The Handmaid’s Tale is a well known dystopian novel, now possibly almost as iconic as George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I usually like the dystopian genre for the way that a distorted version of our society can critique the flaws that are sometimes ignored. I think they also do a pretty good job of reminding you of the things you should be grateful for!
The novel’s protagonist, Offred, narrates the story of a totalitarian state brought about, in part, by a rapidly declining birth rate and the need to reproduce. Women are valued solely on their ability to reproduce and if a woman fails to do so, she is worthless. Offred, is one of the ‘lucky’ ones who is fertile and therefore serves as a handmaid to a Commander. Her role is to bear him a child which will be raised by his wife. Offred dislikes her situation and longs for the society she used to live in, yet even when given the opportunity to take part in resistance, she remains passive and does not rebel. I think this is both a pessimistic, but also realistic, portrayal of the human instinct to survive whatever the cost: Offred acknowledges the safety in submission and obedience.
The novel makes some pretty explicit societal criticisms. First and foremost is the excessively patriarchal society of Gilead which begins with the total removal of women’s financial independence through freezing their bank accounts and leads to the complete commodification of women’s bodies. The woman’s ability to reproduce is at once sacred but also used against her. It is scary how this is justified by reminders of the sexual violence and objectification of women in porn from ‘before’, yet in reality Gileadean society just institutionalises it.
The extreme rules and censorship of Gilead (which does not even allow any kind of reading material or writing) are broken by the Commanders and other members of the elite, Those with power can be exempt from the law and live outside the threat of any penalties. Brutality is also an accepted part of this new society, with weekly hangings displayed for all to see and weird, ritualised, mass killings. Religion is the backbone of this society but in a form few people would recognise as faith, showing the danger of mixing fanaticism with politics and leadership.
Atwood’s novel is very imaginative and certainly gives you a lot to think about. However I wasn’t totally convinced by it. By that I mean that it didn’t frighten me the way dystopian fiction usually does and I felt there was an element of ‘reality’ missing that meant I didn’t view it as anything but a dreamworld – a narrative that was quite easy for me to distance myself from despite very relevant themes and ideas.
I have read one of her more recent dystopic novels, Oryx and Crake (the first book in the MaddAdam trilogy), and I thought that was much better. Although considered a modern classic, I’m not sure I would recommend The Handmaid’s Tale.