Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was not required reading in any of my high school English classes. This is really unfortunate. I just finished it last night, and I truly wish it had been required reading for me, particularly if had been assigned alongside Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as Ms. Atwood’s novel tackles many of the same topics dealing with religion and social class (although I am uncertain how keen my AP English Professor would have been to discuss feminism – even if we did read some Virginia Woolf). Ms. Atwood, however, is not shy about delving deeply into gender roles and feminism in her very multi-layered novel. I can’t help but feel like The Handmaid’s Tale was an onion, and every layer dragged you deeper into despair and pain, and at the core was fragility of human self-esteem. The novel was probably the best one I have read so far this year.
It reads like a cautionary tale describing what might happen if women allow themselves to be subjugated through social engineering (or even through our own means of tearing each other down). Set in a dystopian future (or maybe present by this point) where a totalitarian theocratic regime has seized power of the United States, the novel first leaves you wondering, How did this happen to us? How did we let this happen? The pre-coup world described by the narrator was by no means utopia. There was rampant pornography, an overactive sex trade, antibiotic resistant STDs and apparently some environmental disasters impacting the birth rates. But, at least radical feminists banned together with fundamentalist religious zealots to protest and burn pornography (in one case in protest of the objectification of women and in the other case to protest the declining moral values of society).
After the initial shock of realizing that our society as we know it has been usurped by fanatics, it first appears as if no one wins. You might think, Well, those moralizing nut jobs got what they wanted, but the author makes clear that this outcome has not been all that they had hoped for either. An ultra-conservative group has apparently taken over the country and returned us to morality, but, within a matter of weeks, it becomes illegal for women to work and illegal for them to own property. Reading this caused a blinding, jaw-clenching outrage that coursed through my body. I thought my head was going to explode! The nerve! However, this is just a surface layer of misogyny, a diversion from the true damage that we do to each other as women. The real misogyny occurs in how the men manage to engineer a society that subjugates women by pitting them against each other. It takes every basic emotional response and uses it as ammunition, one female against another female. Fear, jealousy, rage, sadness… it’s all fodder for the cannon of class warfare. Women are divided up into a social hierarchy, and the hierarchy is used to effectively (at least for the duration of the novel) create classes of women policing each other. The checks and balances may be derived from one class having more power, another having more freedom, another having the ability to induce jealousy.
The Aunts are provided with the privilege of being able to read. They are saved from death by their willingness to indoctrinate those fertile women who are unsuitable to be Wives in the way of being a Handmaid. The Wives are given freedom to “command” the household, but they use this power to make the Handmaid’s miserable out of jealousy and shame. They have no charity for the other women in the household. The Martha’s are resigned to their lot, but they too harbor resentment of the Handmaids for their role in society. This infighting is the true subjugation. If all of the women worked together, they would have a much better chance at achieving freedom.
Another interesting and ultimately teeth-grittingly frustrating aspect of the society painted by author stems from the motives behind building this morally upright society. At first blush, the men appear to use religious zealotry as a method to achieve a total power grab. This power grab seems like it may have backfired for the men folk as well, as the male hierarchy does not appear to have it all that much better in the sex and love department. That said, they can still read, own property, hold jobs, and drive cars, so, really, they don’t actually have it almost as bad at all. Still, personal relationships for men appear to be just as regimented as they are for women, and this appears on the surface to give the women some power that they did not have in society before. This is illusory, however. The Commanders, those in charge, have built themselves a hidden, state-sanctioned sex industry. They have replaced some local hotels with secret harems of prostitutes, called Jezebels, dressed in caricatures of modern sex objects (cheerleaders, playboy bunnies, bikinis, lingerie, etc.). These women ostensibly have the most freedom of any of the women, as they are allowed to drink, smoke, wear makeup, they have been sterilized, so they are not expected to breed, and they can curse and hang out with the men. And yet, they are the most down-trodden of the classifications, as they are portrayed by the author as emotionally removed from their situation and essentially shells that have given up on life. Even as the Commanders seem to think they are a vestige of the past, they are more of a ghost or an echo.
When this is revealed in the novel, any last remnant of theological underpinnings falls away, and the reader is left with a sad group of pathetic man-children who orchestrated the takeover of an entire nation because they felt like their role in society was being usurped by women. The irony makes you want to smash your head against the wall. The infinitesimal reduction in male privilege for white males that comes from women just holding down jobs (not even better jobs or jobs on par with men’s jobs), just having children by themselves, and just choosing their own mates is enough to threaten their fragile self-esteem and cause a backlash that destroys an entire civilization. As absurd as it sounds, it is a powerful image because it is derived entirely from feelings that really exist. Does that mean that I think my male coworkers are going to overthrow society so that they can have a wife, a mistress and a collection of hookers at their disposal with no back-talk. No, I don’t. But I do think it’s indicative of real sentiment in our society, even today (almost thirty years after the book was written). Male privilege and its incremental and tiny decline is a huge sore spot for men, and women are just as willing as ever to tear each other down rather than build each other up. The lessons of the The Handmaid’s Tale are just as poignant and appropriate three decades later as the day the novel was released.
I am optimistic that these problems will continue to be addressed in society and may eventually be overcome, but until that magical day happens, which I’m sure is still a ways off, nolite te bastardes corborundorum (don’t let the bastards grind you down).
About this Photograph: This is a photograph of the roof of the Mt. Daiyu-zan Saijo Temple somewhere between Hakone and Tokyo, Japan (can’t remember exactly where), taken in March, 2008.