The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, written by Margaret Attwood, and published in 1985. It is presented as a first person narrative, by an unnamed woman. She is now known only by her new name, Offred, given to her since the new regime took power. It denotes that she is “owned” by Fred, a Commander in the regime. Other handmaids are named using the same format.
The novel describes a totalitarian state, bent on eradicating all aspects of life which do not accord with a strict, literalist reading of the Bible. It is a theocratic dictatorship, where all power resides with men, and women of all levels of status are strictly controlled.
The government seeks to reverse the political and social advances women made in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has removed women’s right to control their own sexuality, and their reproductive choices. It emerges that matters as commonplace as reading and writing are forbidden to all women, and left in the hands of men. The right to vote has also been removed.
The production of babies was very high on the regime’s agenda. Women with viable ovaries were rounded up, and then placed into suitable homes, in order to breed. The biblical story of Jacob and his wife Rachel, is clearly the inspiration for the practices imposed on the handmaids.
Unable to produce children, Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, as a child-bearing vessel for Jacob, so that his line will be assured. Bilhah will have no future claim on any children produced, and her consent to the sexual contact is not required.
The setting is Boston, Massachusetts. The book is set in the “late twentieth century”. It relies entirely on the handmaid’s recollections, which have been sourced from a collection of audio tapes, found a century or so later, and here the subject of a scholarly dissertation.
The Epilogue as exposition
This expository device, called “Historical Notes”, appears at the rear of the novel, and purports to be an appendix. It is an essential element of the novel as a whole, if we are to understand the world that Attwood has created. It allows us access to Offred’s innermost thoughts, fears and hopes, and explains why the dictatorship was installed, and some of the doubtless many mechanisms involved in exerting, and maintaining social control.
It explains some of the concerns within the leadership of the regime; the collapse of human fertility, environmental degradation, the failings of established religions, and a corruption of moral and social norms. Women are seen as the weakness in the fabric, and their suppression is the solution.
It treats the action of the book as being solidly from the past, historical. The lecture resists the temptation of triumphalism, or post-facto moralising, but it does treat the events described as quaint, and consisting of several ‘periods’. The observations presented in the book are treated as primary source material, and not overtly judged by the person giving the lecture. The ‘normal’ of this future is different to ours, but in a suggestive and uncertain way.
Is the book successful in its creation of a dystopian world?
Margaret Attwood has commented, in response to winning a science fiction award for this book, that none of her material belongs in the realm of science fiction. She went on to explain that all the privations and punishments, used here mainly against women, have been practised, somewhere on earth, in the past.
Men are also strictly controlled, but in less intrusive, de-personalising ways. And men can rise to power. Women cannot. The depiction of a repressive system of government is heightened by its setting in parts of Harvard, and other familiar landmarks around the city.
There is a long history of dystopian writing, but the two books with which this novel is mostly compared, are Brave New World, and 1984. The reason this novel may create more of a lasting impact than either of them, is that her world is made from real, everyday examples which we can relate to personally. Even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining Roe v Wade again. So this is not science fiction, because, even though it was written last century, we can recognise, if not the totality of the book’s repressions, aspects of the thinking, the fear of women’s empowerment, the wish to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle.
Attwood wrote this novel in 1985, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Thatcher (elected in 1979) and Reagan (elected in 1980) were forerunners to a reactionary assault on civil liberties in the English speaking world. The Handmaid’s Tale foretells where the neo-conservatives were heading. Margaret Attwood is a politically aware writer, and she was no doubt conscious of this shift in the wind of the the late seventies and the eighties.
She also part-wrote the novel in West Berlin. The East German state was known to engage in continuous surveillance of its people, just a stone’s throw away, and the East Germans cast a long shadow over West Berlin. This awareness of repressive measures was obviously in her mind as she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. She has admitted as much.
The recent resurgence of interest in the novel is arguably directly associated with Donald Trump’s election, in 2016. The rise of the religious right, the assault on women’s rights, the rise of the #metoo movement all speak to the relevance of the book, but also to the need for such a book, now.
Recent legislation in several U.S. states, as well as in Poland seeks to criminalise abortion. This appears to be heading toward another round of theocratic law-making, and pressure on women’s lives. So the book, although written over thirty years ago, still delivers a timely warning. Stay alert. Your freedom is a valuable, but fragile, thing.
This book is written to reflect the world view of a late twentieth century, educated woman, making her way in a repressive and dangerous world. Margaret Attwood’s writing is above all else immensely intelligent, and accomplished. I believe that every word is meant, as is, and that the book is enough.
The movies and television shows will never deliver the punch that this seemingly slight book will. This is a harrowing story, but it fulfils its purpose. It makes us take the ongoing threats to our freedom very seriously.
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