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'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Among A Resurgence Of Dystopian Literature


As you've probably heard, dystopian literature is having something of a resurgence with old favorites by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley flying off shelves and into op-ed pages. Margaret Atwood's book "The Handmaid's Tale" is among them. And with a much-heralded new miniseries starting this week on Hulu, a couple of bookishly minded folks I know thought, let's give it another read. So joining me now is WEEKEND EDITION editor Barrie Hardymon.

Barrie, good to have you.


NEARY: So when did you read it for the first time, Barrie?

HARDYMON: I read it about 15 years ago in a women's studies class, as one does.

NEARY: Also joining us is Leah Donnella of Code Switch. How about you, Leah? When did you first read it?

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: So I first read it about two years ago. I was two years out of college and just needed something to read.

NEARY: So a lot of people have not read this book yet - don't know the plot. Maybe, Leah, you can help them out.

DONNELLA: Sure. So this book takes place in the Republic of Gilead, which is a society - it's a near-future dystopian theocracy that's organized around the role of women and their ability to bear children. So you have these different classes of women. A large number of women are infertile and can't have kids, so you have this other class of women who are charged with basically having kids for the rest of the society.

HARDYMON: Women's roles have been literally split into that of domestic servant - there's a class of domestic servants called the Marthas. There are the handmaids who are there only to bear children: they have proven fertility. And then there are the wives. So you - it is women distilled into the most basic virgin-whore categories.

NEARY: And the reason for the barrenness, of course, is because there has been so much...


NEARY: ...Environmental damage done to the world that it's created fertility problems. So that's sort of at its core.

Now, I read this book way longer ago than the two of you. I read it when it first came out in the '80s because I was going to interview Margaret Atwood for Weekend All Things Considered, which I was hosting at that time. And we pulled some of that tape from the archives, so let's hear a little bit of it.


NEARY: Do you think Gilead could come to pass?


NEARY: Meaning what?

ATWOOD: Meaning that I hope it won't. But if you see somebody walking towards a large hole in the ground, you've got two choices. If you want them to fall into it, you don't say anything. And if you want them not to fall into it, you say - watch where you're going.

NEARY: Oy, yeesh.


NEARY: So I reread this within the last month, after President Trump was elected. And I started seeing it climbing up the best-seller list, so I thought, well, let me see - go back and see what it was like. And I have to say, when I reread it, it was much scarier to me and not even so much that this particular world that she created could come to pass but that something like an authoritarian regime could come to pass that really shook up your life. And the reason it hit me that way the second time around was because I paid more attention to the details of how it came to pass. And there's this moment where Offred is still living a normal life.

HARDYMON: Offred is the narrator, we should say, who...

NEARY: Yes, that's right.

HARDYMON: The women are so reduced that she is literally of Fred...

NEARY: That's right.

HARDYMON: ...Who is the commander that she bears children from.

NEARY: And we never learn her name from her life before that. But Offred goes to buy something, and she's using a credit card. And they say - well, there's no money there. Well, you can't use it. It's no good. And then she says, well, that's really weird. And the next thing, she goes to her office. And they call all the women together and say you're not allowed to work anymore.

And that's the beginning of it. And when I really focused in more on that, I thought, wow, that seems like it could happen somehow.

HARDYMON: Yeah, right.

NEARY: I could see how it grows and then becomes this other horrible theocracy where...


NEARY: ...It doesn't make any sense at all.

HARDYMON: 'Cause it's that thing of, I have a credit card. It could be declined.

NEARY: Yeah.

HARDYMON: I know these - like, these are the signposts I recognize.

NEARY: Yeah.

HARDYMON: Yeah, it's terrifying.

NEARY: Did you see something different in your second reading?

HARDYMON: So I did. And I read it - it wasn't a two-year gap; it was a 15-year gap. So in that time, I - (laughter) many things have happened. I've had kids. And so when I picked up this book, there were a couple of things that I hadn't read. I - literally just hadn't sunk in the first time that I read the book. And the main thing was that Offred is a mother. I have young children. Her child has been taken away from her when the United States government is overthrown by this theocracy, and so now she's a handmaid. And there is this just horrifying moment where she mentions the smell of baby powder and the feel of a child's freshly washed skin. And now I know what that's like.

NEARY: Yeah.

So if it hasn't been obvious to our audience already, we are three women of very different generations.

HARDYMON: And we look great.


NEARY: Has this book spoken to your generation, Leah, do you think, in a different way than it might have spoken to mine or to Barrie's? What do you think about that?

DONNELLA: Well, I think the way this book spoke to me in a way was that there's such a premium on fertility and being able to be a mother. And that's kind of something that I worry about, I guess - is going through my career and getting older and thinking about, like - how am I going to be valuable as a woman in this society? And that's one of the big things that made me think about, like - if my career goes a certain way or if my life goes a certain way or my relationships, what is my value going to be? And it made me think about all those things and in kind of a terrified way.



NEARY: What about you, Barrie?

HARDYMON: So I'm 40, and I - you know, it's that thing of - well, I thought these were all problems that are solved. And it gives me pause - in the same way that Margaret Atwood told you (laughter) in 1985 - that maybe there's still a ditch in front of us and that - because these are the things that I thought were, you know, always going to be there for me. I always thought that I - you know, I thought we were moving toward a world in which I, you know - we were all going to be paid the same for equal work. So this is the thing that gives me a little bit of energy as a - you know, as a woman and as a feminist.

NEARY: You know, I saw Margaret Atwood speak the other day, and I repeated that quote to her. And I asked her if she thought we had already fallen into the ditch. And she said no, we hadn't fallen into the ditch yet. But you know...

HARDYMON: Oh, well, I will follow her anywhere.

NEARY: And you know what she said? She said, because you have the power to change things.


NEARY: And I think one of the things that strikes me when I think about this book now is - take away that kind of power from women, and the whole society really does crumble because the men are also affected...


NEARY: ...In this book. And so we're all in it together. And I think she was making that point that we're all going to benefit when women are equal to men, I think.


NEARY: That was WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon and Leah Donnella of Code Switch.


Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.
Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.