The Handmaid’s Tale reviewed by Shenice Coote
‘Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who’s being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the commander fucks…which one of us is it worse for, her or me?’
Nominated for the Man’s Booker Prize for Fiction in 2000, and winner of the Inaugural Arthur Clarke award in 1987, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1986) explores the heights of gender politics, power relations, and fear and control at its peak, in a totalitarian, theocratic society. Unlike its predecessors, such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Atwood’s dystopia stands out as a feminist tale, that exposes the constraints women face living in a patriarchal society.
The republic of Gilead has reduced women to breeding machines- ‘handmaids’. The reader learns of many stories of the handmaids, but it is predominantly Offred’s story, the main protagonist, that is told. Handmaids are forced to produce children for elite infertile couples. Offred is somewhat a ‘chosen one’ amongst the ‘chosen’, in the Aunts’ perspectives as she is sent to reproduce for well-respected Serena Joy and her husband the Commander. Regularly she must have sex with the Commander, as part of the religious ceremony, whilst Serena is present.
I read the book as a satire of societal fears and anxieties of American society in the ‘80s. Atwood wrote the book during the rise of right-wing conservatism and its influences are imminent in the book. She addresses other societal fears America had such as a declining fertility rates and laws causing moral friction such as de-criminalization of homosexuality. The New Christian Right, a radical fundamentalist group sought to ‘bring God back to America’ by implementing extreme, segregated gender roles through extreme conservative religious beliefs, just as the society of Gilead does in the book.
The society really epitomises Marx’ view of religion as ‘the opium of the people….the sigh of the oppressed creature…’ as they claim to be a noble and moral society but the basic foundations of Christianity such as ‘love, peace, freedom, and equality’ are absent. Atwood makes it clear that the only purpose religion serves in Gilead, is to act as an ideological tool, and this is made very obvious to the reader through the deliberate manipulation of the Bible. The issue of rape both to the reader and the handmaids is swept under the carpet. The Handmaid’s are oppressed by the system, and their bodies are used as tools for internal repression, as they are foced to sleep with men against their will. This society is anything but religious. Gilead legitimatise unorthodox procedures and falsifies them as ‘the will of God.
Interestingly the society which Atwood creates is an inverse of the rights feminists fought for in the sixties and seventies, such as gender equality, as women are forbidden to read and write, hold any property, or to re-marry in the book. The society is without a doubt patriarchal, right down to the very names of the Handmaids ‘Offred, Offglen, Offwarren’, meaning the handmaids are the property of ‘Fred, Glen, Warren’. Despite the inverse of women’s rights, feminist models are very much apparent in the narrative. Moira, for example constantly rebels against Gilead’s practices and actually escapes from the Red Centre. Offred’s mother also represents a revolutionary form of feminism, protesting, carrying the ‘take back the night banner.’
Memories is a vital for survival in the word of Gilead. Offred, often slips into flashbacks of life pre-Gilead, where she lived with her husband Luke and their young child. For Offred memories gives her a somewhat ‘desolate hope’, enabling her to continue living, despite the fact that Gilead is ultimately killing her. For the reader, it is important to know that Offred had a happy and free life pre-Gilead, as without this information the novel would be a product of bleak solitary confinement with no glimmers of hope, or possible chances of escape for Offred.
The inevitability of complacency is exposed to the reader, but not to the characters themselves in the book, which hightens the handmaid’s danger even more. The handmaids have become so accustomed to the new Gilead that even the strongest characters come to accept this as the norm. Offred states ‘The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here with Nick, where I can get at him.’ With Offred’s degree of complacency, however there is some power, a type of freedom-paradox. This power is rebellion, a disregard or a ‘don’t care’ attitude, if you like, for consequences of breaking the rules. It is only when Offred adopts this attitude that her rebellion is at its strongest, including her affair with Nick (the Commander’s chauffeur) her deceiving both the commander and his wife, and ultimately her transition from ‘marginalized female’ to ‘complacent and confident spy’ for the secret Mayday society, designed to overthrow Gilead. She acknowledges that there is something very wrong about this society ‘I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilised’ and therefore as a reader I am not only drawn to Offred’s strength of character, but also her strength of mind. My first impression, upon reading the novel, was that the story is horrific and purposely controversial. But with the occasional outburst of Offred’s wit in the most inappropriate scenarios, such as when she is having sex with the commander, ‘there is something hilarious about this, but I dare not laugh’ the book is enjoyable to read. Offred’s humour is balanced proportionately alongside a grim dystopian nightmare.
The dangers of ideologies is what Atwood stresses in the book, and the purpose perhaps to warn, as most dystopias do, as a caution against extremist beliefs that could potentially be influential. The novel is relevant, not only to the time which Atwood was writing, but to our society today and can still serve as a warning. The influence of historical events and popular perspectives such as feminism and religious fundamentalism presents most of the issues in the book as identifiable, if not, successful in challenging the reader’s imaginations to envision such monstrosities. A brilliant thought-provoking novel, and highly recommendable for a good read!