The Handmaid’s Tale – A Review
It’s been 30 years since the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published. The story remains fresh, relevant and ominous, though. The novel tells of how America has been suddenly turned into a totalitarian right-wing Christian theocracy, The Republican of Gilead, where there is a widespread infertility crisis. Gilead has women and unwomen, besides men.
The women are classified hierarchically and wear different color uniforms. There are the Handmaids, the ones whose ovaries are viable and, therefore, can provide the State with its most valuable and scarce resource: children; the Marthas, mere house workers; the Aunts, older women who train and indoctrinate the handmaids in a preparatory camp, the Red Center, before they are assigned to a posting (a family they will serve); the Econowives, working-class women; and the Wives, married to the powerful Commanders, the ruling class of men. Other classes of men, such as doctors, guards (Angels), Eyes (spies) and commander’s chauffeurs, are also mentioned in passing, but we don’t get to know much about them.
The unwomen, on the other hand, are the ones who are either barren; too old; or have committed some sort or libertarian and criminal act against the regime. Those are sent to the colonies, where they are subject to harsh living conditions, picking cotton or cleaning toxic waste in contaminated fields. A handmaid’s ultimate fear is to be sent to one of the colonies, which will happen, unless she performs the duty of giving birth to her commander’s child. Many men are infertile, but it’s against the law to mention this fact.
Commanders live with their families - wife, and kids - and their servants: guards, chauffeurs, marthas, and handmaids. If a wife is not barren, she will not need a handmaid, whose only purpose is to procreate and then hand the children over for the wives to raise.
Society is rigidly controlled. Reading and writing have been abolished, along with other freedoms we take for granted. There is a vague war being waged against competing factions, some of them religious, such as Quakers and Baptists, for instance. However, as there are no newspapers and TV news seems either old or fabricated, performed by actors, nobody knows exactly what is going on. The dead bodies of dissidents – doctors who performed abortions, for example - are left hanging in public places to discourage future rebellions.
The story is narrated by the 33-year-old handmaid called Offred: the new name issued to her by the regime, indicating that she is the possession of Fred, her commander. She makes sure to state, on different occasions, that the story she’s telling us is a reconstruction since language is incapable of conveying the real experience in all its nuances and details. So we are never 100% sure she is telling the truth. She still remembers her former life, when she used to be married to a guy named Luke, had a daughter, a feminist mother, a best friend called Moira and a regular job. When the army of the regime took over, Offred’s family tried to run away to Canada, but they were caught. She doesn’t know what happened to her husband, daughter, and mother. Are they still alive? Do they miss and remember her? She never loses the hope of hearing from them when she least expects. Offread believes there must be some underground resistance movement going. If there’s a shadow (the current regime), there must be a light, she rationalizes. She has heard it’s called Mayday.
Echoes of 1984, Brave New World and even Animal Farm reverberate throughout the story. Dystopian texts are usually best when they make us rethink our current society. They are usually either a hyperbolical view of what is going on in the real world or a cautionary tale, anticipating what may happen if we don’t change our ways. In the case of Atwood’s book, for example, the story seems to raise the issue of what would happen if women’s liberation movements failed, maybe due to a proliferation of pornography and excessive permissiveness. The story seems to indicate that women themselves can be even more oppressive to their peers than men, when, like the Aunts and Wives, they benefit from privileges in a sexist society. But the main strength of the narrative is the creation of a nightmarish and eerie atmosphere, and the description of some of the strange rituals of this spooky world concocted by the author:
- One of these rituals is, of course, the sexual acts in which the handmaids and commanders need to engage. The handmaid lies on her back between the legs of the fully clothed wife, who holds their hands, while the commander has access only to the lower part of the handmaid’s body. The upper part remains partitioned by a curtain, so the husband will not have any eye contact with the handmaid. The wife’s hatred and jealousy towards the handmaid are sometimes demonstrated by the way her nails bite into the employee’s hands. It’s a sad and mechanical procedure that takes place once a month. Nobody derives pleasure from it.
- Another macabre ritual is the testifying, which takes place at the Red Center. A woman is picked to confess a sin in front of the whole group. After the confession, she goes through a humiliation process performed by the other handmaids, who shout accusations at her. It’s known that it’s best to make up a story than to remain silent during these demeaning rituals.
- The birthday ceremonies are exciting occasions when the handmaids and the wives of a certain number of districts are invited to celebrate the birth of a new baby. There are drinks and food. If the baby is not healthy – meaning it’s an unbaby – it will be killed later on, though.
- The salvagings are public executions – of both men and women who committed crimes against the regime. Men outnumber women by far, as the latter seems to have learned to behave better. The new policy won't allow the crimes to be made known, though.
As the story progresses, we learn that Offred and his commander start a dangerous affair, behind his wife’s back. They meet in his office, where Offred has access to everything considered forbidden, such as books, magazines, and cosmetic products. In the first encounters, while she fears she will be required to perform some fetishistic abomination, all the commander asks her to do is to play Scrabble with him. This constitutes one of the most beautiful passages of the book, when the author gives herself the right to express her love of words and literature, through the voice of a stunned Offred. The description of how the handmaid, prevented from having any contact with books or magazines for such a long time, sensually touches and handles the letter tiles of the game, the pleasure she feels by holding a crispy C in her hand, the voluptuousness of the act of putting words together is rather moving. It makes readers feel what a torture it must be to be isolated from the written world.
I will refrain from telling the reader more about the plot at this point to avoid any spoilers. It would be fair to add, though, that, while The Handmaid’s Tale lacks the impact of 1984, which has a much more oppressed hero living in a world with way more tyrannical laws, the novel is still an excellent read. Its haunting images will linger in the reader’s mind for quite some time.
Assuming you are not into the pleasures of the written word we mentioned in relation to the game of Scrabbles, favoring audiobooks, fear nothing concerning The Handmaid’s Tale: there’s a great version of the text available in that format. It’s read by actress Claire Danes, who brings the story to life in a brilliant interpretation. Her change of tone, especially when reading the parts of the authoritarian Aunts, is right on the money. She never exaggerates or sounds phony. Whether you read or listen to the novel, it will remain a pleasure.