Earlier this week, the popular streaming service Hulu released the first trailer for its upcoming adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. I haven't come across many familiar with Atwood's works, she is one of my favorite writers, but hopefully this new series interests more people to find her work. I am glad to see this novel being adapted for a new generation in a medium that's more accessible to everyone. The only troubling part of this adaptation is that it comes in a period where it seems too fitting.
Let me offer a brief synopsis of this novel, and bear with me because I read it in high school so my memory may be fuzzy. However, if this half baked literary review interests you I recommend reading the whole book since it is a great read!
The novel follows Offred, a handmaid, in the Republic of Gilead that is the former United States of America. The lack of enviormental concioussness by Americans lead to pollution of water, and because it was ingested, most men are impotent and many women's ovaries have been disentigrated. When crisis began to hit, a Christian group takes over and forms this Republic, turning the U.S. into a totalitarian and theocratic state. The few women who remain fertile are forced to become handmaids. They are stripped away from their families, they lose their names, and most significantly they lose the rights to their body. An issue that is currently in discussion.
Handmaids have one reason to live, to give birth. If they cannot deliver a child, or engage in sex for pleasure, consider abortion, they are killed. Handmaids are given to wealthy famalies to bear children before they move onto the next assigment. As you can imagine this book carries many biblical refrences to symbols of fertility, such as the handmaids wearing red head to toe. This book is genius because it carries multiple critiques in a fascinating story. It offers a feminist critique on goverments dictating what a woman's body can and cannot do. It critiques capitalism and its lack of concern over the enviorment. And it also critiques a system with a leader who maintains his goverment through hateful rhetoric and putting blame on the "other."
Offred is dedicated to escaping Gilead and fleeing north to Canada where she may be free, but along the way she endures hardships like emotional abuse, witnessing death, and even rape. In this world, all women are seen as mere bags of meat for the satisfaction of men. Anyone who cannot reproduce and further the economy, for example members of the LGBT+ community, are hung publicly. The victims wear sheets over their face, and as I wrote in my senior thesis, I believe this blankness alludes to how anyone can be a victim. This novel was written around the time when birth control first became part of the national conversation, and now that the focus has shipped to abortion, this novel continues to portray a world where woman do not have the right to decide on their bodies.
As I wrote in my senior thesis where I focused on Atwood, she is a writer that has greatly shaped the genre of Ontario Gothic. Like A Handmaid's Tale, the majority of her novel follow a female protagonist and she is always fighting. Her novels point to how in our society, any person who does not fall under the social construction of manliness is at a disadvantage. Females, trans people, a-gender people, must make space in a society that has pushed them into a corner.
In each novel above, Atwood's women spend the novel exploring what it is to be woman. Each novel is set in a different setting and time, but commen themes string their journeys. Each of these women understand that sex is power and so they use their bodies to trick and decieve their oppressors. Yet, they still find themselves unable to live happily. Alias Grace is based on the femme fatale Grace Marks who is accused of killing her master and the novel follows one man trying to uncover the truth. Cat's Eye is about a woman reflecting on how her identity was shaped by the women and men around her, and how art served as her salvation. The Blind Assasin is by far my favorite read. This lengthy novel follows a young socilate and her tragedy of becoming a mother without ever having a steady mother figure in her life, as well as the sadness she endures being forced into marriage for wealth rather than love. This novel focuses on the idea of how our society expects women to serve her family and make this their destiny.
Each of these novels also interogates the fact that women are expected to be mother's, even when they may not be ready or desire to be one. In The Blind Assasin, Iris, our protaginist, becomes a young mother. Iris' mother died when she was young, and unsure of how to be a mother, she is not surprised by the the suicide of her daughter. When she tries for years to approach her grandaughter, she fears this fate will come full circle.
I admit that sometimes to save time I seek the TV show or movie based on a book. But in our current period where knowledge for social consciousness is often ignored for dumb badgering and glossy tabloids, I encourage you to consider reading one of Atwood's works. With Hulu adapting Atwood's classic I hope that more people follow the trend and find the original source material.
Atwood has described herself as not necessarily being a feminist, but there is no doubt that her novel's carry feminist themes. These novels explore the role of sex and gender in the construction of identity, it explores the problem of a government shaped by an elite/privileged group (whether by gender, class race) and it explores the necessity to care for our environment.
I am thinking of more book posts, but for now thank you and happy readings!