The Handmaid’s Tale is unsettling, disturbing and riveting – and even though it’s 25 years old, it remains a powerful morality tale that’s as relevant now as when it was written.
It’s set in an alternative future where fertility rates are down due to the effects radiation, and a Puritanical new society known as the Republic of Gilead has found a repellent way to deal with the situation.
In Gilead, if you are a woman, you are either a Wife or a Martha (domestic help), or banished to the colonies (destined to die from radiation) – or, if you’re unmarried and proven to be fertile, you become a Handmaid.
It’s a role that strips a woman of everything that makes her who she is – her name, her history, her personality and her appearance, hiding her face and body from the world via an oppressive dress code.
The Handmaid’s Tale is told through the eyes of Offred, a young woman who knows that if she rebels from this role of “breeder”, she will die brutally and be hung on the Wall. She’s part of the first generation of Handmaids, who remember life before the war and the oppressive Gilead society.
As a narrative character, Offred is complex and mesmerising. Her observations and daydreams show how conflicted and confused she is – torn between the institutionalised life of fear she’s come to know, and the memories of a past life, before the war, when she took her freedom for granted.
She is haunted in turn by paranoia, yearning and grief, all the while knowing she has no power, and her life – such as it is – could be crushed in an instant if she makes a wrong step.
And yet, she still feels desire, still longs to be recognised as an individual, to be touched and loved again. Which is why, when two of the men in her life start to covertly treat her differently, she’s willing to risk her life just to feel “real” again.
Atwood explores the extreme outcome of what might happen if a form of religious fundamentalism (deeply rooted in Old Testament teaching) had opportunity to create its own society, unfettered.
Part of the experience of the story is learning, morsel by morsel, how Offred became a Handmaid. As in any great story, the answers are not simple, and Offred is pragmatic about the hand life has dealt her.
She doesn’t share her story in chronological order, which helps build the tension, and it’s not until page 183 that we really begin to understand how the Republic of Gilead came to be – and get a hint of why.
The true horror of Gilead is effectively understated, even in its most brutal and disturbing moments. In fact, when I finally understood the reality of Offred’s role – and how she performs it – it was the civility of the institutional abuse that was most abhorrent.
There are also no winners in the Gilead society. Men may have the power, but the very nature of their community means there is no place for peace and security – only duty and fear. And it’s worse for those who understand what it is they have given up in creating their brave new world.
When this novel appeared 25 years ago, the fight for the rights of women was still fresh in the collective memory of the Western world, which no doubt gave it added impact. Particularly as the Gilead society created by Atwood is founded on many of the key principles espoused by those who opposed feminism: anti-abortion, anti-assisted fertility, anti-homosexuality, and the fervent belief that women belong only in the home.
I imagine it captured the fears of the feminists of the day about where anti-feminism could lead. It also seems to capture the fears of US society in general about the nuclear threat, and it’s impact on civilisation.
Today, it is no less a warning about religious fundamentalism of any kind, particularly doctrines that strip women of their identity.
The novel finishes with a clever postscript about the Republic of Gilead, presented as a conference session several centuries later, which puts the rest of the novel into a fresh context. (Interestingly, just as we do today when looking back at past eras in history, these academics are able to excuse the behaviour because of the “necessities” of the time.)
The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly disturbing at times, but it’s also an incredibly powerful novel that reminds women of our value. There’s enough grist in this novel to keep book clubs and literary students discussing, debating and analysing it for weeks.
Oh, and while the journey is often distressing, the novel ends on a note of hope.