The Handmaid’s Tale: a negative side of human adaptability

I finished this dystopian classic by Margaret Atwood and was both impressed and frustrated.

I was impressed by how believable the story was. In the afterward the author talks about how she took great care to put nothing in the book that hadn’t already happened somewhere in history, and no technology that didn’t exist. She did this in an effort to not distract from the reality of it, to not make the story seem fanciful with crazy gadgets or unrealistic things.

And it was very effective. I had no trouble believing in the slow ratcheting up of  authoritarian control over women.

I found the whole story to be very realistic, which made it all the more scary. The actions of the narrator were also realistic, but that made them, to me, highly frustrating. The rest of this post contains spoilers for the novel, and probably the TV show, though I haven’t watched it.

 

While I identified with Offred at first, as I read on I found myself disliking her more and more, and I wonder if this was intentional.

I didn’t like how she always made herself satisfied instead of resisting. She never took any opportunity to try to help Ofglen when she found out she was part of the Mayday resistance, even though Ofglen asked her multiple times to take advantage of her relationship with the captain, to find some papers or anything that might be of use. Instead Offred chose safety and comfort and did nothing.

When Offred was shown the picture of her daughter I thought this would be the moment she woke up and and realized that the same things would happen to her own daughter as were happening to her, and that would inspire her to act, but she only lamented internally about missing out on a part of her daughters life. None of it even worried her at all.

The whole of it seemed to be her constant acceptance of her situation. Inside her head,  she rails against it, and has constant wishes that she could do something, or take action, but she never does. Even the tiny tiny act of saving the match amounts to nothing. She only even briefly thinks about setting a fire, instead of doing it or even planning how she might achieve anything. The lack of trying was very jaw-clenching. In fiction, usually we see the character trying and eventually succeeding, or at least trying and failing. Offred doesn’t even try.

Because of all that I found Offred to be not a very sympathetic character. I’d rather have heard Moira’s story. Moira made a daring escape, despite being horribly tortured after a previous failed attempt. Offred was not once punished in any way that we witness, and experienced no kind of torture of pain, yet is so afraid to act. Moira is already a more sympathetic character just based on this. Though, in the end even Moira settled into her situation, and seemed to be satisfied with the small amount of freedom she gained.

On the other hand… I don’t know what these characters could have done, how they could have resisted in any meaningful way. Maybe, the only real resistance they could have made was to stay alive, and stay unbroken in their minds. And I think that is part of the point.

Though Offred’s lack of action was frustrating to read, it is a familiar feeling to me. So often I get mad at a situation, but in the end do nothing about it because it is easier to just adapt to it and move on. I think this story shows that humanity’s capability to adapt to any situation can be a problem when we are being forced into terrible situations by small, acceptable steps.

 
 
 
 
 
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One Reply to “The Handmaid’s Tale: a negative side of human adaptability”

  1. As Judith Butler stated out passivity is also its own form of resistance. Mayday failed heavily when June was around and she has seen this kind of failure. Her own mother was killed being an active feminist, which was shown more graphically in the TV show. In the book, June’s own husband was instrumental in making Gilead. And, he is culpable for her situation. That is one betrayal she could not get over in some capacity. Additionally, she is depressed so she just wants to either die or survive. That happens. She is meant to be non-ideal I guess. She is no Katniss Everdeen and her charm, reliability and realism comes from there.

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