Some books haunt the reader. Others haunt the writer. The Handmaid's Tale has done both. — Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece about the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Christian theocracy that overthrows the U.S. government and enslaves women to be childbearing “Handmaids” in service to society’s elite families, turns 30 years old this fall. In honor of this milestone, Unbound Writers CH Lips, CS Peterson, and Mark Springer offer their appreciation of a book that remains as relevant—and as haunting—today as it was when it first appeared in 1985.
Mark Springer: There are so many things we could discuss about The Handmaid’s Tale. Since we’re writing this appreciation to mark the 30th anniversary of the novel’s publication, I’d like to start with the observation that, for me, the story feels both timeless and contemporary. The Republic of Gilead is disturbingly recognizable: it could be a relic of the past, as in the Historical Notes at the end of the book, or it could be just around the corner, or it could be happening right now. I don’t remember making that last connection when I read it in high school, though the book deeply affected me on other levels. Now the resonance with current events is overwhelming.
CS Peterson: The feeling I had reading the novel in high school was that it was a fantasy, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I couldn’t really imagine something like that happening in a place where I lived. But now I see the connections to things happening in different parts of the world right now, and suddenly it doesn’t seem like a fantasy at all. I’m thinking of friends who went over to do circus stuff in Afghanistan. They came back and talked about the bravery of the girls there who were risking their lives to do a puppet show because they were so desperate for personal expression. And this wasn’t under the rule of the Taliban—this was the mainstream culture of Afghanistan.
CH Lips: Have you ever read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? He was a World War II concentration camp survivor, and he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. The conclusion he came to during his imprisonment was that the only power he had was the power to choose what he would think about his experience—the ultimate freedom of choice. He had the power to find meaning in his suffering, that the very fact of being alive in this world had meaning. His experiences and thoughts, memories of his loved ones, were all his and no one could take them away from him.
CSP: It’s like “I think, therefore I am” really is all that matters when there’s nothing else to have power over.
CHL: Yes. His captors controlled everything else, literally every matter of life and death, but they couldn’t control how he chose to give meaning to his experience. I saw this issue of the freedom of choice appearing throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Early on, Offred remembers a moment from her “re-education” at the Red Center: “We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.”
MS: Totalitarian societies solve the problem of “too much choice” by taking away people’s freedom to choose.
CHL: To me that’s ultimately what power is about—it’s about who has the freedom to chose and what choices are available. In the novel, Offred is constantly exercising the few choices she has left in order to hold on to a sense of power:
She doesn’t steal anything from the sitting room, but just thinking about doing it is an act of defiance.
CSP: In the beginning her acts of defiance are small, because her choices are so constrained. She hides butter in her shoe and later uses it to moisturize her skin, a forbidden indulgence in choosing to value her body as more than a reproductive vessel. All the Handmaids do it. At first the act seems almost trivial, but then we understand how rebellious it is: “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire.”
MS: This happens immediately after the Ceremony, the time when she is most physically powerless. Offred is trying to reclaim her body, her self: “I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.”
CHL: It’s a turning point in the story. The desire to steal something returns and this time she acts on it. She sneaks down to the sitting room after dark, but before she can take anything she is discovered by Nick, the chauffeur, who is also breaking the rules to deliver an illegal message from the Commander. In one brilliant scene we discover that everyone is rebelling against the system, even the people who seem to be in charge of it.
CSP: Just knowing this gives Offred power.
CHL: After this, her power increases as the Commander begins to need her, and the dynamics of their relationship change as a result of the shift in power.
MS: This is a central theme in much of Atwood’s writing—power and the way it shapes human relationships. From collective social institutions like government and religion to our most personal and intimate relationships—mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, best friends, lovers—every relationship involves power.
CSP: Social class is an important part of the novel, too. I didn’t really think about it that way when I read it as a teenager because I was so focused on the relationship between Offred and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, but the class structure of Gilead is woven into the fabric of the story from beginning to end.
