The book mirrored the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organizations.
By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
A white, wide-brimmed bonnet and a red cloak have come to mean one thing: women’s oppression. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale seared this image into our souls with its depiction of a near-future dystopia in which women are forced into reproductive slavery to bear the children of the elite – and wear this uniform to underline their subservience. For more than three decades, the image has shown up on the covers of the book around the world, on posters from the 1990 film, in ads for the 2017 TV series, and even on real women at demonstrations for reproductive rights.
The handmaid we’re presumably seeing in most of these images, though we often don’t know for sure, is Offred, the tale’s narrator. As a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, she must routinely submit to ritualistic sex with her commander, Fred. (Her name derives from the term “of Fred.”) She’s one of the still-fertile women rounded up for the job of reproduction after many women in the ruling class were rendered infertile by environmental toxins. Before a coup toppled the US government to form the new theocratic state Gilead, she was married to a man named Luke and had a young daughter.
Atwood conceived the novel as ‘speculative fiction,’ a work that imagines a future that could conceivably happen without any advances in technology from the present. In other words, she said, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Every aspect of the book was inspired by social and political events of the early 1980s, when she wrote it.
Because of this, Atwood’s novel has an eerie way of always feeling of the moment, as it turns out, from its first publication through every other iteration that has followed. When it debuted in 1985, Atwood even took newspaper clips to her interviews about the book to show her plot points’ real-life antecedents. The book mirrored the United States’ embrace of conservatism, as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, as well as the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organisations the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition – not to mention the rise of televangelism. The character of Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale is a former televangelist who articulates theocratic policy suggestions that have now forced her, like all women, into a life solely at home: Atwood writes of Serena Joy, “She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”