I’ve just finished the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s famous dystopian novel published in 1985. Once I recovered sufficiently to think straight, I decided that, for me, the Handmaid’s Tale is about fundamentalism. It describes a society which thinks that certain truths do not change, as though you can brush your teeth and drink orange juice just afterwards, and the orange juice will always taste like orange juice.
Religious zealots have taken over the government of America. They respond to the ills of modern western life, both moral and physical, by creating a society of merciless rigidity. A falling birth rate has resulted in the creation of a caste of women called Handmaids, used by powerful men to bear children for them. The narrator is one of these unfortunate women. From her perspective, little things we take for granted look very different. For example, she plays a secret game of Scrabble. While for us Scrabble is harmless fun, in the dark Handmaid future, such apparently spurious ways to pass the time are outlawed. Scrabble is a forbidden pleasure, akin to drug taking.
For the Handmaid, telling a story becomes, like Scrabble, something dangerous. Telling a story is about communication, something that can only happen when there are different points of view to share. In the Handmaid’s world there is only one point of view, that of the government. For them orange juice always has to taste the same, whether you’ve brushed your teeth or not. So there are no books and no writing. Books suggest that there are other equally valuable truths out there.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a fascinating, scary and all-encompassing meditation on social ills, with the book itself becoming part of the struggle it describes. It deserves its status as a modern classic of speculative fiction.