If I ever wished to write a thriller, something that yanked on a reader’s nerves page after page, I would try to emulate Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. I have never read anything so pregnant with tension. Every single scene is ripe with it in a way that can be exhausting. Many writers would not be able to do this. There are literary rules in place dictating that scenes of tension must be layered with more relaxing bits, maybe some comedy thrown in, and of course action. Atwood does away with convention, tosses the rules in front of a bus, because her subject matter demands that we do not relax. This is serious business; pay attention.
What The Handmaid’s Tale imagines is a world where a radical religious group generates a hostile takeover of the U.S. government and then institutes the kind of puritan laws one might find in and around the Salem Witch Trials. “They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics at the time,” Offred tells us as she describes the confusing era of change. Central to this religious purity is the idea that women are inferior to men as described in the Bible: see Genesis. Women are Wives, Marthas (maids), Aunts (teacher nuns), and of course Handmaids. The sole purpose of a Handmaid is to provide a vessel for procreation. They are slaves whose only purpose is to bear children – children that they aren’t even allowed to keep. That honor goes to the Wives.
This is a bleak future.
The crux of this takeover is a simple enough. At some point in humanity’s history, people no longer proved as fertile as we had been for the previous ten thousand years. The reasons for this are shrouded, but Atwood hints at the levels of toxicity in the air, as well as the disinterest of newer generations in procreation. Children became rare, and this was seen as divine punishment by far-right groups. This environment creates a situation where regime change is all but certain.
An early question posed by the reader is: why do the Handmaids stand for their captivity? Many do not, and suicide is as common as open rebellion. But many see it as a contribution, and if they show the ability to do what many cannot, they are lifted up. The book is never clear as to how they are lifted up, but the hope is there.
Atwood explores big themes with this book. She looks at the way people are able to warp religion to fit their own narratives. The ruling party in The Handmaid’s Tale claim that their divine law is one of Christianity. They hang Catholics and Jews and anyone else who falls outside of the WASP dynamic, and cherry-pick the Bible for words and phrases that back up their claims. They make very little mention of Jesus Christ. In short, they are not so different from your common televangelist. It’s all fire and brimstone and very little forgiveness.
Atwood also dances around the notion of contrast. Several times in the novel, those in power explain what life was like before, when rapes were common and women were butchered and left to rot in the woods. They exaggerate this, no doubt, but they aren’t wrong. Rule under the new regime is one of stability and safety. Atwood later mirrors this when one of the Handmaid’s falls in love, and her feelings are so much stronger in captivity than they ever were when she was free and married. It is the mastery of Atwood’s writing that plays both sides off one another, and while her overall intention is clear (totalitarian rule is bad and women are people too), her ability to provide arguments to both sides is testament to her skills as a thought-provoking storyteller.
The Handmaid’s Tale is as much a horror novel as it is dystopic. Offred (yes, Of Fred) provides an interesting viewpoint into this world. She often meanders in her narrative, indulging in the writing of her story as a way of rebelling against the system. Her mind is free, even if her body is not. But she always returns to the cold, dichotomous reality of her own slavery and of the constant hope that she will conceive a child. She may have mental freedom at times, but her thoughts are ever on captivity and survival.
I hope that Margaret Atwood’s imagination is more powerful than human capability. She chills the soul with The Handmaid’s Tale. She creates monsters under the collective bed of society, and in creating a novel with tension on every page, I hope she is able to push readers out of their relaxing bubbles and into a vigilance against tyranny that I hope exists within every human being. Avoid reading this one if you like your bubble.