I’m teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale now, and it just hit me–it’s not about feminism.
I mean, yeah it is. Most everyone knows the overall plot: it’s a dystopian novel, in which a zealot, religious military takes over the United States and subjugates all women, making a number of them into Handmaids. They’re the ones who can still bear children, while the world’s population diminishes. People have become sterile, from a nuclear fallout (I think–I’m so upset now, I’m forgetting some details). So, the handmaids are their solution: the new government enslaves them. The Commanders of the new regime rape the handmaids in a religious ceremony, every month.
But Margaret Atwood did much, much more with this novel than just rouse the evils of misogyny in our societies. She showed us one thing that none of us like to hear:
We’re all at fault.
My generation was at fault. Let me tell you who I mean: If you were born in the early to mid Sixties, and came of age in the Eighties, you are the one to blame.
And Atwood saw this, back in the Eighties, when she wrote the book. We were one of the most apathetic, decadent, non-caring, generations this country has ever known.
In the Seventies, the Vietnam War ended–and the U.S. lost that one, big time. We, the strongest nation on the planet, had been run out of Vietnam. We were oh so confused. By the time the Eighties came along, the U.S. didn’t want to have to think too hard about that war. We wanted to forget.
And a great way to forget is to get really decadent. The Yuppies, the free-for-all capitalism that has now metastasized into this monster that we live in now, with 1% living so rich, with so many more poor people walking our streets, helped us to forget about the painful past.
We didn’t give a shit anymore. We were a selfish lot. We did care about making money.
Complacent. That is one of the most dangerous mindsets to fall into.
Atwood saw this. She saw the complacency of our times. So, when you read the book, yeah, get into the feminism, into the struggle of Offred and how she and others struggle to stay alive.
But, read chapters 26 to 32 very deeply. And there–you’ll see it. There were evils in the world back in the Eighties, but hey, they didn’t affect us, so, why give a fuck?
We should give a fuck, because regimes such as the nutso-religious one that takes over in Handmaid, are always waiting in the wings, watching for the moment when a society decides to quit caring for one another.
I’m going into class today, with this in my head. I am upset; I hope to upset my students. Maybe I’ll stir a little anger in them. Or, maybe a lot. That would be hopeful.
That’s what I love about a good novel, such as Atwood’s–when it disturbs me, when the read gets under my skin, makes me uncomfortable, makes me question my own role in the complacency, I know it’s a work of literary art. Thank you, Ms. Atwood.
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