When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she created one of America’s most enduring dystopian myths. The book, which will be adapted into a TV series on Hulu this April, takes place in a late-20th-century America — now called Gilead — governed by a far-right religious group.
In Gilead, a small group of straight, wealthy white men hold all the power. People of color have been relocated to internment camps or deported. Gay people are executed. Religious heretics are tortured into conversion or executed.
It’s illegal for women to read or hold property in Gilead. Wealthy straight white women are almost entirely confined to their homes, while poor straight white women work in domestic services. Fertile white women who have violated Gilead’s sexual purity laws are forced to become Handmaids, working as indentured childbearers. The book is narrated by one such Handmaid, known to us only as Offred, because she is indentured to a wealthy and powerful man named Fred.
Gilead is not an exact mirror of our own world, but Atwood’s insights into how systems of oppression create and sustain themselves are universal. And that’s what’s at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale: a sobering examination of how oppression works to perpetuate itself at the expense of disenfranchised people. It offers itself as a kind of handbook on recognizing the signs and dangers of an oppressive regime.
Here are some lessons we can take from Atwood’s vision of Gilead.
Oppression disguises itself as natural essentialism
It’s outrageous, one woman said, but without belief. What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?
The Gileadean leaders present their new system as a restoration of the natural, scriptural order of things: People of color are the Children of Ham, so they are forced into servitude as the Bible says they should be. Women naturally exist to run the household, and so that becomes women’s sole purpose. Men are weak and easily led by the powers of sexual attraction, so of course women, who are stronger and more naturally chaste, must be punished for leading them astray. And men are naturally inclined to want variety, so if a man is rich enough and white enough, he gets multiple women to see to his various needs.
Once the Gileadean belief system has been enshrined in law, it sounds and feels natural, like common sense. Which brings us to our next lesson.
Over time, oppression comes to feel normal
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Offred remembers what life was like before the US became Gilead, but as the book begins, she’s been a Handmaid for five years, and her daily existence has become mundane to the point of boredom. She sits in her room. She puts on her red uniform and headdress. She goes grocery shopping. She goes back home. She lies still and lets her “Commander” try to ritually impregnate her. It is all very settled and orderly and domestic.
And when she thinks of the way America used to be, it’s the past that feels odd to her, not the present. When she sees a group of Japanese tourists in makeup and high heels, with their hair exposed, she feels “fascinated, but also repelled.” She thinks, “They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like that.”
Members of disenfranchised groups will be willing to oppress one another
The best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group.
The people who exert immediate control over Offred are not, mostly, men. They’re mostly the women who surround her: the so-called “Aunts” who train her to become a Handmaid; Serena Joy, the Wife who rules the household; and the other Handmaids, all of whom are held responsible for policing one another’s conduct. And Offred herself, in her turn, takes a certain vindictive pleasure in policing her fellow Handmaids when the opportunity presents itself.
These women have very little power available to them. The only way for them to feel as though they have some measure of control in the world is by exerting what power they can over whomever they can. And in this case, that’s mostly other women.
People in power will always build loopholes for themselves into their systems
“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.
“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”
I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”
“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.”
There is some leeway within Gilead’s strict system of sexual purity, in the form of a secret brothel available only to wealthy and powerful men within the inner circles of government. When Offred’s Commander takes her there, the spectacle of it all — the makeup, the lingerie, the exposed flesh — reminds her so strongly of the past that at first it feels like a form of liberation.
But working in the brothel is not liberation. It only means that those in power have preserved older, officially outlawed forms of subjugation strictly for their own benefit. It doesn’t improve Offred’s life, or the lives of any of the women who are forced to work there.
Academic poses of objectivity can become complicity
If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause.)
One of the most devastating moments of The Handmaid’s Tale comes in its epilogue, in which we learn that the book we just read is a primary text being examined at an academic conference on Gileadean Studies in 2195. Suddenly, the deeply personal and intimate account we just read has become a historical document to be dissected and depersonalized.
And while the academics lecturing on the manuscript posture over their own objectivity, they continue to casually dehumanize and objectify Offred. The Handmaid’s Tale, we learned, was chosen as the book’s title specifically as a dirty joke “having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats.” They condescendingly doubt that Offred is particularly educated and note with approbation that she spoke “maliciously” about the Commander and his Wife; the Gileadean elites, meanwhile, they praise for their “genius.” In attempting to appear objective, the academics succeed only in reinforcing the moral system that led the Gileadeans to commit atrocities.
Survival is a radical act, but it is not enough
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. … Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Offred finds the phrase nolite te bastardes carobrundorum carved into the closet of her room, left by her predecessor in the Commander’s household. She takes it as a half-despairing, half-encouraging mantra: Don’t let the bastards grind you down; survive; stay alive. But her predecessor, she learns, didn’t stay alive. She hanged herself. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” Offred thinks. “Fat lot of good it did her.”
For Offred, surviving in Gilead with some semblance of self intact is a radical act. Gilead does not want her to remember her old name or her old life, and the fact that she does is what keeps her going. But remembering, preserving the self, not being ground down — it’s not enough. It is not a sustainable way to live. Something, in the end, has to break. In the final pages of her narrative, Offred is not entirely sure if she is about to escape Gilead or die at the hands of the authorities, but she thinks either option will be better than the stasis in which she finds herself.