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The Handmaid's Tale : by Margaret Atwood (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 320 pp.)

February 09, 1986| Elaine Kendall

America in Atwood's bleak, unnerving novel is the theocracy of Gilead, established by religious fanatics who have dismantled the republic, liquidated the opposition and replaced our present political system with a quasi-military infrastructure. The northeastern United States has been transformed into Gilead with terrifying swiftness and remarkably little resistance, the transition eased by a lingering Puritan tradition fortified by neo-fundamentalism. The overriding concern of this regime is human reproduction; the time is the foreseeable future, when a devastating combination of chemical pollution, radiation and epidemic venereal disease has caused the national birthrate to fall below replacement level. For an assortment of good, bad and indifferent reasons, too few children have been born in the preceding decades to keep America from extinction. (Arthur Campbell, a demographer quoted in the Jan. 13 issue of Newsweek, believes that more than a fifth of the women born in the 1950s may never have a child.) By the time "The Handmaid's Tale" begins, he has been proved right and reforms long advocated by radical elements of the moral majority have become law.

Unlike science fiction, which is sharply fanciful, this sort of speculative literature merely extrapolates from past and present experience to a future firmly based upon actuality; beginning with events that have already taken place and extending them a bit beyond the inevitable conclusions. "The Handmaid's Tale" does not depend upon hypothetical scenarios, omens, or straws in the wind, but upon documented occurances and public pronouncements; all matters of record. For contemporary American women, "The Handmaid's Tale" could be the ultimate doomsday book; a man's reaction may well be ambivalent. In Gilead, such distinctions between the sexes have been revived and emphasized with a vengeance.

As the proclaimed moral guardians of the nation, the High Commanders of Gilead have declared all second marriages and unsanctified unions between men and women invalid. Fertile female partners in these liaisons have been seized and forced into the role of childbearers to the ruling elite; the offending males have been killed, exiled or imprisoned. After a period of indoctrination in their duties to their master and the state, the handmaids are incarcerated in the Commanders' houses, guarded by attendants called Marthas, women who for racial or other reasons are unfit for childbearing. Though the legal wives of the Commanders occupy an exalted position in this society, by the time their husbands have reached Commander status, the wives are too old to have children. A vicarious arrangement has been devised for their benefit: a "ceremony" in which the real wife is present while her husband attempts to impregnate his handmaid. The handmaid's only outside activity is shopping for food, but after each of these carefully monitored excursions, she must return to her cell-like room. Handmaids are not allowed to read, hold jobs or own property; an abrogation of rights justified by the Scripture-quoting theocrats in power. Radio, television and films have apparently been abolished; coffee, tea, tobacco and cosmetics are forbidden to the breeders. Categories of women are identified by their costume, as in feudal societies before the industrial revolution enabled the lower orders to imitate the privileged. The Commanders' wives dress in long ornate blue gowns, the "Marthas" wear uniform green, the "Econowives," all-purpose drudges of the proles, wear stripes, while the handmaids are decked in red nun-like habits topped by headdresses designed to curtail their peripheral vision. Handmaids have been deprived of their pre-regime names and are known only by the first name of the man they serve, prefixed by "of" to depersonalize them further.

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