The goal of a book review is to give the reader some idea whether the book is one they should read. In the case of a book in publication for as long as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that function has been fulfilled many times over. In light of the recent Hulu series based on the novel, however, it’s worthwhile to revisit its key themes.
The premise is straightforward and brutal: what if, in 1983, a misogynistic sect took over the United States and imposed its vision of a righteous world order on the nation? What if, due to fertility decline, this sect conscripted fertile women as “handmaids,” breeding bodies for the use of high-ranking couples unable to conceive? These two what ifs drive the rest of the plot, as narrated by a handmaid called Offred. (There’s also an underground, which functions mostly as a plot convenience.)
This is the least interesting part of the novel. Even the mystery of how this terrible world came to be gains its interest from withholding of facts; once Atwood breaks down and describes the overthrow of the United States and the establishment of Gilead, it’s underwhelming. Ideas that seemed terrifying become implausible.
Far more interesting are the narrator’s scattered meditations on sex, gender, and religion, as well as the relationships she develops with other characters. It is here that we find a novel that remains timely, though not in the ways potential readers might assume.
With a central conceit predicated on the bizarre and coercive sexual arrangement of the handmaids, it’s not surprising that almost everyone is preoccupied with sex. Despite the monthly Ritual of procreation, Offred longs for sexual fulfillment. Primarily, she desires sex as a form of intimacy—in Gilead, intimacy is barred to women because of both the restrictions they suffer and the impossibility of trusting anyone. At various points in the novel, however, Offred assigns other meanings to sexuality—a means of control in a powerless life, for instance. More significantly, she equates, then does not equate, then adjusts the connection between sexual intimacy and love, and between love and identity. “Falling in love” is synonymous with sexual longing and encounter as she reminisces about the past. She makes an explicit connection late in the novel between love and identity. Without love, the narrator suggests, identity becomes fragmented and meaningless; but love in this case is mostly sexual longing. A massive confusion about lust and love sits at the heart of the novel.
What is love, and how much of it is sexual desire? Today, as participants in the hookup culture express increasing ambivalence about this approach to relationships, as a coherent description of marriage remains seemingly out of reach, and as divorce rates continue high, this question could not be more relevant.
The issue of gender springs naturally from these considerations. This, too, is especially relevant to contemporary anxieties about gender relations and the role of men in society. Offred describes women as helpless and hostile due to Gilead’s oppression, and men as strange monsters. She cannot fathom male interiority, and this extends past the admittedly terrible men she meets as a handmaid to memories of her missing husband. There is a monotony to it; by about the one-third mark you realize that everyone is going to be pretty much the same.
Perhaps this satirizes the othering of women in other literature; perhaps it reflects Offred or Atwood’s belief that men are simply incomprehensible monsters from the female perspective. The ghost of separatist feminism haunts this novel. However, recent scandals surrounding men in positions of influence make these questions less historically quaint. Are men and women so different that there can be no mutual understanding? Is sexual exploitation fundamental to masculine identity? When considering the miserable side of gender relations, it’s tempting to answer “yes.”
This isn’t a trap into which Christians must fall, however. The doctrines of creation and the fall inform us that men and women are more alike than they are different, and that all humans are capable of evil passions. Average physical differences and structures of historical societies may give one sex more scope for particular sins, but we are fundamentally akin in nature, alike in sin, and redeemed by the same Gospel. But Gilead is a religious society. It seems Atwood doesn’t leave room for us to consider a Christian perspective viable. Since Gilead’s social order springs from a fictional Christian sect, one’s first impression is that this is a story about how Christians are bad for America. But Atwood herself, in her introduction to the novel’s most recent edition, remarks that this is largely an accident of the American setting. In a different country with a different religious history, a different faith might have given birth to these fanatics.
Critically, the core institutions and doctrines of Christianity are absent from Gilead. There is no public worship, no regular proclamation of the Word, no administration of the sacraments. There is one hideous parody of family worship, but this involves no Gospel. The only church building visible in the novel has long ceased to be used for its original purpose. This is Christianity not even in name, as no one ever uses the word “Christian.” Gilead’s religion is man-made from pseudo-Christian themes.
There is a connection between this man-made religiosity and Offred’s linking of love and identity. We see it when she imagines her lost husband in three different forms—a peculiar sort of trinity—and muses on the role he plays for her as a symbol. Offred has built a religion of human sexual love. Gilead has built a religion of violence towards women. Everyone is crafting some sort of religion for themselves, founded on some this-worldly principle. God is missing, and so other things—a social order, a style of sexual behavior, a type of human connection—become ghastly parodies of him. Atwood may not have intended to articulate this theme, but it is hard for the Christian reader to avoid the conclusion.
Offred’s reminiscences about the past form a constant dialogue between her memories and the version of history that Gilead peddles. Was it that bad? Were women so unsafe that this repression is the only solution? Offred’s memories suggest that while America was not that bad, it was still not a great place for women. Relations between the sexes were largely civilized, but sexual violence and exploitation were evident. Fellow handmaid Janine’s history of brutalization makes clear that many men in pre-Gilead America used their physical and social status to perpetrate crimes against women. The world Offred remembers was clearly freer, but it was not a utopia.
Thus the novel draws us to ask deeper questions. What is wrong with both of these societies, broken in different yet related ways? What is the true source of the gender anxieties Atwood describes? The narrative suggests that a lack of respect for women is the root, but this only raises further questions. What is the source of that gender contempt? What does respect for others look like in a gendered world?
In 2018 The Handmaid’s Tale is a past future. It’s also a look at the present—of the novel’s composition and, to the extent that we find continuity, our own present. Contemporary America, like pre-Gilead America and Gilead itself, is not a good place for women—or for men. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a pleasant read, and the extent to which the slog proves worth it will vary by reader, but Atwood’s nightmare vision throws our social order into sharp relief.
Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.