The Handmaid’s Tale
I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in over ten years so I was glad when my book club chose it for this month’s discussion. And it fits right in with the National Banned Books Week (September 23 -29). The Handmaid’s Tale has been challenged or banned many times since its publication in 1985. In Atwood’s dystopian story, the American government is overthrown and replaced by a theonomic military dictatorship in which fertile women are used solely to bear children and all other women are either assigned to a hierarchy that enforces this policy or sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste. The idea is to build up the country’s dwindling population, which has suffered due to nuclear explosions and other contamination. The men’s roles vary according to station and include Angels and Guardians, with Commanders at the top.
The story’s narrator is a handmaid, Offred, so named as belonging to her Commander. Handmaids are assigned to the Commanders and their presumably barren wives who participate every month in an orchestrated Ceremony in which the Commanders try to impregnate the handmaids. Although Offred is not at the bottom of the hierarchy, she is nonetheless trapped and by no means secure. If she doesn’t become pregnant, she could be sent to the Colonies.
As with all forms of oppression, ways to communicate, small freedoms, and an underground resistance give Offred hope, but their discovery is slow and unsure. A risky relationship with her Commander and even more dangerous connections with others could go either way as Offred tries to reconcile the life she lost with what may be possible. I enjoyed rereading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a look at what could go wrong and is a good exercise of thought. I recommend it to readers who like speculative fiction and to all readers who like seeing how characters fight back in both small and large ways.
The Handmaid’s Tale is also a popular television series. Streamed on Hulu, the show has won eight Emmy awards and a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch and Season 3 is in the works. You can even see Atwood in a small cameo role.
You may also remember the 1990 movie, directed by Volker Schlondorff and starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Aidan Quinn. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.
I also read a great article about what influenced Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Click here to read Atwood’s March 10, 2017 essay in The New York Times: “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” Here are some highlights:
- Atwood began writing in the book in 1984.
- She was living in West Berlin at the time, before the fall of the Berlin Wall where she “experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.”
- She wasn’t sure she was up to the task of writing a dystopian, speculative fiction.
Atwood also answers three important questions about the book
- Is it a feminist novel? She says no, and yes. No because the women in her story are not all angels, and neither are they so victimized that they can’t make moral decisions. But she clarifies, “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are ‘feminist.’”
- Is the book antireligion? No, it’s against using religion “as a front for tyranny.”
- Is the book a prediction? She calls it an “antiprediction” and explains that if this kind of future can be described, maybe it won’t happen.
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