When a TV adaptation is as widely acclaimed as Hulu’s new 10-part serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and is made with the original author on the production team, it doesn’t feel as bad as it sometimes can to admit that you saw the screen version before reading the book.
Nonetheless, it has an unavoidable effect on your reading experience. In my case, I picked up the book mid-series as part of my Classics Club challenge, meaning that the spoilers went both ways. But the benefit of this was the urgency with which Atwood’s 1985 dystopia was thus able to scream its continuing relevance.
(Methodological aside: I’ve started noting each book’s first sentence. As a writer, this is a subject of particular interest.)
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale
First sentence: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
Thus we’re thrown into the world of the Handmaids as wholly and unceremoniously as they were themselves.
Piecemeal, interspersed with her memories of the ‘time before’, the Handmaid Offred narrates the mix of horror and boredom that constitutes her life in Gilead, a brutal theonomy imposed on the ruins of America in which women have ranks but no rights. Her own function is to be a ‘two-legged womb’, kept for reproductive purposes by the largely sterile ruling classes. Gradually she learns of those who live on the illegal fringes of this new society: on one side the Mayday resistance, the underground rebel network; and on the other, the sleazy institutions where the Commanders can go for a night of relaxed morals. Offred’s own resistance to the forces that seek to grind her down is her determination to retain whatever minute vestiges of autonomy she can, and not to die from lack of love.
I’ve come to regard with awe Margaret Atwood’s mastery of multiple simultaneous genres, styles and temporal settings. Although the mix in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t as complex an arrangement as The Blind Assassin, for instance, in which the genres are nested four or five deep, there’s still an impressive number of facets to Atwood’s storytelling here.
On the surface, there’s Offred’s present-day reality, with its fanaticism, its regressive methods of punishment and its theatrically coloured cloaks, making it more reminiscent of Chaucer or high fantasy than anything remotely connected to modern-day America. Atwood uses this distance to explore all the extremes of human nature: the bad, the good, and especially the bad that thinks it’s good. The freedom to explore in this way is one of the core purposes of speculative fiction.
But it’s not idle speculation. This isn’t a medieval fantasy; there are guns and black vans, floodlights and computers. And Offred’s memories of ‘the time before’ build a secondary setting that’s far more familiar. What I like about this, apart from the suggestion that Gilead might be closer than we think, is that it enables Atwood to make passing comments about contemporary issues and attitudes that feed into, though playing no direct part in, the immediate story. Luke’s overprotective assurances, the Wives’ comments on the supposed promiscuity of the Handmaids, even Offred’s own bewilderment at the revealing clothes women once wore – none of this would feel entirely out of place in works of entirely non-speculative fiction.
And then there’s the epilogue. Atwood even gets in a send-up of academia.
The writing itself has endless levels of fascination for me too. One of the idiosyncrasies of Offred’s thought and, therefore, her narration, is her method of composing herself by dissecting her word choices (she refers many times to taking refuge in the mundane). She turns everyday phrases on their heads by drawing out every possible meaning of its constituent words until the original phrase is turned inside out.
I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part.
The hold of a ship. Hollow.
She does it when she isn’t composed, too. At moments when she is utterly overwhelmed and spent, word and experience become fused.
You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.
Most intoxicating of all is the defiant sensuousness of her description. In a regime where she is not allowed to feel, her inner experience of the world around her is her rebellion. Where another author might leave the description of a garden at colours and plant names, Atwood dives into a stream-of-consciousness medley of sensations. It’s the climax of Offred’s fascination with words, and it’s staggering.
A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild.
I find myself hoping Offred became a writer if she ever made it out of Gilead.
In running through the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale feels as though it could have been written about today’s America, it’s easy to use the T-word. At times the last eighteen months or so have felt like one long validation-fest for the anti-PC brigade, and Gilead could certainly be considered the ultimate in anti-feminist backlashes.
But there’s something more disturbing than groping with impunity going on here, in the way the architects of Gilead sincerely think they’ve done women a service. They’re ‘two-legged wombs’, yes, they’re punished by mutilation or worse for the slightest dissent – but they’re sacrosanct, they don’t get catcalled any more. The horror comes from the fact that no one in Gilead’s regime speaks or acts out of a desire to be outrageous. They are absolutely certain that they are right.
And that speaks far more chillingly of history than speculation.