Today’s post is for reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale, one of those deep and meaningful books with themes and motifs and symbols that has managed to become so well regarded that it is now a school set text and even has a SparkNotes to its name. I have avoided reading it for years because I thought it was going to be dense and super intellectual, but after reading Lady Oracle and being reminded of how much I enjoy Margaret Atwood (and also of how easy her books are to read despite their literary merits) I decided to just jump in and try it whilst on holiday. I’m so glad I did. It wasn’t a bit like I had expected, and I can see now why Atwood is always so adamant that she doesn’t write science fiction. This isn’t science fiction, it’s a disturbing portrayal of how extremism, intolerance and ignorance could quite easily change the Western world as we know it beyond recognition if allowed to reign unchecked. I think that it’s an even more relevant text today than it was when it was written in the heyday of feminism, as our recent experiences with terrorism and religious fundamentalism gave this book a whole different slant for me.
The book is written as a series of diary entries by ‘Offred’, a Handmaid, or surrogate womb, living in the first years of the totalitarian religious state of ‘Gilead’, led by a movement of religious fundamentalists which has taken over the majority of America. Offred’s real name is June, but now she is a Handmaid, her name will be changed to reflect whichever man she currently belongs to, completely eradicating her independent existence and her identity. Before Gilead took over the running of the country, Offred lived happily with her husband and their daughter in an affluent suburb. She had a fairly good job, good friends, and a nice life. However, gradually the freedoms of the people began to become restricted as Gilead’s power strengthened, and one day Offred woke up to find her credit card has been stopped and she had been fired from her job. Women were no longer allowed to have an independent existence, and had to rely on men to give them money and shelter. From this day onwards, ever more frightening restrictions came into force, prompting Offred and her husband Luke to try and escape the borders of Gilead. Unfortunately they failed in their attempt and were captured. As Luke was divorced before he married Offred, their relationship is not pure and they cannot stay together. Their daughter is adopted by an infertile ‘Commander’ and his wife, Luke is taken away from Offred, and Offred is assigned as a Handmaid in the new structure of permitted women’s roles, as she has proven fertile, and will be given to childless Commanders and their wives in order to provide them with children, as examples in the Bible dictate. There are plenty of childless couples about as there have been nuclear wars and this has affected many people’s fertility.
Offred’s new life is as a red clothed intruder in another couple’s house, living with them, having sex with the husband, and going out with another Handmaiden to do the shopping now and again. She is not allowed to read, not allowed to speak against the new system of government, not allowed to have sex with anyone other than the Commander she has been assigned to, and she is not permitted to go anywhere alone. Every movement and every word must be carefully governed; ‘Eyes’ are out on the streets, ready to report any misdemeanour to the authorities. Every woman’s biggest fear is of being declared ‘Unwoman’ and being sent to the colonies, where she will die within a few years of radiation sickness. Simply expressing frustration with the regime could result in such a fate, and if a Handmaiden doesn’t conceive after three placements in different Commander’s homes, she too will be declared Unwoman, and sent away to certain death. It is a world of fear, of surveillance, of restriction, and of hypocrisy. Women like Offred, who have been separated from husbands, partners and children, are the unlucky ones, the victims of the regime, told they are making the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the generations to come, who would never have known a life other than one under Gilead rule.
But Offred doesn’t believe in the God of Gilead, and she doesn’t want to bear another woman’s child. She wants her own child back, her own husband, her own life. She can’t submit to the rules of a society that values fertility as the highest prize; that thinks women need to be protected from themselves, and from the lustful nature of man, by assigning them to set roles within the domestic spheres of life and not allowing them a life outside of it. Women are either Wives (of Commanders), Handmaidens, Aunts (women in authority over other women), Marthas (domestic servants) or Econowives (legal wives of men outside of leadership), and their value lies in the fruitfulness of their wombs. The Gilead regime believes that the women’s movement has made women predatory, too ambitious, too unwilling to have children, and by forcefully preserving their purity and restricting their opportunities outside of breeding and domesticity, they will right the wrongs of a postmodern world and restore harmony, with men ruling over women and women submitting to men.
It would be easier to live in Gilead if the leadership were not so hypocritical; it isn’t long before Offred’s Commander intices her into illicit activity, and he even takes her to a brothel that has been created just for Commanders, filled with women who didn’t make it into any of the other categories and were willing to be prostitutes rather than shipped off to the colonies. Commanders and their wives are allowed to read, to move freely, to own possessions and servants, and live their lives pretty much as they did before. By virtue of being one of the ‘chosen’ ones, their lives have changed little, while others, who did not profess to be religious before Gilead took over, have been trampled on and had their lives destroyed, in the name of peace, harmony, and love. People who rebel are publically hanged and pilloried, or sent away to die a slow death in the colonies. Babies who aren’t perfect at birth are disposed of. Anyone who isn’t as God intended is done away with, and people are not kept in line by devotion to God, but instead by fear of those who rule over them, who appear to have very little genuine love for God themselves. It is a frightening world that reduces humanity down to its basic functions, denying people the freedom to express themselves and trying to stamp out emotional connections between people. But as Offred shows, the spirit can never be destroyed, and she is determined to get out of Gilead, at any price.
This is a powerful, thought provoking and fascinating novel about extremism and all of its nonsensical hypocrisy and misguided, ignorant beliefs of male superiority. The Handmaidens must wear long dresses and hoods that cover every part of them apart from their faces, and that was an uncomfortable parallel with the burqas worn by Muslim women, raising for me quite a few comparisons with Gilead and Muslim countries, where religion and state are one and the same and women can be publically stoned for adultery. I am a practising Christian, so I am not anti religion by any means, but I do believe that when religious beliefs become enforced they become meaningless. Gilead’s society is one based on conservative Christian values developed from a painfully literal reading of the Bible without considering cultural context, and rather than creating a utopia, it has instead made a seemingly Godless world that is cruel, intolerant and merciless. The individual no longer matters; people must conform or be disposed of. It is frightening to think that we actually do have societies like this in our world today, that oppress women, that deny them the freedom of education and love, that kill women if they disobey their parents or shame their families, and ask them to live under cover in public, so as not to expose their bodies to scrutiny.
I am aware that as a white, Western woman, I have grown up in a culture so alien to Islamic ones that I don’t understand what it is like to live like that, and I am sure some women in these societies embrace this life and don’t feel oppressed by it. However, I have spoken with many educated women from these cultures who now live in England, and hearing about the struggle they had to go to just to be able to live an independent life makes me terribly sad. Extreme, intolerant thinking, no matter what the motive behind it, leads to nothing but misery and hatred. How those that profess to love God can be so cruel to other people in His name is beyond me. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale in 2010, not long before the fifth anniversary of the bombings in London that killed 52 innocent people, carried out by men who thought Western society was an aberration, made me quite disturbed actually, as really, this isn’t a dystopian novel at all. It reflects how many people live, and what many people believe, right now. Atwood gives much food for thought in this excellently written, provocative novel; if you’re also horrendously late to the party on this, I highly recommend that you give it a go.