I knew Bumped reminded me of something. Various other reviewers online have mentioned the similarities between the premise of Bumped and that of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I knew I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale, and besides being more contemporary and having younger characters, I knew something was off with that comparison. Logically, I decided that it was time to figure out why The Handmaid’s Tale seemed special enough to make the cross-country move with me last summer.
I first read the book in 2005 for my women’s studies class (my university had distributive learning requirements). I was just beginning to make my way back to the Catholic Church then, but I knew that the Church’s stance on marriage and family planning wasn’t quite as harsh as many critics claimed it to be. The premise of this novel from 1986 is that, sometime in the near future (before 2125), most of the population has lost its fertility. There is no single cause, but the U.S. is well below replacement rate (meaning that people are dying faster than they are being born: a reality in parts of western Europe today). As readers learn well into the novel, a massive militant strike on the U.S. capitol led to a suspension of the Constitution and theocratic martial law. Women’s rights to own property were eliminated. Adultery and remarriage are made illegal. Surrogacy is highly promoted among the aged wealthy, since it has a biblical precedent in the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar and of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Bilhah. Offred is a Handmaid (the Handmaid Of Fred), a woman who has had at least one child and is enslaved to high-ranking couples to attempt surrogacy. If she cannot give birth to a healthy child after trying with three different men, she will be sent to the Colonies to do toxic hard labor until she dies. The situation is much, much more bleak than I even want to consider.
When we meet Offred, she has recently arrived in the home of her Commander, his Wife, and various household servants. She spends her days sitting aimlessly and shopping in stores that bear no words with pictograph coupons; women are not allowed to read. Once each month, the Commander, the Wife, and Offred participate in a elaborate ritual involving Bible readings and a completely loveless attempt to impregnate Offred. The Wife resents Offred for her presence, the Commander secretly wants love and not just sex, and Offred simply wants to survive, because she can remember the old days. She remembers the man she married after he left his first wife. She remembers being part of the women’s movement in college. She remembers her daughter, who must be still alive, somewhere, because children are so precious.
Atwood’s writing style is decidedly literary. She uses frequent imagery, flashbacks, and a chapter structure that illustrates the disconnect between Offred’s heart and her external actions. The mood is mellow and subdued, matching the atmosphere of Gilead (the constantly at-war remnant of the United States). Offred is a sympathetic character, if only because she does what she must to stay alive, but she desires so much more.
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is so much bigger and darker than that of Bumped. The content is markedly more explicit and stark; use caution when recommending to or discussing this with even older adolescents. The messages of both novels seems very similar, however: if we take fertility for granted and manipulate it to bend to our will, nature may fail us someday. We must use our fertility responsibly and generously or risk a future that will never come because there will be no one to live in it.