The classic Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become topical as hell, thanks to an impending television adaptation and an impending (potential) real-world application in the form of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Before long, you will be hearing about it at parties. There will be Mike Pence as the Commander memes on social media, and articles speculating on star Elizabeth Moss’s post Mad Men career. But who has time to read a classic novel these days? You’ve got television to watch, tweets to fire off, Pokémon to catch. Luckily, there are several foolproof ways to pretend to have read it so your friends who have more time than you don’t catch on.
Know the premise
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian story in which a future version of America is ruled by a theocratic military regime. This happens after a terrorist attack — the theocratic regime swoops in and suspends the constitution on the pretext of restoring order. Their version of order? Subjugating women and stripping their rights. They’re given strict societal categories like concubines or wives, they are not allowed to read, and they’re named according to the men they belong to — the protagonist is Offred because she must conceive a child with a man named Fred.
In other words, current concerns about abortion and planned parenthood are elevated tenfold.
Know your quotes
You’ve got the Wikipedia-style summary down. You can now nod sagely when people make Mike Pence comparisons. Congratulations! The next step is to drop the occasional quote and/or put it on a t-shirt. The most famous quote is, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” But here are some other worthy quotes, if you want to show you don’t only know the popular one:
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
“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.”
“There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
> “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
> “But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.”
Finally, there’s the famous bastards quote in Latin, as it appears in the novel: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” If you can name-drop the Latin, you must have read the book.
Read a different Margaret Atwood novel
As it so happens, Margaret Atwood has mulled over similar themes in various excellent novels. Her Blind Assassin deals with female subjugation in a quietly domestic sense — but it contains a story within a story about a batshit crazy society and a love between a girl who can’t speak and a man who can’t see. Her MaddAddam trilogy is a different kind of dystopia that nevertheless touches on some similar motifs like religious movements and strict class divides. But the most oddly specific crossover is with The Heart Goes Last. In both stories, the heroine has a torrid affair with a driver who later pretends not to recognize her.
The show premieres on Hulu in April. Mike Pence premieres in America in January.