The Handmaid’s Tale: A Very Short Review

by Brenda W. Clough

Atwood Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel was published in 1985. It is appropriate however to review it today, in this first week of November 2016.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia of a very specific sort. The ecological disasters or nuclear holocausts are merely the setup, to get us to Max Misogyny. The US having been taken over by a fundamentalist regime, the heroine is stripped of husband, child, home, and even her name — we know her only as Offred, the sex slave of Fred. It was and still is a shocking book, not an easy feel-good novel. It’ll never be one of Sherwood’s comfort reads, although it has been adapted into plays, a movie, even an opera.

Because Offred struggles against her oppressors, there are reviewers who insist that it is a novel of hope. But the ending is deliberately ambiguous — does she triumph, or not? My contention is that Handmaid is in the grand tradition of the famous dystopian SF novels — On the Beach, or A Canticle for Liebowitz, or Brave New World. Atwood wrote us the classic ‘if this goes on’ novel. She is warning us all.

Offred’s horrible world is not Coruscant, not Dune. It’s our world, in the rear-view mirror. Within my lifetime it was illegal in the state that I reside in for a person of my race to be married to my husband — the law against miscegenation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967. (There is a movie about the case Loving v. Virginia.) I myself have perused the Want Ads, classified ‘Men,’ ‘Women,’ ‘Black Men’ and ‘Black Women.’ The state university, one of the top colleges in the nation, only went co-ed in 1971 — they capped women students at 35%, and were only forced by litigation to go fully co-ed. Your mothers were alive, when it was legal to fire a woman for being pregnant. Your grandmother might well have been born before women could vote — mine was. A hundred and fifty years ago you could keep a woman solely for breeding purposes in this United States, and it wasn’t even remarkable.

Oh, but this is history, you say. The bad old days, they’re over. Just locker room talk, eh? Women are no longer property , they are people. We have the 19th Amendment. It can’t happen here. We shouldn’t study this book in school. You think? That’s what women thought in Tehran, in Libya, in China. Atwood didn’t borrow all the novel’s horrors from the history books. She ripped them from the headlines. Every single one of the oppressive practices Offred suffers has been advocated as practical and good by some nut group or another in 1985, when she wrote this.

No. Margaret Atwood is warning us, as all the best dystopian authors do. William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s always near. Progress is not a one-way street. We can still lose every single one of the gains that our foremothers fought and died for. It can happen here. And that’s why this Short Review appears on this day, two days before Election Day. I’m addressing you, my fellow American women. Vote, ladies. Vote on Tuesday. It’s important.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: A Very Short Review — 15 Comments

  1. Actually, in my lifetime women were fired for being pregnant. And in 1974, I was fired for refusing to sleep with my boss. Things have gotten better. But we don’t want them to backslide.

  2. Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a law against providing birth control to a married woman (much less a single one), wasn’t decided until 1965. In my early working days, the minimum wage for women was less than the minimum wage for men. We can all keep adding to the list.

    I, for one, am not going back.

  3. Like I keep on saying – that damn thing was supposed to be a WARNING, not a handbook! It is scary to think that the society portrayed in “Handmaid’s Tale” is really not THAT far off from some far-right God Squad member’s idea of an ideal world…

    • I had to buy a book to figure out how to legally keep my name after marriage if I lived in Texas…in 1983.

      The past is not even the past. There are pictures on the Internet of Iran just before the shah was driven from power showing women wearing stylish clothing of the times. They hide all that under their dress tents, now. That is within my lifetime.

  4. My mother went on marches with my grandmother, before women got the vote. It wasn’t ancient history . . .

    • Just to add a bit, my parents couldn’t get married during the depression, because my mother was a teacher. She would have been fired if they married . . .

  5. What’s frightening is that this is an old book. Over 30 years! And the issues have not gone away. I remember reading this when it first came out and thinking that we would never have to go back there again. The future was supposed to be better. Where are our flying cars?

  6. Seriously: we can prevent this future. We are strong and resilient enough to do it. But we must remain aware that some people want the future of The Handmaid’s Tale.

  7. Neither of my grandparents could have assumed they’d ever have the right to vote; before the end of WW1, the franchise in the UK was limited to men of property. In 1918 they extended that to all men over 21 and women of property over the age of thirty – which meant that when my mother was born, she couldn’t assume it either. Took another ten years to extend the vote to everyone over 21. Since then they’ve whittled it back to 18. Me, I’d bring it down to 16. No taxation without representation, right? And they tax 16-year-olds if they’re earning.

  8. My mother was allowed to finish out the school year when the school found out she was pregnant with me. After that, she raised us until my baby brother was born in 1966; she went back to work as a substitute teacher in 1967.