The Handmaid’s Tale has been spoken to at length. It has been equally philosophized as scrutinized, and as measured as it has been dissected. There exists every varying opinion on its contents and its highly anticipated sequel rests lazily on the bestseller’s list (rightfully so). In her not so quite spellbinding as eerily pertinent work of fiction, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as horrifying in its creativity as it is entirely possible to be interpreted as a work of cautionary foreboding. What I found most surprising about this book however was not how shocking its contents were, rather was how internal it all felt. As a twenty-three-year-old navigating fluctuating hormones, financial responsibility and the tribulations of growing up against the, “pressures of society,” I didn’t feel as scared of the existence of Gilead as I felt outraged by my own sedentary complacency within the mix of the social discourse of today. While I appreciate the value of Atwood’s creativity in conjuring up a society that shares so many shocking similarities to ours, I value more the level of introspection she embeds within our heroine as a call for her readers to look inside themselves, and to do so while asking honestly the same questions to ourselves as Offred asks of hers.
Offred’s character keeps her head down in the name of both servitude and survival. With varying degrees of similarity, and obvious degrees of difference, I too feel compelled to keep my head down in the face of so much challenging social commentary today. This is in large part due to the inherent insanity that comes from such political bipolarization. If you so much as spell something wrong online if feels like your entire character can be dissected for all its worth in the name of correcting your merit and intelligence. If you speak about environmental activism or social equality, often you’re scrutinized more so for not doing enough than you are for speaking out in the first place. Your credentials are verified against the quantity and quality of your dissent (or perhaps approval) and it seems as though only those awarded a PhD have innate buying power in the process.
I often keep to myself about personal issues (rightfully so), but understanding that sharing my experiences, predominately online, can help foster connection and solace, as Ofglen’s character does with Offred. When Ofglen reveals she isn’t an eye, she stands in front of her peer and challenges the notion of complacency with the belief that in order to survive she must first find common ground. While many of our livelihoods are not resting on such loose soil, it does feel as though our own sense of self is rooted in the same kind of validation the two women seek to find within each other. We send out signals, perhaps on various social media platforms with the hope that someone, somewhere will see it and feel compelled to acknowledge that they too feel the same way. We rest our laurels on digital insights, how much of an impact we have on our audience while the heart of the matter stays tepid in our thoughts; who am I if no one sees me? Or perhaps we feel ostracized by our impact in large part because we are merely a fleck of dust in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. While Offred is not Ofglen’s chief mode of survival, she is an important stepping stone in a path towards recognition, she is validation that she’s not alone.Offred’s life preserver buoys on the notion of survival based on the reunion of her family. Her life is to be obedient, to disagree internally but submit from the outside. And while my life bares no similarity to her circumstance, and while the claims and correlations can be made that our government is attempting such harmful regulations on our bodies with the passage of over-turned legislation (Roe V. Wade), we share in the parallels that recognition for our bodies in space helps move us from one day to the next. We share the understanding that to feel worthy often simply means to be seen.
Whether we dedicate our lives to social justice, environmental activism, or social welfare, the root of our cause is embedded in the idea of doing good for the world and being recognized for it. In the society of Gilead the dedication of life is threaded in an intricate quilt of trying to find a reason to keep living; to persevere in the name of incredible discomfort and injustice. And while our normal society and the fictionalized society of Gilead are vastly different, the ideas of trying to be seen as a source of comfort are both very much the same.
I appreciate how Atwood created a story mirroring so much of what we are afraid of today; power, control, religion, sex, bodies, politics, conversation…but what I found more riveting was that all of these subjects were viewed through an incredibly narrow view-point without sacrificing any literary expertise. Offred’s perspective was (literally) limited to what she could see in front of her measured against the preconceptions in her head. She was not a PhD candidate trying to analyze the cause for everything, rather she was a human being trying to figure out her place in all the confusion. And when I finished the book, I set it down softly and rather than being scared that our government could take away my right to an abortion, I thought to myself, what really is my role in all of this too?