Atwood’s classic is set in a distant future. How distant, we are not told, but it is a dystopia. It is set in a future where America is now known as the Republic of Gilead, and women, essentially, are stripped of their rights. They are not allowed to read, or write, they are pretty much not allowed to do anything and are divided into classes, differentiated by their attire. The main character, Offred, wears the red of a Handmaid. A Handmaid, in this future, although again having virtually no rights, is a vital personage in the Republic.
The Republic is a theocracy ruled by a dictator, and as with most totalitarian dictatorships, there is an elite ruling class. The Handmaids are vital because the air and water have become saturated with chemicals creating a toxic environment that has dramatically dropped the fertility rate. The population is dwindling. The word, sterile, is banned. In this future, a man is never sterile, and a woman is classed as either, fruitful, or barren. The birthing of a child has taken on the aspects of a religious ceremony. The birth rate of the elite is maintained by the Handmaids. The Handmaids are little more than breeding machines for this elite class of the Republic. If a wife proves barren, then she dresses in blue and the husband will be granted a Handmaid. Servants wear green and are called Martha’s. The wives of the middle- class wear stripes. In very simple terms it is a female class system designated by colour. All Handmaids are tattooed on the ankle with four digits and an eye. Offred while bathing sees the tattoo and refers to herself as, a national resource, and effectively, that’s what the Handmaids are.
The media is controlled by the regime. The news that is allowed, shows only magnificent victories over the rebel Catholics and Baptists. “The Eyes” is the name given to the secret service of the Republic. Their power resides in their invisibility. Nobody knows who may be an Eye, and therefore they treat everybody they meet as an Eye in fear. As with all dictatorships, fear plays a large part in control, and the Republic is ruled with an Iron fist. Rebellion and sedition are snuffed out brutally as soon as they appear. The bodies of rebels or criminals displayed in public, hanging in nooses.
Offred is young enough to remember life before the coup changed everything. She remembers, and longs for this, what now seems impossible and distant, life. The reader is given glimpses of Offred’s past through these memories. We learn how quickly, and alarmingly, how easily, the coup happens. How she and her husband and daughter tried to cross the border into Canada and escape.
The Handmaids are not allowed to be alone with the Commander, so when Offred gets a summons from the Commander she is quite anxious and bewildered. Firstly, the Handmaids are simply vessels, a walking womb, that is their only purpose. Secondly, when she meets the Commander in his room, he wants to play scrabble with her. The Handmaids are forbidden to read or write. How can she be in the Commanders room alone playing scrabble? Her mind runs through lists of punishments that she will receive if she is discovered. The Commander is in charge, but like the queen in a game of chess, the power over the Handmaids resides with the wife. I love this passage of the book. The sheer enjoyment that Offred gets from the formation of words, to be able to use language and the written word that is taboo for her. I think that most readers would go mad if denied the power to read and write. When the games are over, the Commander asks Offred to kiss him as if she meant it. In Offred’s own words this night has been the most bizarre of her life, and yet she senses that it may also present an opportunity. The Commander has crossed the Rubicon as well. These visits become a common occurrence, twice sometimes three times a week. As time goes on Offred starts to enjoy the visits but never forgets that she is dancing on the edge of the precipice and even a simple look or gesture from the Commander, noticed by the wife, could send her plummeting.
When Offred fails to fall pregnant after many attempts, she is now approached by the Commander’s wife, who, surreptitiously suggests that she take another lover in secret to have a child. Offred realises that the wife believes her husband is impotent, but would never dare to say it out loud even in secret. Offred is now in the position of holding a secret with the Commander from the wife, and at the same time, holding a secret with the wife from the Commander. A dangerous tightrope with almost certain death if she falls, regardless of which side.
As usual Atwood’s prose is beautiful, in my view, there are few writers who can match her.
Atwood wrote this novel in 1984, and yet it seems even more powerful and prophetic in today’s modern world. Even though women have made enormous strides towards equality in so many fields, there are still many, way too many, parts of the world where women are treated like second class citizens and have severely limited rights.
Brilliant! 5 Stars.
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.
Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.
Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
Associations: Margaret Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada from May 1981 to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984-1986. She and Graeme Gibson are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Society within BirdLife International. Ms. Atwood is also a current Vice-President of PEN International.
Atwood is one of my very favourite author's.
There is a wonderful inerview with Emma Watson interviewing Atwood about The Handmaid's Tale here - https://ew.com/books/2017/07/14/emma-watson-interviews-margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale/