The Handmaid’s Tale: A novel for our times?

I’ve just finished re-reading this superb, yet chilling, novel by Margaret Atwood, and it’s left me with a whirling mass of thoughts and ideas. I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago when I was studying for my A Levels in college, and I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the power of the themes and ideas laid down by Atwood’s skillful weaving of words. I felt like I was not worthy to read the novel; too young and naïve and easily shocked by the potential horrors that society could unleash on one another. Despite this, the novel remained high on my list of books that have struck me, shaken me, made me rethink my values and ideas of the world. I decided to return to The Handmaid’s Tale again this year after hearing that there is a TV adaptation in the works – something I’m both excited by and apprehensive of. If they get this one wrong, it could deal a huge blow to the novel as potential readers may be put off by a disastrous TV adaptation. The word is that Margaret Atwood is consulting on the screenplay and development of the series, so I am allowing myself to feel hopeful!

The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred, a woman who is part of the recently-formed Republic of Gilead, within the borders of what used to be the USA (the novel hints heavily that Gilead was previously the state of New England, with the main action taking place at Harvard University). Offred is a Handmaid, a woman whose duty (or purpose) is to produce healthy babies for wealthy couples who are themselves unable to conceive. The Handmaids live in the homes of their assigned hosts and have a limited life – they exist solely for reproductive purposes (Offred calls herself ‘a two-legged womb’), expected to take part in ‘The Ceremony’ of intercourse with their male host once a month, and in between those rituals they must remain pious and virtuous, confined only to the walls of the house they reside in. The Handmaids are occasionally allowed out to do the shopping for the household, but they must do this in pairs so that they are always observed and never have the opportunity to escape or undermine the values of Gilead. The novel begins as Offred is in her third term of being a Handmaid and is currently serving the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. She relays the daily life of the Handmaid, but frequently reflects on her past experiences in the Red Centre, where she was trained, or rather indoctrinated, to become a Handmaid. Sometimes she looks even further into her past, and here we see jagged, fear-laden flashes of her life before Gilead; of her marriage, her young child, and her terror as the world around her crumbled and a new military dictatorship took control of America.

Offred’s narrative is overshadowed by the collective fear she shares with the other Handmaids, of being found guilty of insubordination, of breaking the strict rules laid down by the state. More specifically, they are not allowed to show any hint of falling in love, of desiring control over their own bodies, of feeling pleasure or passion – all things they remember from a not so distant past. The Handmaids are also made to fear their own bodies, which could turn against them by revealing a dangerous secret – infertility. Infertility is a banned word in Gilead, it is an unclean, shocking state that can only apply to women. A man is never infertile; if his Handmaid does not conceive for several months then she is the source of the problem, not her Commander. If a woman is unable to conceive, she becomes an Unwoman, an enemy of the state. These Unwomen are sent to the Colonies to live out their days carrying out deadly tasks, such as clearing up radioactive material without any protective equipment or clothing. The Wives of Commanders can also be infertile, but due to their status their punishment comes from having to take a Handmaid into their house, and to be present at each of the Ceremonies until the Handmaid falls pregnant. Offred has not yet become pregnant, and as the novel moves on she is in danger of meeting her fate and becoming an Unwoman.

As Offred tries to focus on treading the thin line that keeps her under the radar of the Eyes, secret police who have surveillance everywhere, her world is turned upside down once again when her Commander takes an interest in her beyond that of her reproductive duties. The choices that she makes from then on will be those of life and death, freedom and the risk of a fate worse than that of a Handmaid.

The Handmaid’s Tale is frighteningly accurate at times, particularly given recent world events, in its examination of state control over the lives of individuals, and how quickly things can escalate and therefore have terrifying consequences. The religious overtones within the teachings of the Handmaids’ training hark back to historical dictatorships and persecutions. Atwood’s style of speculative fiction is the perfect platform from which she could consider the impact of beliefs and ideas towards women, held at the time and place of writing (1980’s America), if they became a political and social norm. Women have battled for centuries to be recognised as equal members of society, and to be allowed control over their bodies; in Atwood’s twisted vision, she considers whether Gilead is the possible outcome of a push from outside circles to make women the centre of society. Aunt Lydia, one of the women assigned to train and watch over the Handmaids, describes how ‘there is more than one kind of freedom…[f]reedom to and freedom from’, and Offred links this back to the time before when women were protected against unwanted male attention by rules, advice. Now, in Gilead, they ‘walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at [them], speaks to [them], touches [them]. No one whistles.’ Women in this new society are central and crucial, but as well as being revered for their biological ability to reproduce, they are bound by it. They may be free from harassment, but they are no longer individuals; simply vessels, purpose-built and disposable.

Atwood discusses so much in The Handmaid’s Tale that each chapter, each page, each word brings forth an idea, a thought, an emotion. Themes of feminism, politics and religion battle it out and are simply but powerfully expressed through the words of Offred; and in Offred, Atwood has created an intensely sympathetic, imperfectly human character. She could be any one of us, this could be our fate. This novel, and its ambiguous ending, is a stark commentary on the dangers women can face even in modern society, and how close we always are to repeating the ruthless persecutions present in the history books.




3 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale: A novel for our times?

  1. Great review! Love the phrase ‘speculative fiction’ – taking ideas that run through certain parts of society and imagining them in potential and extreme manifestations, pushig those ideas to their limits. Definitely effective in Atwood – making it relevant AND a page-turner.


  2. Brilliant review! I studied it at A-level as well and was completely blown away by the depth of the society she created. This book and my then teacher got me into distopian fiction and I’ve never looked back.


  3. We just completed our high school English unit on this book. I was very intrigued and I agree with you about how the show might ruin the book. I think it is too good a piece of literature to be made into a show or a movie. No digital format can do its messages and themes justice.


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