The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (pbk)

Reviewed by Ali

First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to speak to the generation coming to political awareness in that decade. Back then it could be read as speculative fiction. We read it as a warning, rather than a prophecy, and it has inspired a generation of feminists.

Margaret Atwood takes us to a terrifying near future. In the former United States, now called Gilead, a war is being fought, sexually transmitted diseases and pollution have had a drastic effect on fertility. The entire government has been assassinated and replaced by a new social order, run by the religious ‘sons of Jacob’, a totalitarian theocracy intent on ensuring the continuation of the population. Atwood’s depiction of this society – with its rules and punishmen – is absolutely breath-taking. A strongly feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale explores the subjugation of women in an unforgettable way. 

But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. 

Offred is our narrator, a thirty-three-year-old woman forced to live as a handmaid in the home of a high-ranking commander and his wife. Her task – taken from a literal interpretation of the Old Testament – is to breed for them.  Offred (literally of-Fred, as the commander’s first name is Fred) has been found to still be fertile, having had a child in the time before. Rounded up, with many other women like her, she was forcibly taken to the Red Centre, where she was prepared and instructed in the ways of her new life, that of a handmaid. Here she meets Moira – a friend from the time before.

The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil. 

In flashback, we get a glimpse of the time before; Offred as she is now called, knows her former name to be forbidden. She had a partner, Luke, a daughter, friends, had enjoyed a college education, a job, a good life. Flight across the border to Canada was attempted and violently stopped. There is the sense of life continuing perhaps fairly normally in the outside world.

The society of Gilead is a strictly hierarchical one. All women are categorised, having a set role they must live by: the Aunts control the handmaids, the Marthas work as household servants, and the Wives, like Serena Joy who Offred is assigned to, naturally enjoy the greatest social standing, while Econowives are married to lower ranking men, and do not enjoy the prestige of the wives. Jezebels are those women forced to work as prostitutes while unwomen are those who are sterile, widows, gay or have been politically resistant to the new order. All handmaids are placed in a commander’s home for two years. If they fail to produce children (always seen as their fault) they will be moved to another household – their name changing with each placement. Infertility is high, but the handmaids must conceive, and bring a healthy child into the world: these are rare enough events, but each handmaid is desperate to be successful. Too many failures will mean banishment to the colonies – toxic waste, near starvation and certain death. Sex is conducted within ‘the ceremony’, an act of hideous humiliation for both handmaid and wife (shudder!).

Women’s lives in this society are strictly controlled – they are no longer permitted to own property, have money, read, vote, or make any decisions for themselves. The time before is rarely referred to, and in this new society women are pitted against each other. Econowives and Marthas dislike the handmaids, seeing them as sluts, and the handmaids have little chance of forming friendships, as the Eyes are everywhere and the punishments for straying outside the rules frightening indeed. Whenever Offred leaves the commander’s house to go shopping, she is accompanied by a neighbouring handmaid Offglen, and in this way the handmaids watch each other. Offred wonders about the woman who was in the commander’s house before her – in the cupboard of the room where Offred spends so much of her time she finds the words “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” scratched into the floor.

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.

 So many people seem to be reading this classic novel at the moment, that to reveal too much more about the plot would risk spoiling it. Part of the renewed interest of course is due to the new TV series – in which Margaret Atwood makes a cameo appearance, and is one of the producers. I think however that what seems like a mass re-reading of The Handmaid’s Tale is about much more than that. We live, it could be said, in interesting times – and what we once read as speculative fiction has achieved a whole new relevance. Seismic shifts in the political landscape, extremism in many forms, climate change and uncertainty are drawing former readers, and of course a new generation to Atwood’s dystopian warning.

Ali blogs at heavenali.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage Classics, 2017). 978-1784873189, 336pp., paperback.

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