My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I first read this I recognized the societies described as cobbled from history. I really didn't connect to it on a personal or visceral level. Re-reading it and it is clear how easy it is for political structures and societies to shift in today's world at the drop of a dime.
In 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, Ronald Reagan had declared “Morning in America,” and society was going to renew itself by returning to the old values. The Christian right, in its infancy at the time, was rising in reaction to the Free Love, and the horrors of AIDs. The 1984 election gave us Willie Horton, and a reminder about how violent and evil society had become. Finally, even though Chernobyl happened shortly after the book was published, the Union Carbide disaster in Bopal, India was still fresh in the headlines—a reminder that even the air is not safe. It was not hard at the time to extrapolate the ultimate end that this cocktail of fundamentalism, conservatism, violence, disease, and disaster would bring, but what Atwood could not know, is how much of her novel would become reality in the world.
The story is told through the point of view of Offred, a Handmaid assigned to a prominent family in Gilead. She can still remember a time before the country became Gilead, when she had a husband, a daughter, a job and a home — which was all taken from her. We learn bit by bit about her life, then and now, as she switches from present narrative to past events in an attempt of "reconstruction".
The dystopia Atwood describes is not that far from possible in today's world. This book was written before the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, and yet the lives of women during their control closely match the extreme isolation and restriction of Atwood's women. While the book is more focused on the control of reproduction, Atwood points out how, in order to fully subjugate women, you must have control over their money, their societal rights to own property and therefore their own independence. You must restrict their education and ability to have a job or any life apart from their families, and you must make them terrified of breaking the rules for fear of severe punishment or death... therefore turning helpless people into fearful spies ultimately.
Another now strangely prophetic element to this book, is the sudden clamp on social freedoms brought down on the society by a mass event, which is blamed on Muslim terrorists though we find out the terrorism, like in Oklahoma City, was home grown evil. The scale of the attack that took out the US Government in the novel can send chills down one’s spine in this post 9/11 world: the novel includes suicide bombings at checkpoints, restrictions of rights in the name of safety, blind patriotism, and an overwhelming belief that there is only one true religion, and deviants from this should be killed.
The pseudo-government, now renamed Republic of Gilead and controlled by religious zealots, clamps down on social freedoms and do it in a such an insidiously slow way it prevents mass rioting. How familiar this sounds to us, where the Patriot Act was slipped into the normal paperwork as a "necessary tool" to protect ourselves, and which, in a panic, the country perhaps did not stop to read close enough, or at all.
While the social issues are perhaps the most interesting part of this book, I focus on the political issues because it is just so plausible. Orwell’s world never materialized in full, and likely never will materialize to the degree he created. Instead it is Atwood’s distopia, seemingly outrageous at the time, that became reality in some parts of the World. This novel should serve as a cautionary warning about the result of any extremist view taken to its logical conclusion—the Taliban is proof that society cannot dismiss the notions of this book as outrageous and extreme. They have proven in the last decade, a plausible end to the error of letting Religious fundamentalism in any form guide one’s society.