An eighteen-year-old currently in the middle of her gap year
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Shutterstock/File)
“Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.”
When it was announced that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale would be turned into a television series, I was excited and figured I was due for a reread sometime soon, even though I had only finished it a couple of months before.
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in early 2016 for my IB HL Literature class, and I loved it instantly.
But early 2016 was also an optimistic time; back when Britain was still in the EU and a reality show “personality” wasn’t in the White House. A year later, it’s definitely time for a reread.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 piece of speculative fiction tells the story of Offred, a woman in post-apocalyptic America, now the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship. Due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, the birth rate has plummeted. As Offred is a woman of childbearing age, she is designated a “handmaid”, assigned to houses with high-standing men and their wives, who are thought to be barren and cannot conceive without their handmaid.
The book contains a number of characters, but as a woman telling her story in a world that wants to completely silence her, Offred’s place in the narrative is particularly compelling. She is not an undying optimist, nor is she even an entirely reliable narrator, but her strength and the way she constantly reaches out to reclaim the agency stolen from her make her a protagonist to root for. She is not perfect but she is real.
Still, what struck me early on is how passive these “good” characters were. How passive Offred’s husband, Luke, is as all the women begin to lose their freedoms. How the commander of Offred’s household is passive to the plight of the handmaids. How passive Offred herself is, as she watches a man being thrown into the back of a van and as women around her are shamed. How all of us, all us “good” people, can fall into the same groove of being passive, because a lot of the time, it’s a safe and simple thing to do. But if we’re passive, we allow our rights to be taken away and the suffering of others to continue, even if we’re “good”. To be faced with this reality is a little startling, but it’s necessary.
While it was written in the 1980s, the actual events of The Handmaid’s Tale exist whenever readers imagine it to, allowing the potential of a Gilead-like world to always exist. It’s not hard to imagine Gilead actually rising in our near future, as Planned Parenthoods are protested, as senators ban safe abortions, it’s almost too easy to picture a country stripped even further of a woman’s right to choose.
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“The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew,” said Atwood of the setting.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a complex mess of contradictions, hopeful and upsetting and relevant all at once. As we march on toward a complicated time in history, more and more hardships will make themselves known.
But when I think it’s easier to simply sit and be passive, I’ll remember: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.” (kes)
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