The Handsmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

10/10 I personally found this to be a distinctly profound and unsettling book.

I’ve been meaning to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a long time - it’s probably one of the most famous dystopian novels alongside Brave New World and 1984, and maybe because it’s so well regarded I hesitated to pick it up in case it didn’t meet my expectations. I’m very glad I did eventually get round to reading it because it truly is both disturbing and beautifully written.

Published in 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale is the diary of a young woman living in an alternate, dystopic, 1980s where some unidentified crisis caused fertility to plummet, prompting the creation of an all-seeing, Old Testament-influenced state in the US called Gilead. The Eyes of God are everywhere, and dissension from your duty to produce children or toe the party line will see you killed or shipped off to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste.

Offred, the name given to the narrator, is a Handmaiden; a fertile young woman who has been assigned to a Commander to produce a child for him and his wife. That is her sole purpose; she has been reduced to a walking womb. And I think that is the strongest current running throughout this novel - the absolute oppression of women and their reduction back to cooking, cleaning and giving birth. Her world is very tightly constrained, from what she has to wear to who she has to have sex with. Even her vision is restricted with a winged headdress when she is outside, blinkering her from possible temptation. As with many dystopic novels, individualism and choice have been obliterated - at least for those at the bottom of the food chain.

In a backlash against the toxins which caused the drop in fertility, all machinery has been destroyed and Gilead resembles an extreme Puritanical society. Reading an article by Margaret Atwood, she says the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale came from ‘general observation’. She began writing it in Berlin in 1984 before the wall came down and you can see the mix of several different oppressive societies influencing the construction of America’s Gilead. A young woman hiding from the authorities in an attic and recording a diary is one of the more obvious nods to the Second Word War, the secret police and informants reminiscent of Communism, and the cancelling of women’s bank accounts and jobs invoke a reality that existed not that long ago, when women owned nothing, and were valued solely for their ability to produce children.

How easily the liberties women managed to possess by the 1980s are taken away is a stark point that I took away from this, and how easily so many women gave them up. An interesting point I also took away from this was how quiet and orderly it was. We hear vague remembrances of the past, before she was turned back into a schoolgirl in a dorm to be taught how to be a Handmaiden and learn obedience at every step. We learn that there were protests, but she herself didn’t think there was any point in creating a fuss - she was scared for her family. And I think out of everything in this book, this scared me the most.

There is spirit in this book, there is dissent, and there is an underground swell trying to fight back, but what interested me the most is how so many people let it go so far in the first place. Because this just isn’t a book where men oppress; women oppress other women as well. Everybody is reduced to a nameless function. You never find out what the Commander actually commands, or even what his name is. In fact we barely find out anything beyond Offred’s immediate world, which generates a suffocating pointlessness that hangs heavy alongside the barely-remembered life she had before and the daughter who was taken from her. At one point she is shown a glimpse of what her daughter looks like now, and she wishes she had never seen it. It’s better to not know, to forget what she had before, and to not think. To be nothing.

I personally found this to be a distinctly profound and unsettling book, and not just because of how women are treated but because it can show to what levels people will sink to survive. How, if you have enough people scared enough to go along with something, you do end up with Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia, or North Korea. One of the strengths of The Handmaid’s Tale is its timelessness despite focusing on an imaginary world. People are still fighting for the right for women to have an abortion. Female circumcision is still taking place. Yes, the world of Gilead is an extreme society, but you could argue that it isn’t that far away from our own and if you let some liberties slide apparently for ‘the greater good’, how far do you go before it stops?

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