When I was doing my A-Levels, this was set summer reading – just to prepare us for some of the themes we would encounter in our A-level literature course. At the time, I though it was good but I was regarding it with a teenagers frustration at being told what to read, and so I don’t think I really thought about everything in the Handmaids Tale properly – I read it deeply enough to talk about it in class, but not more than that.
Trump’s patriarchal views of women’s reproductive rights in the first days of his presidency, and then the domino state effect, made me remember that summer wilting in the shade reading a book of horrors. Back then it seemed so implausible. So impossible. The state of Gilead could never happen in our progressive society! But re-reading as an adult in the wake of populism and the rise of old patriarchal values has made this tale terrifying in its possibility.
The story is the tale of Offred in the state of Gilead. In a world where the population levels have fallen dramatically, fertile women are the property of the state and assigned as “Handmaidens” to the Commanders of the Gilead regime. It is a totalitarian society with an extremist Christian backbone, where no-one can trust and friends are scarce. Offred is a handmaiden to a Commander, living a careful life, careful not to let her thoughts out of her head, careful not to lose her sanity. She contrasts her life since she was taken as a Handmaiden, compares it with her life Before as a student in America, out with her friend Moira. Offred details her life, in this patriarchal society where love is forbidden and women are walking wombs. She talks of living in the house, with the Wives and the Marthas and the Commander, their ceremonies and how hard and how easy it is to live in this tightly controlled regime.
The narrative is piecemeal. There is a lot of focus on small things, things that once might have been overlookable and now are of the utmost importance to Offred, trying to cling to her sanity despite being stripped of her name and her family. It jumps between the past, and the recent present, weaving a comparison between life then, and life now. There are no speech marks, speech is a part of the story. First time reading this, I didn’t understand. I thought it was some stylistic quirk of the story and dismissed it fairly quickly. There are some “historical notes” in the final pages of the book – don’t skip them, they set the context for the story from a historians point of view, establishing the worth of Offred’s narrative as a historical text, and also stating that the entire book is a transcript, written by researchers from a set of cassette recordings. Hence why there are no speech marks and why it reads in very distinct voice.
There are many quotes in this book that resonate on a social and a political level, but I think this one is my favourite:
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
What is terrifying about The Handmaid’s Tale, is how when the Government falls, they blame it on Islamic Extremists and people barely fight the “temporary” suspension of the Constitution which leads to the suppression of women’s rights and an entirely totalitarian society. It sounds like something that could actually happen and that realistic within the fictional adds an entirely new dimension to this already amazing book. Reading now that I am older, I want to read other Margaret Atwood books, and having re-read the book, I am going back to Channel 4 to watch the series.
I’m not sure how else to review this. It is an intense, thought provoking and amazing book and I am glad I have re-read it, and intend to do so again. The intricacies of the society and how women were positioned in powerless positions in a culture of suspicion and fear of the Eyes are so well constructed. And of course, the recent political ramifications made this even more salient and important for people to read.