Sep 23 2013 11:30am
The Careful Leveraging of Fear: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood banned books Mrs. Gilbert was one of those cool English teachers. You know the kind. She told us about wanting to go to Woodstock and not being allowed by her parents because she was too young. She taught us to enjoy Shakespeare by encouraging us to figure out all the filthy jokes in Romeo and Juliet—“the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads?” and “thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit!”—a surefire way to the hearts and minds of a bunch of ninth-grade honors students who fancied themselves to be filthy-minded. She’s the one who gave me an A on my Elric fanfiction when I had the temerity to hand it in for a writing assignment. And she’s the one who suggested that I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

We had a strangely permissive library at our little high school, and far from being banned, Atwood’s novel was quite prominently placed amongst the As, the spine illustration of a woman in a red robe and white hat quite striking from across the room. Mrs. Gilbert, who knew me by then to be a dedicated SF&F fan with a nose for challenging books, said that I should read it; she thought I would find it very interesting.

That teens are drawn to dystopian fiction is news to absolutely no one, particularly here at Most of the regulars here have probably read Laura Miller’s analysis of dystopian novels as a parable of adolescence; if The Hunger Games and its like had been around in the late 1980s, I’d have devoured them whole. I’d already read Animal Farm and 1984 by that point, as well as Brave New World. I’d even made a cursory pass through Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which impressed me the least out of the lot. I actually learned the word dystopia from Margaret Atwood later that same year, when she came to lecture at Trinity University and talked about The Handmaid’s Tale and the history of utopian fiction.

But anyway, while the idea of an all-suppressive, totalitarian/authoritarian state wasn’t anything new, I knew very little about feminism at that point—certainly none of the history of the feminist movement, and little theory beyond a vague notion of “women’s lib,” a regrettable term that I remember being in currency well into the 1980s. And of sexual politics, abortion, pornography, and the like, I knew next to nothing apart from the fact that they were controversial. This was well before the internet, and when growing up and going to school in a relatively conservative environment, it was still possible, at fourteen, to be rather naive.

So The Handmaid’s Tale came as a bit of a shock.

At first glance it was easiest and most obvious to latch onto the themes of the systematic suppression and control of women’s sexuality, liberty, and reproductive ability, and to be horrified at a state that would deprive women of equal status under the law as a matter of principle. It took some time to untangle the deeper ideas at work, and to finally figure out that as with all good SF, The Handmaid’s Tale is not about the future; it’s about the now. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale at an impressionable age wasn’t like reading a contemporary YA dystopian novel; there was certainly nothing in it about navigating the seemingly arbitrary obstacles of adolescence. What it did prepare me for was the realization that even in our supposedly egalitarian society, a woman’s body and what she does (or doesn’t) with it are still an enormous source of controversy.

The dystopian novel functions in a manner similar to satire in that exaggeration is frequently its stock in trade; of course the Republic of Gilead is an extremist state, and while it certainly has its precedents in history (as Jo Walton has ably discussed here), the shock comes from seeing that kind of extremism laid out in what is recognizably a near-future Boston. Gilead’s social system literalizes and codifies the sexually-defined women’s roles that still inform gender relations even in these supposedly enlightened times: a woman is either a sex object (for procreation or pleasure, but not both), or she is a sexless nurturer. She is a Wife, a Handmaid, or a state-sanctioned prostitute, or she is a Martha or an Aunt. Atwood complicates the scenario still further by refusing to wax sentimental over bonds of sisterhood; amongst an oppressed class, siding with the oppressors is often the better survival choice, after all. In fact, women—particularly the Aunts—are the most fearsome police of other women’s behavior.

When Atwood gave her lecture at Trinity, she said that The Handmaid’s Tale was “a book about my ancestors”—the Puritans of New England. In this there’s a suggestion that the parallel urges to suppress and to comply are part of our cultural DNA. All it takes is a careful leveraging of fear to begin a slow dismantling of democracy as we know it. In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, the catalyzing event is a mass assassination of the President and Congress—initially blamed on Islamic radicals, interestingly, though it’s suggested by the narrator that it was a false flag attack. And one of the first regressions of society is the systematic disenfranchisement of women.

Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-1980s, at the height of Reagan America, and it’s somewhat alarming to realize that the contemporary cultural forces underlying the novel haven’t really changed that much in the last thirty years. Then as now, suppression comes not so much in sweeping, slate-wiping gestures as in little erosions and aggressions—legislation that doesn’t ban abortion outright, but which makes it prohibitively difficult to get one; the way women don’t face bans on employment but do face constant, ingrained assumptions and subtle (or not so subtle) prejudice against their skills and abilities due to gender; the incredible hostility that so many women encounter online for voicing feminist opinions.

And The Handmaid’s Tale still has the power to chill and to shock; Atwood’s frank depictions of female sexuality—the suppression and abuse of it, as well as the desire and memory of desire that the narrator still cannot help but feel—still undoubtedly set off alarm bells amongst the self-appointed guardians of young minds. I hope there are still some Mrs. Gilberts out there, getting this book into the hands of the teenage girls—and boys—who need it.

Banned Books Week 2013 is being celebrated from Sept. 22 to the 28; further information on Banned and Frequently Challenged Books is available from the American Library Association.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She’s pretty sure she lucked out with all her English teachers from eighth grade on. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

1. Dirtycelt
Earlier this year I read the Handmaid's Tale for the first time, being a bit late to how wonderful Margaret Atwood's writing is....and I was shocked to just how relavent the subject matter is even today. Perhaps more so...
S Cooper
2. SPC
I also read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, but as an assigned reading for class - I understand a parent challenged it a year or two after I graduated, and they replaced it with Brave New World.
Stephen Dunscombe
3. cythraul
We had a strangely permissive library at our little high school, and far from being banned, Atwood’s novel was quite prominently placed amongst the As, the spine illustration of a woman in a red robe and white hat quite striking from across the room.

I... am weirdly surprised to see The Handmaid's Tale being talked about as something controversial, or requiring a "strangely permissive" library.

I'm pretty sure some of the English classes at my high school had it on the syllabus. Atwood is regarded as one of the Really Big Names in Canadian literature, and The Handmaid's Tale is the work I heard referenced most often.
4. chaosprime
The role of the "crack female control agency", the Aunts, came to mind more than once recently as Hugo Schwyzer's loud, public decompensation showed mainstream white feminism as looking more and more about hierarchy.
Steven Cole
5. scole66
The Handmaid's Tale is sitting in my extremely overflowing to-be-read pile. I think this article has just bumped it up, and even more: provoked me to recommend it to my own high-school freshman daughter. (If she ever finds a few more minutes in the day for yet another book.)
6. cancon
The book was required reading at our high school in the Canadian Lit class. We read it along with Timothy Findley's The Wars. It wasn't until University that I learned that some schools were banned from having either one in the classroom
7. i clare
I'm confused. I've read this book, though years ago, so I don't remember all the details. Why is it banned? Who bans it? How can it be banned when it is published?

I'm not American. In my country the only book that I can ever remember being banned from being printed is the translation of Mein Kampf, and that is a cause of regular soul-searching, i.e. people should be allowed to decide for themselves.
Nick Hlavacek
8. Nick31
I come from a very conservative town but I too read this back in high school, probably not very long after it was published. I doubt it was on a reading list from school, but I suppose it could have been. It still stands out in my mind for its imagery of such a dystopian future and the extreme nature of the social controls. I didn't, however, think of it as being a feminist book. I thought Atwood did a remarkable job of showing how the way women were degraded was destructive to the society as a whole. Instead of benefiting from the oppression of women, men were themselves diminished; that men and women could only succeed by working together and not against the other.
Going through this week has really taking me back to my high school English class as well. We had our typical reading list that would be featured or referenced on the AP test, but we also had one two week period where everyone was assigned a book individually not on the list to present orally to the class. I think every book referenced this week was assigned to someone to present.

