Since the global success of the TV series based on “The Handmaid’s Tale” (THT) Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel has sold millions more copies and become the source of much controversy. Needless to say, the TV series is very different from the novel, with more graphic brutality.
Much of the current debate is about the accuracy of the novel’s “predictions” about what has come to pass in Donald Trump’s America (and may be about to come). Will the USA become a theocratic totalitarian state, with women as slaves of the ruling class? Is it well on the way already? And so Atwood has been drawn into feminist arguments on these topics, and is revered by some and reviled by others.
Prophecies about future societies, like weather forecasts and economic predictions, are doomed to be mugged by reality. As frightening as Trump’s America may be, the inspiration for the novel is the religious tyranny of the seventeenth century New England Puritans, not the present or the future. As Atwood herself points out, nothing depicted in the book has not already happened: “Among the many dog-eared newspaper clippings Atwood used for research was an Associated Press report on a contemporary religious sect in New Jersey where wives were labelled ‘handmaidens’. In speculating about this dystopian future, she was jogging the American memory, reaching back to what she calls its ‘foundational platform of 17th-century theocratic totalitarianism’.” (1)
Atwood also specifically disclaims being in any way a prophet, or being wedded to any particular set of beliefs about the future or anything else: “I don’t have a doctrinaire set of ideas. It’s very annoying to some people. I don’t think you can be a novelist and have a doctrinaire set of ideas. You are just going to write propaganda.” (ibid.) This, to me, is a key insight about writing fiction. However compelling the arguments about cultural appropriation and power relations, in the end a clear-eyed satirist needs to have some empathy with even the most repellent characters. Otherwise they become mere ciphers, and not human beings. Even the most evil of people is, in the end, human – like it or not.
When it comes to the feminist debate, running hot as the TV series wends its way from one horror to another (most of them not in the novel), Atwood has become a focal point for ideological differences. Her riposte to all this is interesting for its tough mindedness: “There are so many different kinds of feminists, which is why I refuse to answer the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ You have to say, what kind? Are you the ‘equality now’ kind of feminist? Absolutely. Are you the kind of feminist who thinks all male babies should be killed, apart from 10 per cent? No, I’m not that kind. But there are some.” (ibid.)
Even tougher is the following statement that Atwood makes about human nature in the same interview. “My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.”
I would argue that THT, whatever the perceived “message” of the TV series, is better seen as a dystopian novel, in the grand tradition of George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. Dystopian novels can be regarded as speculative fiction, taking elements of the human condition, such as authoritarianism, patriarchy, eugenics and so on, and playing with a “what if” scenario.
While THT is a legitimate vehicle for contemporary feminist concerns, and the rights of women in present day USA are under threat, at the time of the publication in 1985 not everyone was convinced of its relevance. In a literal reading of the prophetic nature of the novel, Mary McCarthy wrote in a 1986 New York Times review: “I just can’t see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small- town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned.“(2)
That comment may have felt like a fair enough opinion about the USA at the time, but as already discussed, the USA has experienced something similar in the past, and current situations like the enslavement of women by Islamic State in the Middle East also give fair warning of what is possible more or less anywhere.
It would be a brave novelist who set out to predict a future version of a specific society down to the fine detail, and clearly that was not Atwood’s intention. What is happening here, too, is the assumption by readers that novels carry messages about how we should live, and express the personal ideology of the author in a literal sense. This is clearly not the case with Atwood’s most famous novel.
So what was Atwood trying to do? It is better to let Atwood answer this for herself: “Three things that had long been of interest to me came together during the writing of the book. The first was my interest in dystopian literature, an interest that began with the adolescent reading of Orwell’s ‘1984’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and continued through my period of graduate work at Harvard in the early 1960s. Once you’ve been intrigued by a literary form, you always have a secret yen to write an example of it yourself. The second was my study of 17th- and 18th-century America, again at Harvard, which was of particular interest to me since many of my own ancestors had lived in those times and in that place. The third was my fascination with dictatorships and how they function, not unusual in a person who’d been born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II.” (3)
Ironically, though, Atwood’s most famous novel does not seem to me to be her best. THT struggles with a typical challenge in dystopic novels and much of science fiction. That is, the effort required to depict the workings of the imagined world. A novel in the realist mould is difficult enough in the challenges required to judge, for example, how much backstory of character to include. When you are creating an entire world, a parallel universe, there is too much to describe in detail, while omissions may lead to puzzlement. In THT, some of the effort to provide enough details feels strained, a little laboured, a problem also evident in other famous dystopic novels such as “Brave New World”.
There is nothing new in a writer’s work being characterized by their most popular book. Many novelists are famous for one particular novel, while the rest of their work receives less or no attention. Think of William Golding and “Lord of the Flies”, or Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children.” The case of Margaret Atwood and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so graphic because of the global phenomenon created by the TV series and the way it has played into current American politics. Atwood has added even more fuel to the flames with her promise of a sequel to the novel that has brought her fame and fortune – well-earned rewards for a fine writer.
(1) Nick Bryant, 2019. “Margaret Atwood’s prophecy: how fiction merged with fact in the time of Trump.” The Age, Melbourne, Australia, February 16th, 2019.
(2) Mary McCarthy, 1986. “Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood”. The New York Times, February 9th, 1986.
(3) Margaret Atwood, 2012. “Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid’s Tale”. The Literary Hub.