We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?
Written in 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale was very clearly influenced by George Orwell and his let’s say less than optimistic view of things to come: the cracks of the system being more treacherous than the wall itself; the pervading ritualistic masochism which looks normal, even necessary, within its own context; the simplest, most basic joys of life succumbing to humanity and civilization, turning into acts of rebellion – and treated as such.
The question that keeps popping in my head is: why? How can the forces of evil (because I lack any other words that aren’t as strong), forces that go against everything that’s right and good, prevail? Because the forces of good are really crap at winning. Maybe it’s because winning doesn’t concern them per se. Or maybe it’s because they never really get to fight; the moment they use force, which of the two sides actually wins the fight becomes irrelevant – the victor gets to write the story of what happened, the good and bad roles are reversed, and that’s the end of that story – the good guys have won. It might not even be this way, but it certainly feels this way.
Yet Atwood’s dystopia is a notch less extreme than 1984, which only made it even more chilling. Few in Gillead are brainwashed to the extreme they enjoy the new ultra-religious status quo, but that only makes it that even just a few (literal or figurative) breadcrumbs casually thrown to them is enough to keep the parts of the system.
Sex, which is the whole point of the book, still exists of course, it’s the whole point of the book and Atwood’s feminist (I’d say “pro-life” but that term has been hijacked) look on it was quite refreshing to read. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the purpose and function of sex has been twisted to such an extent, the new concept has become a pillar of that society’s culture, making it much more difficult to replace than if sex was simply forbidden.
Finally, in the book, the system itself has not been in place for time immemorial, or rather, it’s not placed outside of time like 1984’s Big Brother is: the protagonist had a life she can remember before “the revolution”. Yet, the mere fact on its own is neither consolation, nor a springboard for action. It scarcely even acts as a safe haven for her or a source of encouragement. It’s just backstory, as seemingly unreal as anything else in her world. It makes us ask ourselves: were we in her place, wouldn’t our story, our ideals, our upbringing, our relationships, our memories of what came before, be enough to kick us into action? Perhaps not, and that, frankly, is the scariest part.
I’ll finish off by sharing something I recall Atwood saying about this book connected to current events – I think it was in In Other Worlds, which I curiously read before really getting to know and adore Atwood’s real style. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t really believe any of this was possible or maybe remotely close to happening, that humanity could mutilate itself on its own accord so terribly and in such haste. But now (surprise!) she thinks we’re closer to that happening than ever. Reading the passage in the book about the intrusion in Washington and abolition of the US Constitution reminded me of that.
But hey! You know what’s fun and exciting about the 21st century and a sign we’ve progressed as societies? All this could happen without any use of force or violence at all! The good guys will have won. Thank God.
Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspapers stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.