After about a year of having The Handmaid’s Tale on my book list, I finally read it. I started it on Sunday and finished it last night; I read it in only four days. A few years ago, that would be normal for me, but I’ve got a full-time job, stand-up shows, and a busy social life, so the fact that I couldn’t really put this book down says a lot about it.
I also know there’s a Hulu series about it, but I’m conflicted as to whether or not I should watch it. On one hand, I’d love to see the book come to life. But I do fear that it won’t do it justice and might disrupt my understanding and interpretation of the novel. I’m still mulling it over.
Without giving away too much of a plot, here’s a quick summary of what the book is about:
Published in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, this story of a frightening dystopia takes place in New England around the late 1980’s or the early 1990’s. The United States, now called the Republic Gilead, is controlled by a repressive, totalitarian regime; a military dictatorship.
The country, perhaps even the world, saw a drastic decline in birthrates and thus an increase in infertility. It was hinted that this was a result of nuclear waste and toxicity in the environment. There was even mention of animals, such as whales, having gone extinct. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a patriarchal society in which women of all classes and demographics are subjected to persecution, violence, and submission to some degree. The elite citizens in the book are white, straight, Christian men (sounds familiar.)
The main character is named Offred, which stems from the possession of her Commander, Fred. (Of + Fred = Offred) She is a handmaid, and handmaid’s are fertile women, considered to be adulterers in their previous life and thus deserving of their servitude. They are the lowest class in the Republic of Gilead; hardly even human.
The story follows Offred and her experiences as a handmaid. She, along with the other handmaids, is tasked with providing an elite, but infertile, couple with a child, which is a “hot commodity” at the time. She is a concubine, a baby-making machine with no other use, and the treatment she experiences is disturbing. All handmaids in this society are tortured, hated, and are victims of horrific violence. Throughout the novel, Offred struggles with her own internal resistance. About halfway through the story, she comes upon an organized resistance hell-bent on taking down the Republic.
That’s all I can say without giving anything important away.
But what I gathered from the book is the unsettling, near-possiblity of a future, or alternate reality, in which women are subjected to the treatment as sub-human, lower-class citizens. Of course, this case is extreme and rather unlikely to ever be the case. Yet I can’t help but draw some connections to our current cultural and political climate.
The relations I draw between this dystopian tale and our modern society are the that of the treatment of women as objects, religious fundamentalism, victim blaming, and racial erasure. Especially in the epilogue, in which Offred’s story is analyzed, retold, altered, and questioned by a man who doubts her honesty and responsibility in the monstrous acts of the Republic of Gilead.
I also see the importance of telling history as it really was, not out of the point of view of the victors, and without the erasure of any horrific acts that we deem to be acceptable or understandable because “it was a different time.” I see the undeniable signs of hope, humanity, and action; the importance of story telling and the powerful treatment of time.