Reading and Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale
Many of us have been heavily anticipating Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss in what could be her next great television role since she played the ambitious Peggy Olsen on Mad Men. Several of us at WWAC (and our friends) took to rereading (or in some cases reading for the first time) The Handmaid’s Tale in preparation.
Ginnis Tonik: No, I read it for the first time a little over a decade ago in college for a dystopian/utopian literature class.
Emily Stewart: This was my first “reading,” though I actually listened to the audiobook. Somehow, I never read any Atwood novels in high school or during my English degree (which is odd for a Canadian, I think).
Al Rosenberg: I read this for the first time in high school for an AP Lit class, and then I reread it for fun in college when I was trying to get through all of Atwood’s work.
Amy Lea Clemons: My undergraduate thesis was on dystopian literature and (at the time) Marxism, so my advisor handed this one to me at the end of my junior year—2002.
Kate Tanski: I first read this my senior year in high school as part of the IB program, and this is my first rereading since.
What was it like reading/rereading this book? How did it make you feel?
Ginnis: Delighted and creeped out. I have mentioned to a few other people that I am rereading the book for the show, and while some are equally enthused, many have responded with something akin to: “oh, I can’t, it’s too depressing.” I get that, but there’s a thrill for me of revitalizing this book for a contemporary audience—and I mean the trailer looks fantastic.
Emily: I wanted to read the book because I felt like I was missing out. There’s been a lot of buzz about the series, and I’ve seen people draw parallels between the story and what’s going on in the world right now, so going into it I had high expectations and a feeling of anticipation that it was going to be dark and, yes, creepy.
I think what struck me the most—and perhaps this is emphasized by the audio format—was the tone and atmosphere. It’s stifling, and you kind of feel the restrictions that are present in Offred’s world. Despite the bleakness of it, I kind of wish I’d read it earlier.
Al Rosenberg: Disturbing. I mean, here we are, on the constant brink of international disaster, and this dystopia feels much more present to me than it had before.
Amy Lea: When I first read the book, I was trying to describe the dystopian genre as an act of anti-capitalist and anti-communist rebellion—so, to be honest, the feminist end was not on my radar. As I continued to work with Atwood in my graduate studies, the book felt more and more to me like a condemnation of a lot of the fundamentalist Christian practices that shaped my childhood and adolescence, and I reveled in the biting critique.
When I picked up the book to reread it last week, I realized that it’s now a recognizable title and is widely known, even by people who haven’t read it, as a kind of radical “liberal” book. Here in Southern Baptist land, I found myself worried about carrying the book around at the gym, and I got that sense I had as an undergraduate again, that even holding the book is an act of rebellion. (So maybe my first stab at my thesis was right?)
Kate: I had the opposite of Amy’s situation in that it’s actually been a conversation starter when I had no intention of it being that, but in a good way. I bought the book at a feminist bookstore from two clerks who were really happy to point it out to me on their wall of suggested readings, and after having the book on my desk at work for the past week, I’ve had several conversations with co-workers about the upcoming Hulu miniseries. It’s made me more excited for the miniseries and for rereading it.
Did the book impact your politics? Your identity? Your feminism?
Ginnis: I think I was well on the feminism train by that point—at least my notes in the margins seem to indicate it, but I don’t recall my feelings about the book. I did write very important notes about academic words that were new, or if not new, understood in new ways, and thrilling to me like patriarchy and power and objectification. I made sure to write those things down with exclamation points.
Emily: I think if I read it earlier it might have influenced my politics much more. As someone whose feminism was pretty limited up until university, reading a book that extrapolates on some of the inequalities that women face to present such a dismal world would have been eye-opening to a younger me.
Luckily, I’ve grown more into my feminist identity, and I’ve learned more about power structures and discrimination, so I found the story hit a little closer to home rather than it just being some super far-fetched dystopian future.
Amy Lea: One of the risks of dystopian literature is that it is already preaching to the choir. The only folk likely to pick up books like this one are those who are already primed to hear the warning and who want their fears confirmed. While this book’s narrative form is very persuasive (the flashbacks, the framing device at the end, the use of a speaking “I” who has imperfect memory), I can’t say it changed me and made me any more feminist. It did, though, make me very aware of how misogyny can become “normal”: Offred’s flashbacks, with the subtle hints at how the dystopia came to be even before there was overt, forceful oppression are the most haunting parts of the book, and those stuck with me.
Al: When I first read this I hated feminism. My second reading was at the height of my radical feminism, now I’m a tired feminist and it hurt, but also felt good to see some truths reflected on the page.
