February 18, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This is a well-written and (increasingly, it seems) prescient book. A version of the United States in which a totalitarian regime enforces religious doctrine fused with hyper-patriarchy no longer seems so far-fetched. I still can’t believe our society will devolve to the barbarism depicted in this book, but Margaret Atwood tells the story convincingly, and it makes me even more alert to recent changes in social norms. As the main character, Offred, fills in the details of how she and the country came to be where they are, you see how a society of laws and institutions could be lulled into vulnerability before it is overthrown, and then into a false sense that, at every step, things couldn’t get any worse.

The idea that we could go back to a time when men believed they had every right to control women’s bodies, and their lives more generally, also seems increasingly—incredibly—possible. Just this week, Oklahoma debated a bill requiring a woman to get a man’s permission to have an abortion. During this debate, an Oklahoma state legislator described women as “hosts” while they are pregnant. This is eerily close to way in which women are described in Atwood’s dystopian system.

Offred’s voice is a brilliant mix of confident/defiant and devastated/despairing, a nuanced quality executed perfectly by Claire Danes in the audio version. I can’t say that I was on the edge of my seat while listening to The Handmaid’s Tale, but I always cared what happened to the main character. I wish several of the other characters had been developed a bit more, and the book (now just over 30 years old) is in that weird dated-but-not-quite-classic stage. Still, it is a smart, scary, well-written, and thought-provoking book, worth our attention at this moment every bit as much as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.