Publisher: Anchor Books
Pub. Date: 1986, 1998
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Classic
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
After the president and Congress were executed, a religious group took over what was left of the United States, renaming it the Republic of Gilead. Women are forbidden from reading and must wear the (conservative) dress that signifies their class. They no longer own property and must travel in pairs or with assigned Guardians. The only value in a woman is her ovaries. Handmaids exist only to bear children for their assigned Commanders and their barren Wives. Offred, the narrator of this tale, is a Handmaid who has grown used to the system but is disgruntled with it.
Since the inauguration of President Trump, the Internet exploded with a mass encouragement to read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I did not want to read it just to follow the crowd. I was looking for a YA book to read, but this modern classic called to me from my bookshelf. This is a compelling novel about a world where women only exist to procreate and how it came into existence.
This dystopian United States takes on a puritanical form that truly feels like our country could become the dystopian one of this novel. Unlike the YA dystopian novels I have read, the adult characters at least had lived in the time before. There are enough people alive who would remember that this was not reality and that the government lies. This book helped show how easily the country I live in could turn that way, and the author restricted herself to using only historical behaviors and only technology that was within reach in the 1980s.
Offred tells us the tale of her life. Through the blinders of her winged headdress, she describes the sanitized neighborhood she lives in and the fortress that is the Red Center, where she was trained to be a Handmaiden. One of the most stark visions she shares are the pictorial signs since women are required by law to be illiterate. The signs she describes are vivid, like everything else.
Atwood inserted the rules and the taboos of the society at appropriate moments. I like how she explained the roles of each woman by starting with her color-coded dress. Then she dives into several women and how they react to society. Some try to gain the most respect, as defined by the male leaders of the society, that they can. Some try to survive and accept what society is. Some rebel in what little ways they can.
We see how Offred changed from a woman who believed fully in her rights and fought for survival to a woman who accepts the system to the extent of distrusting everyone around her, which is a justified action. She also shows how easy it is for both society and the individual to fall into the ideals of radicals—whether that means believing fully in them or getting to a point where the practice of them is okay. Her growth is also shown when she remembers her biological daughter and thinks about her little girl’s current life.
Then we have the other characters. I love the primary contrast to Offred that Moira is. A feminist and lesbian, Moira is rebellious and fights the system. Her development becomes a wake up call for Offred to help her understand how she herself has changed. Offred’s walking partner demonstrates how difficult it is to figure out where everyone truly stands on their society’s ideals. The Commander is also developed. Besides his societal and home roles, he represents how the society affects men.
The ending is wonderfully wraps up the novel and answers any questions one might have by the end of the book. It can be a little boring to read, but I think this would have been better to listen to than to read.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an eerie reflection of our society that demands to be read today. I highly recommend this book to everyone.