A Handmaid’s Tale is another book I know I should have read ages ago. I remember vaguely seeing the movie and thinking at the time that it was really strange. Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a novel. It wasn’t until later when I kept seeing it on Top Sci-fi/Fantasy novel lists did I realize that it was actually a book. Then I started to wonder why it was in that kind of list, since it didn’t seem to me to be either science fiction or fantasy (no, I wasn’t really paying attention to the movie, and in my further defense, I was very young then!).
A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, is a re-telling of events, real or otherwise, that happened to the main character, the narrator whose real name is never revealed, and about the strange world she lives in. It takes place sometime in the not-so-distant future, I’m guessing sometime during the 21st century, though her world is very different from the world we live in now.
In the course of her lifetime, the narrator, whose assigned name at the time was Offred, experienced the world change, from what it was once, the society we all know now, to what it became after it was taken over by revolutionaries seeking drastic change. What was once the State of Maine, or the United States, became the Republic of Gilead, with its own strange government and society. A society where everything is rationed, where “frivolous” and unnecessary things such as cigarettes, perfumes, and other everyday, ordinary objects are banned, where power is controlled only by a select few, and where reading, writing, and other leisure activities are forbidden to the general public. Gilead is like a pseud0-communist society, but really much, much worse.
The world Offred was born into, though seemingly normal, was already starting to deteriorate. Birthrates were decreasing due to legalization of abortion and the rampant use of birth control, and the environment was slowly being poisoned by toxic chemicals and other man-made products. By the time the Republic of Gilead was established, the world had been almost completely destroyed by toxic chemicals and radiation, and most of the population were sterile due to diseases or from the environment. The Sons of Jacob, a group of powerful men who controlled Gilead, re-designed society to “save” the dwindling population and to bring back a sense of morality to the people.
In Gilead, everyone played specific roles, and women especially, were a special commodity. Women were either Wives of the Commanders or high-ranking officials, Marthas, or housemaids, Econowives, married to men of lesser power, or Handmaids, women with viable ovaries assigned to the households of Commanders whose own wives could not conceive for one reason or another.
In Gilead, Handmaids are a group of special women who are single, or divorced, or unwed, who have successfully had children before they were forced to become Handmaids. They are trained in a special center to become surrogate wombs for the children of high-ranking families. Once assigned to a Commander and Wife, they take part in a bizarre, quasi-religious ritual, where their bodies will receive the seed and act as a vessel for the unborn child.
Handmaids travel in twos when they need to go out in public, and are dressed like nuns, in a red habit with a white wimple-like headdress. Like majority of the population, reading, writing, and other “luxury” items are forbidden to them. Handmaids are transferred to different families, depending on whether or not they succeed in bearing children, and those who continually fail to bear children are shipped off to the Colonies, the toxic wasteland outside the city, where other punished members of society are doomed to die slow, painful deaths.
A Handmaid’s Tale is Offred’s story told directly to her readers. She shares her life in her present post – her hopes and fears; her ordeal at the Handmaid training center; and reminisces about her life before Gilead, a normal life with a job, friends, her mother, partner, and daughter, who was taken from her. The accuracy of Offred’s account of her life and Gilead are questionable, and she herself admits to her readers when she isn’t being completely truthful in her narrative.
A Handmaid’s Tale would fit in to the post-apocalyptic / dystopian society genre that has become so popular these days among Y.A. readers thanks to The Hunger Games. Like most dystopian society novels, A Handmaid’s Tale paints a bleak picture of the future, especially for women. It’s almost a prophetic warning of where our present society will end up should we continue our present practices of using birth control, abortion, or putting off having children in favor of careers. Gilead is a terrifying society, especially for women, who are stripped of their freedom and are forced to sacrifice their bodies and lives for the sake of a privileged few.
The abrupt ending of A Handmaid’s Tale will leave readers wondering about Offred’s fate, and it isn’t until the “Historical Notes on Gilead” appended to the novel, that they get some kind of closure, if at all.
Being a woman, and recently a mother, this novel and was especially terrifying for me and I could empathize with Offred’s plight and desperation. Had I read this book before having a child, it probably would not have scared me so much.
A Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – Margaret Atwood
Personal rating: 3/5