The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, posits the future of a democratic nation turned mono-theocracy. The only way I can truly describe this book is to say that 1984 and Brave New World had a baby that liked religion. It is written from the point of view of a woman in the role of “handmaiden,” thrust into the new society while still able to remember the old.
The novel explores various situations and occurrences through the use of flashback writing. The main story evolves as the narrator gains a new assignation as “handmaiden” to a childless, married Commander. As her only real duties are to go shopping for the household when needed and to preform in the “Ceremony” of trying to conceive a child; there is plenty of time to daydream about the past and the present. Handmaidens are selected because they are fertile women very capable of having a baby, which is of the utmost importance to the society. These handmaidens are distributed among important men to live in their household and try to conceive a child sired by the respective important figure. It is a duty, not an act of sexual pleasure.
The book details how the handmaiden lives her life and delves into her learning about a secret society that is working to undermine the ‘protection’ of women and help them leave the country. There is even an Underground Femaleroad rumored to be in place. Women in the society are either Wives, which are the married partners of men and hold a elevated status among women, Marthas, which are the equivalent of maids, Handmaidens, as mentioned before, and a few other lesser designations.
The narrator finds connections with people she had not seen for a while and reminisces about her life before the new regime took over – including anecdotes about her child and husband. She and her family had attempted to escape the country before everything changed completely, but were unsuccessful. After a while of daydreaming flashbacks, the present story progresses with an illicit relationship with the Commander to which she has been assigned. The illicit activities she participates in includes reading magazines (women are not allowed to read or write), using hand lotion, and playing Scrabble. Eventually the Commander introduces her to an underground society (different from the one trying to free women that are considered political criminals) and shows her that the past is still alive and well. Where he takes her basically equates to a speak-easy.
The commander’s wife is also working behind the backs of her household, setting up a chance for the narrator to become pregnant by having sex with one of the house’s protectors – a gaurdian. This blossoms into more than just a one-time deal and the narrator slowly reclaims her sensuality by having sex for the pleasure of having sex. All good things must come to an end, though, and the narrator is exposed for her illicit relationship with her commander and of course blamed for it all. She is mysteriously taken away by the “Eyes” which are fabled to be a gestapo-like organization. She is unsure of her fate as she enters the van and the book ends.
After the ‘book’ ends, there is a historical account given, where a speaker from the future addresses the work they deemed the Handmaiden’s Tale. They discuss the significances and outcomes of what really happened and indicate that obviously, things have changed.
When I say that this book was written as a child of 1984 and Brave New World, I do so in all seriousness. The dry, distanced writing from 1984 is coupled with the existence of ‘happy’ society and punishments like Brave New World. The act of sex as a duty is not a new factor, but the complete removal of all pleasure is an interesting development. This is more like 1984, of course.
To me, this book shows the power that religious zeal can have. It doesn’t even have to be religion – just any theory or belief system that lends itself to rabid worship can have the same effect. Hitler is a prime example of this; hhe notion that a short, dark haired, dark eyed leader can proclaim that only blond haired, blue eyed, strapping men and women are the ideal race is absurd – but a World War occurred because people believed. The case of how the regime is in place in the book is a mystery. We know that it starts with the American government being dramatically gunned down en masse; we don’t know why or by whom. The country slowly develops into a mono-theocracy where women have only the right to do as they are told, but also are trained to appreciate this as ‘protection’.
The most interesting factor of the novel was how the narrator was an ‘in between’ participator in the society. She was not through much of her life before everything started to wind it’s way towards the new religious regime, but she was also able to remember when everything was different. The rhetoric fed to the women was that everything would be easier for the generations to come; the unspoken reasoning for this was because they wouldn’t remember anything else. Normalcy can be achieved by generations advancing and generations dying out.
The whole thing is a little contrived – I feel as if I know what is going to happen. Frankly, some of it is written in a very confusing manner. I know that it mimics the way the brain thinks, but it also detracts from the story. Too many unanswered questions exist at the end. I’m a fan of mystery and leaving the reader with things to think about, but this book left a little too much up to fate. The ending was as an ending like this can only be: good, bad, or unknown. The author chose an unknown ending, which represented the theme of light and dark and how religion is supposed to be the light but often can cast a very dark shadow on it’s own. The historical part at the end of the novel gives us a little more information about the regime, but I didn’t find it extremely helpful or even relevant at many points.
If you’re looking for a read similar to Orwell, Huxley, or Rand, you would probably enjoy this book. I do not say it is nearly as well done or fascinating as any of those authors, but it does have it’s merits. Some the book is disquieting and some seem to have no relevance at all. I would not recommend this book to all readers, but only to a few who want a semi-challenging, semi-original dystopian read.
Speculative Fiction Challenge 2012 – book # 1