Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is an easy to read and beautifully written cautionary dystopian tale of how quickly and easily totalitarianism can destroy the freedom we take for granted.
The story follows a single unnamed character, a Handmaid, as she lives her current life under a faceless brutal totalitarian regime of a well-intentioned ruling classes portending to be operating under paternalistic virtue so that they can save themselves, or so they think. This is contrasted with memories and flashbacks to her earlier life under the norms of freedom, the norms of freedom you and I take for granted today, while giving up our civic freedoms and natural right, step-by-step, piece-by-piece, to well-intentioned moral and political ignorance.
The story is a timely and prescient warning to readers as our freedoms and civil liberties come increasing under attack by elected politicians, opinion columnists, media pundits, university professors, and increasingly business leaders, who aspire to power and never hesitate to turn a crisis to their advantage at the expense to diminish freedom of speech, action, movement, pursuit of livelihood, etc. The political, and media response to Covid-19 in 2020 street violence and murder, and the timidity of the majority of peace-loving, law-abiding citizens, allowed a relatively small handful of organized anarchists of the left and right and Marxists with the sanction of those who control political power to terrorize the entire USA population into commercial lockdown and mental passivity. We saw many governments and law enforcement agencies – which are arms of the government – refuse to take action and thereby side morally and politically with the anarchists in an expression of their totalitarian passions and desires.
Seeing how quickly the supposed protectors of our freedoms and civil rights demonstrated their lack of courage to stand up for the rights of those whom they were elected to serve and protect as their first and most sacred moral responsibility as the peoples agents in government, makes The Handmaid’s Tale all the more timely and important.
The tipping point from freedom to the totalitarian temptation is upon us right now. There is a movement by political parties to: establish political orthodoxy; stifle, terrorize and cancel those who assert disagreement to “permissible” and permitted thought and “approved” scientific truths (e.g., likening political speech to domestic terrorism and making it a crime); engage in political persecution to destroy the livelihood of political opponents and others who think and speak (e.g., blacklisting and cancelling of political opponents and their supporters, as well as targeting business leaders and destroying the jobs they create for employees in their communities: if you hire our political enemies or establish a business to compete with our politically protected friends who support us and don’t speak out against us, we will hurt you and your family). The new phenomenon of the convergence of state violence and high-tech interests makes us all much more vulnerable to anti-freedom tendencies and control. Shoshana Zuboff calls this The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as a warning to all concerned about civil liberties in the digital age.
What is scary is that there appears to be a growing movement towards an approval of increased government control and intervention into “other people’s lives” by digital means and otherwise, under the mistaken belief that more government control will make those who demand it safer. The freedoms based on our individual unalienable rights that we take for granted and that can be supressed extremely quickly, taken away perhaps with our tacit approval by those who allege that they can and will protect us if we trust in their greater mental powers and wisdom, can take generations and considerable violence and destruction win back.
There aren’t a lot of inspiring quotes about freedom in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The book doesn’t preach; it is much more subtle in its message. Instead, there are many beautifully written passages about the sheer banality of freedom that we take for granted and fail to sufficiently appreciate until our liberties are taken away from us. Political control is always an insipid but effective vehicle to destroy our individual spirits so that we doggedly obey our masters as animals for the benefit of faceless immoral monsters and their bureaucratic enablers, thereby turning free and wealthy societies into prison-like camps. We all know how these things can turn out, and unlike seeing it on Hollywood and TV dramas, totalitarian civics is neither entertaining nor copacetic.
What follows are five of my favorite passages that I found to be particularly beautiful and insightful prose. There are no spoilers. This is the original work of Margaret Atwood, quoted from my paperback copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, McClelland & Stewart, 2015.
Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were always about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, P. 63
Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fishbait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I’d taken such magazines lightly enough once. I’d read them in dentist’s offices, and sometimes on planes; I’d bought them to take to hotel rooms, a device to fill in empty time while I was waiting for Luke. After I’d leafed through them I would throw them away, for they were infinitely discardable, and a day or two later I wouldn’t be able to remember what had been in them.
Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
This is what he was holding, without knowing it. He riffled the pages. I felt myself leaning forward.
It’s an old one, he said, a curio of sorts. From the seventies, I think. A Vogue. This like a wine connoisseur dropping a name. I thought you might like to look at it.
I hung back. He might be testing me, to see how deep my indoctrination had really gone. It’s not permitted, I said.
In here, it is, he said quietly. I saw the point. Having broken the main taboo, why should I hesitate over another one, something minor? Or another, or another; who could tell where it might stop? Behind this particular door, taboo dissolved.
… I felt the Commander watching me as I turned the pages. I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, and that he found pleasure in seeing me do it. I should have felt evil; by Aunt Lydia’s lights, I was evil. But I didn’t feel evil. Instead I felt like an on old Edwardian seaside postcard: naughty. What was he going to give me next? A girdle?
Why do you have this? I asked him.
Some of us, he said, retain an appreciation for old things.
But these were supposed to have been burned, I said. There were house-to-house-searches, bonfires…
What’s dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are…
Beyond reproach, I said.
He nodded gravely. Impossible to tell whether or not he meant it.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pp. 178-180
Ofglen and I walked slowly today; we are hot in our long dresses, wet under the arms, tired. At least in this heat we don’t wear gloves. There used to be an ice-cream store, somewhere in this block. I can’t remember the name. Things can change so quickly, buildings can be torn down or turned into something else, it’s hard to keep them straight in your mind the way they used to be. You could get double scoops, and if you wanted they would put chocolate sprinkles on the top. These had the name of a man. Johnnies? Jackies? I can’t remember.
We would go there, when she was little, and I’d hold her up so she could see through the glass side of the counter, and the vats of ice cream were on display, coloured so delicately, pale orange, pale green, pale pink, and I’d read the names to her so she could choose. She wouldn’t choose by the name though, but by the colour. Her dresses and overalls were those colours too. Ice cream pastels.
Jimmies, that was the name.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, P. 190
We’ve been to the stores already, and the church; now we’re at the Wall. Nothing on it today, they don’t leave the bodies hanging as long in summer as they do in winter, because of the flies and the smell. This was once the land of air sprays, Pine and Floral, and people retain the taste; especially the Commanders, who preach purity in all things.
“You have everything on your list?” Ofglen says to me now, though she knows I do. Our lists are never long. She’s given up some of her passivity lately, some of her melecholy. Often she speaks to me first.
“Yes,” I say.
“Let’s go around,” she says. She means down, towards the river. We haven’t been that way for a while.
“Fine,” I say. I don’t turn at once, though, but remain standing where I am, taking a last look at the Wall. There are the red bricks, there are the searchlights, there’s the barbed wire, there are the hooks. Somehow the Wall is even more foreboding when it’s empty like this. When there’s someone hanging on it at least you know the worst. But vacant, it is also potential, like a storm approaching. When I can see the bodies, the actual bodies, when I can guess from the sites and shapes that none of them is Luke, I can believe also that he is still alive.
I don’t know why I expect him to appear on this wall. There are hundreds of other places they could have killed him. But I can’t shake the idea that he’s in there, at this moment, behind the blank red bricks.
I try to imagine which building he’s in. I can remember where the buildings are, inside the Wall; we used to be able to walk freely there, when it was a university. (P.p. 190-191)Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pp. 190-191
Come on now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I’m interested in your opinion. You’re intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.
About what? I say.
What we’ve done, he says. How things have worked out.
I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky at night, when there’s no moon. I have no opinion, I say.
He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Pp. 233-234
© 2021, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.
Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group in Toronto. He is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press). His two most recent co-authored books, Understanding and Creating Vision and Mission Statements and Understanding and Creating Strategic Performance Indicators and Business Scenarios are both available from amazon. Barry’s thought-leadership articles have been published by Ivey Business Journal, Rotman Magazine, Mises Wire, and the Economist Intelligence Unit in conjunction with Harvard Business School. Barry is also a writer, researcher, analyst, photographer, and business strategy enabler. Read his blog and learn more at barrylinetsky.com. Follow Barry on Twitter @BizPhilosopher.