I am going back to the classic this year! I have realised that have never read some of the classic books, like ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’ and I decided that in 2017 this will change.
After seeing the trailer for the Hulu television series by the same name, I just had to pick up Atwood’s book as I really enjoy the weird and conceptual books that are set in alternate and often dystopian settings.
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date published: 1986
Page Count: 324
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an amazingly written book with such a strong concept that will surely survive through the ages to remain a classic that is relevant to our society.
While we don’t get much background on the world, we know that where Offred lives is a place of political and religious upheaval, somewhere in North America. With the previous government and political parties overthrown, a new societal hierarchy emerges, based in religious fanaticism. Their ideals are very much archaic, with one of their primary beliefs that Women are a source of sin, directly or indirectly linked to jealousy, violence, sexual deviance, and the obsession with wealth and material belongings that was so prevalent in the ‘Modern Society’ of the book.
So to combat this and to bring the community back in line and in touch religion, women’s rights were completely abolished and society built as a hierarchy of women. High ranking officials were granted multiple wives that completed various tasks around the house; their ‘proper’ wives wore Blue and seemed to socialise with the other wives and participate in trivial charities and hobbies; the green clothed ‘Martha’s’ that cleaned and cooked; and the important ‘Handmaids’ who wore red clothing that closely resembled that which Nuns would wear (to protect their modesty), whose primary function was to have the Children of the Commanders. The lower men in society were not given multiple wives, but had ‘Econo-Wives’, who wore striped clothing and had to fulfil the all the functions that a women of the household would.
It is the world that Atwood creates that makes this book so interesting and entrancing to read. Combined with the power of Offred’s narration (at the end of the book the details of Offred’s narration is revealed) it sends a strong and impactful message about womens rights. Women are controlled and thought of objects, dressed down to be thought of as objects that have a specific function: cooking, cleaning or childbearing. Institutions use ceremonies and indoctrination to control women and control every aspect of their lives. What was really unsettling in Gilead was that women were not even allowed to read, with symbols used instead.
Offred is a character that any reader can relate too- she yearns for freedom, for autonomy, but is also scared of retribution (rightly so as the punishment for rebelling is extreme) if she rebels and speaks her own mind. Through flashbacks we see the her life as it was before; with a family, a job and her younger years was full of partying, studying and experimentation. We also see her as she experiences the changes that led to the current state of the society-her access to money was cut off, she was fired from her job because a law was passed that banned hiring women, and her and her husband were caught trying to escape over the border when things became tumultuous. While at times I wanted to learn more about the political and social environment the book is set in, it is fitting that we are so isolated and out of the loop. We only know what Offred knows, kept in isolation and ignorance from the outside world-her only source gossip from the other Handmaids or the ‘Martha’s’.
I highly recommend ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ of you are looking for a classical dystopian book to delve into. It explores womens rights and institutionalised sexism in a sort of ‘science-fiction’ way with a gripping story.