I never knew Ms. Adams was such a provocateur.

P.S. Mine was The Invisible Man, but I'm pretty sure that was never banned, was it?
10. TBGH
. . . really TAKEN me . . .

And now I have to make sure she never sees that post . . .
11. Teka Lynn
@7: The Handmaid's Tale is banned in some places in the US because a) it is set in an Evangelical Christian theocracy and shows that setting in a bad light; b) it's about a (white cis) woman living very unhappily in that theocracy rather than accepting her "proper role"; c) the powerful leaders in the book are almost all dreadful hypocrites who practice the exact opposite of what they preach; d) environmental pollution has caused much genetic damage, which is something many people in the US do not want to believe; e) prostitution is depicted, and at least one sex worker is a positive character rather than a fallen woman of no morals. I'm sure there are other reasons, but these are the ones which come to my mind first.

The Handmaid's Tale is legal to buy and sell to consumers. The banning comes when it is chosen as a school textbook, or is available in libraries to all ages. The school curriculum is not set by national standards, but by individual states and school boards, leading to widely varying results in what is taught in US public schools, and how. Some parents do not approve of their children reading "subversive" or "obscene" material, even if it is considered a literary work of value, and do not want these books studied in class or available for public reading. Since many school boards and some libraries are either unable or unwilling to resist public pressure, some agree to ban the controversial material and forbid students from reading them or teachers to teach them.
12. wizard clip
I think the loose use of the term "banned" is misleading to readers from outside the US. As Teka Lyn points out above, the book is available for purchase all over the country. It is individual communities or school systems that might restrict minors' access to it at their schools, and while many of us might find such tactics objectionable, the book has not been outlawed by any means (thank you first amendment). We in the US might consider that some readers of these postings might live in countries where books are actually banned outright (i.e. it's illegal to buy, sell, or possess them) and aim for more accurate terms.
Janice boyd
13. scaredicat
@11, @12 are correct. The Handmaid's Tale isn't banned in the US. Sometimes, school libraries won't have it, or school systems will rule that it can't be used in a literature class*. People can still find it in a public library (or buy it), read it, and share it with their children.

*Schools that ban it do so because the book is often assigned in literature classes. They enact a ban to keep teachers from using material that they feel is controversial or objectionable.
Janice boyd
14. scaredicat
I read The Handmaid's Tale when I was in graduate school. It's one I reread on occasion, because Ms. Atwood's world-building is so complex.

The astounding thing is how well it holds up, despite being a near-future speculative fictional work. It's interesting to remember that the depiction of the (pseudo-Christian) theocracy predates the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The concerns about pollution and fertility are also fairly prescient.

As a graduate student, one of my favorite parts of the book was the very end -- the lightly humorous, tongue-in-cheek, scholarly conference that provides a gentle coda/framing device for the story of Offred. At that point in my life I was attending similar scholarly conferences (in a different subject, obviously), and this depiction is true-to-life and very funny.
Laura Southcott
15. tallgrass
Oddly, whenever I have heard (reports of) discussions of banning The Handmaid's Tale, the rationale is usually that it depicts the opression of women. I'm not sure if the people calling for such a ban are just completely clueless, or saying this to disguise the fact that they don't like how it depicts evangelical Christianity.

Also, @9 TBGH, you mean this Invisible Man?
Tom Smith
16. phuzz
Fourtunately those in charge of banning books didn't have English teachers who explained the dirty jokes in Shakespeare, otherwise the Bard would have been banned many times over ;)
Bridget McGovern
17. BMcGovern
For those who were confused by the term "banned," I've added a note to the post explaining that is taking part in the larger celebration of Banned Books Week from September 22nd through the 28th. Banned Books Week has been an annual event in the US since 1982 (you can read more about the history here). Here is the official website, and here's a link to the American Library Association's site, which should give anyone interested a comprehensive overview of the aims of this yearly event. I'll include the same note, with links, in our other Banned Books-related posts for this week.
18. Gerry__Quinn
"It’s somewhat alarming to realize that the contemporary cultural forces underlying the novel haven’t really changed that much in the last thirty years". Surely that should be reassuring, insofar as the notion that Christian conservatives are going to rise up and impose a Handmaid-like dystopia must by now be considered rather paranoid by reasonable people?
19. TBGH

