How I came by the book
As with The Penelopiad, I read The Handmaid’s Tale late. A bit too late, I believe. The novel was published in the mid 80’s and I read it last month – 35 years later. I had expressed interest in reading it before watching the series, so my sister bought it for me.
It is not quite as pleasant a read as The Penelopiad, but just as important, if not more so. It is easy to read in that the writing style is fluid, but the words themselves conjure up a world that is confronting. Which is precisely why everyone should read it.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into Offred’s world, Gilead, a dystopian state that was previously democratic. In the novel, ultra-conservative radicals have overthrown the government and have transformed it into a totalitarian regime of the most brutal kind. Atwood shows us the gradual transition from democracy to totalitarianism, with Offred losing her agency (right to work and own money), her family, and – eventually- even her name. The Handmaids of Gilead are valued only for their ovaries and are named with reference to the man they belong to.
As we journey through the novel with Offred, we catch glimpses of her previous life and watch her find her own ways of rebellion. We also learn about the cracks in the Gilead system, ironies of autocratic regimes, and the resistance movements that are flying below the radar but slowly building momentum.
I found all the characters in the novel to be compelling. Offred longs for her old life with her husband and daughter, but also finds herself adapting to the new order and doing what she can to stay alive. Her body is treated like a weapon. She moisturises with butter and contemplates suicide as an escape – but that would mean she’d need to be really crafty as handmaids are not permitted any sharp objects at all. She cuts deals where she can and learns that she’d still rather be alive then be sent off to the colonies – or dead.
Moira, Offred’s friend from college, is a rebel who manages to escape from the Handmaid’s training facility. Offred meets her later in the novel – Moira is always a source of hope for Offred. As is Offred’s mother – who does not appear in the present, but only in Offred’s memories of the previous world. Her mother seems to be a hardcore feminist (possibly a former hippie). Ofglen is another brave woman that informs Offred that a resistance by the name of Mayday is forming.
There are also the sellouts, the uncle Toms – women who betray each other and scorn other women’s pain – Tori Amos calls them ‘cornflake girls’.
There are a few male characters in the novel, but perhaps the most interesting is the commander. In all fairness, he is a chauvinistic asshole but as the novel progresses we see the discrepancies in his behaviour. While he uses Offred’s body as a potential incubator body, he soon starts to play scrabble with her and show her magazines from the previous order. While he recognises her humanness, he benefits from the system in place and has women of colour working as quasi slaves in his house (known as Marthas.)
Pop Culture and Themes
Atwood deals with a lot of different themes in the book, including feminism related topics, sisterhood and the relationship between women and their mothers. But I want to reflect a bit on my earlier description of the novel and especially the word ‘dystopian’. While Gilead is very much a dystopian world, here is a clip of Atwood explaining that all of the elements that we would find abhorrent in the West are in fact real practices that took place at some point in history (in the West) on The View.
I’ll also place this quote here – Offred remembers her mother’s words:
[You young people don’t appreciate things…You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are…Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?]
The irony of the quote is that it is as relevant – and pertinent- now as it was in 1985. It is an eerie reminder that progress – or what we perceive as progress – can be undone. We can go backwards. All over the West, we are witnessing conservative parties take to government. The Assad regime still stands. The Lebanese Revolution is being labelled as a conspiracy when it’s main demands include free education, work opportunities and 24 hour electricity.
Even here in Australia, we’ve witnessed unsavoury changes. In November 2019, the government scrapped the Medevac law – a bill that enables refugees in offshore detention centres to be transferred into Australia for medical care. The Liberal government want to push the cashless debit card past trials to further humiliate and stifle those on welfare (under the guise pf limiting spending on drugs and alcohol). And now, as I write, there are 12 emergency fires blazing in New South Wales and Scott Morrison is still more concerned about the economy than the environment.
Ratings And Recommendation
I highly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale – not only is it a great book, but it is so important and relevant to the current social and political climate.
Thus I give it 9.5/10.