When I was 15 years old, I discovered Margaret Atwood as I devoured my way through the local branch of the public library. I read Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale and several others and I loved everything about them. Margaret Atwood is the queen of the metaphor and her lush, almost tangible writing thrilled me as a teenager. I was so inspired by what she did with words – it made me consider literature differently than all the other hundreds of books I’d read.
Although I was struck by how gorgeous her books were, nearly fifteen years ago I was too young (and stupid) to see below the surface. As beautifully written as these books are, their themes are even more magnificently crafted. Recently, having fully chilled out and settled into a calm routine here in England (no more overwhelming homesickness or volcanic acne!), I decided it was high time to start reading fiction in earnest again. And my first purchases were Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale.
I adore Alias Grace and recommend it to everyone. You should read it. It is excellent.
However, what I’m really doing here is singing the praises of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is, I believe, the most important work of fiction I have ever read.
Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a young woman who has been witness to and been victimized by a patriarchal, totalitarian, Puritan regime that has overthrown the government of the United States of America. In this new world order, a woman’s fertility is prized above all else, and she cannot own property or make her own choices. The Handmaid protagonist is an educated, employed, married mother who, when the ax falls, is separated from her husband and daughter and forced to become a surrogate bound to a wealthy, infertile couple.
This book was fascinating to me as a teenager, in that the description of this dystopian future is masterful. It is terrifying to me as an adult, because now it reads less like a fantasy in science fiction and more like an outpost from the future. In her novel, Atwood details the slow burn to total oppression in a way that will be horrifyingly familiar if you’ve happened to read the news lately. The idea of female agency as anti-religion, godless, and the definition of evil is the crux of the power play at work in The Handmaid’s Tale. The construction of women as necessarily pure, as chattel, as pieces to be moved around whenever convenient, as lesser than, as chalices, as empty vessels waiting to be filled or held or disposed of as necessary seeps through the book like it does in various political groups currently active in the actual world right now.
Re-reading this novel the very week of the Supreme Court’s ruling that a corporation’s religious beliefs are paramount to the medical needs of women is chilling, most especially because this religious protest centers solely on the coverage of medication that allows women to make their own choices concerning their fertility. Leaving aside the enormous logical leap one must take to attempt to protect the religious freedom of a corporation, which is not a person, at the expense of thousands of diverse actual people, this SCOTUS decision makes it plain that the most powerful lawmakers in the country believe that the health and reproductive decisions of women should not be the purview of the women themselves.
The Handmaid’s Tale, everyone.