As a budding fan of the Dystopian novel genre, a while ago I hit up a couple of websites with rankings of the best dystopian novels. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was on pretty much every list I saw, and topped of a lot of them. Furthermore, The Handmaid’s Tale has won or been nominated for a spate of prominent literary awards, including, bizarrely, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and has been condemned by a number of interesting groups and causes. Needless to say I was thoroughly intrigued. Having since read it, I cannot believe it had not come across my radar before. Albeit rather confronting, The Handmaid’s Tale is a genius bit of fiction and a remarkable example of a social critique.
Set in a dystopian “near future” (it was written in the mid 80s), The Handmaid’s Tale is the first person account of a Woman living in a religious fundamentalist’s wet dream. The United States has been taken over by a Christian Cult, and a patriarchal theocracy has been created that completely strips away all rights for Women, bans education for Women, and prohibits them from reading, writing or listening to music. The sexes are strictly segregated, Women are forced to walk in pairs and be covered absolutely when outside, and Women are arranged on a hierarchy based on their lineage and ability to procreate. Offred, the main character, serves as a “Handmaid” in the home of a high ranking “Commander”. Having proven to be fertile, Offred’s role is to provide a child for the Commander, as the Commander and his wife have been unable to conceive (the Commander’s wife is considered to be infertile as it is illegal to say that men are infertile).
The story is told as an account of Offred’s day to day life, mixed with repeated flashbacks from Offred’s life before the new society. Offred was already an adult before the takeover, so many of the flashbacks of her life before, and of her time being reeducated, serve to juxtapose the many lives she has lived. The first hand account also offers an interesting immersion experience, as different aspects and areas of story and the new society emerge layer by layer – for example much of the world is revealed only as Offred walks past it, and we only find out what Offred looks like about a third of the way through the book, when she gets to look into a mirror.
This is one of the most intense books I have read in a long time. It critiques and mocks a multitude of social norms and ideas, as well as religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism. For starters the book is peppered with Christian and Biblical references, historical allusions, and justifications for the new society, especially the plight of Women and Handmaid’s like Offred. For example, the role of the Handmaid is justified with reference to Genesis 30: 1-24, where Jacob sleeps with a servant to bear Rachel some children – almost identical to the situation that Offred find’s herself in. The new society has also managed to recreate the Catholic Church’s previous domination of God’s word, by mandating that only certain people have access to Bibles (which are kept locked up), and which results in sheep-like followers who have no idea of the veracity of the Biblical references on which their new society is based.
But the largest overall critique offered by The Handmaid’s Tale is the one aimed at those who propound strict gender roles, a sexuality based strictly on reproduction rather than pleasure, and an archaic vision of biological sex. This is notable in Offred’s many flashbacks, especially of her reeducation, but also through the story arc of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife. Serena Joy is shown to have been a successful career Woman before the new society, but also someone who preached the role of Women as being subservient homemakers. As a result of her dogma being realized (through the creation of the new society), she has since been stripped of her independence and her power, and is shown to have fallen into despondency as a result of her new lack of power. Chickens coming home to roost indeed. But to top it off, Atwood also manages to ridicule those who hold archaic visions of biological sex by taking their own arguments to their logical extremes – that “Men are sex machines… not much more”, and that the freedom that Women currently enjoy is somehow more degrading than one in which they are controlled.
As I said, this is one of the most intense and thought provoking books I have read in a long time. It has a lot to say, but it also does it couched in an incredibly well written story. The Handmaid’s Tale is intriguing, is hard to put down, and will make you think once you do. Very much recommended.
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Pages: 311 (Paperback)
Publisher: Anchor, Vintage Classics
Josh’s Rating: 5/5
Amazon Link: The Handmaid’s Tale
Book Depository Link: The Handmaid’s Tale