the driver, and pass the child off as the Commander’s. The catch? This is highly illegal.
The post-apocalyptic nation of Gilead — which has risen up in place of the United States — is a highly stratified, rigidly policed society, where sex is completely outlawed. Women are completely and utterly controlled, and while Atwood’s future is nowhere near as terrifying as Orwell’s 1984, I actually found it not only more sinister, but more plausible. Everything presented in The Handmaid’s Tale is about image, and maintaining the image of orthodoxy. Any cracks in this image, any hints of dissent and the Eyes will come to take you away to the Colonies to do what is essentially slave labour until you die, usually within three years.
It’s a far less intrusive vision of the future, even though the state is as rigidly controlling as it is in 1984. But because of the lack of thoughtcrime or thought police, in Gilead individuality can still lurk beneath the surface or beneath a Handmaid’s red uniform; however, any expression of that individuality is enough to warrant her death. Where 1984 terrifies with the erasure of self, The Handmaid’s Tale terrifies with the confinement of self, which in many ways is more torturous. Thought is still possible in this society, and thus is knowledge of what is going on, but that knowledge inspires only a sense of powerlessness and helplessness.
In this way, I actually feel like The Handmaid’s Tale is far more comparable to something like Neuromancer than it is to 1984. (Which is not surprising, since they were published a year apart.) In Neuromancer, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s that sense of struggling individuality being constantly attacked at every turn. Instead of getting an overwhelming feeling of government and oppression, you get an intense engagement with a single individual. What are the prosthetics worn by almost everyone in Neuromancer but another kind of uniform meant to regulate their identities and describe their place in society, the same way the red habits of the Handmaids do?
Yet I still think the biggest difference between this book and all of the others is how the government is presented. In all the other books so far, government has largely been this faceless, nameless, unknowable machine to fight against. I actually found it to be a bit more human in The Handmaid’s Tale. At one point Offred’s Commander says “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs… We thought we could do better.” Better than those who have come before, supposedly, yet I feel like there’s a tinge of remorse when the Commander says this, having just found out how Offred feels about her place in society. In my mind, this remorse gestures, like Atwood says her ending does, towards a brighter future and the idea that even this government will fall, because within every dystopia lies an imagined utopia.
The difference between Atwood and the other writers on this list is that she shows us the seeds of undoing for the world she has created.