A Handmaid’s Tale: A Look at Dystopian Novels

Because there are more than a pleasant share of reviews of this dystopian novel, I’m going to go in a different direction and provide some thoughts I had as I read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

My main thought is about the dystopian novel itself, as a genre. Not only are dystopian novels common, they are prominent in literature, taught in schools, read in book clubs, revered by conspiracy nuts and theorists, and loved by most who consider themselves high minded.

Most of you realize that dystopian novels are a type of speculative fiction. They point to the absurdity of certain social norms. In many cases they point to the contradictions of social, ecological, economic, gender, and technological mores. Authors of dystopian stories yell at their reader, “Look what we’re doing! Look at where we’re headed! Change before it’s too late!”

But most of you probably don’t think of dystopia stories as short sighted. I do.

I give my reasoning in a story of my own, a true story.

When I was still in graduate school, I went to a talk.I don’t remember the focus, but I do remember the title and synopsis suggested it was about Marxism, the working man, and society in today’s world. What it actually turned into was an “academic” talk about how today’s world is full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that we need to find a path back to the “Good ole days.”

Sans myself and two other graduate student I went with, there were no participants under the age of 50. The “take away” message was that we’ve fallen from decency. What we need to do is somehow find a way back to the 40s and 50s where people were pure, the economy was great, patriotism was important, and politicians were human.

What all the participants of this talk seemed to do (the three of us excluded) was to romanticize the world they grew up in. All the while, they forgot that young women were shipped off the an “aunts” house when they shamed their family by getting pregnant in high school. They forgot the beginnings of the Cold War where children practiced Nuclear War drills! They forgot that men knifed each other for looking at “their” girls. They forgot the ideal of the pregnant and barefoot wife in the kitchen.They forgot about racial segregation and women’s rights movements and race riots. To be fair, there were no non-whites in the room.

Dystopian novels follow this same arch. Though they point out particular inconsistencies and absurdities about society and civilization as a whole, they all pine and romanticize for a bygone era.

Margaret Atwood is one of the few I’ve come across that doesn’t do this. Atwood does not romanticize about the world she grew up in or lives in now. She doesn’t demonize the futuristic speculative, arguably (il)logical conclusion to the puritan U.S. social culture any more than she demonizes “the way things were” in her book.

Rather, Atwood suggests that in the world we live in, society men have created an manufactured dichotomy of options.

Option One: Men have the “freedom to.

Option Two: Women can have the “freedom from.

That is it. Essentially, recognizes that men have “given women the choice.” Women can choose to be subjugated to men’s sexual urges and turned into objects of sexual appeal and toys for their men’s own sexual pleasure. Or, women can choose to be hidden from men entirely in a puritan fashion. Of course, this means men still have to procreate, so they choose non-sexual women to have non-sexual intercourse.

Either way, women are subjugated.

My feminist hat off to you, Atwood. Not that you need me to tell you, but you understand the world better than most.

Disclosure: I neither know Atwood (though I wish I did, and I do follow her on Twitter) nor was I paid for this post. 

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