The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I recently saw the trailer for Hulu’s original 10 part series The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes, and I knew I had to read the book. 

I went through a Margaret Atwood phase at uni, devouring The Blind Assassin and The Robber Bride, but I was never really interested in The  Handmaid’s Tale. I think I thought it was historical fiction – possibly because of the implied Chaucer references- and after struggling through The Canterbury Tales and Beowolf I was decidedly uninterested. 

From the blurb:

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness.  But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.

Offred is a handmaid in the patriarchal, militaristic Republic known as Gilead in what used to be the USA. In Gilead women have no power, independence or rights. Women have one purpose – to reproduce. As a result of war, contraceptive methods, radiation from nuclear fallout and a resistant strain of syphilis, birth rates have dropped dramatically and the number of birth defects has increased exponentially. 

After some sort of coup by a fundamentalist Christian group a few years previously, women are stripped of all property, money, jobs, and even marital status! They are re-educated with the new Gileadan values, and assigned roles. 

  • Wives – These are women who are now married to a Commander, a man with substantial power in the new society, or have been married to a commander since before, and were married in a Christian wedding (of a particular doctrine) and this had been their first and only marriage.
  • Econowives– similar to above, but they are married to people of less status and power than the Wives. Econowives aren’t allocated Handmaids. 
  • Marthas– Women who are no longer able to have children, because of middle age or sterility, and now serve as domestic helpers to the wives. 
  • Handmaids – Handmaids are women who are fertile but unmarried – either because they have never been married, were widowed, their marriage was declared unlawful under the new doctrine, or they were gay but have agreed to be a Handmaid. The Handmaid’ s sole function is to bear a child in the stead of a sterile Wife. 
  • Aunts – Aunts are responsible for training Handmaids for their new roles. Reluctant women are beaten, humiliated and tortured until they accept their new roles or are “salvaged” a.k.a. executed.

The minorities in this newly formed republic, are also assigned new identies:

  • Gender Traiters – Gay men and women who refuse to bear children for their new spouses or continue to act “unnaturally “.
  •  Baby Killers – Former doctors who are known to have performed abortions or sterilisation operations, issued contraceptives. These are illegal under the new laws and retroactive behaviour can still be punished.
  • Heretics  – Jewish people, Muslims, Sikh’s, Hindu’s, Atheists, Pagans, Catholics and any other branch of Christianity or other religion that doesn’t fit the strict doctrine of the Republic. 
  • Harlots – any women who do not submit to her new role.

All of the above can be executed for their “crimes”. 

Offred has recently been placed with a new commander. Her identity has been stripped – her new name literally is Of Fred. Fred’s property. The Wife Rita is drunk, jealous, vindictive and resents Offred.

Once a month Offred has to take part in a ceremonial sex act with Rita and the commander, in the hope that she will bear them a child. Unsuccessful Handmaids are deported to the colonies, a radioactive wasteland, a fate worse than death. 

As a handmaid there are strict rules governing Offred’s conduct – she must wear a red, shapeless habit, shield her face from prying eyes with a large white head-dress; she can’t talk to men, she can’t walk unaccompanied, she can’t read. Offred must be submissive, accepting, and quiet.

There are multiple layers of monitoring – the household and Wives watch the Handmaids carefully, there are also guardians to shepherd them around, Eyes who are spies for the new regime, and women in general who are on the lookout for bad behaviour which can be reported to enhance their statuses. 

Offred thinks she can accept her life now; in the before she was a university educated women, the daughter of a feminist activist, a wife, a mother. Now she is alive. At “the wall” can be found daily reminders of what happens to those who can’t accept the new regime.   Gender Traiters’, baby killers’, heretics’ and harlots’ remains are left swinging from the gates of what used to be a university, for all to see. 

Then one day Offred finds a hidden message from the Handmaid before her, and she starts to question her ability to survive in this new world. 

This book is terrifying.  The way Offred and the other women submit to the regime is horrifying, but worse than that is the way some of the women relish the small powers they have. Rita fought for women to stop working, focus on being wives and mothers, but now she has what she wanted she is clearly unhappy with her diminished status. Her only joy seems to come from stomping on her servants and Offred particularly.  

The reproductive ceremonies are awkward, humiliating, and just wrong. The thing that makes it worse is that there is only around 3 years from the “normal” time to the events of the book. In 3 years society is so indoctrinated to the new rules, they no longer seem to question their behaviour. 

I didn’t like the ending, it seemed rushed and sudden, but in all this was a brilliant and harrowing vision of a dystopian society. 

Have you seen the trailer for the series? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Cheerio!

Stephani Xxx

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