The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is set in (what used to be) the United States, though the author is Canadian. It was published in 1986, but 1984 might have been more appropriate, since like the Orwell classic the story focuses on a specific individual in a futuristic totalitarian society, where mostly all we know about that society is what that character knows from their very limited vantage point.

1984 of course is not its only dystopian predecessor, yet there are sufficient parallels between the two that I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting the two in my mind as I read. In general, The Handmaid’s Tale suffers by comparison, not because it is bad, but because 1984 is so good. The Handmaid’s Tale is a worthwhile work; it’s hardly damning criticism to note that in certain respects it doesn’t quite reach the level of an all-time classic.

A few points of comparison:

1984’s dystopia is the culmination of mid-20th century style totalitarianisms, such as Nazism and Stalinism. It’s basically what those regimes would be like with greater technological tools such as ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a depiction of the Christian Right’s wet dream of a society. It is the culmination of certain American right wing political trends.

For me at least, The Handmaid’s Tale is much harder to locate historically. 1984 takes place in a specific, identified year—1984 obviously—several decades after it was written. There is a plausible account of the political and technological changes that could take one from the real world of when the book was written to the fanciful one that is depicted therein.

It’s implied late in the book that The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the late twentieth century, so sometime within fourteen years of when it was written.

But the society depicted has already existed for several years by then. Plus for several years before that, society was already dramatically different in certain respects from the real world of 1986 and earlier. (Paper money, for instance, had been abolished, with all financial transactions being handled by government-issue credit cards. Which makes it stunningly easy when the government decides females may no longer own property or have money; their balances are all simply set to zero.) Numerous nuclear and chemical accidents had ruined the environment and caused widespread sterility.

So evidently lots of big, big stuff happened almost immediately after 1986. But there’s a problem with that inference. The changes are supposed to have been extremely gradual, which partly explains why they were allowed to happen. Like the frog being slowly boiled alive by water whose temperature rises only very gradually, people were unalarmed by such incremental changes.

Furthermore, though most of the flashback scenes take place with the protagonist in college and the first few years after college—which feels very much like 1980s America, except for a few issues like paper money having already been abolished—there is a flashback scene to the protagonist’s childhood roughly twenty years earlier where public book burnings are already routine occurrences and mostly seemingly accepted, even by liberals like the protagonist’s mother.

Not that there were zero such public events twenty years earlier in real life—think Beatles material being burned in the South after John Lennon commented that they were more popular than Jesus—but what’s depicted in the book feels a lot more normalized, like it was an everyday occurrence.

The few prominent people mentioned by name don’t correspond to any real historical or contemporary figures. That’s true of 1984 as well, but the key difference there is the book is set several decades in the future, so there’s at least some plausibility to the notion that the cast of characters would have no overlap with the world of the 1940s. But surely if there were massive changes going on in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, a person describing them would have some occasion to mention Ronald Reagan or other such names.

In short, I’m not convinced there’s any coherent way to interpret the events of this book such that the real world and its futuristic world diverged in 1986 or later. Leaving aside the possibility that it’s just sloppiness on the part of the author leading to unintentional incoherence, it feels like what we have here is a parallel universe that diverged from the real one sometime maybe in the 1960s or earlier, and from there through about the late 1980s was similar in certain respects to the real world but not precisely the same, and then diverged more dramatically after some nuclear and chemical accidents and such.

Moving on, The Handmaid’s Tale is highly woman-centric, which certainly 1984 is not. Not just in that the former has a female protagonist and the latter has a male protagonist, but in that The Handmaid’s Tale is very much about issues that were foremost in the minds of feminists in the 1980s when the book was written.

Which is not to say that most of those issues weren’t relevant before and after that time, but for a book about a dystopian future, there are times The Handmaid’s Tale feels ironically dated. Some readers might say the same about 1984, that it’s about the kind of totalitarianism that would have concerned an author that lived through the worst excesses of fascism and Stalinism, but The Handmaid’s Tale feels a lot more like the 1980s to me than 1984 feels like the 1940s. Reading this book is often like watching a Star Trek episode from decades ago, where you feel a lot more like you’re watching the 1960s than the future.

A lot of the book can be read as a warning to, if not a condemnation of, the substantial portion of the feminist movement that was willing to forge an unholy alliance with the Christian Right on issues of pornography, prostitution, sex crimes, etc. It’s a debate that still goes on, but I remember it as being especially bitter back then. I thought, and still think, it’s outrageous that so many on the Left were willing to treat civil liberties, individuality, the rights of the accused, sexuality, the rule of law, etc. as just so many overrated bourgeois values that could and should be jettisoned if there were a perceived advantage to women in doing so.

The Christian totalitarians of the book proudly remind the women in their Talibanesque society that they should be grateful that at least they don’t have to live in a world like the recent American past, where they would have been expected to parade around half dressed, work in pornography and prostitution, be constantly vulnerable to rape, have a lot of meaningless sex to satisfy the passions of deceptive, exploitative men, and so on, instead of being respected and protected as they are now.

But it isn’t just the Andrea Dworkin anti-freedom types that fare poorly in the book, but certainly the Phyllis Schlafly types as well. The mistress of the house where protagonist Offred lives is just such a woman, bitter upon discovering that all her years of railing against career-minded women’s liberationists who didn’t accept their place in the home led to a world where she’s permitted no life to speak of outside of her home.

The totalitarianism of the new Christian society is arranged so that it’s primarily women oppressing women. Behind the scenes, it’s men calling the shots and ultimately bearing responsibility for the dystopia they’ve created, but the dirty work of keeping women in their place is done primarily by other women.