Kate: Like Al, there was a definite difference between when I read it then and when I read it now in terms of my feminism and my reaction to this book—I find it really interesting that we were the ones who both read it in high school! But for me, my first reaction in high school was like, why do we need this? I grew up in Portland in the 90s. The idea that evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity could somehow end up controlling society was the most far-fetched science fiction. I was far more skeptical of this book than I was of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which we had to read in 9th grade! I was also very critical of the writing style, and of the unlikeable female protagonist, and looking back—I can recognize the internalized misogyny. Upon rereading, I felt not only more connection to Offred, but to the writing style, and to Margaret Atwood herself, who I got to meet at San Diego Comic Con last year.
What is it like reading this book, written in 1985, in 2017?
Ginnis: I am delighted by the artistic prospect of this—of how art repeats, reminds, teaches us, but I am also facing that deeply difficult feeling of complicity, futility, like the 50+ women I saw at the women’s marches with signs like “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” I am actually pretty close to Offred’s actual age in the book—that’s creating a whole new experience for me—I think Al nails it when she says, “…now I’m a tired feminist and it hurt…” It hurt to read this in many ways; I think I might have otherwise avoided it if it weren’t for the television show.
Emily: It does seem like an incredibly timely book, which is sad. We’re seeing more and more women embracing feminism and standing up for themselves (what was the final count on the Women’s March?), but we’re also seeing a lot of people trying to silence and shame women. Reading this book now, knowing that it was written decades ago, is just a reminder of the ground that we’ve still got to make up. We’ve still got people trying to dictate what women should and shouldn’t do with their lives and bodies, we’ve still got rape culture and slut shaming, we’ve still got people judging mothers and non-mothers for their choices. As well written as The Handmaid’s Tale is, it’s kind of upsetting that it remains so relevant. I just keep reminding myself that in the end, Gilead doesn’t last.
The other thing that I really struggled with reading this now is reconciling the messages of the text with Margaret Atwood’s support of UBC Accountable last year. It’s hard for me to understand how an author who seems so willing to draw attention to unfair power structures (as demonstrated by this novel) would be so willing to disregard survivors in the UBC Accountable Letter and in her responses to criticism of it. That was at the back of my mind throughout my reading and it definitely added to my discomfort.
Amy Lea: I’ve reread this book so many times that it’s hard to feel the timeliness of it—which I suppose is the mark of a good piece of literature? I suppose that for me, the book is less about time than it is space. It’s important that this is set (however vaguely) in the US, given the rise of the “religious right” in this country in the 1980s. There’s something particularly American about the particular brand of evangelical Christianity that this book satirizes, and I have often wondered how this book reads to those who haven’t occupied spaces where that theology permeates the public. I have to say that rereading this book in Boston in 2004 felt a lot more empowering to me than it feels now in 2017, since I am interacting with spaces that already look (too much) like the pre-dystopian flashback scenes.
Kate: It’s been intense, but not really because of the current political situation. Because, as Amy mentioned that for her she sees the book as more about a particular place (America) than a particular time, for me, I’ve connected with the book more now just because of where I am in my life. At 17, I had a really difficult time relating to Offred. Now, I’m 36 and my lived experience is much closer to hers. Also, I mentioned in a previous answer that I first read this book in the 90s in Portland, and I have very little understanding of the Right or Evangelical Christianity or how those intersect politically. I also didn’t really know who Atwood was, or what dystopia was, and now I can appreciate the prescience of it so much better.
What are some things you are most anticipating about the show?
Ginnis: When I learned Elisabeth Moss was cast as Offred, I was wholeheartedly in. I loved her in Mad Men—she does not just good work, but really interesting work. Then, I saw that Alexis Bledel would be Ofglen and got even more excited. Her acting on Gilmore Girls has been harshly criticized sometimes, and I hope this can enable her to throw off the yoke of Rory Gilmore. Also, the cinematography looks spectacular; the lighting alone…As a totalitarian society, symbols are crucial to Gilead, so I am design-geeking over the set and costume design so far. But mostly, I want it do what good art should do—influence.
Emily: I’ve purposely tried to stay a bit out of the loop on the show, since I wanted to get to the book first and form my opinions of it without the series buzz affecting me too much. That said, the trailer looks pretty amazing; it definitely captures the creepy factor. I’m most interested in just seeing how the adaptation is structured. Offred’s narration jumps back and forth in the book and I want to see how the series shows the rise of Gilead and her training as a handmaid.
Al: I just want this to be a tool to reach those individuals who are still afraid of feminism, who need an extra push to realize that they must take action now. I believe television can be that tool.
