While dystopia ostensibly sets out to critique society, politics, and culture, to me that political and social critique is often the least interesting aspect of dystopian fiction. What makes aging dystopias still feel relevant even when the society they critique has come and gone? It is the human story, the struggle of the individual against society, the yearning for freedom and the withering and distortion of the human soul when it lacks freedom. The real warning of the dystopia is not against any particular political system or ideology, but against ideology itself, against the way it dehumanizes both those who are in control and those who are dominated.
What fascinates me again and again in all the dystopias I’ve read are the images of what happens to love when there is no freedom and what governments that rule by fear do to the human soul. Sexuality often becomes subversive and is used as a weapon to strike back against the totalitarian regime or to carve out a private space under the radar of the regime, a measure of control or at least the illusion of control. But the nature of life under a totalitarian government is such that all human relationships become twisted and perverse. The very fact that sex becomes weaponized is a perversion of its nature. So even as the protagonists strike out with their sexual defiance, they are demonstrating just how wounded they are and how inhuman and brutal totalitarian states are, how pervasive their reach even into the sacred space of the bedroom, even into the sanctuaries of the human mind and heart.
In his afterward to Tigana Guy Gavriel Kay cites as an influence Milan Kundera’s “musings about the relationship between conquered peoples and an unstable sexuality.” What Kay calls ‘the insurrections of night.’ For Kay sexuality becomes a means of rebelling when revolution is not possible. And Tigana’s depictions of various sorts of rebellious sexuality show how “people behave when the world has lost its bearings” and “how shattered self-respect can ripple through to the most intimate levels of our lives.” Sexuality as rebellion appears likewise in 1984, in Brave New World (where chastity, not promiscuous sex, is the rebellious stance). If The Handmaid’s Tale seems preoccupied with sex at times, if it portrays grotesque distortions of sexuality, that places it squarely in the middle of the dystopian tradition. Atwood is riffing on a theme that other dystopian authors have explored, though she puts it much more front and center as sex is one of the primary focuses of Gilead’s oppressive regime.
The sexual slavery of the handmaids in Gilead is rooted in a distorted literalist mis-reading of the text of Genesis where Sarah, failing to trust in the Lord’s promise, offers her handmaid Hagar to bear Abraham a son. The elites of Gilead use this passage (while conveniently ignoring the context of the story as a failed rebellion against God’s will) to justify forcing so-called Handmaids to bear children for the infertile Commanders and their wives. It is a terribly unrealistic scenario and yet the various elements are certainly recognizable, including the cynical cherry-picking of scripture to justify whatever illicit and immoral acts cult leaders want to indulge in. Hypocrisy is a universal human trait and so it is no surprise that Offred’s Commander seeks to expand their relationship beyond the confines of the state-sanctioned one of child-bearing, nor that the state winks at the very prostitution and pornography it claims to have eradicated. These elements seem to me to be less critiques of Christianity and more tropes that reflect the perversity of human nature and the limitations of the totalitarian state to have complete control over private lives, especially of the privileged. The Commander’s hypocrisy owes its origins both to the hypocrisy of Communist leaders as it does to hypocritical Christians.
Aside from the exploration of totalitarianism and sexuality, what I liked most about The Handmaid’s Tale were the vignettes of daily life. It feels so ordinary and even almost boring much of the time and that ordinariness is contrasted with horror and violence of which the characters are always aware, like the threatening sword of Damocles.
I liked the narrative form, which meanders back and forth between present and past. The afterward to the novel, part of a frame narrative, explains that the memoir was originally found on a series of cassette tapes, that the order was unclear, and that the narrative pieced together based on educated guesses. It definitely has a feel of an oral performance. Offred’s voice is distinct and her presence is vivid. She’s not a heroic type, she’s an everywoman caught up in events beyond her control, just trying to survive from day to day where politics and agendas no longer matter because she is powerless, just a pawn in the system.
I liked the focus on language and literacy where one of the tools of oppression is the removal of all written language, which becomes the provenance only of the elite. How hungry Offred is for the written word. Also fascinating is the commentary on the power of naming, also a theme in Kay’s Tigana, where magic has removed the name of an entire country from the consciousness of everyone except the inhabitants of that country. In The Handmaid’s Tale our narrator’s very name has been removed. We only know her by the possessive label that she’s been given, Of-Fred.
And here my thoughts feel truncated because it has been several years since I read the novel and I’m a bit too hazy on the details. I’d love to write more, to go deeper into the subject of moral realism and to think more deeply on the subjects of sexuality, of language and literacy, and of narrative structure, but that would require re-reading the novel and perhaps re-readings of other dystopian novels as well. So for now let these notes be a sort of rough draft for a larger project I’d like to tackle someday.