The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
” We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed.
Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. “
My bookclub’s pick for the month of August was Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Set in what would appear to be a New England city and in a time of ultimate transition, the role of handmaid is described and laid out in all of it’s awkward glory. The narrator of the story is a handmaid to a powerful man in the new Republic of Gilead, known only to readers as The Commander, and this is her story. Having been stripped of her previous life as a mother, a wife, and a hardworking employee living a peaceful and “normal” existence, the handmaid has also been removed from her own name and is presently called Offred instead (a derivative of “Of Fred” and essentially showing her to be claimed by a household as a handmaid). She has no voice, no free will, and no possessions. Offred is instead used as a vessel, as her current career path calls for.
Due to rising sterility from things like pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, handmaids are considered not only valuable but also a necessity to the repopulation of the land. The overthrow of the government as we know it in present day has happened, the replacement being the Sons of Jacob, a religious regime intent upon restoring the country to fundamentals they believe to be pure and true. Bastardizing the Bible, they take their cues from what they believe is to be the Word of God, and as such, reduce human rights to next to nothing, especially for women.
Even while handmaids are seen by the general society as a revered and precious commodity, they are limited with their freedoms. They are the chosen women of God, and as such, are able to provide the most sacred of fruits — that of a new life, of a child. . . but they are not allowed some of the basest of pass times, like reading. Each woman has been assigned her task due to her ability to have children in the past, and are stringently taught that it is their lifelong duty to perform the rituals and rites afforded to their station and that they are set above those around them. However, behind closed doors, the handmaids are looked down upon. Other workers in their world see them as lowly and demeaned, and as veritable whores in an otherwise clean land. Only the most powerful of families can have a handmaid in their service, and Offred’s house is clearly a place of wealth and high class.
Serena Joy is the woman of the house and the ruler over Offred’s daily do’s and don’ts. It is she who is in charge of where Offred goes,what she is allowed to eat, and to whom she is allowed to speak. While she quietly accepts Offred’s place in her household, there is an undercurrent of sharp animosity and jealousy that Serena Joy cannot always keep hidden. Underneath the folds of her periwinkle blue and carefully tailored dresses, Serena Joy’s body is breaking apart, betraying her as every woman’s body does the closer it reaches old age. She will never be able to have a child on her own and understands the necessity of a handmaid, but the infiltration of another woman’s essence in her home and in her bed is nearly too much to bear.
There was a life before, a life of normalcy and of freedom. Offred had another name and another life. She had someone she loved, her husband Luke, and she had a beautiful princess of a daughter. She had a cat who loved to curl her tail around Offred’s ankles while she cooked. She had a home of her own, with photo albums crammed into bookshelves and half-full coffee mugs littering the counter tops. Even as the world around her changed and became a place she could not recognize, she can not forget the existence she shared with those she cared for before the Republic of Gilead took over. Before women were no longer allowed to hold jobs or possess money. Before America became a place stuck in the past, of a Puritanical time with antiquated Biblical laws twisted to their own gain and design. Before her daughter was ripped from her arms as they attempted to escape into Canada, and before she heard the shot that took Luke from her, a shot that echoed throughout a dense forest of the tallest trees.
Now, she is no one. She is used and abused. She is forbidden.
There is an underground resistance, those who are anxious to stage a revolution and restore actual order. But those who lead the charge must be careful and calculated, because The Eye is everywhere.
A Handmaid’s Tale is a part of the collected works of Margaret Atwood, a scholar and exemplary writer and inventor. In addition to her novels she has published many works of poetry and a sizable amount of essays, and is a forward thinker on environmental issues and feminism. Her writing style is very precise and careful, while being wrapped in a cloak of emotion and sharp plot lines. This particular novel is one that I give 4 out of 5 stars to, and only because — and I hate to say it, because I so rarely believe it — I found the adaptation for television, The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, to be better. I found the television series was easier to follow and had an extra degree of depth; the novel is told in bits and pieces and at times I lost the flow.
It’s a short book, close to 300 pages, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the television series or has a curiosity for a world without proper government or freedom.