by Brenda W. Clough
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.