After an unintentional series of memoirs, I began The Handmaid’s Tale on International Women’s Day- it seemed appropriate- and couldn’t put it down.
Atwood tells a “speculative fiction” story set in the not too distant future where fertility has dwindled and religious fanatics control the government. After they overthrew the government the Sons of Jacob established a theological dictatorship called Gilead. In this new world fertile women, handmaids, are sent to powerful men’s homes if their wives have not been able to produce a child. Offred, literally of Fred, the Commander who is trying to impregnate her, is our narrator. When the laws first changed women lost their rights to money and jobs; Offred tried to flee to Canada with her husband and daughter but they were caught.
Since her husband was previously married, and divorces were now void, Offred was deemed a wanton women. She had proven fertile, although she lost custody of her daughter, Offred is sent to be a handmaid. She is currently on her third assignment and has yet to provide a family with a child. Throughout the novel there are flashbacks to her indoctrination which include her trainer Aunt Lydia and a fellow trainee named Moira.
“I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose.”
Handmaids are sent out to do errands in pairs, they wear red gowns and cover their faces from the world with wings. Every woman in Gilead is reduced to the color gown she is allowed to wear. Ofglen, Offred’s partner, reveals herself to be part of the Mayday resistance. Unfortunately resisting the regime is dangerous and near the end of the novel Ofglen is replaced by a new Ofglen who doesn’t share the same viewpoints.
Shortly after beginning her new assignment Offred begins to have a clandestine intellectual relationship with the Commander who allows her freedoms such as books. Around the same time Serena Joy, the wife, suggests her husband may be sterile. While this suggestion is against the law (women are barren, men are never sterile) the two women hatch an illegal plan to better Offred’s chances at having a baby; this plan involves secret meeting with the chauffeur.
“I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”
This is a particularly creepy book given the current political climate and its views on women’s roles in the world. Offred muses several times about how recently everything changed but how quickly it became normal. Women are boiled down to cooks/caretakers or walking wombs while men are forgiven any flaws they may bring to the home. There was little protest at the start and those marches died down quickly. Nevertheless, the role women play in Gilead seems reminiscent of what some current politicians and pundits would prefer. Of course, then they’d have to pay for maternity care insurance premiums…
“It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution.”
I can’t wait to see the Hulu adaptation!