Literature in Lockdown: Dystopia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and our own

Literature in Lockdown is a special blog series in which our students share what they’re reading whilst face-to-face teaching is suspended at YSJU. In this post, Megan Sales discusses her initial reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a reflection of our own life under lockdown. 

A few months ago, my Father lent me The Handmaid’s Tale coupled with high praise and an insistence that I read it. You may recoil with horror when I reveal that I had never heard nor read any of Margaret Atwood’s work until the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released a few years ago – equally you may be in the same position as me. Either way, this book was fantastic. From the moment I idly picked it up to flick through the first few pages, I could not put it down. The story follows the Handmaid, Offred, living in a dystopian society taken over by religious extremists. An infertility crisis enables The Republic of Gilead to take over, forcing people into certain roles. As one of the few fertile women, Offred is taken from her family to be repeatedly raped in the hopes that she can produce children for the commander that essentially owns her. Atwood’s character is entirely convincing, her reactions plausible, within reach and in conjunction with the world’s affairs today – her story is completely and utterly harrowing.

I have heard fragments of how The Handmaid’s Tale is beginning to ring true in America, but I am not well enough versed in as much to make a comment. The book resonated with me for a different reason though. The primary reason being just how within reach a dystopian society feels at this moment, how I found myself relating to this character in ways I never thought I would. As a parent myself – to a daughter a similar age to Offred’s- some areas of this book haunted me and, in a way, still do. The week before the Lockdown order was officially given my daughter was still attending nursery and as the week progressed an anxiety crept upon me. The final day she attended when I went to pick her up, I can only describe as Offred does:

“I went to pick my daughter up from school. I drove with exaggerated care.” (pg.183)

That surreal feeling when everything is seemingly falling apart around you, the uncertainty of what is to come. Atwood’s portrayal is utterly convincing, the smallest details plausible – real even.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ front cover

Atwood further creates believable situations from the way in which she captures human mentality. I loved the way in which the following quote captures human nature – the almost selfish response we often give, and later wish we hadn’t given, to situations that do not directly affect ourselves.

“How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable” (pg.66)

This really captured my way of thinking towards COVID-19 around a month ago, even to an extent to present day. How easy it is to read these horror stories – another person, dead. How easy it is to make an idle comment, to be complacent and move along with life until that is the story becomes your own.

I want to make this point; I do not believe that we are in a dystopian society but this book really shed a light over how easily a dystopian society could be reached, the behaviours that me and most likely many others would exhibit. If you had told me before COVID-19 that in a matter of weeks I would be unable to leave the house save for one walk a day or a food shop, that I wouldn’t be able to see my family for an undetermined amount of time, would I have believed you? I think not.

Overall, this book was fascinating to say the least. I truly can’t believe it took me as long as it did to read it. If you haven’t read this book yet – read it. These unprecedented times really do allow a connection that may otherwise have not been reached. History has warned us plenty of times how a crisis can be exploited to gain power. Literature serves to warn us like History – it utilizes our flaws, our nature to give us endless possibilities. Dystopia, therefore, begins to feel eerily close considering the EU now effectively has its first dictatorship in Hungary, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban suspending parliament and ruling by decree with no time limit. Even the UK has exploited this crisis creating the COVID-19 bill. A bill that enables a Doctor to by-pass the coroner to sign a death certificate themselves, that allows only one Doctor to decide whether the mental health legislation powers can detain a patient and a bill that allows Police Officers and Immigration Officers to detain and isolate people. I have only stated a few of the temporary measures in place for the next two years yet the possibilities for exploitation are endless.