The Angst of Liking “The Handmaid’s Tale”

I have rarely been so affected by a novel as I have been, just now, by the Handmaid’s Tale. I’m having trouble understanding why that is. Although I am, intellectually, in sympathy with all the “right” causes, I’ve never been prone to emotionally identifying with oppressed groups. Nor are women’s issues a particular concern of mine (and this novel is about a kind of oppression terrifyingly specific to women. Men might be enslaved, but they are never so completely subjugated, down to the minutest portion of their daily routines, as the women in this novel, and a majority of countries in the world [including the one from which I am writing], so routinely are.)

But something in this novel disturbed me very deeply. One thing I find kind of annoying about science fiction (and fantasy) is its tendency to take real-world problems and make them safe, and less immediate, by dressing them up with science-fictional analogues. This happens often with parables on racism and colonialism, like Mike Resnick’s _Purgatory_ or _Inferno_ or the film _District 9_, where the oppressed races of earth are cast as aliens. Although these analogues might be intended to make us realize the cruelties that are hidden by the complexity of modern life, they end up making us sympathize with the oppressor, who is caught up by the unfathomable barbarism of an alien people.

But then there is this novel. The real-world analogues are quite clear. In Iran, Afghanistan, and, currently, in Iraq, we have seen a rollback of gender rights. We have seen societies where at least some women had education, and professions, turn into societies where they have no freedom at all. But no novel set in those real-world situations (and in the past year I’ve read one, Persepolis) would have had the same effect on me as the Handmaid’s Tale, the story of America undergoing that same reversal..

There are many brilliant touches in the book, but one that particularly struck me was that it’s just America that has become a theocracy. The rest of the world is normal, or at least suitably diverse. Too often, science fiction novels ramp the allegory up to eleven and turn the entire world into a theocracy, which leaves one feeling somewhat fatalistic about the whole endeavor.

Early in the book, the unnamed narrator is out walking. She’s been sent shopping with another veiled and covered Handmaid. And they encounter a Japanese tour group. The girls are wearing skirts and heels and makeup and are fascinated by the Handmaids. Through an interpreter, the Japanese tourists ask the Handmaids: “Are you happy?”

I’ve been that tourist. I think we all have.

I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the way this book has left me. Intense wailing and gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over other peoples’ oppression is extremely distasteful to me. It allows us to acquire the moral superiority that we feel only the powerless can possess, without any of the, you know, actual oppression. And I think that partaking of that emotion is dangerous. The feelings that boil out of this book are a viable way for powerless people to feel. But people who have the power to act and change the world have no excuse for feeling this way.

Because how am I going to change the way I act as a result of reading this? Not at all. Not really. I’ll continue to believe in the right causes. I’ll continue to do very little about them. Maybe I’ll transform into the kind of person who becomes convinced that “like, writing about it and publicizing it and making people feel it” is the best way I can change the world. God, I hope not.

And since little good will result from this feeling, then seeking it out (because it is, in some very real way, quite pleasurable) seems somehow reprehensible to me. I’m not sure why that is. I don’t know who it hurts. I don’t think it hurts anyone. Maybe it’s just that these emotional channels are powerful, and it feels wrong to burn them out as just another way of getting myself high.

5 thoughts on “The Angst of Liking “The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. David

    It seems you’re not in the USA.

    There are two levels of reaction to books concerning other people’s suffering (a broader concept than oppression, but this is irrelevant).

    1) The reader wails intensely, gnashes teeth and wrings hands over that suffering. He may think about the world in relation to the suffering of the characters.

    2) The reader idenitifies his empathy and sympathy with moral superiority but realizes that the empathy for and sympathy with the wretches of the book is inadequate because he lacks the experiences of those characters. He may think about the world in relation to the suffering of the characters and how he, with his weak moral superiority, has neither experienced nor healed their suffering.

    The reactions to a work of fiction (as opposed to one’s own thoughts) only exist, based on the meanings of the words as they are used together, within the mind of the reader. The reader should think about the book, about his reaction to it, and keep these thoughts within his mind so that they might help him live in, improve (with his power to act to change the world, whatever form that power may take) and enjoy (get himself high) the world. There is no need for angst; saints are few.

    I do not want to go into a big argument about what I think you mean by “that tourist” who we all are said to have been and your distaste for him, but this too is irrelevant.

    (It makes me a loser for remembering an argument we had in the old days about whether the bad guys in this book are Muslims are Christians; I was right.)

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  4. Tracy Canfield

    “Slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. […] If they have any thing to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer.” Frederick Douglass.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Haha, yes, I just read Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative a few months ago. It inspired a similar — though weaker — kind of dislocation as the Handmaid’s Tale. It (and other slave narratives) are kind of the B-side to every novel set in antebellum America.

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