THE HANDMAID’S TALE
by Margaret Atwood
Anchor Books, 1998
(Originally published 1986)
Paperback, 311 pages
I’ve written briefly about this book before, but after re-reading it with Rebecca of Love at First Book recently, I decided to dedicate a full-length post to The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become one of my absolute favorite books.
This novel, a dystopian piece of speculative fiction, takes place in a not-so-distant future in which an extreme right-wing Christian faction has taken over the U.S. government and drastically re-shaped society. In a cunning — and scarily realistic — maneuver, they infiltrate the government and quietly take power during a moment of national crisis. They then proceed to impose patriarchal, Biblical law upon the people of the new Republic of Gilead and take away women’s rights to employment and property.
Our narrator, Offred, is a woman serving as a handmaid to a high-ranking military commander. At a time when fertility is at an all-time low and reproduction rates have fallen bellow the level of replacement (possibly due to nuclear waste and other toxins in the environment), women who have proven their fertility by giving birth to a healthy child are commandeered to provide children for childless upper-echelon military members.
Of course, it takes a long time for the reader to learn any of these details. Offred takes her time in telling her tale and explaining what exactly her position is, how the new regime came about, and how she found herself in the position of handmaid. Not knowing all the facts is sometimes disorienting, but I read somewhere that the disorientation the reader feels at not knowing anything, at slowly finding out tantalizing details, reflects the disorientation Offred felt at the beginning of the regime. The government takeover happened so quietly, and no one knew what was going on until it was too late. Even then, everyone had to get used to the strict new laws and way of life. The way Offred slowly reveals her past is fascinating and makes it hard to put this book down.
The Handmaid’s Tale speaks a lot about gender politics, sexuality, and freedom to vs. freedom from. In one of the most intriguing (to me) passages, Offred reflects on her life before the takeover and the attitude of the new regime:
“I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
It fascinates me that the government and the people enforcing the new laws believe they are doing women a favor by taking their rights away and extinguishing their sexuality. Although they took away women’s freedom to wear whatever they like and be independent, they gave them freedom from sexual objectification, harassment, and rape. We all cry for an end to violence against women (justifiably), but what price are we willing to pay? In the Republic of Gilead, women are “safe,” but they are completely unable to make their own decisions. It’s a chilling concept, and I hope that someday we will find a way to change attitudes about women enough to make us safe without limiting our “freedom to.”
This novel is brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, and I love the use of Offred as an unreliable narrator. We never even learn her real name (Offred is a patronymic combining “Of” and the name of the Commander she is servicing), and she frequently admits to making things up or altering reality to suit her fantasies. We get a great sense of her desperation to escape in any way possible and find out what happened to her husband and child after they were separated by the regime; it’s haunting at times.
I also love the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying it’s an open ending. Open endings are the ones that tend to stick with me the longest; I really like when authors have the courage not to tie everything up with a neat little bow at the end. Endings like this one make me think and wonder and try to piece things together, and I like being able to interpret the ending in my own way.
“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.”
Read Rebecca’s post about The Handmaid’s Tale here.