The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the top-shelf works of dystopian fiction that has suddenly become urgently relevant with the Trump presidency. While America in 2017 chillingly reminds me of 1984‘s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”, The Handmaid’s Tale addresses a different side of the strange alchemy of conservatism which made Trump possible: the Mike Pence-ian, Evangelical, vision of America.
The Tale is set in a future New England town, after the liberal-democratic order has truely fallen, subverted by a mixture of violence and political manipulation. In this dark, religiously fuelled totalitarianism known as the “Republic of Gilead,” women truely are the property of men. The underlying logic and assumptions behind the Old Testament vision of sexes are taken to is logical conclusion. Thus, “Offred,” our heroine, is a “handmaid,” sort of fertility prostitute for a high-ranking “Commander,” who presides over a walled-off suburb for the elect with his “Wife” and “Martha” (housekeeper)”.
This is a deeply stirring book – I was struck by the subtle depth of the writing, which often resembles poetry as much as descriptive narrative. Atwood as a writer is a master at using the “gaps” – what is not said, or what is said when – to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Silences are eloquent in the Republic of Gilead. The story thus manages to be a intense psychological and emotional journey through loneliness and exploration of the relationships between women and women, and men and women and a scathing, eerie depiction of what a truely Evangelical America would mean.
For example, the “Aunts” – the women who train the Handmaids and are the ideological shock troops so to speak – shame the Handmaids in training for being sluts, i. e., “its your fault you got raped” and then extol the new theocratic order because it “protects women” even as the Republic of Gilead is more or less a system of systematic, institutionally approved rape.
My wife literally could not put this book down, and it’s clear why: this books is a mix of first class writing, intense psychological perspective and dystopian terror.