Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” – the book behind the new TV series
Elisabeth Moss stars in the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. | Hulu Publicity Photo

TV critics are lauding the high quality of the new Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, typically noting the story’s enhanced relevance for a USA helmed by Donald Trump and the GOP.

While I have been eagerly awaiting the show’s release to us regular mortals, my lapsed Hulu subscription recently renewed, I gravitated back to the book – which I have read and taught numerous times since my first encounter with it in the late ‘80s.

While like most feminists – female and male – I find Trump, Pence, Ryan, et al. to be nightmares, what Atwood’s nightmarish novel demonstrates is that they are nothing more – and nothing less – than part of a large cross-cultural, cross-generational mass, grown from the ancient petri dish of patriarchy.

As much as many in the U.S. would like to think and hope otherwise, the reduction of this mass will not happen in a neat, progressive, linear fashion. Atwood has said for decades that everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened somewhere, some time.

Her imagined future Gilead is born out of the destruction of the United States. It both hurtles us to the past of the pre-U.S. Puritans, to 19th century injunctions against women’s and slaves’ literacy and education, AND into an imagined future that could happen if we continue poisoning the earth and our environment. Past and future blend into a suspended present of the novel.

Much of the sensation of suspension that Atwood’s writing generates for readers comes through the frequent focus on dreams, inaction, and ennui in Offred’s narration. For all of the horror story elements Gilead constructs for its residents – bodies hanging off hooks on a wall; torturous flaying of feet and hands with steel cables (“Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential” [91)]; black vans kidnapping people off the streets, driving away with shrieks coming from the back – the bulk of the narrative is focused on banal activities, a gliding through the world in long red robes, blindered from a full view by a claustrophobic head covering.

A fostered sense of unknowing. A sleep-walk – or sit – through existence. A numbing. A lulling. A nap, that can get one through a life unchosen, but also get one into a life unchosen. We need to stay woke, this book tells us. We need to do more than just wait.

This state of perpetual waiting is structurally highlighted in the book, which is divided into fifteen multi-chapter sections. Every other one is called “Night,” except for the fifth, which breaks the pattern with its heading – “Nap.” In it, Offred tells us about her strictly scheduled day, ripe with nap times and other periods of enforced inaction: “There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for – the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound. . . . I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig” (69).

The book is horrifying and dystopic, with human rights abuses forming the building blocks of the regime, but so much of the protagonist’s life – and those of other women – is just boring. Many focus on how the novel screams a spotlight onto our current regime’s push for increased control of women, sex, and reproduction; on the manipulation of texts, “alternative facts,” “fake news”; on the Puritanical theology and rigid gender norms, all of which are both the hallmark of Gilead and the dream and goal of many in today’s federal government, and in the populace.

The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes how all of these policy and ideological projects create a dystopian society. But what makes this a truly great novel rather than a work of feminist propaganda is its portrayal of the day-to-day ennui of Gilead’s “pearls,” their handmaids, and its painting of how each and every one of the characters who live in Gilead – from its many victims and oppressed women all the way up to its crafters and leaders – are profoundly unhappy, living deeply unfulfilled lives.

“Be careful what you wish for” is the message to ideologues of any stripe who don’t look beyond their particular desire for/gripe with the world, who work to box everyone else into their vision. This is best typified by the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy. In the time before, she was first a gospel TV show star, then traveled to give speeches about “the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home,” though she – like the real-life Phyllis Schlafly she seems to be modeled upon – didn’t stay home. “She made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all” (45). Offred remembers how her husband, Luke, found Serena Joy to be funny, but Offred found her to be “a little frightening.” But, 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” (46).

Even the Commander, very high up in the regime, is not happy with the reduction of male/female relations to the purely sexual, at the most functional level: with a Handmaid in a bizarre ritual for the purpose of procreation, or with prostitutes at Jezebel’s for the purpose of recreation. Either way, there is no genuine feeling involved; there is no companionship; there is no interest. So, he sends for his Handmaid to break the rules and play Scrabble with him, then to kiss him, “as if you meant it” (140). And for a while, Offred is not bored.

Staying awake is the opposite of napping. Offred doesn’t like napping alone in her room because the nightmares – those of being torn away from her daughter are her worst – visit. But, “staying woke” is a different thing. She also tells us that they just weren’t paying attention to the signs around them until it was too late: her job was terminated, her bank account frozen, then her child taken away.

“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others” (56-7).

I’m very busy with the end of a semester for the next couple of weeks as the Hulu series begins, but I plan to stay awake longer than usual for a few nights to get the watching – and writing about it – started. I take it, from everything the critics have written, that I won’t be bored. And, maybe we’ll all have the opportunity to reflect – through this great piece of fiction on screen – on what it means to be a woke feminist.

This review originally appeared on the author’s blog, And Another Thing.


Cathy Colton
Cathy Colton

Cathy Colton is a community college English professor in the Chicago area. She offers a feminist take on books, movies, TV, and more at her blog, And Another Thing.