Book Review: Reading The Handmaid's Tale in Trump's America

These days, we’re given seconds to linger in a headline, seconds to fully consider its weight before the next one barrels through the ether and flashes on the screen. Click, seconds, repeat.

Abortion restrictions, travel bans, border walls. Click, seconds, repeat. 

Until it’s too much. Until we have to get back to work, until the red light turns green, until the pasta is done boiling. We get back to the “as usual”. This is normal: work, commute, dinner.

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. The newspaper 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.
— (Atwood, 56-7)

Offred explains how the Republic of Gilead has come to be in The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel by Margaret Atwood, how her family is torn apart and how in an age of declining births, she now serves as a Handmaid and is held down as men in high-ranking positions rape her repeatedly to impregnate her. In this new world, Offred is forbidden to read and covers her body from head to toe because as her teacher, Aunt Lydia, explains, “Modesty is invisibility. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be penetrated” (Atwood, 28).

But Offred can recall the world before Gilead, where she made love to her husband in their apartment, played with her daughter in a neighborhood park, went to work, read the newspaper and was always ignoring, ignoring, ignoring. “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it” (56).

Believing that your story is separate from other stories of suffering and injustice is dangerous and leads to the creation of places like Gilead. This is Offred’s warning. 

And these changes happen slowly until everything is as usual, normal. 
Offred’s friend and fellow Handmaid, Moira, managed to escape and “set herself loose” and “had the power now”. “She was now a loose woman” (133). Offred explains,

I think we found this frightening.
Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure.
— (Atwood, 133)

Already they were convinced that it was best, the way things were, the way things ought to be.

Book cover illustration by Fred Marcellino

Book cover illustration by Fred Marcellino

And when another Handmaid reveals that she had been gang raped and aborted the resulting baby at age fourteen, the group of Handmaids shouts in unison:

Her fault, her fault, her fault.
Who led them on?
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
— (Atwood, 72)

Protection in the guise of oppression. Normal.

But Offred learns that her story matters so she tells it to us.

But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
— (Atwood, 267-68)

Offred’s plea is for people to speak, to tell, and for others to listen. To hear another person is a simple acknowledgement of their humanity and is the first step towards positive change. What you experience in a lifetime is by no means universal, so tell your story and leave space for others to tell theirs too. 

Silence is complicity. Democracy requires loud voices.

After telling her story, Offred slips into darkness and the reader never knows what becomes of her. In the book, future historians dissect her story but recognize that her voice is now a faint echo of the past, from a time that seems too distant, impossible even. Offred knows differently.

I do too.

An television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale premiers on Hulu on April 26, 2017.

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Pamela Craig is the founding editor of GirlSense and NonSense. Tweet her @pamelaj_craig.