A group of women in Texas recently attended a legislation session dressed as Handmaids, characters from Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, in protest of the anti-abortion measures being considered by the state. It’s a powerful gesture. In light of these trying times, it’s impossible not to read Atwood’s book politically. What it means to be a woman, to have rights, to have freedom, to have choice is something that’s been on my mind. What does it mean to govern? What does it mean to be a democracy? The Handmaid’s Tale examines all of these questions in the setting of a dystopian America that is frighteningly plausible.
The Story: Offred is a Handmaid. We do not know her real name, her true name, from the time before. The government has been overthrown by religious zealots who worship fertility and have created Gilead, a new world order based around procreation. Once a month she lies on her back and allows her assigned Commander to try to get her pregnant. She is a “walking womb.” It is her job to procreate for the elite of society, for her Commander and his barren wife. Offred does what is expected of her to keep her life but is haunted by her past and memories of all she’s lost, memories she only confesses to the reader.
The Handmaid’s Tale is incredibly timely despite having been published in 1985. We live in a world where men are debating women’s health, making decisions about their reproductive rights often without consulting any women at all. Atwood’s world is that taken to the extreme. It is simultaneously matriarchal and oppressive. Women are prized so long as they have something to offer (fertility) but also are expected to fill their assigned roles with dignity, acquiescence, and silence. Offred lives in a state of fear. Anyone could be a spy. Any little thing might give away her rightfully traitorous thoughts, her hatred of a regime that has taken her family from her. Offred’s ability to compartmentalize in the face of so much trauma gives the book a sense of unreality, sometimes dreamy and unsettling. The world in which she lives is almost too awful to face head on, but through Offred’s narration you have to. The reader experiences what she experiences: the violations, the violence, the atrocities, the fear, her memories, but also her hope, slight and intoxicating.
The success of the book is in how the reader must bear witness to Offred’s suffering and in doing so cannot help but reflect on their own life. I couldn’t read this book without taking into account my own life as a woman. Offred’s fear resonates with the reader. I believe in contraception and I believe in choice, both of which are not options in Gilead. The tension between the real world and the imagined unsettles. This is all joined by Atwood’s prose, which is both beautiful and achingly precise.
I cannot recommend this book enough, especially with the impending release of the Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss. It’s an artfully crafted book and a terrifying thought experiment worth your time.