Picture a world where women are not allowed to read, vote, or have even a trace of individuality. Imagine the freedom gained by women, relatively recent in human history, lost in the blink of an eye.
Book: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart, 1985
Genre: Dystopian novel, science fiction, speculative fiction
In 1985, as second wave feminism was nearing its end, Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative novel about a fictional state called Gilead where men held all social, political, and economic power. In Gilead, women were seen only as vessels of procreation. They were unable to have jobs, earn money, or even have bank accounts of their own. This book was Margaret Atwood’s portrait of a society under the reign of hyper-patriarchal totalitarianism.
Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, the democratic government has been overthrown. A military dictatorship called Gilead is formed under the guise of protection from Islamic Terrorism. This happens when women are on the verge of enjoying equal rights with men. In this new society, majority of the people have been rendered infertile because of pollution. Women play a limited role and are divided into groups – the housekeeping Marthas, the propagandist Aunts, the infertile Wives of the men in power, and the Handmaids – a small group of women capable of reproducing but considered socially inferior. Those who refuse to perform these roles are called Unwomen. They are sent to colonies to do manual labor or clear up toxic pollution, which eventually kills them. In addition to denying women their humanity, Gilead does not exactly treat the men kindly, with them expected to suppress their emotions.
The narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is a woman by the name of Offred. For Offred, like most women in Gilead, the reality of losing her freedom starts to sink in when she loses her job. She is torn away from her family and is indoctrinated by the Aunts to become a handmaid. She is then given a name which means that she is Of Fred. She literally belongs to Commander Fred of Gilead for the single purpose of bearing a healthy child for him and his wife. Offred lives under the constant fear of being observed by the Eye, members of police who work as spies in every part of society to catch people who break the law.
The distractions and restrictions posed by Gilead cannot entirely stop Offred from reminiscing about her past. She starts remembering who she was before Gilead in relation to her feminist mother, her best friend Moira, her husband Luke, and her daughter. She finds a note in her room, left by a former handmaid that she instantly connects with. It says, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” She uses it as a prayer, and begins to find a path out of Gilead. As the story progresses and harsher events unfold, Offred’s voice grows stronger. From her shopping partner Ofglen, she gradually learns of a resistance called Mayday, an underground network trying to overthrow Gilead.
Through the Commander, over whom she develops an equivocal power, Offred sees hope in finding a way out of Gilead. She develops feelings for Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur. She risks her survival by revealing details about her past to him, not knowing whether he is the Eye or a part of Mayday.
As a protagonist who is figuratively blind, Offred uses the process of narration to grow in sight. Early in the story, Offred does not see or understand what is happening until it is too late. One scene that highlights this is when her best friend Moira, who knows what is happening as the democracy is being overthrown, says, “They have been building up to this,” and Offred doesn’t know what she is talking about. Although her passivity is off-putting at first, it is as crucial to her survival as breathing.
We lived, as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Some of the themes and interpretations that one can take from this book are feminism, loss of identity, motherhood, and oppression of women by other women. Many readers believe that Margaret Atwood wrote this novel as a response to second wave feminism. The division of women into groups in this book can be interpreted as the division of women that happened as a result of the movement.
One powerfully compelling scene that defines this book takes place when Offred loses her job. Her husband tries to reassure her by saying that they still have each other. But to her it feels like some balance has shifted. She realizes that he doesn’t mind it at all, and that they are not each other’s any more. Instead, she is his. Offred’s realization is a chilling re-affirmation of the truth that when the rights of a minority are violated, it does not affect the majority.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative work of fiction, as none of the events in this book are mere inventions of Atwood’s mind. They have either been borrowed from the past, or are likely to occur in the future. Those who have doubts about their likeliness may note that it is not difficult for a government like Gilead to succeed. All it needs to do is tempt the ignorant majority with greed, as the minorities become marginalized. Gilead uses suppression of humanity as its ultimate tool of control. Another key to Gilead’s control is the illusion of power that it gives to the women, while keeping them under the foot of patriarchy.
A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
On the surface, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like a novel about the war between the sexes. But it is really a novel about the conflict between classes of women that tends to bring women down as a whole. This classic draws attention to the transience of women’s newly acquired independence. It is a story that seems far-fetched and terrifyingly plausible at the same time. Though not an easy read, The Handmaid’s Tale is a must for those who gravitate towards feminist fiction. It will make you feel violated like the protagonist. You will feel numb with denial. You will tremble with anger and indignation. And yet, you will come back to this universal story, better equipped each time to find your way out of Gilead.
Featured Image Credit: Cover image of The Handmaid’s Tale