I can’t express how much I love Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. I read the book, then I listened to Claire Danes read it to me via Audible, and now I’m watching the series on Hulu. I am riveted. The story is narrated by Offred, the captive “handmaid” whose only purpose in her new world is to be the repository for his sperm in hopes that she’ll provide a child for him in lieu of his infertile wife. The process is as horrifying read as it is heard as it is visualized. Women in this grey future are not people. They are workers with no rights or property. The commanders’ wives are trophy wives, treated like delicate flowers and placed on a pedestal, even though they really have no real power. That doesn’t stop them for lording what little power they have over the women working in the households. Their real role is to make their husbands look good and pump out babies if they can. They proudly wear blue. The brown-clad Aunts get to keep their names, but they also are in charge of “educating” (programming) the handmaids. They also seem to enjoy abusing their power over both Marthas and handmaids. Handmaids are essentially sex slaves who always don red. They are named “Of[NAME]”, as in, “I am owned by this commander, and my original name does not matter”. So if a woman has the misfortune of being a handmaid to some guy named Chaz, her name would be Ofchaz, which is humiliating enough, but she also has to fuck a guy named Chaz. The only respite of Ofchaz is that if she can’t provide a child to Chaz, she can be transferred to another commander’s household, and she would relinquish the embarrassing moniker. The bad thing is what if she is transferred and finds that out her new name is Ofthesituation?...also, she is still a sex slave. Marthas are the cooks and cleaners of the houses. I don’t recall any of them having individual names. I assume calling them Marthas is a reference to Mary’s sister. They aren’t handmaids because they are infertile either naturally or surgically. Marthas wear green. Outside the commanders’ households, there are “econowives”. They are the wives of the men who cannot afford to keep a manor with women to serve separate roles…so basically your average working class guy. These women take on the roles of the commanders’ wives, Marthas, and handmaids, and they wear all aforementioned colors together so that you know that their husband couldn’t afford a big manor. They are seen as lowly, even by handmaids and Marthas, which is ironic since everyone is kind of fucked. Jezebels are sex workers. Though only a few pages in the book, they escape the trapping the manors by being reluctant entertainment for the commanders and their foreign guests. Finally, unwomen are women who either rebelled against the government’s stronghold, did not adhere to whatever cherry-picked scripture that the government chose, or are former handmaids who were unable to produce children. They are sent away to assumedly grotesquely polluted regions to farm. The task sounds pretty terrible, as the pollution is radioactive fallout from a world war. Being deemed an unwoman means a slow death, all for the crime of being gay or old or infertile or not hot enough to be scooped up by a commander. On top of all this, Handmaids, Marthas, and below are not allowed to read or write. They are forever tasked to spy on each other, in order to keep each other in line. Any deviation from normal protocol can be seen as an act at resistance or a hint of attempt to escape. Distrust runs wild in this world.
The Handmaid’s Tale is horrifying. It is everything for which you could wish in a dystopian futuristic story. There is an upended society, there is uncertainty around the corner of each chapter, and all of this is on the charred rubble of a former comfortable if not flawed established government. What makes it even more suspenseful is that Offred is narrating the whole thing, and the way she narrates, you can’t tell until the end if she documented her survival or if she’s just rambling thoughts inside her head or if she survived any of this at all. I look forward to the continuing series on Hulu. Atwood knows how to make a dystopian novel. I wonder if she realizes that she essentially told a Negro slave narrative with white people as the stars.
Nearly every dystopian sci-fi is supposed that actions in the present can generate unfathomable consequences. The thing is that most of those unfathomable consequences have already been fathomed years prior. The women in Handmaids are treated like slaves, and there is plenty of historical evidence that American slaves were treated precisely like that. Slaves would be traded from family to mansion, often as punishment for underperformance or “misconduct”. Women were vulnerable to both physical and sexual abuse. A slave woman who caught the roaming eye of a master would be regularly assaulted. They would even have children, all under the eye of the master’s wife. Women already didn’t have much power back then, but the master’s wife would intentionally make the slave mistress’s life a living hell. Her children would be taken away from her. Those slave mistresses would be sent to the fields because they perhaps got older or the master got bored with them. Slave women also held the role of “breed sows”, as the best way get more free labor is to make it yourself. It was a lot cheaper than importing, after all. Women who were not breed sows would work in all aspects of the house, cooking, cleaning, serving, even nursing. A lot of times, slave women in the house were given JUST enough power over newer slaves to be trained that they would abuse it a little bit, so the slaves were policing themselves while they were all being subjected to an umbrella of abuse. Trust was a scarcity. No slave woman, no matter how much she thought, had any autonomy. If you don’t think it was “that” bad, look up the narratives of former slaves like Harriet Jacobs, Bethany Veney, Hannah Bond, Mary Prince, Mattie J. Jackson, Annie L. Burton, or Old Elizabeth. Some of these women dictated their stories to writers, and some of them wrote them on their own. This was at a time when a black person reading and writing was often punishable by torture and death.
Beyond the plight of the women in the story, a number of other people were deemed illegal in the Handmaid world. Catholics, Quakers, and Jews were not permitted. Quakers and Catholics were hanged, and though it was claimed that Jews were permitted to get on a boat and leave the country to a destination unknown, we all know historically what can happen when a bunch of people pack onto a boat of unknown destination. Plus the very idea of packing Jews into any vessel of mass transportation gives readers doubts that their destination was a Jewish paradise. Gay and trans people were labeled “gender traitors” and punished by hanging. Even adulterers, fornicators, and rapists were subject to capital punishment. The former seems excessive, since people who divorced and remarried were considered adulterers. It is hard to feel sorry for rapists, but in this world, it is hard to know if the accusation of rape against a man is true when levied by an Aunt, who claimed that he accosted a handmaid wantonly, and the punishment was to allow a mob of handmaids to literally tear him apart. It sounds a lot like the many times white southerners would find a reason to torture and kill a black man or boy, but then there would be evidence that the “victim” never existed in the first place.
With all these historical similarities, I wonder how much of it came from Atwood’s head, and how much was due to thorough research she did to make the book more horrifying and realistic. I can’t find any acknowledgement from Margaret Atwood that many, if not all, of the plights of women and “non-conformers” in The Handmaid’s Tale seem to be pulled straight from slave narratives and historical accounts of post-Civil War segregation. I’m not sure if she’d pay homage, as the only mention of people of color in the original book was a background newscast stating that the “children of Ham” were being “resettled” in the Dakotas and mention of some foreign diplomats from Japan and Saudi Arabia in the brothel of Jezebels. This almost seemed like an afterthought, like when a college makes a brochure but forgot to invite some brown kids to the photo shoot, so they Photo shopped them in.
This isn’t snide criticism of The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant author, and I plan to read more of her work. I just find it interesting the way it plays out like other dystopian narratives, and how appealing they are to people. I think that a lot of white people read them out of fear of what could be, and a lot of people of color read them out of fear of what could happen again.