“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”
What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? A modern classic written over 30 years ago, that is still as relevant and gripping now as it was then, perhaps even more so. Perhaps its because I’ve finally read it, but I’ve noticed The Handmaid’s Tale popping up quite regularly in news stories and literary blogs, so I’m glad I read it when I did. But more on that later.
Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near future version of the US, now called the Republic of Gilead, following the overthrow of the government and subsequent takeover by a theocratic dictatorship. This new government has removed women’s rights and split them into a sort of class system, led by religious teachings. The story is told by Offred, a “handmaid” whose sole purpose is to be impregnated by a high ranking man in order to raise declining birth rates. She isn’t allowed to read anything, and is only permitted out in the company of another handmaid. Both men and women are segregated and dressed according to their social function. Through flashbacks, Offred reveals details of how the old government fell, of how women’s rights were slowly taken away from them, before they were rounded up and indoctrinated into their new way of life, based heavily on religious principles.
It’s hard to tell at times whether Offred is just going along with this horrible new way of life because she knows she has little choice, or whether she has been truly indoctrinated. She seems to go through her every day tasks with a calm acceptance – “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays in the maze.” But when she does allow herself to think of her old life – how she had a job, was a wife and a mother – it’s clear that despair could easily overcome her. Her daughter becomes a key part of the manipulation by The Commanders wife, Serena Joy, and at times the sheer lack of any way out of the life she is forced to live made me want to cry.
“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued; in ways that I am not. I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, of how others saw me.”
I could go on and on about how well written this book is. The fact that it has never been out of print is testament to that. However its prominence at the moment isn’t for particularly positive reasons. In 1990 Atwood stated in an interview that the novel looks at real social and political trends, and what might happen if these trends, along with “casually held attitudes about women,” were taken to their logical end. Although she has stated The Handmaids Tale isn’t a feminist work (because not all men have greater rights than women in Gilead), comments made during the recent US election campaign about the treatment of women sexually, reproductive rights, and even questioning their right to vote, really echoed aspects of the novel and made people think that this dystopic fiction might not, as Atwood rightly said, be so far from reality.
On a lighter note, the other reason that The Handmaids Tale has been in the news recently is because of the TV adaptation that will be screened in 2017, and I’m very excited about this. This book has really stayed with me, and it’s easy to see why it is so popular (and so contested), and why it sparks so much debate. If you’re unsure whether to read it, my advice would be to get a copy asap.