I recently finished reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve been hearing about it for a while: as assigned reading for one of my kids’ high school English class… in pop culture references… and even in casual conversations (it’s apparently attained that level of ubiquity). What finally pushed me to check it out, however was a reference on the Amazon Prime documentary series Shiny Happy People. It talked about a pattern of abuse towards younger women — pervasive within Christian culture just as much as within the broader culture — that made me decide I needed to digest this story for myself, lest I inadvertently become a part of perpetuating it.
The story itself centers around a young woman who functions as a sort of breeding mechanism for a dystopian polygamous society. She’s ripped away from the husband and child who the ruling powers have labeled as “illegitimate” and re-educated on how to live as a part of the breeding class for the elite, as the population struggles with widespread infertility in the wake of disease and nuclear disasters. The “Commanders” and “Wives” of the ruling class use parts of the Bible’s Old Testament to justify their system of oppression. Indeed, it’s a chilling portrayal of this not-too-alternate universe, like a sort of worst-case scenario for the year 2045. And as such, I think the book works well as a cautionary tale.
My favorite thing about the book, though, is the narrator’s voice. It toes the line between conformity and rebellion, and it offers a remarkably nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to survive in a corrupt system. Oppression has been a sad reality of human society for thousands of years. Various elements of the story — and the narrator’s telling of the story — call to mind Hitler’s Nazi Germany… Stalin’s Soviet Union… the Puritans’ settlement in Salem… and the Catholics’ grip on Europe throughout the Middle Ages… And as much as we want to believe that these are all things of the past, The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that the same sorts of things are happening and will continue to happen to the end of the age.
I think it would be fascinating to sit in on a high school English class as they discuss The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m honestly not sure how much younger audiences would capture the significance of the story, but I can see why educators would assign this book for class reading. I’d be especially interested to interact with others about the way the story ends (though I will refrain from any spoilers in this review). Suffice to say, I think it’s brilliant to see the way that the plot builds and then hangs in suspense. But I can also understand how others might find the ending problematic.
All in all, I’m very glad that I took the time to read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a quick and compelling read. It provided a useful lens for examining our culture. And it encouraged me to keep my eyes open for ways that we can keep seeking God to help us move towards love, peace, and gentleness instead of self-centeredness, discord, and sexual immorality (see Galatians 5:16-26).