I recently read The handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood and was shocked by how contemporary, how timely it was. The book is from 1986 and falls into the genre of dystopian novel. I sincerely hope it stays there and is not an eerie prediction of what lies ahead.
The novel plays in the early 1990’s in the US after some environmental accidents have left most of the population unable to conceive, or if conception happened, unable to have healthy, viable babies. It is also a time where a religious group has taken over government and is implementing a religious system of fascism.
The protagonist is a woman named Offred. Her own name has been discarded, she is literally of Fred, the man she is assigned to. Offred is one of the few women who can still conceive. Therefore she is posted in the household of a rich man and his wife, who can afford to use her. The man is also a higher up in the political system and is called the Commandant the whole way through.
Offred writes her story with many flashbacks and memories. These include the time before the government change, when she was the second wife of a man named Luke and had a little daughter. Then she talks about her escape and capture after the new system took over and her retraining in a preparation facility for fertile women. Lastly she talks about her life in the Commander’s household and her struggles with the wife of the household who envies her any ounce of affection.
Above all there is the constant pressure to obey and conceive. Women in Gilead are worth nothing. Either they work to pull their weight as Marthas, or they are powerless wives, or they are used for conception. The woman is regarded as the vessel for the child. The greeting is : “Blessed be the fruit.” If a woman becomes useless, or has the audacity to have her own free thoughts, she gets disposed of, she gets killed. The women get reduced to their uterus, over which they have no say whatsoever anymore.
If one looks at recent laws that have been put on the books, this thinking sounds very familiar. There is also overlap in the propagation of rape culture. If a girl gets raped, who is to blame? The girl of course, because she enticed the man. Men are beyond reproach in the society of Gilead. If they can’t conceive, it’s the woman’s fault. If they rape, it’s the woman’s fault and if they mess up, the women better not say a word about it. Of course, there is also a hierarchy. Poor men have to follow rules as well. Rich men not so much.
The story ends abruptly and has an interesting, analytical epilogue. The epilogue drives the point home that, no matter how ridiculous and demeaning a society looks like when you are removed from it by time and place, it is the very real and concrete frame of life you have to work with when you live in it. People make concessions, people try to deal with the rules and carve out little freedoms. People try to make it work.
The best thing we can do now is look at what can happen if some of the women controlling tendencies we see now become full fledged realities. I’ve seen enough people already who happily recite bible verses while taking away women’s reproductive rights.
So, if this book scared you into action, it has certainly done its job. I gave The handmaid’s tale five stars on goodreads. It is one of the most important and well written books out there.