If this point wasn’t clear enough in the novel proper, the author makes the point explicitly in an afterword, which is in the form of a supposed academic conference two hundred years in the future looking back on this regime.

[T]he best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group.

Women run the reeducation/torture centers. The wives run the households and get to enforce their will on the other women who live and work there. Women spy and inform on each other, and viciously gossip about those who are suspected of deviating from the new norms.

1984 doesn’t have anything like that focus on women or on gender issues. Just as neither of them really focuses on racial issues. (It’s mentioned only in passing in The Handmaid’s Tale, but apparently one of the first things the Christians did upon establishing their theocracy was a quick ethnic cleansing to kick blacks and Jews and such out of the country and slaughter the stragglers, so race wouldn’t be an issue moving forward.)

Certainly the totalitarian regimes in both novels are scared of sex and of romantic love and passion. In 1984, it represents the danger of attachments to individuals that can interfere with the totality of one’s loyalty to Big Brother and the state. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s that, plus the usual fundamentalist religious discomfort with any sex that strays beyond certain very strict boundaries.

Both Winston Smith and Offred find a certain amount of psychological liberty and defiance in outlaw sex, though it’s a much bigger part of 1984.

Smith, to me, is a far stronger person. He isn’t “broken” and brainwashed until the end of the novel, after prolonged torture. Atwood makes Offred partially brainwashed all along, in an effort to show that oppressed women (in the real world) in varying degrees accept and cooperate in their oppression and contribute to that of other women.

So, yes, for the most part Offred laments her plight and despises the people who have placed her in her present position, but she has considerable ambivalence about parts of it. She doesn’t totally reject the notion that this is being done for women’s own good, that the “bad old days” when women were disrespected and objectified in magazines and such really were pretty bad.

Even back then, as the flashbacks indicate, she had never been as political, as committed a feminist as her mother or her best friend Moira.

But there were times I wanted her to hate this society even more than she did. It just doesn’t seem possible that she’d have the slightest ambivalence about it.

Then again, it’s sometimes hard to believe that women in the real world can be anything other than completely opposed to what someone like Phyllis Schlafly represents, but many are (as for that matter, not every burqa-wearing woman in backward Muslim countries is one hundred percent against the Talibanesque ways of oppressing women).

There are scenes in this book that are haunting and horrible. You feel the emotional and physical suffering, from the ripping apart of families, to the stressful emptiness of everyday life, to the beatings. But, still, I can’t say that it ever reaches the intensity of 1984. Again that’s an extraordinarily high standard, but Orwell looked in the darkest places inside himself to imagine maximal cruelty; Atwood seemingly stops a little short of that. The bulk of the physical torture, for instance, occurs off camera or is only described obliquely.

But then again, other readers—women perhaps?—might find this account equally or more chilling and emotionally hard to take than 1984.

Interesting also that, however it’s described, and whatever precise form it takes, ultimately power always has physical torture to fall back on. As long as propaganda and ideology succeed in keeping people voluntarily in line—as in most modern industrialized capitalist countries—that ultimate weapon is not used in any systematic way. But when things break down, and it comes down to a choice of using torture or giving up power, regardless of how sophisticated a society seems on the surface, somehow the electrodes always find their way to the testicles of the troublemakers.

In the reeducation/torture centers of The Handmaid’s Tale, the women commissars are never without their cattle prods, as a reminder to their captives (and the reader) that torture is always available to them.

Nor does there ever seem to be insufficient people to carry out the torture. From 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale to the real world, there’s never a shortage of foot soldiers convinced that torturing this human being in these circumstances is a justified act in the service of their country.

Another difference that comes to mind between the books, and maybe part of the reason this one hits just slightly less hard than 1984, is that The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t have quite the totality of hopelessness as 1984.

Again, it’s harrowing stuff, without a doubt. But there’s not that same sense that the regime has had the chance to perfect the science of totalitarianism. There’s still a kind of buffoonish quality to anything run by the likes of Pat Robertson.

Not that that somehow limits how cruel and awful the regime can be—Hitler and his gang certainly didn’t lack for buffoons after all—but it makes it feel vulnerable. Indeed, like with the Nazis, there’s the sense that however much damage they do in the short term, these jokers aren’t going to be able to sustain this very long.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” says O’Brien to Smith, and 1984 provides no refutation of O’Brien’s prophecy; indeed Orwell methodically closes every door of escape from that future.

Whereas Offred’s fate in The Handmaid’s Tale is left sufficiently ambiguous at the end to constitute a “happy ending” by comparison.

More importantly, the afterword reveals that the Christian theocracy was indeed quite temporary, and something we would likely recognize as normality was soon restored.

Definitely not the same bleak sense of despair you get when reading 1984.

A final difference is that though 1984 mostly shows us that society through the eyes of its protagonist, Orwell places him high enough in the Party hierarchy to know a great deal about what’s going on, and so gives us a considerably fuller picture of that totalitarian regime compared to what we learn about the one in The Handmaid’s Tale. Not to mention, he includes a whole long aside about language that’s independent of the narrative.

Orwell has a lot more he wants to call attention to and warn about explicitly. Atwood is more content to let her positions on issues of politics, religion, gender, etc. come through implicitly in the characters and events she depicts.

You can make the case that Atwood is the purer novelist in that regard, but I think some of that material in 1984 is what makes that book so memorable and so important. I’m glad Orwell the essayist was allowed to share the stage with Orwell the novelist.

All-in-all, if a person could only read one of these books, I’d still recommend 1984 as the more powerful and important work, but not by any huge margin. The Handmaid’s Tale is a winner.

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