What do you do when you want to rule the world? Not rule the world like a Bond villain or a crazy monarch, but truly rule the soul of the world and control its very future. The answer is simple. You control the women of the world. The moment you have control of the women in society, the world is yours and the future is yours too.
This idea isn’t new. It has been practiced throughout centuries by various kingdoms, monarchies and religions alike. Which is why, when I first started reading The Handmaid’s Tale, my immediate perception was that this isn’t a dystopian future at all. Not in the way 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 portrayed truly futuristic dystopian societies. This book is something much worse. This is a recounting of our past. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t tell you what might happen. It tells you what has already happened in our society and what we are struggling to move away from (sometimes with some degree of success).
Atwood uses her skill of first person narration to take the society which existed in reality not more than even a century ago to its logical extreme and create the Republic of Gilead, where women are controlled under the guise of being protected, where men hold power under the guise of protecting and the only true use for any female or any male is procreation. Sounds familiar? Sounds like something that may still come into existence given just a couple of wrong moves? Perhaps that’s exactly what makes this novel so very scary (like every dystopian novel should be). It’s not like Oceania from 1984, where we still have to be supremely ignorant and near-robotic to reach that stage of absolute control. This is something which already finds support in varying degrees in most religious texts and is already something that took an entire world-wide political and social movement to counter. That fight by Feminism was successful in some measure, but it’s a testament to how much value we place on the female ability to reproduce that we still cannot afford women complete freedom over their own bodies and governments still feel the need to control abortion and birth control.
In the wake of the recent law passed in Texas banning abortion, this book seemed all the more terrifying. It served to me as a reminder that all the progress and all the achievements of feminism, hard earned over 90 years, can be wiped out in a single moment. And just like in Gilead, there would not be a peep from society substantial enough to make a difference, because people would be confused. Tradition and Religion would ensure that there would be a basic internal conflict and this usually results in inertia. Inertia is all that is needed to go back to the way things were. If the government can control women and their freedom to treat their bodies exactly the way they want to, the world is controlled too. Maybe not in the obvious way it is done in Atwood’s world. But a subtle power is much more effective, long-term and dangerous than an overt one. It is a power much more difficult to spot, and therefore, a power more difficult to fight.
While this is the main theme of the novel, Atwood does touch upon several themes throughout the pages, though none truly ever take center-stage and overwhelm the story. Love, lust, betrayal, the nature of power and the myth of freedom are all explored in some degree. The skill of the author lies in the fact that each of these themes is in context to the overall plot, and seems like something any rational person would definitely think about, given what is happening around her. It explores how it is not just women who suffer in societies like these, but men are controlled too, albeit indirectly and more subtly. It seeks to show how men sacrifice power to women in the very moment they seek control over women. It observes the human need for emotion and love, and muses (quite correctly) that these are the two most dangerous enemies of any controlled society. A society which can feel is one which cannot be truly tamed. It’s only by training the mind of each member of society to treat the unnatural as natural and the devious as ordinary can any government truly hope to hide the nature of its power.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not a perfect novel. In fact, I found entirely too many similarities with Orwell’s world to be comfortable with the novel. Perhaps it’s unavoidable at this point. Orwell may be to Dystopian Literature what Tolkien is to High Fantasy. They have created so many tropes that every author who writes in these genres is fated to plagiarize the masters to some degree or another. The themes of dystopia such as an omnipresent and omnipotent government, censorship, an atmosphere of mistrust and gloom, the control and discipline of individuals, the creation of colonies for those deemed outcasts, the hope of escape and the doom of failure all seem to be taken straight from 1984. To top it off, there is a war going on here as well between the state and another country, similar to what was happening between Oceania and Eurasia in 1984.
I have my own theory that the creation of war or at least creation of the perception of always being in a state of war or on the brink of it is essential for any government to maintain control in society and justify its powers over civilians. This isn’t something new and this isn’t something we need to wait for a dystopian future to see happen. It is happening as we speak, with multiple countries always being in a state of war for years and years together without any resolution or crippling casualties. This state of war is used by the governments to impose laws and invoke powers of spying and violence which may not be justifiable in times of peace. Peace is, ultimately, harmful to those who seek power and therefore, war becomes necessary. Society becomes much more malleable and accepting of dystopia when it’s done for its own good and protection.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that must be read, not as a future that may happen, but as a past we have just emerged from and are a stone’s throw away from going back to. It’s an easy, fast read and won’t challenge your mastery over English, but will certainly challenge your perception that we are away from all that is written. It may, perhaps, make you aware of what once was and what could once again be. That level of awareness is, if nothing else, a start.