Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Summary: This feminist 1984 takes place in Gilead, which, faced with increasing infertility, institutes a perverted and fanatical "Christian" totalitarian regime in which women's bodies are not their own. Offred, the narrator, is assigned as a "handmaid" to a powerful commander; because his wife is "unable" to conceive (the idea that the man could possibly be sterile is heretical), Offred's duty is to have regular sex with him in hopes of becoming pregnant and providing the couple with a child. Offred struggles between her desire for autonomy, her desire to survive, and her stifled physical desires while attempting to maintain a connection (although only in memory) of her husband and daughter.

Musings: I'm a fan of apocalyptic novels and a fan of Atwood. I've read this novel before, of course (likely in college, although I really can't remember), and given the current proliferation of end-of-the-world entertainment, I thought I'd return to a classic. Perhaps one of the scariest parts of rereading the book is that although The Handmaid's Tale was published nearly 25 years ago, the political system it describes seems no further from reality.

The themes and issues brought up in The Handmaid's Tale aren't unfamiliar to anyone involved with feminism or women's studies, but the novel nonetheless presents the protagonist in a complex way that emphasizes the reality of her position. She misses her husband Luke, but at the same time, she acknowledges that much of her devotion to him stems from their forcible separation. She hates her position within the commander's household, but she recognizes it's better than some of the alternatives. She hates the commander's self-righteous sense of benevolence, but his small favors are the only freedom she has. Although women today don't necessarily face the same paradoxes, Offred's experiences still echo the complex and often contradictory feelings women face.

The perversion of Christianity is uncannily similar to much of the right wing fanaticism today and serves to reinforce the notion that "protection" of women and daughters often means subjugation. There are also clear parallels to how Islam has been twisted to justify the oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries.

Unlike 1984, The Handmaid's Tale ends with a message of hope. There's hope for Offred, and an "epilogue" seems to indicate that much of the tyranny present in Gilead eventually passes. Although I appreciated the positive outcome, I wondered what caused the end. Did women regain their rights? The warnings are evident, but the solutions are not.


  1. I LOVED The Handmaid's Tale. It's been years since I've read it now, I really should give it a reread. I'm looking forward to reading Atwood's new dystopia The Year of the Flood too... although for some reason I haven't tackled Orx and Crake yet. I'm not sure why, it's been sitting on my shelf staring at me for some time. Have you read either of them?

  2. I read Oryx and Crake awhile back and really enjoyed it. I've been seeing the news articles on Year of the Flood and have been meaning to reserve it at the library. Probably need to reread Oryx and Crake first, though - I don't remember much and they seem like pretty direct sequels. Let me know what you think if you get around to them!