In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post. The only other entry in this series so far is To Kill A Mockingbird. This is also a bonus entry for #ReadSciFi month.
The edition I read as a teenager versus the edition I read this time round.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood (1985)
I first read this novel in 2003, when I was sixteen. It wasn’t a set text, but I did read it from the school library. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt that I ‘ought’ to read it and like it, and this may explain some of my hostile reaction. I didn’t dislike Atwood per se at this age: my first book by her had been Alias Grace, which I’d loved (though I liked it less when I re-read it a few years later). But I really didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale. As I wrote in my review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, when I was a teenager I considered feminism to be outdated. While I may have been more responsive to other feminist dystopias, I remember feeling that Atwood’s vision of a world of handmaids seemed especially contrived and implausible. I felt that I lived in a world where sexual freedom was only becoming more and more widespread; Atwood’s world was supposedly set in the future, but seemed to belong to the past.
When I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt like I’d been basically right about it when I was a teenager. In contrast, re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale has been a sobering experience. It’s really good. While these thoughts may bring nothing new to the table for those of you who’ve been reading and discussing the novel for decades, I thought I’d try and say something about why my opinion has changed so drastically.
As a teenager, I was introduced to The Handmaid’s Tale as an Important Feminist Text, having never been told very much about feminism, and I interpreted its story according to what I understood of feminism at the time. Offred was a feminist heroine rebelling against an evil regime – I’m not sure the word patriarchal was familiar to me. In this regime, men were all bad and women were all oppressed, and this reflected the future that Atwood thought we were all heading towards. I believed this was incredibly unlikely. However, I don’t think I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale so much solely because I didn’t see myself as a feminist; I think my misinterpretation of the story Atwood is trying to tell also played into it.
The first thing that struck me about the narrative that we receive in The Handmaid’s Tale on my re-read is how deliberately partial it is – both fragmented, and biased. Offred is, or at least was, a middle-class white woman from a certain kind of liberal background. She’s rather impatient with the radical feminism of her second-wave feminist mother. While she notionally stands for sexual freedom, she isn’t as open-minded as we might expect when her best friend Moira comes out as a lesbian: ‘There was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it.’ Offred has precious little to tell us about the fate of people of colour in her world; we only learn in the Historical Notes, which detail a conference held by a number of professors hailing from previously colonised countries like India that ‘racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.’
But once we realise that Offred isn’t an icon, but an ordinary person, and her narrative is intentionally limited, The Handmaid’s Tale opens up. Atwood juxtaposes a number of different understandings of feminism and maternalism, rather than focusing on how the dystopian society of Gilead is Bad and the previous world order was Good. In many ways, the book is a deliberate reckoning with the legacy of second-wave feminism, and with the cracks that were opening up in the movement in the 1980s. Offred, before the coup, takes much of her previous freedom for granted and is somewhat dismissive of her mother’s activism, but also accepts that there were restrictions on life before: that women couldn’t walk freely in the streets alone and were constantly confronted with pornographic depictions of their own bodies. As Atwood herself has commented, Gilead deliberately co-opts some of the tenets of the second-wave feminist movement: for example, in its antipathy to rape and its glorification of women’s ability to bear children. Offred’s relationship to this earlier brand of feminism is poignantly reflected in her realisation of what has happened to her own mother: ‘I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins… I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energey, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.’
Sex was an important part of Offred’s life before the coup, but is now reduced to ritualistic intercourse with the Commander once a month. When the Commander suggests that this society is better for women, and asks Offred ‘What did we overlook?’, her answer, like the answers of many fictional victims of dystopian societies, is ‘Love… Falling in love’. In her own head, she continues: ‘It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space’. When Offred does embark on a sexual relationship with Nick, she isn’t driven by romantic passion but by a desire to break out of the role she has to play all day every day. Nevertheless, this becomes addictive: ‘I no longer want to leave, escape… I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.’ In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is not positioned tidily as salvation from dystopia but as another way in which women’s wants can both be expressed and co-opted. Atwood’s description of what women get out of reading women’s magazines, which preach the gospel of love, can’t really be bettered: ‘They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities… They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.’
The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, isn’t a simplistically feminist book but a reckoning with a specific kind of feminist philosophy; and Atwood never lets on what she really thinks. While Gilead may contain some superficially tempting features, the real temptation, underneath the surface, is the world-view of Offred’s mother, which has been both destroyed by Gilead and vindicated in the most disturbing of ways. The novel doesn’t tell us what we should think about sex in a patriarchy, about the narrative of romantic love, or how we walk the line between protection and restriction; but it poses all these questions so well. Because of this, it seems essential to me that it is an unfinished text, and I worry about what The Testaments has done to the parameters that Atwood originally established here, even though I’m now keen to read it. For me, Go Set A Watchman helped to redeem some of the problems in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I doubt that will be the case with this particular sequel.
A personal note: The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in Britain in 1986, the year I was born. I first read it when I was sixteen, the same age as one of the narrators of The Testaments. And now, like Offred, I’m thirty-three. I wonder, if I re-read this novel when I’m twice as old once more, whether it will be a different book again.