The Handmaid's Tale

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Back at the end of 2021, I started a reading project based on the New York Times shortlist of the 25 books from which they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". I had read 11 of them, so 14 went on the to-be-read list. I'm making decent progress, I think. After reading this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and now The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I have six to go.

I was prepared to dislike it. It was written in the 1980s, an era of panicked warnings about the Moral Majority Menace, etc,, so I was prepared for a feminist men-are-incipient-fascist-scum screed. Instead, it's a well-written saga of a woman, given the name "Offred", trapped in an intricately-designed dystopia named the "Republic of Gilead". Yes, the dystopia is based on a facile feminism, but Atwood does not beat the reader over the head with that.

Most of the action takes place in a horribly transformed Cambridge, Massachusetts. For example, the regime's transgressors are executed and hung on a wall surrounding Harvard University.

And why not? In an introduction to the edition I read, Atwood notes that Harvard was once a Puritan institution. And it's not difficult to imagine that the strident moralism afflicting us today could easily mutate into a 180° different scenario.

Offred tells her story in a disjointed first-person narrative, with her present plight interspersed with flashbacks to her pre-Gilead life with her husband and small daughter. Environmental catastrophe has apparently caused massive infertility. So after she's caught trying to escape all the oppression, Offred is assigned as a "handmaid" to a "Commander" for breeding purposes. And that breeding is carried out in a ritualistic and creepy fashion. (They assign this in schools? Really?) The regime's "Eyes" are everywhere, looking for the slightest sign of disobedience or insubordination.

No spoilers, but Offred's situation is precarious; her handmaid status is contingent on her possible fertility. If that goes off the table, she's destined for a worse fate. And neither she, nor the folks running the Gilead show aren't immune from urges to deviate from the official puritanism. Things build to a suspenseful climax.

And, since I went into the book not knowing much about the details, I was pleasantly surprised by the final section. And since I've been to a couple of those sorts of gatherings myself, I could only think, "The more things change…"


Last Modified 2024-01-14 5:00 AM EST

That Was Then…

And this is now:

(Inspired by an item in Power Line's "Week in Pictures". Which is often a hoot.)

Briefly noted:

  • A helpful article from Julian Adorney and Mark Johnson at the Foundation for Economic Education: The Opponents of Free Speech Are Gaining Ground. Here’s How We Can Fight Back. They note the 1960s Marcusian roots of today's demands for "repressive tolerance". But what to do? Skipping to the end:

    First, speak up about what you know to be true—even if no-one else is speaking up, even if there are risks to you. Develop the courage to call a spade a spade. If you see insanity—in your workplace, in politics, in your home—call it out openly and honestly. You’ll sleep better at night. You’ll also become stronger through the act of speaking out. Speaking takes courage, but it also creates courage.

    Second, seek out people who disagree with you. Listen to them. Go further; try to be persuaded by them. Skewer your sacred cows and let go of your ideology. Neither one is serving you.

    Third, banish forever (if you haven’t yet) the infantile notion that words are violence. This notion is profoundly damaging, because it makes you weak. If mere disagreement can hurt you, after all, then so can everything else in life. So will everything else in your life. Instead, embrace the adage of the Stoics: other people are responsible for their actions, you are responsible for your response. Once you embrace the idea that mere words—whether vicious or merely heterodox—cannot hurt you, you are on the path to emotional strength and groundedness.

    Fourth, don’t let yourself become a “tribe of one.” It’s easy, in this environment of chilled speech, to always feel scared to speak up. Find a group of friends who encourage you to speak your truth, and who speak their truth in return to you. Find people who aren’t afraid to share heterodox ideas and to challenge your sacred cows, nor to have their own challenged in return.

    Find a group you’d trust to have your back in a firefight, and who will love you and expect you to have theirs in turn.

    Being a "tribe of one" myself, I'm kind of failing on that last point. Also, with respect to that first point, I'm not sure how much courage it takes to write a blog that nobody reads.

    Still, good advice. You might be better at this stuff than I, and the country needs people who are very good at this stuff.