By Petra Polanič
The political climate is eerie. You might wish to use a clever literary reference to illustrate just how dystopian the future could be. Orwellian, by now, is a well-enough known term, present in most major dictionaries. With the increasing significance of The Handmaid’s Tale, both the 1985 novel and the new award-winning series adaptation, Atwoodian might be the adjective to choose. Atwood’s speculative fiction has covered several dystopian scenarios, from an environmental collapse in the MaddAddam trilogy to the financial crisis in her recent novel The Heart Goes Last. Regardless, The Handmaid’s Tale, her first dystopian novel, is still her most influential work. Originally published in 1985 and nominated for the Booker Prize in 1986, the has now book reached a wider audience with Hulu’s television series released in 2017.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a regime established by Christian fundamentalists within the borders of what used to be the United States of America. One of its main concerns is the rise of infertility, which means the healthy children that are born are highly valued. The same in not true for women. Offred, the protagonist, is a Handmaid, a fertile woman forced to bear children for infertile ruling class couples. Women who are capable of conceiving and have broken Gilead’s laws are given the option to either leave for the colonies (where they would likely die) or succumb to their education into Handmaids.
The series has modernized the story, including, for example, using Tinder as one of the offences of the sinful modern women prior to Gilead. In the series, Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is explicitly given the name June and her opposite, the Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), has been made younger, supposedly to allow for more focus on the dynamic between them. With more characters played by people of colour, most significantly Moira (Samira Wiley) and Luke (O-T Fagbenle), the series is more racially diverse, despite addressing race directly. Offred’s past becomes our present, making it even easier to draw parallels to the current political climate of the United States. Atwood herself actually has a cameo role, appearing in the first episode as one of the Aunts, whose function is to control and teach Handmaids. Her brief presence is easy to miss, as she only enters for a few seconds, just long enough to slap the protagonist. She was a consulting producer for the series, which ends at roughly the same point as the novel. However, the series has been renewed for a second season.
Protest and Publicity
“Since the series began airing, people dressed as Handmaids have begun appearing publicly in the US and the UK.” Sometimes they hold signs such as “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!”, on other occasions they just stand silently, their presence being warning enough. As a response to the Republican healthcare bill in June 2017, for example, Planned Parenthood protesters have appeared as Handmaids (wearing red cloaks and white bonnets) in front of the Capitol. As Clarisse Loughrey reports, there have been similar protests all over the US, people dressed as Handmaids attending both women’s marches and Senate meetings, typically appearing when limitations on abortion or contraception are discussed (Loughrey). The protests also receive attention online, with photographs tagged as #HandmaidsUnite or #HandmaidsResistance being shared and retweeted, sometimes by Atwood herself.
The same is true of the hashtag #HandmaidsInLondon, which was used by Vintage Books, the novel’s UK publisher. Prior to the series finale in July 2017, Vintage arranged for six Handmaids to walk the streets of Central London, with sight of major landmarks. As Catherine Cowdrey points out, Vintage has seen a significant rise in sales of the novel, following both the inauguration of Donald Trump and the release of the Hulu series (Cowdrey).
This has been true for dystopian classics in general, not just The Handmaid’s Tale. Novels such as Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World have made a return to the best-sellers list in the past year. As noted by Alexandra Alter, the increase in sales began after the US election as readers looked deeper into the mechanisms of dystopian systems and the way information is manipulated by them (Alter).
A Fashion Statement
By far the most explicit meaning conveyed by the clothing in The Handmaid’s Tale is the colour-coding of women by purpose. As Atwood points out in her interview with Rosie Goldsmith about fashion and literature for Fashion and Fiction: “Red is Mary Magdalene, blue is Virgin Mary.” (38:40 – 39:10). As a symbol of passion – sinful as the lives of the Handmaids in the time before – red is contrasted with the blue outfits of the Wives.
Red, however, is not just symbolic. If a woman is wearing red clothes, she is very visible when attempting to escape through snow, explains Atwood. In Gilead, clothing is about control. The choice of clothing is a matter of how you wish to present yourself. This changes significantly when the clothing is prescribed or has to be permitted by other people. It is the difference between presenting yourself and being presented by other people (“Fashion and Fiction” 59:26 – 51:10). For Offred, the colour of her dress is not symbolic as much as it is linked to something physical. “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.” (The Handmaid’s Tale 5). Her position as a Handmaid is indeed determined by physicality – that is, her ability to conceive – and as such it cannot be erased by the removal of clothing. As she undresses before taking a bath, she tries not to pay attention to her body. She states: “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely” (The Handmaid’s Tale 61).
