Modern Classic Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Handmaids or Harlots?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (Vintage, RRP £7.99)

Margaret Atwood’s depiction of a dystopian future where Christian fundamentalist ideology is taking over the world is a tense, vivid exploration which emphasises the dangers of religious beliefs gone crazy. Atwood’s typically ambiguous style is very engaging, with the protagonist – known only as ‘Offred’ (‘of Fred’, the man who owns her) – revealing snippets of her past and of how the world came to be the way it is throughout the novel, a slowly unravelling mystery which sucks the reader in and makes them think.

Set in the near future where the world’s birth rate is dangerously low and desperate measures have to be taken to try to rectify this, current fears and issues are played on in order to make the depressing state of the world of the Handmaids more realistic. In the future, the Republic of Gilead, which strictly bases its beliefs on the Bible, has overthrown the American government. This means that all those who are considered to be heretical, including doctors who practised abortions, non-Christians and homosexuals, are killed and made examples of. The actions of the menacing society are treated bluntly by the narrator, her brutal honesty evoking past societies which judged and condemned those that were different from themselves, while her horrified acceptance clearly demonstrates the contrasting feelings of someone who is angry, but unable, or unwilling, to act. Something else which adds an extra layer of tension to all Offred reveals and provides further explanation for her inability to resolutely defy society is the threat of the Eyes, the secret police, which is made evident by her guarded actions and constant fear of the discovery of her rebellious thoughts.

The patriarchal society of The Handmaid’s Tale blames women for the decreasing birth rate, and thus forces fertile women to become ‘Handmaids’, servants who are passed around like prostitutes between families of high standing so that the men of the families can try to impregnate them. Although the Handmaids are desexualised by having to go through ‘The Ceremony’, a process where the male head of the household copulates with a fully-clothed Handmaid who is held between the legs of the man’s sterile wife, they are nevertheless objectified. These women are effectively ‘two-legged wombs’, as Offred calls them, machines used only to produce babies. And if they fail to reproduce after three tries, they are sent to work on plants where they dispose of toxic waste, which inevitably leads to a slow and painful death. It may sound like nineteenth-century ideology, with making babies considered to be women’s main aim in life, the strict rules about behaviour, and the way women have to cover up almost their entire body, even wearing blinker-like winged bonnets so that men cannot see their faces, but the disturbing thing is that The Handmaid’s Tale evokes practices that are very current in many countries, particularly Middle Eastern ones, in the world. In fact, Atwood has said that all the restrictive practises which take place in her novel have all happened at some point, in some part of the world, something that enhances The Handmaid’s Tale already slightly disturbing tone.

Through the portrayal of a heroine who claims she is not a heroine and her experience of being a Handmaid while embarking on an illegal affair, Atwood effectively conveys a strong sense of surveillance, restriction and cruelty. Offred’s complicated emotions, surprisingly easy to decipher despite her attempts at detaching herself from her life in order to protect herself, never once come across as over-the-top or understated, but are strongly evoked through proverbs, memories and sensory imagery even when the narrator denies that she has any feelings. Her account of her experience of the Republic of Gilead is somewhat unreliable due to her frequent contradictions of her own words, as well as her emphasis on how recreations are never true, and this is successfully complemented by the fictional ‘Historical Notes’ at the end of the novel, where a professor is speaking to a class of students in the far future about the Gileadean period. Professor Pieixoto further stresses the unreliability of Offred’s account and thus cements the novel as an examination of not only the danger of intensely puritanical beliefs, but also of storytelling and how it relates to the truth.

The Handmaid’s Tale, while very readable, is also quite depressing, but that is normally one of the characteristics of a dystopia. Like George Orwell’s 1984, there are some shockingly visceral moments in the novel, and the ending, despite being ambiguous, hints at just how much power the authorities hold. As well as challenging misogynistic opinion, Atwood highlights the danger of what might happen if regular, real-life people who possess the beliefs of the authorities in the novel get out of control. This creates a haunting tone that makes the novel more than just a regular novel. The Handmaid’s Tale was not designed merely to entertain, but to explore society, history and, ultimately, to stand as a warning for future generations, and Atwood’s depiction of the fictional, yet strangely realistic society, serves to do just that.

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