“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Recently adapted for television by Bruce Miller through HULU, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian tragedy set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state known as Gilead. Telling the story of Offred, a handmaid who is valued only for her ovaries, who must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant in an age of declining birth rates, a woman who is denied access to books herself, The Handmaid’s Tale is a horrifying, dire warning of what happens to subjugated women existing in a patriarchal society.
Structured within a dual perspective, that of Offred and that of the other handmaids’, jumping between past and present, the novel retells the events leading up to the fall of women’s rights and the current details of women as they resist and attempt to gain individuality and independence in a terror-stricken environment.
For me, this book is one of the most explicit feminist dystopian novels I have ever read, exploring the presence of women and what happens to them in an environment led by power and religion. Atwood critiques the use of religion as a front for tyrant behaviour, bringing to light a tale of perpetual pain and torment. The culture she describes is evocative of one that could actually exist, exploring the politics of reproduction and male sexuality taken to extremes of violence while calling for the defence of women’s rights to maintain control over their own bodies and lives right this very moment.
What is particularly interesting in the novel is how women are segregated by their clothing and the colour of their clothes as Atwood draws on colour symbolism and psychology to distinguish between the sterile and the unmarried. This is coupled with how women are assigned their commander’s first name, with Offred, the central narrator being defined as of-Fred, belonging to her Commander, Fred while being defined by her title as a handmaiden. Atwood shows through clothing and naming that in such an environment, women are stripped of their individual identities, forced to come to terms with their inability to make decisions about their own bodies or lives.
While emotionally draining at times, this is a frightening novel that calls for us to acknowledge the pain we have had to endure in the past and to acknowledge the potential for this to continue. Offred herself expresses amazement at how “it has taken so little time to change our minds about things” as Atwood uses the novel to call for future generations to change our minds and hearts about how we treat women, how we use religion as a defence, how we segregate the classes and much deeper problems in today’s society.
By portraying such a bleak situation where women cannot read or write or speak their minds, knowing no different but to repress, Atwood uses the powerful powers that reside in language to defend all women out there with similar circumstances, both past and present.
If you are thinking of reading this, do it. Read the book, read the sequel (The Testaments), watch the show. Educate yourself on the thought-provoking brilliant disturbing tale of women fighting for their future.
Set in New England in the near future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 that posits a Christian fundamentalist theocratic regime in the former United States, known as Gilead that arose as a response to a fertility crisis. The novel, narrated by Offred, describes the tale of women who are fired from their jobs, no longer permitted to work as they prepare to become handmaids, women who birth children for their Commanders and their wives. It’s a tale that speaks of the past, of love, of independence and individuality and the erasure of that in the horrifying present, a world of patriarchal power and authority. Margaret Atwood has since written a sequel – The Testaments.
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