The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Publication Date: 1985
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining fertility, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
The Handmaid’s tale is lush as it is barren, rich as it is sparse. More often, I found myself getting lost in the author’s abundance of words. Ms. Atwood spent a whole lot time describing every single facet of this world – past and present, so much so that I constantly found myself overwhelmed and ultimately, bored – unfortunate but the truth. After reading this novel, I’ve decided that I’m a fan of minimalistic way of writing. I don’t need a lot of information; I just need enough. Offred’s monologues were highly verbose, sometimes inconsequential. Either that, or I have completely missed the point and, or their purpose.
Set in an undetermined future where a theocratic government ruled, this is a story of a woman’s plight as she tries to survive a world where her role is reduce to that of a baby maker. Sex was clinical, cold, and filthy that was often preceded by a religious rite. While the wife holds the handmaid down, the husband does his business in the most procedural way.
“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.” (Page 107)
The world itself was based on the literal translation of a few Bible verses, which translates to God’s approval of polygamy (see Rachel, Leah and Jacob – Genesis).
The women were considered as the weaker, and sometimes the useless sex, which to me contradicts a key story arc in this book. The ruling government diminished the rights of women, hanged homosexuals and exiled the black people to a place where the “undesirables” supposedly belonged. While men of extreme religious beliefs governed what’s left of the population, the women and the people of other races were the machines that ran the world.
Atwood’s speculative fiction isn’t far-fetched, scarily enough. Some Middle-Eastern countries are still unable to recognize women’s rights as human beings. Heck, there are even extreme situations where baby girls are being killed just because they were the “wrong sex”. Religious extremists continue to translate the Bible in the most literal way possible, with its meaning getting lost in translation. Ironically enough, this world came to be when an Islamic extremist attack killed the president and the congress.
Offred’s narrative voice came off detached and cold due to the guileless way she told her story. She couldn’t convince me of the longing she felt for the husband and the daughter that she’d lost (I was more emphatic with her need to connect with the Marthas more than anything else).
The ending, though, vague, offered hope and left an opening for the reader’s interpretation. My take? The Gilead period ended and they all lived happily ever after.
VERDICT: Atwood’s visceral writing made this novel an even more gripping and terrifying read. Even though I often felt lost (the author is fond of switching, in break-neck speed, from the past and the present narration), I can’t deny the brilliance of the prophetic world Ms. Atwood has created. I don’t go into a book with a motive to dissect the author’s religious and political beliefs. I read to remember the past, live the present and imagine a future – bleak or otherwise. The Handmaid’s Tale managed to do all three.