Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: February 17, 1986
The Handmaid’s Tale is not only a radical and brilliant departure for Margaret Atwood, it is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word, with bizarre consequences for the women and men of its population.
The story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order. In condensed but eloquent prose, by turns cool-eyed, tender, despairing, passionate, and wry, she reveals to us the dark corners behind the establishment’s calm facade, as certain tendencies now in existence are carried to their logical conclusions. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best.
This classic has been on my TBR list pretty much forever, but the release of the series on Hulu last year made me move it up the list since I typically refuse to watch a movie or show based on a book without reading it first.
In Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopian, extreme religious conservatism is the law of the land in Gilead (formerly the United States of America). Women can’t hold real jobs, own property, or — in some cases — even have their own names.
In this misogynistic future, women have been placed into strict categories, including Wives (pretty self-explanatory), Marthas (more or less housemaids), and Jezebels (use your imagination). Some women have even been declared “Unwoman” and are sent to do manual labor in “the Colonies.”
But the human race has a problem — many of the wives are infertile due to STDs and pollution, and Gilead must implement a solution to ensure the survival of the species. That’s where the Handmaids come in, and that’s also where this book becomes EXTRA creepy.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a first-person account of a handmaid called Offred, who serves a high-ranking Commander (Fred) and his wife.
Without giving too much away, I struggled to get into a rhythm with this book for stylistic reasons, but I stuck it out because so many people told me it was worth finishing. Atwood alternates between Offred’s present experiences and flashbacks to the time before her life became a dystopian nightmare.
The flashbacks happen with no warning, which was a complaint I had throughout the book, but everything comes together in the end, and I understand now why Atwood made the writing choices that she did.
I wouldn’t say this was an enjoyable read; it was incredibly dark and was actually quite challenging to wade through. But I can promise you that it’s worth reading. The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a staunch warning to those who would institute a theocracy, and it holds its own against any other dystopian classic.