Judging by the recent rhetoric of television critics, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is a horror story not because it stretches the imagination to unforeseen realities, but because it’s happening. Right now. In America. On the news. Each review scatters in the word “relevant” like an overzealous child putting sprinkles on an ice cream sundae. Each review reads like a siren.
Given this reception, you can imagine how shocked I was upon reading the first paragraph of Mary McCarthy’s 1986 New York Times review of The Handmaid’s Tale when the book first came out. There's no trace of McCarthy likening Atwood to a modern-day Cassandra. It's quite the opposite. She finds the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale preposterous, so sure that this fiction could ever mirror reality.
The review begins, “Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue...It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood's very readable book The Handmaid’s Tale.”
For McCarthy, classic dystopian novels like 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley successfully instil fear. In 1984, a rigid bureaucracy controls its population through fear and paranoia. In Brave New World, masses are divided into classes, and sedated into a dull bliss through a drug, Soma.
While both novels were hailed as prophetic, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on something neither 1984 nor Brave New World do: women’s place in the dystopian future. And that’s just why McCarthy thinks The Handmaid’s Tale fails.
Since 1984 and Brave New World build societies around two fairly universal human inclinations, fear and pleasure, McCarthy deems them feasible (and horrifying) futures. But women’s rights being dismantled by a conservative government? Not so much of a possibility to her.
“I just can’t see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small-town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned,” she writes.
As well as doubting whether The Handmaid’s Tale's's premise could occur in real life, McCarthy’s also a bit of a snob. “Characterisation in general is weak,” she writes. She critiques the lack of unique language created specifically for Gilead, an equivalent of 1984’s Newspeak. She deems the Republic of Gilead to be “insufficiently imagined.”
McCarthy concludes that for these reasons, “collectively, [The Handmaid’s Tale] is powerless to scare.”
Of course, McCarthy sounds terribly naive to our weary ears, worn down by every hair-raising remark from our president and a rapid-fire succession of this-can't-possibly-be-happening headlines. Granted, The Handmaid’s Tale and its television adaptation are two different beasts. But one thing is true: The Handmaid’s Tale is very capable of terrifying, especially since writers cleverly incorporate modern references, like Uber and Tinder, to further situate The Handmaid’s Tale in the present.
For now, McCarthy remains correct in her convictions: The super-biblical future envisioned in The Handmaid's Tale hasn't come to pass. What's so chilling about The Handmaid's Tale, though, is how quick the descent toward a similarly unfree future might be. As IndieWire puts it, "Could The Handmaid’s Tale really happen?' isn’t the question anymore. The question is now 'Is it already happening?'" It's a matter of where we are in the process.
Even in Reagan-era 1986, McCarthy had the privilege of writing off the novel as far-fetched. Unlike McCarthy, we cannot watch this story and scoff. We pore over it and shudder, wondering whether we'll one day wake up in Gilead.