Hazel McHaffie

The Handmaid’s Tale

Dare I confess to watching a TV adaptation before reading the book? Tut, tut, tut. I know, I know. I should have found the time to read it first, but, hey, I didn’t. Well, the subject matter appealed and my tbr pile is already threatening to topple over so what choice did I have?

The title in question? The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. It’s an iconic novel, sold in its millions, never out of print, and it’s just caught the eye of the multitudes again. Sales of the book are reputed to be up 880% on last year! I can believe it. The Handmaid's Tale trailer

Because the tale has just been serialised over the past ten Sunday evenings on Channel 4 and much hyped.

So was it all it was cracked up to be? Well, it’s a dystopian near-future look at an American community in a place called Gilead run along fundamentalist puritan religious lines. Pollution has rendered millions of women sterile, and officials are assigning fertile young ones to the high-ranking men – known as commanders – to bear them children. These brainwashed nubile females are all dressed alike in all-enveloping russet red habits and starched white wimpoles. Everyone is obsessed by one thing: conception. It hangs over everything; creeps into every exchange. From the robotically repeat greetings – Praise be; Blessed be the fruit; May the Lord open – to the common knowledge of the girls’ optimal fertility days.

But in spite of their unique value to the community, the handmaids themselves are hedged about with prohibitions, so repressed that they are even named as possessions of the commanders. Offred (literally ‘of-Fred’) is the narrator (played by Elisabeth Moss), and we are party to her rebellious thoughts as she goes through the motions of sexual servitude.

The act of impregnation in Gilead is known as The Ceremony. It takes the form of a sort of carefully ritualised threesome with the commander methodically doing his best to ejaculate into the handmaid at the lower end of the bed (state-sanctioned rape in essence) at one remove from his wife who cradles the handmaid’s head in her lap and watches the action apparently impassively from the other end. All based on the Old Testament account of Bilhah Rachel’s handmaid bearing children for Jacob ‘between the knees’ of her barren mistress.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
 And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.
And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.
And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan.   (Genesis 30 vv1-6)

A taser-wielding, severe ‘Aunt Lydia’ keeps the coven of girls in subservience and trains them in their role, meting out dracronian punishments one minute, shedding hot tears for the girls she protects the next; and the legal wives ensure the handmaids definitely don’t get ideas above their station. They have one purpose and one purpose alone – as baby incubators for the ruling elite. Even a failure to conceive warrants horrible repercussions. And given the high likelihood that the commander is himself sterile, and the certainty that his wife is, it’s particularly hard to swallow. The tension is palpable, and only increased when the commander sends for one of them, or someone looks at them suggestively, or betrays an illicit emotion. The penalties for stepping out of line are barbaric – torture, eyes gouged out, beatings, hands hacked off, stoning, genital mutilation, even death by hanging or radiation sickness. Small wonder perhaps that the handmaids, with so much emotion suppressed, the victims of so much injustice, turn into raving vengeful murderers when they are licensed to punish a rapist. Making their later loyalty to each other when they have a collective opportunity to punish one of their own the more poignant.

And outside these baby-making homes, ominous black figures lurk and patrol, black cars with blackened windows glide into strategic positions, and the black shadow of something sinister hovers. Who can be trusted? Who is really in control?

It’s compulsive viewing although the violence and inhumanity in places left me feeling quite disturbed. And the horror of what’s really going on strikes forcibly when ‘Gilead’s children’ are paraded in front of a foreign delegation to demonstrate the effectiveness of this whole arrangement. I won’t spoil it by revealing more.

At once sobering and challenging but eerily perhaps, less unbelievable right now than in 1985 when Attwood dreamed it up. Why?

Because there are echoes of such a scenario in the news this past week in real life: reports of seriously diminishing sperm counts (down c50% since the 70s) resulting from a variety of sources in our environment and lifestyles (chemicals, pesticides, stress, obesity, tight underpants); figures that come from studies tracking 40,000 men. Couple this with the modern trend towards waiting till women are in their 30s to start a family and you’re looking into a future that looks suspiciously like Gilead! Or does it?

And then there are the chilling similarities to the forced marriages and honour killings countenanced by certain rigidly fundamentalist communities in this country today … Shivers run up and down the spine watching dozens of hands reaching for stones …

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the research reports, or the limits to real-life parallels, the lessons within the novel do challenge us today. Are we ‘too busy to stand against sin’? How far would we go to have a child? How much are we doing to protect our fertility, our race, human kind, our world? Difficult but relevant questions which make the story linger long after the credits have faded from the screen. Thanks, Margaret Atwood.

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