The handmaid’s tale has received renewed attention during the past few months, not only in relation to U.S politics but also since Hulu made an adaptation of the novel. Having not read Margaret Atwood yet, despite her being on my to-read list for years, now seeing the perfect time to do so. While excellent, The handmaid’s tale is also terrifying in its premise.
While set in the not-too-far-off-future, although the US is now the Republic of Gilead and much has changed in society. Women are no longer their own agents–they have limited rights and are entirely controlled by men. All are sorted into a handful of roles based on the imposed class structure: wives, handmaids, Aunts (teachers/trainers of handmaids), Marthas (servants), econowives (of low-ranking men), unwomen (infertile laborers), and Jezebels (pleasure women). If a wife cannot bear her own children, which is difficult after the government released a detrimental toxin, a fertile handmaid is assigned to the wife and each month they conduct a joint ceremony for the handmaid to conceive on the wife’s behalf with her husband. Any resulting child becomes the wife’s and the handmaid is sent to another house to try her luck again a producing another heir for another family in need. Somewhat like a surrogate but to a whole new creepy level, especially since the handmaid sits alone in her room all day with nothing to do until she is needed once a month except for her daily walks to the market to gather specific items for the household and even on those she is accompanied by another handmaid. Life is boring yet terrifying at the same time because if a handmaid steps out of line or offends, she can be sent to another house, sentenced to death, or shipped off to the manual labor camps.
Margaret Atwood weaves a compelling tale from the very beginning, slowly drawing the reader in as the main character Offred (“Of Fred” as in property) is reluctant to share her painful story. Offred is part of the first generation of handmaids in the new, surreal Gilead and is told that it will get easier for future generations who know nothing else. The main propagated reason for the new structure is that women are now “free from” men’s abuse and violence which keeps everyone safe instead of being “free to” do whatever they want which allowed men to take advantage of women and brutalize them. Though not a satisfying answer, it was impossible to struggle against the new regime when women’s rights were stripped and they couldn’t even use the money that they earned from their own jobs; only husbands and other male family or friends could. Without money, it is hard to survive on your own when everyone is being rounded up and assessed for sorting into the new class structure of society.
There are many historical, even current, parallels throughout the novel. Atwood’s realistic details make the story all the more terrifying. The most obvious is the rounding up and control of women, however, there are others that are more subtle and noted only in passing. In order to explain the upheaval, Islamic fanatics are falsely blamed for the over-through of the government and the regime change. There is just enough truth in these related events or sentiments that it the novel feels eerily prescient and just plausible enough to make it a terrifying read.
As unappealing of a story as this might seem, it is a timely read. Atwood crafts beautiful, descriptive sentences that counteract the difficult topics that she writes about. This helps to balance out the darkness that the pages contain and make it easier to get though the novel. It is not an easy read but it is enjoyable above all things and most importantly, the handmaid’s tale is a warning of frightening possibilities so what better way to ensure that they never happen by reading, thinking, and talking about them especially with others.
While the story itself ends somewhat abruptly without a concrete ending, Atwood provides a Historical Notes section at the end which is crucial to the novel. It is a transcript of a lecture by a professor many years (150 I believe) discussing the authenticity of The handmaid’s tale and speculating who the narrator truly was and trying to determine which Commander housed her. The chance between the story and the highly academic writing is jarring but it does more neatly wrap up the novel, albeit still leaving some to the imagination.
If you want to learn more about the story, its genesis, and what Atwood currently thinks about The handmaid’s tale now that it’s 30 years old, check out her recent article in the New York Times.
Recommended?: Yes! Preferably before watching the Hulu adaptation, too, since while I have heard good things about it, there are also significant changes even to the pacing and reveal of the story. There’s a suspense in the novel that it seems the show doesn’t provide, from what I have heard. Plus, I always believe that books and short stories are better than their adaptations.