Connecting to a novel personally can have a profound experience on the reader.
How many of us would relate to Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” , the powerful novel that captured what it was like to be a young girl, tormented by the very girl who claimed to be her best friend? Seeing and feeling my tortured adolescence reflected in those pages made me realize just how powerful writers can retell our human condition as if they were living our lives.
I was first introduced to author Margaret Atwood in high school. I’d always been a voracious reader, but found required books to be a huge drag. Most of them bored me. However, Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” was instantly the best book I read that year. The book follows the life of artist Elaine Risling both before and after her friendship with the captivating Cordelia.
I went on to read several similarly haunting Atwood novels, with “The Robber Bride” and “Oryx and Crake” being two of my favorites.
And yet Atwood’s 1985 book that made the greatest impression on me was “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In April of 2016, I reread her book in preparation for the Hulu television series which aired that month. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in the near future of North America. Fertility rates have fallen drastically and the environment is in shambles. This leads to a patriarchal theocracy called the Republic of Gilead overthrowing the American government and taking control.
The military commanders essentially control society. Women have completely lost their rights. They are not permitted to work, own property or have their own money. They are organized into groups: wives, aunts, handmaids and servants. Due to widespread sterility, women who are fertile are used as handmaids and bear the commanders’ children.
The novel follows Offred, a handmaid owned by Fred, one of the commanders. Because she was the first generation of handmaids, she can still recall her life before America fell, when she was married, had a daughter and a job. And yet she is now forced to have monthly sex with the commander in the hopes of producing a child for him.
For years, I felt as though my personal beliefs about women’s rights, reproduction, the environment and the government stemmed from my reading of this book.
Anytime a political candidate or conservative state proposed or passed a law that threatened women’s rights, I immediately thought of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
It’s so easy to think that the story from the book could never happen here. But there are real threats to women’s right in America happening today. Atwood herself said on Sunday night (after “The Handmaid’s Tale show cleaned up at the Emmys), “Never believe it can never happen here, which was one of the premises that I used for the book.”
In fact, when Atwood wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale”, she decided to only include situations that actually happened somewhere in history. “There’s a precedent in real life for everything in the book,” she said. “I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn’t already done. But you write these books so they won’t come true.”
What was terrifying about my reread of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and subsequent binging of the Hulu series (which is beyond fantastic) is the current state of affairs in Washington, DC. This country elected a president who has displayed misogynistic tendencies from the beginning of his campaign. Suddenly, conservative politicians are emboldened by his attitude towards women and women’s rights. Planned Parenthood is threatened yet again. There is talk of Roe v. Wade being overthrown.
I am so grateful to have been born in a time when women have rights.
The women who came before me fought long and hard for our gender to vote, to work, to choose whether or not to be mothers. Until the last couple years, it was easy to be a Millennial and believe that nothing in “The Handmaid’s Tale” could happen here. Not in America.
The Hulu adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” could not have been released at a better time. Tensions in this country are high since Trump’s election. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, one protester carried a sign that said “make Margaret Atwood fiction again.” Suddenly, Atwood’s 1985 novel was back in the spotlight.
That spotlight only continued to grow when the show aired. The author herself is just hoping to bring awareness to what could happen and to determine what people could do with that awareness.
I cried when I woke up last November to learn that Trump had been elected president. I watched the protests, shook my head over the picture of a group of men signing orders on women’s rights and prayed that my daughters would grow up in a country where they have the same rights that I have enjoyed my whole life.
I feel scared. Does the threat to reproductive rights spell doom to infertility treatments, like the ones I needed to conceive my first daughter? Will this presidency mark the end to the privileges I enjoy like holding a job or owning property? Will my daughters find their lives restricted in ways that I can only imagine?
I wonder, though, is it always scary to be a woman? Is it always scary to be any minority in any period of time? I can only imagine so. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so powerful because it is based on the fear women feel on a regular basis.
After my reread of the novel, I have come to believe that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of the best books ever written. It should be required reading for all people (it frequently is in schools, although has been banned just as often), although it you’re not a reader, check out the powerful adaptation on Hulu.
Of all the lines from the book that continue to haunt me, it is this one that resonates the most:
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”