Wow. I have been more than incredibly negligent when it comes to maintaining this blog lately, and for that I’m sorry. Although, I guess the only person truly affected is me ha…ohwellz, so much for my lucrative career as a cutting edge blogger.
I’ve finally caught up on a perennial favorite of lit snobs everywhere – The Handmaid’s Tale and let me just tell you, it freaked the bejeezus out of me. Not b/c of any of the events are so foreign (the stripping of women’s power; the revert to religious zealotry; the secret police), but because it really highlighted just how quickly revolutions can take place.
For those of you unfamiliar with the premise – Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining fertility, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge…
There was one passage that really got me, where the narrator relives the time ‘before’ when she goes to buy a pack of smokes, and her card is declined. She protests that she used it successfully the day before, but to no avail. Come to find out that all assets belonging to women have been either confiscated or combined with their husbands’. Women are to have no means of self-reliance – no jobs, no money, no identity. All in the span of 24 hours.
In 1986, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, Ronald Regan had declared “Morning in America,” and society was going to renew itself by returning to the old values. The Christian right, in its infancy at the time, was only just beginning what would eventually lead to the crazies of the TeaBaggers Tea Party*.
The disaster at Chernobyl happened shortly after the book was published, and even now the earthquake in Japan has surely sent toxins worldwide—a reminder that even the air is not safe. I can imagine it was not hard at the time to extrapolate the ultimate end that this cocktail of fundamentalism, conservatism, violence, disease, and disaster would bring, but what Atwood could not know, is how much of her novel would become reality in the world.
Amazingly, thirty years after it was written, there are elements of the story that have become true—perhaps not in the United States, where the story takes place, but throughout the world. The most obvious first connection is with many of the issues regarding women’s rights and religious fundamentalism that are taking place in the Middle East.
It was shocking to read in the book that the initial attack on the US Government was blamed on Islamic Fundamentalists. While this kind of terrorism was only in its infancy, Atwood’s insight is almost prophetic in the book. When the OKC bombing occurred, the initial reaction by the media was to blame Islamic terrorists, when in fact—like the novel—the terrorism was homegrown. The scale of the attack that took out the US Government in the novel is also eerily similar to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Reading this novel in the post-9/11 world can send chills down one’s spine: the novel includes suicide bombings at checkpoints, restrictions of rights in the name of safety, blind patriotism, and an overwhelming belief that there is only one true religion, and deviants from this should be killed.
While George Orwell’s 1984 is often referred to as an insightful perspective on modern society whenever someone puts a video camera on a street lamp, or the government begins referring to negative events with positive doublespeak. Orwell’s world never materialized in full, and likely never will materialize to the degree he created. Instead it is Atwood’s dystopia, seemingly outrageous at the time it was written, that became reality.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale so soon after The Hunger Games is a bit of a downer, but it’s important to think critically about current events and what’s at stake, rather than burying one’s head in the sand. Sometimes the truth ends up stranger than fiction.
Oh yea, happy Friday! Bring on the noxious blend of margaritas and mint juleps!