MS: Everyone in the society is bound by class, even the privileged elite. The constraints are different, of course, but they’re all secretly looking for an outlet, an escape.
CSP: Most of what we see through Offred’s perspective is day-to-day life in a privileged household, but we also learn a lot about how the rest of society operates.
MS: It’s a pyramid structure with the wealthy and powerful at the top, and everyone else filling in the middle and lower classes—soldiers, merchants, servants, teachers, “Econowives.” Within each class the men enjoy more privilege and power, though even this is complicated.
CSP: Women have power, too, but it’s almost always over other women. The Commander’s wife has authority in her own home, which means she has authority over her servants, the Marthas, and, to a certain extent, Offred.
CHL: Don’t forget the Aunts at the Red Center.
CSP: The Aunts—women who have gained a little power under the patriarchal system and then exercise it against fellow women in order to maintain this little bit of power that they have. This is girls in high school, Mean Girls, Heathers.
CHL: The social structure of Gilead changed a lot for the women who were forced to become Handmaids, and for upper class women like Serena Joy—she had to give up her public speaking career and television appearances to be a "proper" wife.
MS: Offred’s description of how things changed for Serena Joy after the revolution is so powerful:
CSP: But what really changed for the Econowives and the Marthas? Not that much if you’re thinking about American attitudes toward a woman’s proper place in society after World War II, the traditional attitudes of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re all doing housework—“woman’s work.”
MS: That’s an important point. In the book, the revolution that replaced American democracy with a totalitarian theocracy didn’t start from scratch—it built on social and cultural foundations that were—are—already in place. Atwood wrote about this in a piece for The Guardian a few years ago:
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t fantasy at all. It arises directly out of America’s deeply conflicted—if mostly ignored—past. That’s why it feels so real, so familiar. We may not live in the Republic of Gilead today, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here, as many Americans are fond of saying about atrocities and injustices occurring in other countries.
CSP: When I first read it, Phyllis Schlafly was going around campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment. My picture of an Aunt was her in a brown dress with an electric cattle prod hanging from her belt, giving speeches about “traditional values” and the sanctity of the home, like Serena Joy. Reading it again as an adult, the class issues and the parallels to contemporary extremist movements like the Taliban or the Islamic State expand the scope beyond the extreme Christian right in America. The specific religion in the book matters less to me now than it did when I was in high school, when I identified religion as the “bad” thing at the root of all these problems. Now the bad thing I’m seeing is the extreme desire of one group to control everyone else.
MS: A desire that, sadly, isn’t unique to any country or religion or group of people, as we’ve seen throughout human history. The cycle of extremism keeps repeating at different times and in different places around the world.
CHL: That’s another thing Atwood has talked about, specifically tying every element of the fictional totalitarian society in the book to true historical precedents:
I found that very depressing.
CSP: It seems like women are always on the losing end when societies go to extremes.
CHL: Also a depressing thought.
MS: The book isn’t totally bleak, though. There’s room for hope at the end. We don’t know exactly what happens to Offred after she is taken away by the Eyes, but we can reasonably assume that she escapes with the help of Nick and the Mayday resistance. We also know that the Republic of Gilead comes to an end and fades into history, which makes me hopeful. In a century and a half, the extremist movements oppressing people in our own time could be little more than the subjects of a keynote address at an academic conference in Nunavit.
CSP: Human affairs being what they are, someone at that conference will probably be lecturing on the contemporary relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale.
MS: As long as the subtitle of the lecture isn’t “How Margaret Atwood Predicted the New Theocratic Age”!
CHL: Don’t worry—there never is just one future. Things can always change, because people will always have the freedom to choose what to think, even if every other freedom is taken away.
MS: I think, therefore I have the power to resist.
CHL: Let’s give the author the last word: “When asked whether The Handmaid’s Tale is about to ‘come true’, I remind myself that there are two futures in the book, and that if the first one comes true, the second one may do so also.” Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.
Margaret Atwood, “Haunted by The Handmaid's Tale,” The Guardian, January 20, 2012.