The release of the TV adaptation of Margret Atwood’s ’80s classic The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year not only gave creator Bruce Miller a wave of critical acclaim but also instigated a revival of interest in Atwood’s book. More than anything, her dystopian America about an extremely conservative republic that treats women as state-controlled breeders is being seen to have fresh parallels with Trump’s America.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred who under an oppressive regime that has taken over the fictional America. She has been forced to give up her old life and become a Handmaid, a sexual servant to a Commander who acts as the vessel to bear and carry his children in place of his aged wife. Undergoing dehumanising medical tests, ritualistic sex and a stripping of all personal identity, Offred and the other Handmaids become invisible beings, sacred property to be used and managed by the men who own them.
Coming at this as a The Handmaid’s Tale virgin (although I have read some of Atwood’s books before) it was easy to see why parallels are being drawn between Atwood’s dystopian projection of an America reacting to a declining fertility rate and the state of America at present. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a millennial surrounded by growing rates of fertility treatments and delayed parenthood with its accompanying greater risk of miscarriages and pregnancy complications, it’s not difficult to imagine Atwood’s Gilead becoming reality. The regime under which Offred and the other Handmaids have become objectified breeding machines came about from conservative religious views seeming to have the answer to societal issues such as a declining fertility rate – does that sound so unlike our world today? With Trump and his posse of white men who since the beginning of his presidency have seemed to be on a one-track path to undoing 50 years of female emancipation, Atwood’s Gilead no longer seems that unrealistic, and makes her book that much more significant today.
Aside from the clear parallels that can be made, overall I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood has a knack for keeping the reader interested by revealing parts of the story in bits. You are drip fed snippets of the wider picture, so like an addict you clutch to every drop you can get until the whole story is revealed to you and you’re on the last page. Well, almost the whole story. Like many of Atwood’s works, The Handmaid’s Tale does not end with a complete resolution. There is always some snippet left out, a question left unanswered, or another one brought up at the conclusion of another. Framed as a historical document transcribed by university lecturers, you close The Handmaid’s Tale questioning the text you’ve just read. How much has been changed in that interpretative process at the hands of academics is unknown and left unrevealed. Like Atwood’s The Penelopiad, you are left unsure whether what you have just read is the real story, or only part of it, questioning how reliable our narrator’s perspective is, or if her voice has been distorted.
You close The Handmaid’s Tale questioning, and that was possibly the source of Atwood’s power as a writer, her ability to leave you pondering long after the last page is turned. Despite the newly emerging image of Atwood’s Gilead as 1984 meets Trump’s America, the draw of Atwood’s literature has remained the same, but is simply being found or refound by an audience who are questioning the recent developments of the world around them.