Dystopian Fiction or Visionary Prophesy
By Miriam R. Kramer
As a teenager in 1985 I first ran across Margaret Atwood’s newly published work, The Handmaid’s Tale, at Old Town’s wonderful Olsson’s Books & Records, which formerly stood on S. Union Street in Alexandria. I was taken aback by the power and simplicity of her writing. This classic work of radical dystopian fiction describes the fate and musings of one woman, Offred, a Handmaid in a monotheocracy called Gilead, formed after the imagined destruction of the United States of America. Recently Atwood’s powerful book has been adapted into an equally riveting series on the streaming network Hulu.
In this patriarchal post-American society, martial law and a totalitarian regime controls the movement of all citizens and women in particular, all of whom must cleave to traditionally interpreted monotheistic, puritanical values, or suffer terrible punishments. Those in charge twist the Bible’s words into propaganda, dividing women into high-status Wives, nun-like propagandists and teachers known as Aunts, servant slaves such as Handmaids and Marthas (housekeepers/cooks), low-status Econowives, and finally the Unwomen, those too unruly to do anything but shovel toxic waste in the Colonies until they die, or others who serve as speakeasy-style prostitutes. No women work outside the home, and none, even those with higher status, are allowed to read and write.
Fertile women are particularly prized for their ability to continue the human race, since disease and chemical waste in the former United States have caused sterility among the population at large. Therefore, those few women proven to be fertile who are not already married to high-ranking Commanders in the rigidly conservative new hierarchy are requisitioned as Handmaids. They exist as puritanically dressed sexual slaves subject to impregnation on religious monthly Ceremony Days. Handmaids bear the burden of continuing to populate the country in pleasure-free, wife-supervised rituals with these powerful men.
Having binged the television series on Hulu when it came out, I was compelled to re-visit the book.
June, a woman renamed Offred in the world of Gilead, since she is now the property “of Fred,” embodies a cloudy mournfulness and the lonely ambivalence of a woman whose existence is circumscribed and unwillingly focused, a mother whose first child has been taken away by Gilead’s police state. Her whole value now centers on her ability to bear another child, one that she might love, but one that would be taken away from her and given to her Commander and his faded wife, a cynical Tammy Faye Bakker–like former singer and televangelist.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood shows her ability to write earthily and realistically in penning frank and often-brutal conversations between the Handmaids, their contemporaries, and their captors, of whom few trust one another. In capturing the complexity of Offred’s first-person flashes back to her life as a wife, mother, and daughter, she portrays a world where the former June took freedoms easily, despite her own mother’s historic marching and struggling for women’s rights. Atwood poetically pens gorgeous images, as Offred’s daydreaming of swollen, fecund symbols of nature and appreciation of lovely flowers in her Commander’s garden reveals a desperate will to survive, one that keeps her grasping towards hope and any tiny visual or sensual gratification available.
The author has aptly imagined what it is like to be a prisoner for whom pleasure and freedom is proscribed, like a house slave on a Southern plantation, fed adequately but subject to any kind of sexual or other physical violence; or a citizen of any totalitarian regime, isolated and made paranoid by the possibility of being betrayed by a superior, colleague, neighbor, or friend. Her writing moves along rapidly, despite its symbolic depth, and The Handmaid’s Tale will thoroughly reward fans of dystopian fiction. While not quite as action-oriented as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, fans of that trilogy, George Orwell’s 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may enjoy it.
I urge everyone, even non-readers, to watch the streaming series on Hulu. I cannot stop thinking about it. The first episode, “Offred,” is one of the best, most riveting first episodes of any TV series I have seen. While not uplifting, it is utterly compelling and addictive, with redemptive moments and a skillful interspersing of Offred’s current life and flashbacks to her earlier life as June, mother and wife. It is less contemplative and much more action-focused than the novel. I have never seen another series like it.
Expect The Handmaid’s Tale to receive a slew of *Emmy nominations come award season. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as Offred. The directing, acting, television adaptation, cinematography, and soundtrack are eerie, beautiful, and terrifying. For once, the book is not absolutely superior to the filmed version. They are two separate entities that enhance one another. The series has already departed somewhat from the book, and promises to continue to do so in Season Two.
In America, entities like Planned Parenthood and women’s legal rights over their own bodies are either on the funding chopping block or subject to alarming erosion. Every severe indignity and crime against women from The Handmaid’s Tale is also practiced somewhere in the world today, so this series has an even greater global resonance. Still, the reader and watcher must remember the mock-Latin phrase Offred finds scratched at the bottom of her closet by an unknown former Handmaid: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Despite her circumstances, Offred never does.
Publishers Note: This column is a reprint from the July 2017 issue. Miriam accepted a last minute invitation to attend a Sister Cities International Africa Summit in Capetown, South Africa and asked that we publish a previous column that was relative to “Women’s History Month”. We decided that this review was a perfect fit. She will be back with a brand new column next month.
*The Handmaid’s Tale garnered several Emmy nominations and Awards in 2017 as she predicted. There are now five seasons available now and an official renewal for a sixth and final season was confirmed in September of 2022. No release date has been set.