This book has been on my TBR list since before I started blogging and sitting on my shelf at home for over a year. I finally, finally read it and am happy I did.
Offred lives in Gilead, the country (part of?) the US turns into when the religious right-wingers stage a military coup and take over the country, all in the face of declining fertility and birth rates. Gilead is patriarchal in the extreme and women have be relegated to subservient roles: Wife/Mother, Handmaids or surrogate mothers, Marthas or housekeepers, Aunts or female enforcers of the system, and a few fringe women who survive as prostitutes in an exclusive club. Male society is similarly regimented, though a little less oppressive, with those in power given the title Commander and the rest of the men untitled, some deserving an Econowife, some not even deserving of that.
Life for Offred is beyond miserable. She can remember the time before she became a Handmaid, when she was married to Luke and had a young daughter and a job of her own. But she is stuck in this new reality, where her only purpose and value is to provide a child for her Commander and his Wife. To try to rebel or to even think of rebellion seems destined to land Offred hanged on The Wall or shipped off for hard manual labor in The Colonies. Boxed in and fearful to trust anyone, she is completely without choice, without hope, without purpose, without activity, without identity, without humanity.
The Handmaid’s Tale is interesting social commentary about the extremes of life under a brutal, religious, patriarchal regime. It is terrifying to imagine a world where women are stripped of every right and their humanity, as seems possible when a woman is defined only by her usefulness to men and her usefulness in the propagation of the species. It is not particularly surprising to see a woman suffering in these restrictive circumstances, but what struck me was how so many of the men were suffering, too, because of the restrictions on women. It seemed that the older men, who could remember the time before Gilead, missed the intellectual company and emotional intimacy with women (though this observation is based primarily on Offred’s Commander, whose motivations are mixed), as well as women’s sexuality. This is a society in which there are very few winners.
I was probably most impressed by how well-written this story was. The tone and mood were perfect. I felt just as trapped, stifled, and hopeless as Offred when I read her story. I was also pleasantly surprised that something this literary gripped me as much as, say, The Hunger Games or Divergent. The ending is open-ended, but I was ok with that. Sometimes I want this story to have a happy ending; sometimes I feel like there was no way for it to have a happy ending. Leaving it open-ended gives it some flexibility and, of course, there is always something more horrific about not knowing what happens in such a dire situation.
My only trouble with this book, while reading, was the world-building. The transition from the 1980s United States to Gilead happens, in Offred’s recollections, rapidly and almost without warning. It seemed a little crazy to me that people would so willingly and easily cede power to such an extremist group. I had no doubts about how Gilead kept its power, as violence against sinners and dissenters figures prominently as a means of social control and also as a means for the oppressed to vent their frustration, but I had a hard time grasping how things could have changed so drastically, so quickly. After thinking about it for a while, I think that this is Atwood’s way of warning us about how accepting small concessions in terms of inequality can quickly and drastically snowball out of control, as well as a reminder that the personal is political. Offred didn’t pay attention to politics and didn’t take seriously her mother’s second wave feminist beliefs and efforts. She takes her rights for granted and does not recognize the threat to them until it is too late.
I can’t believe it took me so long to get to The Handmaid’s Tale, as it probably is one of the better dystopian novels I have read. If you like dystopia or feminism and haven’t read this, I’d highly recommend you check it out. It does not disappoint on either front.