Margaret Atwood once said: ”When I wrote the Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life, somewhere in some time.”
Finishing her dystopian novel, I can now officially confirm her statement.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, in which the protagonist Offred is one of the Handmaids, who are assigned to produce children in order to decrease infertility. Due to declining birth rates, women with healthy reproductive systems are forced to guarantee the survival of the human race under the rules of the new regime. The United States as we know them do not exist any more. A group calling themselves ”Sons of Jacob” attacked the former President and most of the Congress and began destabilizing the government by implanting their religious ideology step by step and abolishing women’s rights. Offred lives in a household with the Commander, his wife and two housekeepers. Once a Handmaid served her purpose, the wife raises the child and the Handmaid is transferred to a different household. Individuals are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions.
The first person narrator is our protagonist Offred, who tells us about her present-day life (if you can call it a life) in the Republic of Gilead. As she is part of the first generation of Gilead women, her narrations vary between the present and the past. She gives us an insight in her life before the attacks and tries to cope with the traumatic experience of losing her daughter and her husband Luke.
The novel was the first book I read by Margaret Atwood. She does not tell the story about a revolution or about a woman breaking the rules and regaining freedom by overthrowing the regime. It is a dark story serving the purpose to simply convey the rules of a dictatorship. What I appreciate most about this story is its realistic features. The Republic of Gilead is brutal, medieval and cold. Women are forbidden to read, homosexuals are hanged for ”gender treachery”, the radical group ”Sons of Jacob” resembles in its ideology Christian fundamentalism and the handmaids are based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Reading the book, recognizing familiar features and connecting them to real life is what made this book so interesting and readable. I find myself searching for more connections on the Internet, some kind of fascinating reverence is radiated by Atwood’s novel. Her way of telling the story, making Offred’s narrations about her past sound almost poetic serves the purpose to create a black and white world, without colours, without emotions, without love. If there were machines that could give birth, there would be no Handmaids needed. However, such device does not exist. The only distinction between humans and machines is their ability to feel. You cannot be a birth machine and have emotions at the same time. The consequence is to forbid any feelings at all, create a world without love and trust, but hatred and suspicion to fulfil one purpose: produce children.
I think I can give away that this novel has no happy end. Nevertheless, there is no bad ending either. Reading this book felt like a trip to a country living under a mad dictator, who enslaves women and acts out his insane religious ideology (there must be a few countries leap to your mind now). You are shocked and scared, mostly because you are afraid something similar might happen in your own country. Once you come back home, you are relieved. Finishing this book felt like coming home from a horrible trip to a terrifying country.
I personally liked the way the Handmaid’s Tale is written, and even though I feel like the book does not have the most thrilling and action-packed plot, I do understand that this is not the point of the novel. Moreover, I appreciate Atwood’s way of warning us and raising awareness to what is already happening in our world. The first time I realized how good of a writer she is, was when I began asking myself what would I do in Offred’s situation? Would I speak up? Be hanged for breaking the rules? Risking my own life for the generation that comes next?
The best part of the book for me was the meta fictional epilogue, in which professor Maryann Crescent Moon talks about the so-called ”Gilead period” and Offred’s story, which has been found on tapes. The epilogue indicates that the Republic of Gilead collapsed. We do not get to know how and why or when. It just happened.
The book opened my eyes concerning current events taking place in our world right now. Regimes similar to the Republic of Gilead are not likely to happen. They already exist.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Paperback, 311 pages