There are some classic books that, for whatever reason, you don’t end up reading until long after you might have, despite even having a clear intention to read them and a good chance of enjoying them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books for me. A new category of books for this blog: overdue reads. In this case, I was re-inspired by Atwood’s recent releases Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, both of which sound fascinating but, I insisted to myself, none of that for you until you get through Handmaid’s Tale.
And of course it is gripping stuff: the fragmentary form is just perfect for the narrator’s situation and for the suspense—like some other dystopian fiction (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go comes to mind), much of the momentum comes from the delicate handling of how much information to give away when. Perhaps this is more specifically a feature of dystopias that have a strong element of Foucaultian panopticism to them (though what truly modern dystopia doesn’t?): it is important, even with a sense of panic in the air, to establish the way that normalcy and habit start to sink in and do the work of the surveillance state. Let the horrors and the history of the descent to madness trickle in through narrative cracks here and there.
Moreover, after nearly twenty-five years (next year is the publishing anniversary) the book feels at least as relevant—and maybe more: the invitation of religious fundamentalism into conservative government of the 1980s, a key underlying motivation for the novel, led to its death-grip on our last U.S. president (it would be nice to say this was the high-point of influence, but I’m not that sure), the environmental situation is increasingly dire (an aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale I had never really heard mentioned, although it is somewhat subordinate in the novel as well).
The only thing that feels aged here is some of the metafictional element: the narrator’s repeated insistence that she is just telling a story, a version of events, seems a bit stale at this point. On the other hand, the closing document, a record of a historical society years after the narrative present, performs something a little unlike, even opposed to, the usual metafictional emphasis on a postmodern contingency of narrative. This document, a talk by a historian about the handmaid’s culture, is a parody of an academic conference: the historian is himself so dismissive of the problems raised by the story that in fact it would seem to solidify the authority of the version of events narrator by the handmaid. To be more specific, the talk concerns problems determining historical fact in the tale, but the speaker goes out of his way to insist that we shouldn’t really judge the oppression of the period because “such judgments are of necessity culture-specific….Our job is not to censure but to understand.” Now, of course to some degree it would be useless to spend all day censuring a historical injustice that may no longer exist—no one gets credit these days for opposing slavery or the Holocaust—but the overall effect here, combined as it is with questioning the accuracy of the text, is to suggest the erasure of the experiences of women, particularly the painful ones. Atwood seems to be warning against a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for overcoming past injustices while also nonetheless perpetuating those injustices by dismissing the experiences of its victims. As a result, the handmaid’s oral history itself feels more reliable, not less—and, perhaps to redeem them, the narrator’s repetition of the idea she is just telling a story comes across not as a metafictional destabilization but rather as a testament to how much she wishes it were only a story. For us, then, it remains a potent warning.