Witness

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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7 MARCH 2019 | KAREN KAO

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood needs no introduction. If you didn’t see the movie then perhaps you caught the play, ballet or opera. At the very least, you saw an episode of the Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred. You know that the novel is a dystopian one in which only a few females are still fertile. They are the handmaids.

Offred is our witness into this world. The new regime of Gilead strips of everything: her husband, her child, her individuality. Her sole purpose is to bear her Commander a child. And that involves copulation but don’t get excited.

There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheedled, by them or us, there are no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (First Anchor Books edition, April 1998)

Bastards

Handmaids only travel in twos. They cannot be alone with a man. They wear large white bonnets and shapeless red dresses. Red: the color of menstruation and the promise of birth.

Not so very long ago, say, when The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1986, the notion of such a misogynist society was laughable. The reviews then called the novel paranoid, obvious, implausible, didactic. But the times have changed.

In the wake of recent American elections, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades and indeed the past centuries.

Margaret Atwood, 2017 Introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale

Now we have the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, refusing to dine alone with any woman other than his wife. We have a lawmaker in Florida and another in Oklahoma who refer to pregnant women as hosts. Did they crib these statements out of Atwood’s book?

Pig Balls

Atwood populates her world with nameless functionaries: Commanders, Wives, Eyes. These are the lucky ones. They have access to cigarettes and liquor. They get to read and write. Not so the handmaids. For them, all words are banned, written and spoken. Slowly, inevitably, the imagination starves and the mind unspools.

I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig. Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens. Pig balls were large colored balls; the pigs rolled them around with their snouts. The pig marketers said this improved their muscle tone; the pigs were curious, they liked to have something to think about. […] I wish I had a pig ball.

Instead, Offred whiles away her time telling herself stories. Stories about the fates her husband and child might have met: dead, captured, resisting. It’s a form of desensitization therapy.

The things I believe can’t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.

This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue.

Bearing Witness

When Atwood embarked on the adventure that would become The Handmaid’s Tale, she doubted her ability to carry it off. She knew the pitfalls of dystopian tales. She didn’t want to sermonize or strain credulity. As she wrote in her 2017 Introduction: If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real.

To that end, Atwood set herself some rules. No gizmos or made-up atrocities. No laws of man fashioned from fantasy. All of the events in this novel must have actually happened. In that sense, The Handmaid’s Tale is as rooted in the past as it speculates about the future. That makes this novel truly frightening.

Yet for Atwood, Offred’s tale is one of hope. If you and I record our story then we must also believe that, someday, somehow, someone will read it. Primo Levi once wrote, Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased. For Atwood, this is the literature of witness.

A sequel is coming.