not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
While dystopian novels attempt to create pessimistic yet plausible visions of the future, they frequently end up acting more like historical documents: each one encapsulates the great fears moving through society at the time of its publication. Brave New World today is a portrait of a society at once enthralled and frightened by the discovery of gene science, 1984 an almost journalistic investigation of the British psyche in the squalor of post-WWII Europe.
But every once in a while, these novels gain in power and prescience as time goes on, reflecting societal developments years after the novel is published. Just as 1984 predicted the rise of the surveillance state, when we turn to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we find elements of our present in a fictional future created over 30 years ago.
This isn’t to say that our America is identical to the one Atwood creates, in which women are stripped of their Constitutional rights, legally barred from reading, and the fertile ones turned into state property to be doled out to politically-connected families for breeding purposes. It’s more that there are surprising echoes. When Atwood originally wrote of an outwardly-misogynistic political movement that arises among men who wish to fight back against what they see as the depredations of feminism and liberal society, it was likely one of the bigger “asks” in the book–readers may have said, “Obviously many people couch sexist ideas in phrases like ‘traditional values’ and ‘nuclear family,’ but it’s a bit of a stretch to go from that to a political movement that explicitly says women should be made into second-class citizens.” Today, if you doubt the evidence of such people, or such a movement, all you need do is consult your Facebook feed. This novel feels every bit as timely and relevant in 2016 as it did in 1985, which either signifies a major artistic achievement, or a horrifying stasis in society’s attitudes towards women. It can be two things, I suppose.
More impressive than the world Atwood creates, however, is the manner in which she creates it. To give us a better understanding of the rigid physical and psychological boundaries in which her protagonist, Offred, is encased, Atwood never lets us leave her head. We only see as much as Offred is allowed to see, only know as much as she is able to gather from overheard whispers, only think to the extent that the society gives her the time and space for individual thought. There is obviously a rich, detailed fictional world here, but we are only given the smallest glimpses: a few rooms, a handful of increasingly memorable ceremonies, and of course a huge impassible border wall, off of which political enemies’ bodies are left to swing in the wind. Did I mention that this book seems relevant, somehow, here in October 2016?
The circumscription of the novel’s viewpoint achieves two things: it makes the dystopian society seem sad and cloistered rather than exotic and exciting (this is important–not every dystopian novel remembers that its society is supposed to be a bad thing), and it makes us understand Offred’s inability to take any significant action in her situation. As well-drawn as characters like The Grapes of Wrath‘s Tom Joad and Native Son‘s Bigger Thomas may be, it’s difficult to fully understand their plight, simply because history has taught us things about Depression-era California and 1930s Chicago that they have no way of knowing. No matter how much their authors try to show us the world through their eyes, we’re always a little above them. With The Handmaid’s Tale, we are every bit as isolated and confined as our protagonist, and much more clearly understand the claustrophobic fear of living in a world where there is no one to turn to for help or reassurance, and no obvious place to go for refuge.
This is one of the great benefits of fiction: we can understand perspectives in an imaginary world that we might be tempted to think past in a more realistic one. We can imagine emotions we have yet to feel, and experiences we have not had. I ended this book with the hope that one day the emotions and experiences within it will only exist in the fiction section.