Amy Lea: Like Emily, I’ve tried to stay out of the promotional stuff, mostly for my own sanity’s sake. But what interests me (and why I’ve got a large chunk of May cleared) is that this is serialized.
Dystopian rhetoric works in large part because it works backwards: the intensity of the message comes from the end of the narrative, from where we’ll end up if action is not taken. This novel ends, though, by turning the entire story into a frame narrative; that last-second outward POV shift revises how we position ourselves against the events in the story (and how we read ourselves back into our own real world situation). And that’s all well and good in a novel that you can hold in your hands and read the last page of and then close.
But televised serial narratives feel different from novels; even when bingeing a show, you don’t “read” it the same way you read physical texts. I’m interested to see how the dystopian logic is managed across multiple episodes: how our desire for the story is delayed and how the story creates pleasure from not-knowing. How do you create serial suspense in a genre that depends on resolution for its rhetorical force?
Kate: I am definitely interested in seeing how they’re going to structure it, serialize it, and what kind of ending they’re going to go with, considering they’ve hinted at a season two, and Atwood herself has mentioned possibly writing a sequel. But also like Ginnis, I want to see the costumes. I want to see the world. One of the things that Atwood does so well is worldbuilding, and I not only want to see how faithful they are to that world, but also if they get the details right. The Handmaiden costumes look incredible—but do they have zippers inside their sleeves? Does their currency only have symbols for the items for which they are going to be exchanged? Is there going to be a small stitched pillow that reads Faith? That sort of thing.
What are some things you are most apprehensive about the show?
Ginnis: I am apprehensive about the casting of the Commander and Serena Joy—the executive producer, Bruce Miller, claims it was to make it clear that Serena Joy and Offred are direct competition to each other, but that seems like a bullshit line to me to justify the usual Hollywood ageism, and it doesn’t really make sense with the reasoning behind the handmaidens in the first place. As the source material is an important feminist text, they should have hired an older actress.
Secondly, the producers have erased the white supremacy element which seems more important than ever right now, especially when we consider the intersections of race and reproductive rights. Miller justified this reasoning as:
“Honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering…rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?” (Bruce Miller to TVLine)
Inverse.com speculates that this could allow the show to explore the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale more creatively and more deeply in a second season, but I am still skeptical…especially because of the weaksauce argument for casting a woman not even in her 40s as Serena Joy. What do y’all think?
Emily: Again, I kept myself from reading much about it, so I didn’t really have any apprehensions about it other than the usual adaptation worries (How true to the source materials is it? How will they expand on it? etc.).
But Ginnis brings up some incredibly valid concerns. The white supremacy part is so important and it’s really disappointing that that won’t be addressed when the format of a TV show offers so much more opportunity to explore how Gilead came to be.
Al: Literally everything.
Amy Lea: Well, now that I’ve read what Ginnis said, I’m concerned.
With any change in genre there is a necessary shift in purpose, audience, and logical structure (see Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action”). Good dystopian literature not only warns its audience, but it provides a traceable “history” of the storyworld so that readers know where to target their real world actions. When changes like the ones Ginnis talks about (I hadn’t heard, oh geez) are made for the purposes of extending the pleasure of the text (i.e. ensuring a Season 2), there is a risk of losing the narrative logics that dystopian rhetoric needs to be more than just a cool story.
The spectacle of the storyworld and the weird sort of self-congratulatory pleasure we might get out of this (“SEE! Everything is terrible right now and we’re all screwed! Told ya so!”) might be worthwhile by itself, but for me, the value of dystopian rhetoric has always been in the hope it offers us: that we can root out the causes before it’s too late and actually go do something together. Can this version offer us that hope and point us to appropriate actions? Or is it just something to point to in a self-satisfied kind of way when the next big political mess happens?
Kate: The last thing I want this to be is more fodder for white women complaining about how victimized they are. And I’m worried about the sex, too. If there’s a male gaze anywhere in this thing, that’s just wrong, in my opinion. But what Amy says re: the self-congratulatory enjoyment is probably my main concern, because like Emily I’ve tried to stay away from articles. It’s also made me think about a Greek concept I remember learning about in graduate school called kairos, which is basically like, the opportune moment for something to happen. This is really good timing right now for this series with progressives and feminists still reeling and wounded from the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, but I’m pretty sure this miniseries was in production—maybe even filmed—before the election, and I can’t help but wonder that although it feels timely and scary and affirming and maybe even prophetic now, what a different experience it might have been were we watching this in the alternate universe where Hillary is president.
Readers, it’s your turn. Are you excited? Trepidatious? What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.