13 November 2016

Books: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

While reading The Handmaid’s Tale (starting it a days after 2016 general election), I got a sense that the story obviously comes from a certain era in my timeline, a certain political epoch I would say. But reading it now, for the first time, much of what happens in this book could come to pass under future president Trump.

But Margret Atwood’s novel was released in 1985 at the height of the Reagan era, when the Moral Majority and Christian anti-feminist like Phyllis Schlafly and televangelist Tammy Faye-Bakker were riding the American airwaves convinced that any and all problems the United States was having can be easily blamed on all liberals, but their ire was mostly directed a women and feminists, especially the hard line ones who eschewed traditional roles of females in American society and, of course, gay men who refused, in the age of AIDS, to be ignored anymore. 

“Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women's rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labeled by gender. The new regime, the Republic of Gilead, moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsory regime of Old Testament- -inspired social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. In this new theocracy society, human rights are severely limited and women's rights are unrecognized as almost all women are forbidden to read. The story is told in the first person by a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). The character is one of a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and known as "handmaids" by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander"). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid.”

There is a lot of poetic gimmickry to this book, which was a bit distracting for me, but the fact that the book has remained in print, is widely read in AP course on literature in High Schools across the US (and would assume Canada as well, considering Atwood is a Canadian) and is considered just as important novel as 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and A Brave New World shows that whatever plot devices Atwood used, it still a brilliant work of speculative fiction. 

While how the Sons of Jacob go about their coup d’etat is a bit unrealistic today, and maybe back in the mid-1980s, it still all seems a possibility as we moved forward with Donald Trump as our next president. The next 4 to 8 years will either lead the nation to a dystopian world of the 19th century or (I would hope) a better United States. Still, I must also admit, the worlds that made up the classic novel 1984 never materialized, along with many other novels in this genre. Still, as Atwood has pointed out, everything that does happen to these women has actually occurred over the centuries. 

The question is, can those things, that subjugation of women happen in 2017? Because men like Trump, men like those in religious power, as writer Adi Robertson pointed out in 2014 when talking about Atwood’s book, “don’t oppress women because they hate or fear them, but because they can’t empathize enough to love them when it becomes inconvenient.”

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