I started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the 2016 election. The book felt timely as we, as a people, confronted an uncertain political future. To be honest, I was gutted by what happened. I was troubled and grief-stricken that a man who boasted about sexually assaulting women, a man who dehumanized every group of people except straight white men, a man who lied every time he opened his mouth, was elected President of the United States. I know many of us are still reeling, maybe we’re even numb.
I decided that I would turn to literature as a way to cope with what happened. Writers give me hope. Writers are always dangerous because they ask us to empathize with The Other and they engage in complex, critical thinking. At least the best writers do. They challenge the status quo. They force us to rethink our assumptions, prejudices, and traditions.
Many of you have probably already read The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a modern classic. While it took me a little bit longer to read it, I’m glad that I did. It’s about a woman named Offred who lives in the Republic of Gilead, which used to be the United States before it was taken over by a violent theocratic regime. In Gilead, women have no rights. Offred is a handmaid, a woman who is assigned to a house with a “Commander” that she has sex with in order to procreate. Having a child is Offred’s only function.
I won’t go into extensive detail about the plot of the book. It’s best to read it yourself and experience it. The Handmaid’s Tale is about so many things–the oppression of women, the threat of authoritarianism, how people resist under repressive circumstances. But one of the most resonant aspects of the novel is how much it’s about yearning.
Offred often thinks about her life before the theocratic government took over. She remembers her husband, Luke, and her little girl and her mother. She doesn’t know if any of them are alive or where they are. She will probably never know. She remembers having freedom–being able to wear what she wants, to read a book, to make decisions in her own life. The past always haunts Offred and she feels an intense yearning for it. The novel is about the splintering of the self between past and present. Offred describes remembering the past as an attack:
I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done.
For Offred, the past is always out of reach, always something to be wanted and yearned for even though it is lost forever:
I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.
I think about the past a lot, too much. I think about the life I had before I lost my father, before my health deteriorated, before anxiety and depression debilitated me. I remember who I was before the world crashed down on top of me. I long for that life again, that life of the before, that time when everything seemed possible and the pain didn’t drown me.
I’m trying to practice mindfulness. I am trying to ground myself in the present while acknowledging the past. I’m doing all I can to care for myself and find some kind of peace, though I don’t know what peace looks like anymore, or healing or normalcy or okayness.
I was watching a documentary about Atwood that was made in the 1980s, before she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. In the film, the director says that he sees Atwood’s characters as victims, but I think she says she disagrees with that observation. Atwood writes characters who are circumscribed and trapped in conditions outside of their control. As a woman, Offred is subject to the power of the state; her body and her womb are no longer her own, but she finds ways to resist. Just the act of telling her story is an act of resistance. At one point, Offred says “I don’t want to be telling this story.” She goes on:
I don’t have to tell it. I don’t have to tell anything, to myself or to anyone else. I could just sit here, peacefully. I could withdraw. It’s possible to go so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out.
We have a choice to not tell our story or to tell it and Offred chooses to speak despite the possible deadly consequences of her action. Speaking was her resistance, her act of defiance against oppression.
I don’t know what the months and years ahead hold for us. I know that it’s a dark and troubling time in our nation, but let’s keep telling stories and listening to one another’s stories. Let’s keep speaking.
This essay was first published on the author’s tumblr.
Caitlin is Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press. She’s passionate about arthouse cinema, intersectional feminism, social justice, and literature. She blogs about grief and loss at her website, Ekphora. You can follow her on twitter at @ekphora.