Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale has been on my ‘must read’ list for some time now. I’d heard and read so many good things about this book that I was excited to finally get the chance to read it for myself.
The novel is set in a future-America, where the political extremists have created the Republic of Gilead. Radiation, chemical pollution and rampant sexual disease have resulted in widespread infertility. Under the guise of attempting to bolster birth rates, the new social regime subjugates women, removes their rights to choice or freedom of any sort, instead forcing them into roles as breeders for wealthy and high-ranking infertile couples.
We follow Offred, who remembers parts of her life before the new regime, and the rules dictating her presence in the household of the Commander and his wife. Offred’s life is sparse, nothing is left to chance, and her room is devoid of anything that could be used to harm herself – a common occurrence in handmaids. Reading is forbidden, as is making general conversation with other handmaids, and Offred and the other handmaids are monitored closely – any sign of dissent and she will find herself hanged at the wall.
Desires, however, do not follow the whims of any regime, no matter how tyrannical, and it is through the desires of other people in the household that Offred finds herself in dangerous territory. The Commander desires more from her than obligatory sex at the set hour of the Ceremony, and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, desires a child and doesn’t care if she has to break some rules to get one. Offred’s own many desires surface as she becomes a pawn in a game of fulfilling her owners’ needs while attempting to keep hidden her actions and avoid being taken to the wall and hanged.
I haven’t read a lot of dystopian novels and so I am always fascinated by the author’s ability to create a whole new world where control of the people has reached such bleak, restrictive and soul destroying conditions. Margaret Atwood is a master at creating this bleak new world populated with the tension and agony of women being reduced to nothing but breeding machines. Every minutiae of Offred’s day is excruciating, slow, and devoid of intimate contact or acknowledgement that she exists as a human. The Ceremony, the time of copulation and attempted conception, is an act that boggles the mind and makes the feminist in me want to shout in outrage.
Actually, The Handmaid’s Tale triggered deep reactions and emotions in me, both as a woman and as a reader in general. There’s a whole kaleidoscope of emotions that swirl to the surface, retreat and come forth again in a different combination. Despair, bleakness, desperation, anger, outrage, apathy, desire, hope, joy and sadness have all been intertwined with masterful skill.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not a cheerful read, more likely if you’re a woman it will chill your blood and then set it boiling again. But don’t let that put you off. This novel reaffirms that the struggles women face and oppose every day to ensure they remain equal and free are worth it.
My digital copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Vintage, 2010)
Epub ISBN: 9781446485477
Author website: http://margaretatwood.ca/