The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian work of fiction set in the imaginary Republic of Gilead – formerly the United States of America. After a series of unclear events, the world has apparently gone through several wars or nuclear accidents, leaving many men and women incapable of procreating. Borders are closed, strong political and religious factions arise, and the world is brutally forced to accept an entirely new set of rules to live by. Women who are thought to be fertile are trained by Aunts – old, cranky speakers of Truth – to become mindless uteri. Men are either servants of the Republic of Gilead, or its enemies. After a bout of brainwashing, handmaids are assigned to a specific house and its Commander with a single goal to accomplish : to bear a child. This is achieved through awkward ceremonial nights where the Commander, his sterile and understandably jealous Wife and the handmaid engage in lustless threesomes in order to procreate.
In this cold, heartless world, we live and suffer along Offred, the new handmaid to the Commander and his Wife, as she mulls over the past and tries to accept her fate. Her life is made miserable by the Wife, the dull, long days of handmaid and the monthly rituals with her Commander. As all forms of reading, pleasure and entertainment are forbidden, most of her free time is spent drowning in the past where she once had a loving husband and a daughter. There are days when hope is kindled in her heart and she allows herself to dream of escape…
The Handmaid’s Tale, although published in 1985, gives a chilling insight into what life could become after world-altering events caused shifts in our societies. Religion returns to the forefront of government, espionage and delation are commonplace and utter fear reigns amongst the endoctrinated inhabitants of this bleak country. In the Republic of Gilead, anyone could be working for the Eyes…
1. The world imagined and described by Margaret Atwood is as vivid as it is miserable. Throughout the novel, we learn more about the events which led to the creation of the Republic of Gilead and the realism is terrifying. While reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it is never difficult to envision a near future where this is possible.
2. Offred, behind her servile airs and defeated mannerisms, is tougher than she looks. In a world where everything is forbidden, she repeatedly transgresses the rules and shows that she will not go down without a fight. From magazines to cigarettes to locking eyes with a man, she always finds a way to overcome the fear instilled in her by the Eyes and the Aunts.
3. The back-and-forth between past and present is never truly jarring and always informative. We learn much about Offred’s life in the old world, her role as a daughter, mother and lover, the events that led to the creation of Gilead, her attempts to escape to Canada. If a secret is not revealed, some strength or weakness in her character is shown, making each flashback, if not necessary, at least pleasant.
4. The small circle of secondary characters revolving around Offred are as tortured and real as she is; the other servants who envy her position, the Wife who despises her fertility, the true and false handmaids, the chauffeur who is not who he appears to be, the Commander who desires more than just her body… All are important to the story, all play a part in Offred’s ultimate fate.
5. Margaret Atwood’s writing is to-the-point with well-chosen words and efficient language. Chapters never feel too long nor too short, and always serve a purpose in furthering the story. In every scene, we seem to be in Offred’s mind, anguishing over the same choices to be made, wondering what we would have done in her place, struggling with the past. Obviously, Atwood does not need us to tell her she’s good… We imagine that the shelf in her living room cracking from the weight of countless awards does that for her.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale, as a realistic dystopia, leaves us yearning for more, especially in troubled times like these. Even with the rare hints about international tourists visiting Gilead, about a war being fought somewhere, about the high wall around Offred’s town, we are hungry for more information. The interesting epilogue – in the voice of exterior characters looking in on Gilead – is not enough to quench that desire to know more. How large and strong is Gilead? Will it stand throughout time? Where is the international community and what is it doing? Wink, wink, a sequel could answer these questions Margaret…
2. Throughout this novel, the reader is faced with a confusing confrontation between feminism and machismo. Is the Republic of Gilead truly ruled by ruthless men even though fertility and motherhood are worshipped and rewarded? Are women only portrayed as vessels despite the high status of the Wives and the Aunts? Both sterile women and men are disposed of in some way or other making it seem equal. It is arguable that both the handmaids, the female servants and the male servants appear to share similar fates. Food is scarce, pleasure is forbidden, the fear of the Eyes is indiscriminate of sex. This confusion weighs on the reader’s mind as the story moves forward; who is the enemy, who is the martyr, is there one or the other? In the end, it does not feel as if good and evil can be easily distinguished from each other. This, in itself, is representative of life, but the ambiguous hints as to caste and gender discriminations are frustrating in the long run.