In a literary world currently consumed with dystopic adventures and a new genre that many hate to admit exists, ‘post-apocalyptic,’ I decided to go back a few steps (or years, depending on how you look at it) to a classic story: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Lent to me by my friend Gabi, who insisted I would love it (and after receiving a shell-shocked look of disbelief across a dinner table because I hadn’t actually read the book before), I dove right in.
Published in 1985, many view this book as ahead of its time, much like 1984 and Brave New World (two of my favourites), and could even be considered as speculative fiction. The novel is narrated by a woman whose government has been overthrown by a totalitarian Christian theocracy, named the Republic of Gilead, once known as the United States. The protagonist, Offred, has been separated from her husband, daughter, friends and mother. She’s considered fertile, and is one of the many fertile women who serve as handmaids for ‘Commanders’ and their infertile wives, in hopes of reproducing for what I like to call, the Greater Good.
The handmaids are tasked with having sex with ‘Commanders’ (high ranking male officials), while their infertile wives grip their arms and watch, all three praying for conception. It’s a ritual that’s description makes you want to skip the page hastily, but unfortunately my eyes were glued to the text as I tried to wrap my head around the unusual and disturbing ceremonious event. Getting pregnant considered is holy, and a pregnant handmaid is treated like royalty, at least, until the babe is born. Once the child is born, the handmaid gets two months to nurse it before handing it off to the Commander and his wife, and separating from the child forever. Offred never gets pregnant (well, not that we know of) but the way she describes society’s lust for childbearing, the reader is well educated as to how much children are desired in the Republic of Gilead, and how every person plays a role.
The main theme for me (among many smaller themes) is the separation of gender and class, and what discriminating can ultimately do to humanity. We’ve seen it time and time again, read about it in history books, and yet things like this still occur throughout the world today, both on a large and small scale.
This theme reminds me of something my mother said yesterday; ‘sometimes I think women are going backwards.’ In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are seen as inferior in almost every way, and are categorized hierarchically based on their reproductive capacity. Men run the show, and the women are brainwashed to believe sexuality, emotion, and love are for the weak. The handmaids are told they are to be used as a reproduction device, and they should be ecstatic with the job they are set out to do. An example of the division of gender, and how I see it reflected in today’s society is as follows: Women who were raped before/as the Republic of Gilead was formed (rape is one thing that is not tolerated in Gilead) are told it was their fault they were raped, because of the provocative way they dressed, the flirtatious way they must have been acting, the alcohol they were ‘likely’ to have consumed, etc. They asked for it. Like I said, this offers some scary parallels to the way some people (I’m going to say it: idiots) think in our society today. I think of the few major televised rape cases I’ve seen covered by Fox News and recall hearing similar disgusting accusations come out of some of those journalists’ mouths. I digress.
In the Republic of Gilead, executions are common. Some executions are held as events where the community files their way into the city centre, while other executions are quieter, and the victims are hung on the city wall as a reminder to patrons as to what happens when rules are broken. (Race/religion discrimination comes into play here too. Jews are not allowed to study Judaism, for example, and if caught, they are executed).
I could go on and on about the themes in this book, and how they are relevant today (i.e. Arizona’s ridiculous anti-gay bill), but that would make for a 50,000 word essay on feminism, gender relations, discrimination, government and abuse of power, and I’m not in university anymore, so unfortunately I don’t have time for that. I am happy to discuss further over a cup of tea though (especially the ending!), so let me know if you’ve read it and your take. The book is definitely a great conversation piece.
I’ll leave you with the following thought though: Tales like this are something we have seen before in many other books in this genre, but the dark honesty and bluntness of this story in particular really hit it home for me: something as drastic as this could happen in our society or a society in the near future and it’s already happening in some ways. We need to start learning from the mistakes before us.
I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read it yourself.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale shortly after it was published, and, to be honest, I didn’t like it at all. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, but I think I was too young and immature to handle the themes. Maybe I should try it again, but I think I’d still be uncomfortable with it.