I watched the first episode of the TV series and was pretty creeped out, so decided to read this instead.
The Handmaid’s Tale is eerie and uncomfortable. But it’s also excellent.
It’s set in an alternative reality (written in 1985) in which the US has been taken over by an extremist religious group to form ‘Gilead’. In this society, women are treated as property of the state, to be distributed according to their worth. Some women are wives (only traditional marriage is allowed), some are servants/cleaners/cooks known as Marthas, and some are handmaids – such as our protagonist Offred.
Offred narrates the story mainly through internal dialogue and memories. The way Atwood weaves the narrative seamlessly into a sort of stream of consciousness style is impressive, and a great way to express Offred’s feeling of claustrophobia, depression and fear. Her life as a handmaid is slow, boring and constrained – it’s like walking on thin ice, trying not to get in trouble but almost destined to.
As a handmaid, Offred is owned by a husband and wife who use her as a surrogate mother – that is, the husband rapes her every month in a weird ceremony and they wait for her to get pregnant and bear them a child. Birth rates have plunged in this world, and women that can give birth are distributed to rich families as handmaids.
As we piece the story together, we learn that this has only happened recently. The American government were massacred and the religious group took over, slowly limiting women’s rights until they had none at all. People who make trouble in this new society are either banished to colonies to clean up toxic waste, or executed and hung up for public display on “the wall”. It’s horrific really.
It’s no surprise that Offred struggles daily to keep it together. She is constantly plagued by reminders of what life was like before. She was educated at university. She was free. She had a lover. She had a child. And now, her life is as a prisoner, and she can’t change it.
This story is bleak and eerie, but utterly engaging. Atwood uses some beautiful language:
Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes.
So, in the end we are given a glimpse into the future: the year 2195. It transforms this story almost into a sci-fi. At a scientific convention we hear historians analyse Offred’s story, which she recorded upon her escape. We don’t really know what happened to her or what she did next. They trivialise Offred’s story and the Gilead society, unable to grasp its true horror or meaning.