“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling, profound and provocative look at a society thick with dystopian tropes. Atwood’s novel was published in 1985 when the religious right was on the rise, President Regan had claimed his second term in office, and the Cold War between the U.S.A and the Soviet Union was in full swing, with the threat of nuclear war ever present. Feminism was also a movement on the rise that had created a lot of tension among the people. In response to the social and political climate at the time, The Handmaid’s Tale explores what can happen when ecological issues become severe, political and religious extremism become dominant, and the structure (and laws) of a culture facilitates misogyny.
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
In this novel, America no longer exists. It has become the Republic of Gilead: a society where woman are subjugated to men. The political and religious structure of the country is run by officials, named Commanders of the Faithful; high ranking soldiers, titled Angels; secret police, named Eyes; low ranking military men, named Guardians; and ordinary workers who are the lowest strata. Woman are split into monolithic groups. The wives and daughters (of Commanders) are socially elite (among woman at least); the Aunts enforce the new laws (often brutally with cattle prongs); Marthas are women who are infertile but are considered of some use, primarily as servants; and, Econowives are low ranking woman who serves as wives and servants for the lesser men. Women who are considered even lower than these are considered invalid. Lesbians, prostitutes, adulterers, the disabled and aged get shipped off to the colonies to work until their death. The Handmaids, scarlet women both by their religiously invalidated extramarital relationships and their new social function, wear loose-fitting red dresses and white broad-winged bonnets. These clothes are designed to enforce modesty, mark them out and restrict both movement and vision, reducing their world to what they can see from between the walls of their veils. They are the fertile woman, and their only purpose is to breed. They become paired to a Commander’s household and are expected to complete “the ceremony” once every month, where they offer their body in duty and service. There is no greater blessing. Furthermore, women under no circumstance are permitted to read or write, hold no position of power or authority, have no paid jobs, and are under the complete jurisdiction of men.
“I sit at the little table, eating creamed corn with a fork. I have a fork and a spoon, but never a knife. When there’s meat they cut it up for me ahead of time, as if I’m lacking manual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That’s why I’m not allowed a knife.”
Did I mention that woman are stripped of their name as well? Yep, they are. I get angry even thinking about it, but therein lies the power of this novel. It’s confronting and gets an emotional response. Offred, whose perspective the story is told from, belongs to a Commander named Fred, tells her tale of how she came to be where she is now. The novel follows her journey as a Handmaid, her isolation and struggles as she deals with her horrible situation while recollecting on times before the Gilead takeover, of her life before. Offred, who is never named, speaks of her husband Luke and their daughter, and how due to the world she lives in, her memory of them is slipping away.
“Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.”
Dystopian novels are hard-hitting, controversial and can carry large themes. That in a way is what makes them such a compelling read. Is The Handmaid’s Tale a novel about feminism, for example? Well, in a way yes. Feminism is a significant theme in the book for fundamental reasons. The story highlights the potential occurrences of a society that removes the rights of women. Think about it. Can you imagine having your bank account frozen, not being able to buy food, having your marriage recognised as unlawful, your name removed, then to live the rest of your days lying on your back, legs spread, so some man you don’t know has the sacred right of impregnating you? Disgusting, isn’t it? That’s every day for Offred. Although it’s disturbing, Atwood has written this novel with lyrical prose. The story is confronting yet is written beautifully. As usual, I will not reveal what happens in the book as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was confronting, but I enjoyed the story. It’s thought-provoking, it challenged me to reflect on our society, how I view myself and of course, how I see women. Yes, it is a work of fiction, but that doesn’t mean the reader can’t take away lessons from literature.
“The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” – Margaret Atwood
Just recently, this novel was adapted into a television series starring Elisabeth Moss. Produced by MGM/Hulu Television the adaptation does the book justice. It’s certainly worth the time watching it. Bear in mind, it is quite confronting. The series adds imagery to Atwood’s novel and shows the fallacy behind political and religious extremism. The scariest part of this story is that it asks the question, could something like this happen in our future?
Margaret Atwood recently wrote an essay published online on The New York Times webpage. She talks about the reasons why she wrote the novel and how it has been received over the past three decades. She also answers some questions that the book raises. I have posted a link below if you’re interested in checking out that essay.
Again, thank you for reading.
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”