America in Atwood’s bleak, unnerving novel is the theocracy of Gilead, established by religious fanatics who have dismantled the republic, liquidated the opposition and replaced our present political system with a quasi-military infrastructure. The northeastern United States has been transformed into Gilead with terrifying swiftness and remarkably little resistance, the transition eased by a lingering Puritan tradition fortified by neo-fundamentalism. The overriding concern of this regime is human reproduction; the time is the foreseeable future, when a devastating combination of chemical pollution, radiation and epidemic venereal disease has caused the national birthrate to fall below replacement level. For an assortment of good, bad and indifferent reasons, too few children have been born in the preceding decades to keep America from extinction. (Arthur Campbell, a demographer quoted in the Jan. 13 issue of Newsweek, believes that more than a fifth of the women born in the 1950s may never have a child.) By the time “The Handmaid’s Tale” begins, he has been proved right and reforms long advocated by radical elements of the moral majority have become law.
Unlike science fiction, which is sharply fanciful, this sort of speculative literature merely extrapolates from past and present experience to a future firmly based upon actuality; beginning with events that have already taken place and extending them a bit beyond the inevitable conclusions. “The Handmaid’s Tale” does not depend upon hypothetical scenarios, omens, or straws in the wind, but upon documented occurances and public pronouncements; all matters of record. For contemporary American women, “The Handmaid’s Tale” could be the ultimate doomsday book; a man’s reaction may well be ambivalent. In Gilead, such distinctions between the sexes have been revived and emphasized with a vengeance.
As the proclaimed moral guardians of the nation, the High Commanders of Gilead have declared all second marriages and unsanctified unions between men and women invalid. Fertile female partners in these liaisons have been seized and forced into the role of childbearers to the ruling elite; the offending males have been killed, exiled or imprisoned. After a period of indoctrination in their duties to their master and the state, the handmaids are incarcerated in the Commanders’ houses, guarded by attendants called Marthas, women who for racial or other reasons are unfit for childbearing. Though the legal wives of the Commanders occupy an exalted position in this society, by the time their husbands have reached Commander status, the wives are too old to have children. A vicarious arrangement has been devised for their benefit: a “ceremony” in which the real wife is present while her husband attempts to impregnate his handmaid. The handmaid’s only outside activity is shopping for food, but after each of these carefully monitored excursions, she must return to her cell-like room. Handmaids are not allowed to read, hold jobs or own property; an abrogation of rights justified by the Scripture-quoting theocrats in power. Radio, television and films have apparently been abolished; coffee, tea, tobacco and cosmetics are forbidden to the breeders. Categories of women are identified by their costume, as in feudal societies before the industrial revolution enabled the lower orders to imitate the privileged. The Commanders’ wives dress in long ornate blue gowns, the “Marthas” wear uniform green, the “Econowives,” all-purpose drudges of the proles, wear stripes, while the handmaids are decked in red nun-like habits topped by headdresses designed to curtail their peripheral vision. Handmaids have been deprived of their pre-regime names and are known only by the first name of the man they serve, prefixed by “of” to depersonalize them further.
The narrator of the tale is Offred; the literary mode a diary of her circumscribed existence. Offred’s young daughter has been kidnaped, her husband apparently shot while trying to cross the border into Canada; her mother and a close friend, both outspoken feminists, have vanished without a trace. Offred herself is living on borrowed time. Each handmaid has three years in which to produce a healthy child for a Commander. Should she fail to become pregnant in that time, she too will disappear, either to “The Colonies,” where infertile women are used to clean up toxic waste, or if she is more fortunate, to forced labor on a farm. The third option is a secret bordello set up to stimulate the Commanders’ lagging interest in sex, which tends to wane under the circumstances. Because the birthrate has not yet been raised by these Draconian measures, even more heroic tactics may soon be required. As it stands, life in Gilead exceeds the grim primitive reality described by Hobbes in “Leviathan,” “no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.” The university system has been demolished, public executions are frequent, the economy is faltering, secret police are everywhere, and virtually all civil rights gained by women and minorities during the last century have been rescinded.
Given conducive circumstances, every one of the atavistic changes in this novel could be implemented virtually overnight, smoothly and efficiently. The legislative machinery is already in place, the communications networks established; vast sums of money available to the advocates of such a system. As a Harvard educated Canadian with a particular interest in Puritan history, Atwood can observe these changes from a privileged vantage point; close enough for involvement, sufficiently removed for perspective. In a recent CBC interview she said “Canada’s role in this novel is the role Canada has always taken in bad times in the United States . . . so Canada’s position would be to do what she always does: to try to remain neutral without antagonizing the superpower to the South.”
Atwood has created a spirited and engaging narrator and surrounded her with an array of active and passive supporting characters, each of whom represents a type familiar in America today. She has rounded off her icy cautionary tale with a desperately needed and hilarious spoof of an academic convention in the year 2195, at which time Gilead is a defunct society, regarded by all as a trivial aberration in cultural history, but despite this full complement of literary virtues, the power of the book comes not from Atwood’s inspired flights of fancy or felicities of style but from her deliberate subjugation of imagination to demonstrable fact. Only the form of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is fiction, as the form of “Mein Kempf” was autobiography.