The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
I wasn’t thinking about Malala Yousafzai when I chose Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, for this month’s July of science fiction classics. To my mind, Handmaid’s rigidly defined gender roles seemed more about reproductive freedom than literacy. Who could imagine a world where unauthorized possession of writing materials carried a death sentence?
Unfortunately, Malala Yousafzai can. She, of course, is the teenager shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting education for girls in Pakistan.
In a bizarre attempt at self-justification, a Taliban leader later wrote Ms. Yousafzai, explaining that she wasn’t shot for being an advocate of education. She was shot instead for her “pen” -- for using her education to criticize them. Which didn’t stop the now sixteen-year-old from proclaiming at the United Nations, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”
It’s with more subdued bravado that the heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale cherishes the message she finds in her owner’s house, “scratched with a a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
“It was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. It pleases me to ponder this messages. It pleases me to think I’m communing with her, this unknown woman.”
The unnamed narrator is known only as “Offred,” from the name of her owner Fred, an elite official within the near-future country of Gilead, formed from the remnants of the United States after a military coup. After murdering the president and Congress (an act
initially blamed on “Islamic terrorists”), Gileadites suspend the constitution and enforce a stringent caste system based on gender. Among these castes are the legalized concubines known as “handmaids,” assigned to produce children for childless members of the Gilead elite.
During a failed escape attempt, her husband is killed and their daughter given to a childless couple. The narrator is given the choice between accepting a handmaid’s life as a walking reproductive organ or becoming and “unwoman” exiled to painful death in “colonies” poisoned by radioactive pollution. .
She chooses life, reasoning, “all you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn't be that hard.” Except she only has three chances to produce a child by the elderly -- and mostly sterile -- men she’s assigned to or she’ll end up in the colonies anyway. And now she’s on that third chance.
“How did you know (in 1985) this was going to happen in the Middle East,” a listener asked Atwood at her appearance this spring in connection with the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts and Letters program.
Atwood’s answer was that, although the novel was written shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolutions, it’s not simply a cautionary tale about the Middle East. The horror, she insisted, lies in “watching how quickly a country -- any country -- can change when a determined group gets into power.”
For more about Atwood and her writing -- and her insistence that The Handmaid’s Tale is not, in fact science fiction -- I like her nonfiction volume, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It, Handmaid, and more are, for now, readily available on Amazon.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics opens an August of adventures at sea with Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World.)