The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood
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…
Compared with other dystopian novels popular today, The Handmaid’s Tale is set within a period of time shortly after the events that changed the world. Offred remembers her life before she became a Handmaid, now forced to dress a certain way, act a certain way, forbidden to read and write, and have sex with a married man every month since his wife cannot have children. She remembers her husband and child as well as her real name which is never revealed. She covets her name as something true that can’t be taken away from her.
Offred has gone through an intense reeducation at the Red Center which infiltrates her language. There are many titles which are biblical in nature and described over time. The Commanders are the men in authority positions (short for Commanders of the Faithful) and they are given Handmaid’s if necessary to procreate. (There are references to environmental and medical reasons why more and more children are being born with deformities so a healthy woman is coveted.) Marthas dress in green and help train the Handmaids who wear red to distinguish themselves. Guardians of the Faith also wear green and are local guards whereas the Angels continue the revolution in the world.
The world before is still intact in many ways, for better or worse. Japanese tourists come to Offred’s town, the capital city of Gilead (formerly Boston) to see all the strange ladies in their garb. Offred is so used to her covered outfits that she is surprised to find the modern clothes she remembers wearing herself as scandalous on the tourists. The Commander to whom she is assigned delights in secretly playing Scrabble with Offred and allowing her to read old magazines. He even finds her real hand lotion, a true luxury.
There are also methods to control the population. Doctors who did abortions before the war are killed and hung from a wall for everyone to see. Women who try to escape and are caught or who are barren so useless to the society are sent to environmentally ruined areas to clean them up with the assumption that they will work there until they die from radiation poisoning or something equally terrible. A network of spies, Watchers, makes everyone paranoid. No one knows who is a Watcher which creates distrust and unease even between the Handmaid’s.
For establishing a world that says it holds men above women, women still have the power. One would never say that a man is infertile. There are only barren or fruitful women. However, the men need women to procreate. Women escape from being a Handmaid to live as a prostitute since that profession will always exist, even in the most religious society. They have more freedom, although, as with everything, there are downsides.
There is an interesting parallel between Offred’s current position and her life before the war that killed the President, Congress and suspended the Constitution. She is a mistress in every sense. She even lives in the married couple’s home. Before, when she was with Luke, she began as his mistress. He left his wife for her and married her but a mistress she was. There are always ways to rationalize what we do. Offred loved Luke so she was with him. Now Offred needs to survive so she can escape and find her daughter – the carrot dangled over her to keep her in line through photographs. (Offred doesn’t know if Luke is dead or alive, and isn’t sure which she should be hoping for.)
The timeline during the book is murky. Offred is always narrating but she jumps around in time. It was satisfying to learn later in the book that she is telling her story with the hope that her daughter will hear it one day. There’s no way to know how she is telling this story. In her head? On secreted paper? (Until the epilogue. All is revealed in the epilogue.)
And speaking of the epilogue, thank god for it! The book ended ambiguously which messed with my emotions. The epilogue filled in the single more important piece of information to calm that down and provided a bit more context for Offred’s tale, while still leaving many questions unanswered. The final line in the book is “Are there any questions?”
Yes, there are! And also, no, I don’t have any that need answering. The Handmaid’s Tale is a fascinating view into a single idea/group/mob taking over a country and the devastating effect it can have. Within the existing generation that incited change the new society can begin to break down. Maybe it’s the memories of the time before that can’t be shaken, no matter how devoted to the cause you are.
For a deeper delve into The Handmaid’s Tale and a male perspective, check out Overdue podcast’s discussion of the book at their website or subscribe to Andrew and Craig’s podcast on iTunes.