I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.
Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.
NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”
I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.
I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.
“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker
While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978. I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.
Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.
Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.
Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?
(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)