The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Originally Published: 1985
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has become a classic. Dystopian/science fiction or speculative fiction as Atwood prefers, take your pick.
I read this 20 years ago, and it seems more powerful now.
Set in the Republic of Gilead (apparently part of Maine) in the near-future (probably early 2000’s), a woman, through recollections of her past, tells the story of her present. She remembers loving Luke, playing with their daughter, going to work, having money….being free. All that is gone now.
It started with a terrorist attack that killed the president and most of his cabinet. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics at the time. Then they suspended the Constitution, but no one really objected, because that was just going to be temporary. Newspapers were censored, roadblocks appeared, and suddenly everything was militarized. A group called the Sons of Jacob take over. Women lose all rights, even the freedom to read, as social and religious fanaticism reorganizes society. Women are put into groups depending on their age and child-bearing abilities. They are dressed accordingly, all long and concealing garments, and winged bonnets, reminiscent of the Quakers. Among them are the Wives, who dress in blue and have a husband – called Commander. There are the Martha’s who wear dull green and do housework; the Aunts in their khaki dresses are teachers; and the handmaids, whose sole purpose is to bear children, wear red. In a world where chemicals and diseases have seriously reduced fertility rates, the handmaids are “given” to the Wives so that the Commanders can impregnate them (with the wife’s co-operation, encouragement, and presence).
Our narrators name is now Offred, to signify that she is “owned” by Fred (Of Fred – the Commander). She speaks when spoken to, goes for a walk once a day to purchase food and maintain her health. She prays that she gets pregnant soon. Her every move and conversation is watched. A step out of line can mean death. Occasionally she speaks to other handmaids, if only in whispers, and only a few words, but through these encounters, Offred discovers a resistance group, but is just as terrified of them, as she is of the “Eyes of God” (aka the secret police). But even if Offred does not want to step out of line, the Commander is going to put them all in danger.
This is one of the most frequently banned books in schools. Controversy over the adult content has a lot of schools saying “no”. Personally, I can’t see banning books, but that is just me. Without a doubt, this book is scary, but for a number of reasons, it is important. It isn’t just about sex, or feminism, or religion, although they are all food for thought. I see the book as being about power, and how fast it can be taken away. It also shows that even when you have your power taken away, you will find a way to take some back, even if it means giving up a little bit of yourself. It is about survival.
I will always think this is one of Margaret Atwood’s best.
Favorite Quote from The Handmaid’s Tale:
“I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig.”
“And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband,” says the Commander.”
“But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex, It’s lack of love we die from.”
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Re-Read: December 2016
About the Author: Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She is the author of more than thirty volumes of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including children’s books and short stories. Throughout her career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees, including the Canadian Governor General’s Award, and in 2001, she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.