The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My own copy
‘I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.’
Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.
Masterfully conceived and executed, this haunting vision of the future places Margaret Atwood at the forefront of dystopian fiction.
I am currently making my way through season two of the TV series. I am feeling more and more disturbed with every episode. One night in particular, I had a nightmare in which I was in the full red dress and bonnet!!!! Now if this isn’t scary enough, I was burying my books. As a woman, I was no longer allowed to read! Oh, the sheer horror!!!!!
After this unsettling night’s sleep I decided I simply HAD to read the novel and know the how/what/when/where.
What I found is an in-depth novel that I digested in five straight hours. I was horrified and scared, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away from the pages.
Margaret Atwood is one impressive author.
‘They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to’
The entire narrative is from Offred’s perspective. For which she is Offred, not June. We meet fellow handmaid’s Alma, Janine, Dolores and Moira. All of which go on to take their commanders names, as June has Of-Fred. The handmaid’s lifestyle is bleak, terrifying and at times depressing for the reader. It shows a lifestyle that would strike fear into most women.
‘A return to traditional values’
Offred is at her third house, the home of former gospel singer Serena Joy. We are introduced to the ‘Martha’s’ in the kitchen Rita and Cora. Martha’s are infertile women of low status. We also meet the homes guardian Nick who also has a relatively low status. But who regularly crosses the line with Offred via way of winks and eye contact. Which leads her to ponder if he is ‘an eye’ a type of informant to the Republic of Gilead. At her time at the house Offred dreams of escape, but just what kind of escape is left open to interpretation. . . .
‘It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge’
Offred is partnered with Ofglen for her only luxury of a simple walk to the shops. The often take walks to ‘the wall’ where traitors of the regime hang for all to see. Eventually it is through these meetings that we learn of the plight of others. Such as, Ofwarren (Janine) who is now heavily pregnant. The indoctrinate of Aunt Lydia has had the largest impact on Janine’s psychology. She is well and truly a programmed Handmaid.
On their journey back the girls are accosted by Japanese tourists, hoping for a picture of the famous handmaid’s. Offred and Ofglen are shocked to see women dressed as they once did in their past lives. It reminds them how much their lives have changed.
Through the narrative we learn of ‘gender treachery’ aka being homosexual. That unwomen are sent to the colonies, which is a death sentence of hard labour. We also learn that only 1/4 babies are born an unbaby. That this is due to the high levels of pollution, that caused the situation of infertility in the first place.
‘It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the wives’
Serena Joy (Pam) used to enjoy giving speeches on the ‘sanctity of home’. Now she finds herself a prisoner to a regime of her own making. Although she enjoys a much higher status than Offred. She is still a woman and therefore sanctioned as so.
Offred must endure monthly obligatory tests which include urine, hormones, cancer smear and blood tests. In Gilead there is no such thing as sterile men. There are only fruitful women and barren women. It is a regime designed around female control and male dominance. A regime for which I am sure, I couldn’t last the week.
But the will to survive is human trait.
‘Sanity is a valuable possession’
Offred reflects upon and longs for her daughter. We are unaware of Offred’s full background. But we know that her daughter was 5yrs old when taken and now must be approximately 8yrs old. Offred longs for news of her child and this will provide an emotional pull, for all mother’s who read this novel. To be stripped of your rights as a woman, human being and mother. Is a life truly unworth living.
There is a particular scene at the red centre (handmaid training facility) where Janine must take part in ‘testifying’ she must go into personal details of her past. Her gang rape and subsequent abortion. It is a harrowing scene. You come to understand how her fragile mind could be easily manipulated, with just the right amount of human despair and suffering administered.
‘Love is not the point’ – Aunt Lydia
The Gileadean regime is explored in a much different way than the TV series. At times it feels more personal and harrowing as the voice of Offred infects your inner most thoughts. Yet the visuals from the TV series really add the sense of realism. As we watch this insane regime brought to life.
I can easily see why this is a classic novel and I am glad that due to the TV series adaption more and more modern women and women of future generations will read/watch and listen. I was only 2yrs old when this novel was first published, and it’ll be one I will NEVER forget!
‘I wish I was ignorant,
so I didn’t know how ignorant I am’