This book has been on my reading list for a long time, since reading The Penelopiad in a first year uni module, back in 2014. Its taken me three years to get around to it, but I have finally read the book. Now I feel I can start on the TV show!
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written in 1985, by Margaret Atwood. In the USA, a wave of totalitarianism has swept over the land, creating a place where some women are used as “Handmaids”, an odd kind of surrogate to those in power. This new world is called Gilead. Many women have been left sterile due to pollution levels (it is implied that the rest of America outside the confines of the novel- “The Colonies”- is barren and toxic, with those living in these areas suffering some kind of radiation sickness where the extremities and even the skin peels away), and STDs. The world inside the borders of what I suppose is a large compound where the characters of the novel live (at least as big as a city), and is a strange echo of a literal reading of the Old Testament views on women. Many references are made to the biblical, but in the most fanatical ways. Women are not allowed to have their own money, read, and modesty is a must. Offred, the protagonist and narrator, vaguely remembers a time before this came to pass, before she had to become a Handmaid. There are implications that outside the world she lives in, war between the fanatics who run the compound, and other religious and social groups, is still raging. Offred knows she has another name from this past, but never mentions what exactly it is. Her memories are brief and fragmented, so that as a reader you understand she had a partner called Luke (previously divorced, and under this new law divorce doesn’t exist, making Offred an adulteress), a feminist mother, a friend named Moira, a young daughter, a rigorous academic education (she often remembers things she learnt in past times), and a job which required a knowledge of technology. We understand that as things worsened in society (all women’s bank accounts were closed and the women laid off of work, the money in the accounts being transferred to the next male of kin), Luke, “Offred”, and their daughter attempted to escape across the borders. Luke was shot (it appears, we have no idea if he is dead or alive), Offred captured and forced to become a Handmaiden, and her daughter taken somewhere else.
There’s all the background you need to know. I want to leave the finer points and weirder little things, and of course THE ENDING, for you to discover yourself. There aren’t any major spoilers above, but from this point on, there will be. There are a few things about this novel, a few messages in it, which I think are very important. Grab a cuppa, because this is a long review/discussion. Skip to the last one if you don’t have time. Anyone who has also read this, please chip in below and let me know what you thought:
- A caste and class system that produces a female vs female dynamic, which makes escaping the system more difficult… Wives, Daughters, Aunts, Handmaidens. All have different roles and levels of importance. Some seem oppressed, some seem like oppressors- all are actually the former. Wives and Handmaidens are pitted against each other most heavily. The wives must join in the ritualistic acts of the husband’s attempting to impregnate the Handmaid. There is, though the Handmaids are not showing any sign of enjoying this, obviously some jealousy going to be apparent here, and I felt Serena Joy. Clearly if you marry someone for love, and are cast aside because you can’t pop a sprog, this is going to be a bit of a blow. The Handmaids are wary of who is a fanatic in their own ranks, and who isn’t. Towards the end of the novel Offred and Ofglen are working together, Ofglen having told the former of an underground resistance. Serena Joy, the woman who Offred is assigned to produce a child for, arranges for Offred to have sex with the chauffeur, Nick, as if she cannot produce a child for The Commander she will be sent as an “Unwoman” to The Colonies. It is uncertain if this is to save Offred (three chances to have a child, if you can’t concieve that’s the end of you), or simply to reclaim her husband, who has become attracted to Offred. The basic point is this: there is a system pitting women against each other, which doesn’t seem too far away from 2017 at points.
- Blind belief and crowd violence – In the final chapters of the novel a man is thrown to the Handmaids, accused of conducting a rape at gunpoint, which killed a child the Handmaid in question was pregnant with. The Handmaids beat this man to something that no longer looks human. Ofglen knocks the man out, and is set upon by Offred, only for it to be explained to her that this man was part of the resistance. Captured and drugged, he is unable to defend or explain himself as the system he was trying to overthrow, and the people he was trying to liberate, kill him. Ofglen’s knocking him out was an act of kindness, because what the Handmaids do is pretty brutal.
