A Real-Life Dystopia? Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Should be Your First Read of 2017

Art & Lit Literature

Occasionally you can hear a book having resonant echoes in the real world, something which is actually tangible. If you’re hoping for a utopia, or on a more realistic vein, The Philosopher’s Stone, I’d look to a different article: the first book you should read to prepare for 2017 is The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in the not-too-distant future, the narrative follows the story of Offred (whose name literally means Of-Fred, her Commander), a Handmaid. Her sole purpose, due to population decrease and widespread sterility, is to provide children for the regime. Throughout the novel, we learn of a totalitarian dictatorship that removes all women’s freedoms (including their right to read), controls its population through fear and indoctrination, and is safe only if fanatically embraced.

In this novel, the ease of forgetting the past, and in some cases, the wish to, replaces justice and truth.

Perhaps a bit extreme, you’re thinking? I know. But 2016 was awful – the Syrian conflict, Trump, Zika, terror attacks and growing racial tensions. Yet I’ve personally got even lower expectations for 2017; using minimal clairvoyance, nationalism looks set to rise on a worldwide scale, global warming is growing at a more devastating pace than ever, and Trump will actually ascend to his presidency. Atwood herself tweeted an enthusiastic reader who had recently finished The Handmaid’s Tale to say that she had done so ‘just in time’, so let’s cast a slightly fearful glance on why this speculative fiction is more relevant today than ever.

It makes sense to start at the beginning: a fake terrorist attack, supposedly instigated by Islamic extremists, covers the actual coup by the “Sons of Jacob”, who quickly enforce an Old Testament-based regime under the pretense of protecting the state. Atwood hints at the willful ignorance of the public, the fear preyed upon by the media, being stunned, shocked, and subdued into silence – all through saying next-to-nothing on the subject. These past events are reported by Offred, but rarely deeply considered or analysed: what is the point in attempting to fight an enemy whose lies were so easily, and happily, swallowed? When you are fed information of which you have little idea if it is true or false, when tragedies (such as that of Alan Kurdi) are forgotten instantly for more tolerable concepts (such as the supposed ‘swarm’ of adults flooding into the UK)? In this novel, the ease of forgetting the past, and in some cases, the wish to, replaces justice and truth. Scapegoats allow the extreme right-wing to gain power through fear of an unfamiliar culture in both The Handmaid’s Tale and ‘real life’. In fact, Atwood might be able to make a copyright claim against some of Brexit’s campaign.

This novel isn’t only a story of desperation. It’s one of endurance, one that refuses to submit entirely, and continues to act, even in the minutest of ways, in rebellion.

But let’s skip to the end (I don’t want to spoil the juicy/largely disturbing plot for you). The epilogue is a transcript of academics reflecting on the events of the novel, which has been recorded through tapes by Offred – clearly the regime has somehow collapsed and been replaced with democracy. The main character’s story is reflected upon, her narrative picked apart with formal care. After sharing the burden of Offred’s story for 300 pages, we are provided with a sceptical and often derisory disconnect from her agony. This distant and meticulous examination of human suffering, the pain endured by an individual surrounded by death and terror, is uncannily similar to the reporting of the atrocities across Syria, where the best that can be done is to reject pleas for refuge and increase military presence. Moreover, in this uncomfortable additional ending, Atwood considers what future professors will teach of our era, as this transcript adds an extra future to what is already a dystopia, an epilogue reaching out from the page to the present day. How will the figures from tabloids match up to the formulas of academics in 2195?

It would be impossible, however, to accurately parallel today’s social issues to any of Atwood’s work without considering the central concern of the novel: gender. It’s impossible to say there have been no improvements for women in 2016 in the western world, with Taylor Swift topping the Forbes list for highest-earning musician, 30,000 women successfully protesting against a ban on abortion in Poland, and Clinton winning the popular vote in the US elections. However, this hardly erases some of the remaining issues that exist today: just as women are deemed simply ungrateful for having abortions in the novel, fewer and fewer clinics exist in states such as Ohio, where a ban on abortions after 20 weeks was passed in December. Powerful and wealthy men dictate when women have sex in the dystopia of Gilead without fear of punishment, while Brock Turner served just half of his 6-month jail sentence after paying $150,000 in bail last year. Just as women are ultimately valued by their ability to sexually please men in The Handmaid’s Tale, Trump famously tweeted that Clinton would be unable to ‘satisfy America’ as she couldn’t even ‘satisfy her husband’. Evidently, the comparisons are not mirror images, but even finding so many similar issues cannot be merely coincidental.

I suppose this is all looking pretty bleak right now, and I haven’t even begun to fully juxtapose the empowering feminist message of The Handmaid’s Tale to the equally considered and thoughtful “Grab ‘em by the pussy” rhetoric of Trump. But it’s probably for the best that we end on something marginally more hopeful, even if only to prevent mass emigration to Canada. This novel, one of Atwood’s finest, isn’t only a story of desperation. It’s one of endurance, one that refuses to submit entirely, and continues to act, even in the minutest of ways, in rebellion. The main character is hardly one of revolutionary efforts, yet her uncompromising thoughts, her simple refusal to give up her past memories of freedom, reverberate throughout the novel like a call to rise up. Offred reminds us of our most significant quality – our voices – with her recorded tapes defying the silence enforced upon women throughout the rest of the novel. Atwood will not allow us to remain as a submissive audience, the ambiguous ending never resolved, forcing us to question our surroundings using our newly-valued freedom.

This story is not one based in a totally false dystopia, which makes Offred’s resolve all the more urgent and touching to the reader. 2017 may present us with a hugely worrying political atmosphere, but if Offred can heed the message of ‘Nolite the bastardes carborun-dorum’, it is our duty to follow her and not let the bastards get us down either. Many of the events of 2016 were unbelievable, but it was just setting up the stage for the final act: 2017 (which looks as though it may be Nickelback on repeat). The Handmaid’s Tale must be your first read of 2017, not only as a warning, not only as a reminder of how surreal politics is becoming, but as a message of the importance of truth, freedom of speech, and the power of the public. Alternatively, it’s being adapted into a TV show in April, so if you don’t make it 2017’s first read, then at least make it a mid-year-crisis watch.