One of the novels that I have loved most passionately for many years is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I was first introduced to the book over a decade ago, as I studied for an AS-Level in English Literature and it has stayed with me ever since.
I haven’t always got on well with Atwood’s other books, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a singularly powerful exploration of womanhood and the fragility of our way of life.
Published in 1985, the story is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that has arisen from the ashes of the United States. The freedoms that the earlier society took for granted have been abolished and thanks to various hinted at environmental and societal factors, the birth rate has dropped exponentially. As a result, children are prized and women’s primary purpose has become to fulfil their reproductive destiny.
The story is narrated by Offred, one of the women who has suffered the most through the change in regime. Formerly a wife, mother and career woman, she has become a faceless ‘Handmaid’, nothing more than a chalice intended for childbirth. Each of the new military regime’s commanders is assigned one, whose sole purpose is to produce a baby to be raised by the commander and his wife. The Handmaid will be assigned to three households and if she fails to conceive, she will be consigned to the colonies, which means certain death.
The lives of the Handmaids are difficult. They are hated by most other classes of women, especially the wives and are treated like cattle and spied on, should they attempt to rebel, or even express a thought that would reveal them as anything other than a devout disciple of Gilead.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you can’t fail to be moved by the tragic beauty and symbolism of the language. Offred recounts her story in a dreamy, non-linear fashion, as she encounters a word or object in her present, so she will be reminded of its past associations and her own former life.
“I have them, these attacks of the past”.
The novel is written with economy; the text is rife with double meanings and layers that can be peeled back to reveal not only more of this dystopian society but also the narrator’s inner life, her pain, her fears and hopes. The items she is surrounded by have become heavy with the possibility of death, as suicide is the only outlet for many women, yet it is one they are rigorously protected from.
Although set in an alternate future, there is a strong sense throughout the novel of the era in which it was written, thanks to several things, in particular the characters of Offred’s mother and best friend, Moira, who are both staunch feminists.
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.”
At a time when abortion rights are under threat in Texas, the book is again relevant, a timely reminder on the fragility of freedom, as women’s bodies once more become a battleground for someone else’s war. Even Offred has become averse to her own body, stating: “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely”.
In Gilead, it is claimed that these changes to society have been made to protect women. They are free from fear of attack; no longer do they need to be concerned with clothes and make up and staying in shape. They don’t need to worry about finding a husband; if their status warrants it, they will be assigned one. Yet Gilead is a subversion of feminism. The patriarchal rulers have managed to divide and conquer with suspicion, using women against women, such as the fearsome Aunts who are recruited to run the Red Centre where the Handmaids are trained. These women advocate the benefits of the new society, yet hold the threat of rape and worse over the heads of those that refuse to comply.
“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, 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.”
There are moments during the novel when the reader begins to wonder if Offred is really a truthful narrator. She herself admits that she has changed elements of the story, sometimes because they are too personal, sometimes because she would rather imagine a happy ending for another person, rather than a simple vacuum of not knowing.
For me, the only flaw of the novel is the bizarre epilogue, set decades in the future during an academic conference. The keynote speaker examines Offred’s story as an account of the Gilead regime and debates its accuracy. This device is a little heavy-handed as we already come to question her account and it strips away some of the novel’s power by removing us from the story and commenting on it from a distance. But the novel stands alone without this epilogue, which does serve to solidify the ambiguous ending of Offred’s story, but perhaps it is better for each reader to infer their own meaning.
I still remember studying for my AS-Level exam, filling sheet after sheet of paper with quotable lines of text from the book and pinning them around the house to aid my memory. Occasionally a line will come to me and I feel as though I am there, beside Offred, alone in her room, watching, waiting.
This is truly a novel full of literary riches, from the language to the symbolism to the themes. It is powerful, intelligent and provocative. It is heartbreaking. It is a novel that speaks to the truth of womanhood, even as our society shifts and we all change as the years pass by, The Handmaid’s Tale is as chilling a warning as it ever was.