Though Atwood provides detailed descriptions of the outfits in the novel, the series seems to have standardized the visuals of Gilead. When asked about protesters dressing up as Handmaids, Atwood tells Tom Power that, based on the costume, they could be either Hulu hires or regular people (2:20 – 2:50).
The outfit itself is easy enough to come by on sites like Etsy and could be yours for roughly 40 Euros The “Handmaid’s Tale inspired” outfits, however, are not the only merchandise you can find. If you are looking for a particularly disturbing baby shower card, look no further.
The Sibylline Powers (of Observation)
A profile of Atwood written by Rebecca Mead published in The New Yorker called her “the prophet of Dystopia” in its title and the article opens by linking her to the Half-Hanged Mary, a Puritan woman (unsuccessfully) hanged on suspicion of witchcraft and supposedly Atwood’s ancestor (Mead).
The language around Atwood is often that of prophecy and prediction (even more so after the 2016 US presidential election). She prefers her works to be described as speculative fiction rather than science fiction, mostly because she makes a point of including only ideas and practices that have historical precedence or are current, as was the case with the MaddAddam trilogy. As she summarizes the plot of her novel The Heart Goes Last in a radio interview with Shad, she notes that the financial meltdown in the book is “unlike anything that would ever happen in our world, such as in 2008.” Fiction allows the author to take something that is current reality and imagine its next logical step (0:50 – 8:40).
An early review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Mervyn Rothstein for the New York Times quotes her as saying that the book was about her ancestors, Puritan on both sides (Rothstein). Apart from 17th Century Puritanism, the US Republican policies suggested in the 1980s were an important source of inspiration for Atwood. Rebecca Mead notes that Atwood collected newspaper clippings and historical references that helped provide the background for The Handmaid’s Tale – these materials have since been donated to the University of Toronto (Mead).
The history of practices described in the novel have to some extent been revealed in the novel. The final section of The Handmaid’s Tale is a lecture by a professor of Gileadean studies, who explains some of the historical practices prior to Gilead while he delivers his paper, questioning the authenticity of Offred’s story. The dystopian Republic of Gilead has fallen, and is, as the novel concludes, now itself history. Atwood might be the prophet of dystopia, but she definitely is not a prophet of the apocalypse.
In an interview with Shad, Atwood discusses her decision to participate in the Future Library Project. The project assumes that people will still be around in a hundred years, that there will still be books, and people will still have an interest in reading them. Atwood is hopeful about the project and submitted a text in 2015, to be published in 2114. (29:00-31:30).
To say that something sounds like it has been written by Margaret Atwood is to say that, however dark and depressing, it is possible and to some extent probable. Considering what she has to say on speculative fiction, preventing a dystopian future starts by reflecting on the present and changing what “the next logical step” might be.
Alter, Alexandra. “Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics” The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/business/media/dystopian-classics-1984-animal-farm-the-handmaids-tale.html Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. Interview with Shad. Q on CBC, 30 Sep. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HW7LkFZGg6w. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. Interview with Tom Power. Q on CBC, 22 May 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvIpWyWVTdE Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. Interview with Rosie Goldsmith. Fashion and Fiction. 23 Mar. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TN2MTodcVMM Accessed 10 Oct. 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Heinemann, 1993.
Bruce Miller, creator. The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu, 2017.
Cowdrey, Katherine. “Handmaids hit London ahead of series finale” The Bookseller. 28 Jul. https://www.thebookseller.com/news/handmaids-hit-london-series-finale-603671 Accessed 22 Oct. 2017.
Mead, Rebecca. “Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia”, The New Yorker. Apr. 17, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/margaret-atwood-the-prophet-of-dystopia Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.
Loughrey, Clarisse. “The Handmaid’s Tale: Women are channelling the classic book to protest the healthcare bill”, Independent. 28 Jun. 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/the-handmaids-tale-hulu-gop-senate-healthcare-bill-planned-parenthood-protest-a7811696.html Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.
Rothstein, Mervyn. “No Balm in Gilead for Margaret Atwood” The New York Times. Feb. 17, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/03/specials/atwood-gilead.html Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.
Petra Polanič is an undergraduate student of English and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She spent a semester at Masaryk University as an Erasmus student in 2015 and absolutely loved it. She is supposed to be working on her philosophy thesis but keeps reading novels instead. Both her thesis and the majority of books she reads to avoid it are centred around mythology. After years of believing she loved to travel, she realised she just likes packing up her things and moving. Petra enjoys taking up odd jobs and makes some of her money by writing the horoscope for one of the local magazines, regardless of the fact that she knows nothing about the zodiac as such. She thrives in the company of dogs and relies on tea to give her life structure.