At the intersection of sexuality and politics lie devastating stories. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is one such narrative – quiet, simmering, dystopian, and ultimately, a chilling reflection of the times we live in.
Published in 1985, the book is set in an America that’s not too far into the future. The Republic of Gilead is a theocratic, totalitarian regime that has overthrown the American government through a military coup. Men rule. Women are divided into groups based on the roles they perform – wives, handmaids or ‘two-legged wombs’ whose sole reason for existence is reproduction, Marthas, or servants, and Aunts, or older women who control the handmaids and Marthas. The protagonist is Offred, a handmaid.
A dystopian novel achieves its purpose when the story seems possible. In an incident that Offred refers to as ‘Testifying’, Janine, another handmaid, narrates her experience of being gang-raped at the age of 14 and the other handmaids then chant together, in response to Aunt Helena:
‘But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson.
It must be the woman’s fault.’
The next week, a drained Janine kneels down and says “It was my fault…I led them on, I deserved the pain.’
Very few women in our country muster up the courage to report rape. This is what they probably go through when the legal system puts them through voyeuristic interrogations and the media makes macabre spectacles of the reported incidents.
In a bleak reflection of the lack of choice women have over their own bodies, Offred refers to herself and the other handmaids as ‘containers,’ as mounds of flesh surrounding a uterus waiting to be filled with every ovulation cycle. This could be near-future America, it could be today’s India, it could be the plight of any woman with little or no control over her reproductive choices. When Offred speaks nostalgically about the now-outlawed machines that could show the health of the foetus, she says ‘What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.’ What a chilling recollection of the third and final presidential debate one has, where a rich, white man propagated complete government control over the American woman’s reproductive choices.
Atwood also ventures beyond women’s issues to environmental degradation, homophobia and racism. She speaks of vultures that would probably die after eating contaminated bodies. Men who commit gender treachery, or homosexual acts, are executed and their bodies are hung on The Wall. Blacks and Jews are also quickly executed. Dystopian, really?
The heart beats a little faster when Offred speaks of the past. Her nostalgic recollections of the smell of baking, of the defeated women who wore makeup and wanted to recapture their bodies, of making love to her husband, of holding her daughter, of words like love, passion and romance that are now mere titillations, of hand lotion that she now so badly aches for – we know it’s a world we inhabit today. We also know it’s a world we could lose.
It’s a dreary world that Atwood paints. But, there is one factor that makes us root for Offred – her desire. As a handmaid to the Commander, for who she tries to procreate, the sexual act is clinical, soulless and completely bereft of any sensuality whatsoever. But, with Nick, it’s different. She chooses to spend many an evening, making love with Nick – the only choice she gets to make. For the freedom that this choice gives her, Offred is ready to compromise. She no longer feels like a ‘rat in a maze.’
The men in Atwood’s book, the Commander and Nick, are not cardboard characters. They are living, breathing human beings who show sides to their personality that surprise the reader. Whether it’s the Commander’s desire to play Scrabble with Offred, or Nick’s new role in her life, Atwood ensures that she does not make villains or heroes of them.
Towards the end, in a moment of terrifying fear, Offred says:
‘I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.
I feel, for the first time, their true power.’
You want to use Atwood’s own words and say ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ But then, as Offred so bleakly puts it, it would be like saying ‘Don’t let there be air.’