AUTHOR: MARGARET ATWOOD
BOOK TITLE: THE HANDMAID’S TALE
We want wisdom. We want hope. We want to be good. Therefore we sometimes tell ourselves warning stories that deal with the darker side of some of our other wants.
Interview with The Guardian, 2005
In 1986, the author, literary critic and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood introduced a work of speculative fiction which has maintained its relevance to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale. Although written over 30 years ago, it maintains relevancy in a number of ways. The most obvious, of course, is the recent television adaptation by HULU. But before you binge-watch the season 1, I highly recommend picking up Atwood’s original piece. I have now read the novel twice through and I’m glad to have done so. This story is an important one to tell.
Let’s start with a little overview. This story takes place sometime in America’s future; and although specific dates are not disclosed by the author or her characters, the reader can assume the United States has been grappling with a number of issues which stem mostly from environmental decline and social discontent. In attempts to take control of the situation, the country slowly transitions into a totalitarian state. Now renamed “The Republic of Gilead,” the U.S. keeps order by abiding by unyielding religious law.
Citizens who were once able to take pride in freedom and individuality, have now been categorized according to functionality. We see a socioeconomic hierarchy forming that is reminiscent of medieval Europe. Even the Constitution has been suspended. The depreciation of environmental and physical health has led to outbreaks of cancer and syphilis, to name a few health issues.
The chances [of delivering a healthy baby] are one in four…The air got too full, once, chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up…sure death to shore birds and unborn babies” (Atwood, 112).
The most troublesome problem Gilead faces is their inability to keep up their population. Procreation has become nearly impossible, with case-after-case of infertility in women. This point brings me to our narrator and the main character, Offred. Offred is a Handmaid: a child bearer. “Handmaid” is a confusing position to occupy in Gilead’s hierarchy. On one hand, the Handmaid is a valued member of society. They are trained and protected. On the other hand, however, this training dictates that Handmaids have but one purpose in society: bear children for women who cannot do so themselves.
Reflecting on the effects of this message, Offred comments,
We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (136).
I am struck by the starkness of this particular line. Just like that, Offred is plainly saying, “I am an object and I know it.” And at this point in the text, she is not exclaiming or complaining about this fact. She is simply stating something she knows to be true. There are many other times throughout the book when either Offred, her friend Moira, or even one of the Aunts who trains the women comments on their condition in this way. I am left speechless by the perceived normalcy of it all.
There is not a lot of dialogue from male characters, but when they do speak, the reader will probably wish they hadn’t. Offred’s Commander (the man with whom she has been paired to become pregnant) says the following of women in Gilead: “We have quite a collection… That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position” but also states that women “can’t add” (237, 186). He sees no contradictions in these two statements at all.
Thinking about the blatant objectification of women and the focus on environmental in this book, I am convinced that every woman should read this book. This may be a fictional novel, but it is accurately categorized as speculative genre. We need to take heed that these kinds of stories are possible, but also take comfort in the fact that we do have the means of writing our own future.
If you’ve read this book or plan on doing so, be sure to comment below.
Atwood, Margaret. “’Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels’.” The Guardian, Guardian
News and Media, 16 June 2005,
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. O.W. Toad, LTD, 1986.