- The role of sexuality and women’s bodies- Even now, I still hear a lot of debate over whether if you dress in X/Y/Z way, can you really be a feminist? What if you wear makeup? Aren’t these things to make women into objects- something for men to enjoy? They aren’t empowering at all, are they? I found the book’s stance ambivalent on these things. When Offred enters the world of the “Jezebels”, dressed in spangles and feathers and with makeup on, she is escaping a uniform which denies her the use of her own sexuality and body for enjoyment, a uniform which marks her as a baby-making machine for a man- but is she just walking straight into another uniform that marks her as for a man’s enjoyment? Offred’s own description of the showgirl style outfit moves between feeling freed, and feeling ridiculous. The Commander’s providing the outfit and so escape for a night leads to her feeling she owes him, and so has to fake meaningful sex with him. Her clothes and wearing makeup oscillate between empowering and trapping in both contexts. Ultimately, it isn’t the things she wears or puts on her body that are the issue here, its that she is being told to do so without much choice. Present day feminism isn’t about how you look, so much as whether you are choosing to look that way for your own reasons or not.
- Good / bad dichotomy doesn’t exist…The Commander, as an example, despite the above seems a genuinely nice guy. I thought I would hate this man. His motives are definitely shady, but he also just want Offred to play Scrabble and read with him. He also wants to watch Offred read because he appears to get off on it. I wonder whether this is because intelligence and reading in women is now something banned and so kinky enough to please him, or if its because he too remembers a time when women and men actually had meaningful, two -way relationships? He’s completely oblivious to Offred’s situation and I wonder if this could represent a masculinity not malicious, but who simply have no concept of what it is like to be female- the same as any other position of privilege. Like pretty much every character going (excepting a couple maybe), it is very hard to label someone as purely good, or purely bad. At points this frustrated me, but I see why Atwood chose to write her characters this way. What are your thoughts on this?
- Colours… This comes back to the good/bad dichotomy and the pitting of women against each other. I’ve read that Handmaids in scarlet and Wives in blue places them respectively as Mary Magdalenes and Virgin Marys. These women are marked as being part of a dichotomy which has existed since “the angel in the house” vs “the fallen woman” of Victorian times. Women aren’t just humans, they’re identified by their roles in relation to their bodies.
- The idea of what makes a woman… a sterile Handmaid (someone who can’t conceive), is send off to be an “unwoman” in The Colonies. The only reason sterile Wives are kept is because they’re of a higher caste in the society. So this brings into question: what makes a woman? and why are there different rules for different women? According to the world of Gilead, you have to be chaste, modest, pious, let the man control the money, and be able to produce offspring (youth is also helpful here, so there’s a definite sell-by date on women), oh and also be prepared to have a “jezebel” side. Bam! All these things and you are the perfect woman. These standards combined all sound very hard to live up to, but are things that have been- and still are- to some extent expected.
- Is it a work of fiction or not? This is the scariest question of all…everything in the novel has happened at one time or another. Literal Old Testament views of women are woven throughout Gilead. In Austen’s time women couldn’t own land, and their money was controlled by the nearest male of kin. The angel/prostitute dichotomy of the Victorian Era. The making of woman in sexualized objects has happened throughout history. The use of scapegoats by the totalitarian party. Women couldn’t vote until the suffragettes came along. Work place discrimination sadly still happens in some places. Female vs. female, me vs. you memes that pour themselves over the internet every day. All that has happened in the novel is that all of these things have simply been brought into one space and time. It reminds feminists what women of the past have fought to overcome, and why it matters that we continue trying to establish a long-lasting, unshakeable equality. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale came to exist because of complacency, a lack of questioning and free-thought, and finally a lack of vigilance.
If that last point alone isn’t enough to make you want to take a look at this book, then I don’t know what is. I know that the novel has been made into a film, and now a TV series. Reading some of the comments under the clips on YouTube reminded me how this fictional world is not entirely fictional. The world of Gilead is one terrifying place. It poses the idea that “better never means better for everyone”. For us and our future, we have to work towards it being better for everyone.