In the future, in a time of declining births, major pollution, and rampant sexual immorality, the U.S. government is overthrown and a new regime takes its place. The government of Gilead places a high value on human life, and women are important only to the extent that they can conceive. There are no sterile men, only barren women, and these Unwomen are sent to the "colonies," mainly to clean up toxic waste and essentially to die. The new government insists it has freed women from the immorality that plagued their sex in years past (i.e. pornography, abortion, birth control), but it actually has taken away their freedom -- they're not allowed to read or write, for instance -- and made them prisoners.
There are different classes of women in Gilead. The Wives and Daughters of the Commanders claim the highest status, followed by the Econowives, or the wives of the lower classes of men. There also are the banished Unwomen, the prostitutes that entertain the officers at a secret club, the Marthas who handle the cooking and cleaning for the upper-class women, and the Aunts who are tasked with
Margaret Atwood's classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is told from the point of view of a Handmaid, Offred, whose name signifies that she belongs to the household of a Commander named Fred. Readers never learn her real name, as she's been trained to do her "duty" and no longer think about or speak of her previous life, when she was Luke's second wife and the mother of a little girl. Her family was broken up by the military instituting the new government, and she does not know the fate of her husband and daughter, only that her little girl is now someone else's daughter and that if she fails to conform, harm will come to them if they are still alive.
Offred's story drifts back and forth from the present to the past, giving readers a glimpse of what her life was like before the change in government and how she got where she is now. Her memories torment her, and when opportunities present themselves to break up the monotony, she's not sure what to do. There are Guardians and Eyes (similar to Hitler's Gestapo during World War II) watching every move she makes, and information must be passed through barely perceptible whispers as the Handmaids walk two-by-two on their daily errands.
I first read The Handmaid's Tale in college as part of a Women in Society Class at a time when I was writing a thesis on feminist theory. It was my first foray into dystopian literature, and as a young woman studying the oppression of women over the centuries, the book made me mostly angry. At the time, I had little in common with Offred. As I read the book for the second time, however, I was better able to identify with Offred as a wife and a working mom. Although it was hard for me to like Offred, mainly because she seemed cold and I wanted her to toughen up a bit and fight back, I could understand why she'd given in, how she'd do anything to prevent harm from coming to her daughter and husband -- despite the fact that the chances of her husband still being alive were slim. The second time around, I found the story heartbreaking, as I couldn't imagine being torn away from my daughter so she could be raised by someone else and never remember me.
But what affected me most, and even freaked me out a bit, is how plausible the story seems. Looking into the past, we see it's possible for power-hungry individuals or groups to upend lives, alter society, and control through fear. We can understand how people could be dismayed at what they believe signals the falling apart of society and how they would want to change things for the better. We see how politics and sex are linked and what happens when religion goes too far. Atwood has a very vivid imagination, and she grabbed my attention from the very first page. However, while I understand the limited viewpoint -- Offred is an ordinary woman, she could be any of us -- I was left wanting to know more about Gilead, how the new society and government work and how these people came to be in power. Some of my questions were answered by the end, but readers shouldn't expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package by the last page. Nevertheless, Atwood does a wonderful job balancing the horrific images and unimaginable scenarios with a bit of hope.
I read The Handmaid's Tale with Heather from Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books and Dreamybee from Subliminal Intervention. Here's a bit of our discussion about the book:
Do you think Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale as a warning or for entertainment purposes?
Heather: I think that it is definitely a warning. As I said in response to Dreamybee's question and in one of my own questions, I can completely understand how the society got to be the way it is. That is due to Atwood's talent in drawing from our actual past and teasing out how that history might affect the future. If that's not a warning, I don’t know what is.
Dreamybee: I think there had to be some element of entertainment, otherwise it probably wouldn't have been very well-received; but I think the main motivation behind the telling of this particular tale was to present a cautionary tale and perhaps to start a dialogue about women's rights.
The women had clearly delineated roles -- Handmaid, Martha, Econowife, etc. -- and some carried a higher status than others, whether actual or perceived. Do you think any of these women really had an advantage in the new society?
Heather: Each class of woman seems to have advantages and disadvantages that the others don't necessarily share, but I don't see any of the classes as being "better off" than the others. When your life is so completely prescribed, what is seen as privledge by others can actually be a punishment.
Dreamybee: There were probably some women whose stations in life improved with the implementation of the new regime, a poverty-stricken woman with several children who was on her second marriage to an abusive man, for instance. Her fertility would put her in the ranks of a Handmaid, where she would be protected and taken care of. Her children would probably go to someone who would take good care of them as well. As Offred was fond of saying though, "context is all." There were probably some women who were content, possibly even happy in the new society, and individual circumstance would dictate whether a Martha in one household had an advantage over a Handmaid or even a Commander's wife in another household. Each position had its own source of power, but power derived from the position itself, not from the individual holding it.
If you were in the same situation, do you think you could be as complacent as Offred?
Heather: I don't know. I didn't feel a connection to Offred's character, in that I didn't really identify with her life (even her life "before"). That makes it hard to put myself in her shoes. But I do think that regardless of what was going on around me, I would want to live. My guess is that I would do just about anything to continue living, regardless of the conditions. But that is just a guess.
Dreamybee: I hate to say it, but I think so. That's the other thing that's so scary about this book! When the threat of rebellion is death or harm to loved ones and the situation that you're in isn't rock bottom, you do what you can to survive. You hang on to hope because that's all you have. Offred was around in the pre-Gilead days, so she knows how fast things can change; perhaps this is helpful, knowing that if things went from good to bad, there's a chance that they can always go back to good or at least get better.
**Please visit Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books and Subliminal Intervention to read the rest of our Q&A.**
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Handmaid's Tale ages ago…and the wear and tear proves it!
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