When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.
Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.
Perhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid’s Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.
In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.
The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.
One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid’s Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).
So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women’s Day, the 9th of August. They didn’t actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.
In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.
There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 — Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I’m not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for.