Indeed it is. If that project hadn't taken place so deep into the school year, it was part of our final exam, I'd think she did it for banned books week.
Theresa Wymer
20. Tekalynn
@18: I'll just say that by those lights I am a most unreasonable person indeed, and leave it at that.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
21. Lisamarie
I read this book in high school (or maybe early in college) on my own. I think it was one of the first books I didn't just blow through like usual - it was disturbing enough to me that I had to digest it slowly.
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
This is a very thoughtful and powerful book. When your normal reading diet consists of a lot of pulp fiction, reading a book like this, where the prose is so well crafted, the message hits you even harder.
23. Lilla
@8 Nick, I think you have misunderstood what feminism means. It's a central concept of feminism that the patriarchy hurts men too and everyone will be better off when women are treated equally. The Handmaid's Tale is definitely a powerful feminist novel.
Heather Dunham
24. tankgirl73
I'm one of the rare folks who can't stand The Handmaid's Tale (or Atwood's writing in general, but especially this one). Not because of any of its themes or messages or whatever -- there are some very interesting ideas in there.

No, I don't like it because it's badly written.

We had to read it in my English class in university and write an essay about it. I wrote an essay on why it sucked, basically... and got an A+.

My thesis was that any moral or allegorical significance becomes meaningless if the story is internally inconsistent. And also that the level of inconsistencies belies the way Atwood is upheld as one of the greatest writers of the generation, if even a non-english major undergrad can find them so easily. So yeah, I was criticizing her skill as an author. :)

I can't remember all the details I came up with, but there were enough for a full major paper. I can remember a few, though. For instance, at one point when Offred is in the farm place with the Aunts, it talks about how the Aunts would read scripture over the loudspeakers every day. She says something about how the Aunts have special dispensation to be able to read when other women are not allowed. At another point, I forget when, she's talking about the ban on reading Scripture and explicitly says "even the Aunts were not allowed to read Scripture."

There is also a problem with the framing device, we're supposed to believe that the entire story is a transcription of tapes found that Offred had dictated after escaping. But it's not told in a narrative, past tense style -- it's told in the *present*... and is it also third person? I can't recall for sure. Anyway, it's a convention you have to suspend disbelief for, but I argued that the framing doesn't add anything, not that requires this specific mode of transmission anyway, and the message of the story would have still worked very well with a different framing device.

Apparently there had recently been a guest lecturer who had presented on the topic of the importance of internal consistency and how this effects the impact of a story.

A great story idea told badly is not a great story -- is a missed opportunity. I argued, quite successfully, that the Handmaid's Tale is a great story idea, but told badly -- not even edited very well.

Anyway, that's my little point of personal pride -- while everyone else praises this work, and this author, as some kind of nearly religious literary figure, infallible and to be adulated -- I got an A+ arguing that it was actually not all that great!
25. Marci Alouan-Byers
@15 There was another vote & it has been reinstated. While I live in NC, though not in Randolph County, it has started a conversation. This was probably among the better articles I read about it.
26. Synchronicity

Your critique has prompted me to reread the book with an eye out for inconsistency, thank you!

I disagree with your assertion that the coda doesn't add anything - I think it may be the most important element of the book. It's looking back from a more enlightened time, sneering at the backward nature of the Republic of Gilead. However, these far-future academics are just as dismissive of Offred herself and her life - they see her narrative as a way to find out more about the men in the society, including the famous man who owned her, and they speculate as to who he may have been. It's another erasure of the woman's narrative, and the plot device is delicious in its execution.

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