The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Publication Date: 1985
Source: Purchased Used
The Short Version:
Unsettling story of a dystopian world where everyone and particularly women are strictly relegated to specific roles and role of the handmaid is to bear children for others.
Why I Read It:
It has probably been 20 years since I first read this. A recent conversation on Twitter led to a readalong of this book hosted by Pam at Bookalicio.us for Margaret May. While I’d read the book ages ago and remembered the basic story this was the perfect opportunity for a re-read.
Set in the not to distant future, the story is told by a handmaid known as Offred (she never reveals her real name). While she can remember the times before, she is forced to deal with her current circumstances. The Republic of Gilead is a highly structured society where people are required to exist within the rules for their assigned roles. Offred is a handmaid and her role is to bear children. She lives with The Commander and his wife (the wife was a televangelist in the time before). Once a month they all participate in a ‘ceremony’; the sole purpose of which is to impregnate the handmaid in a twisted interpretation of the biblical story of Rachel, her maid Bilhah and Joseph.
In the Republic of Gilead, women are not allowed to read, have their own money or hold jobs. There is a strict moral code that all must comply with or suffer the consequences (various forms of punishment, exile to The Colonies, or even death).
Offred tells the story of her current circumstances interspersed with recollections of her life before the political and environmental changes that led to the development of The Republic of Gilead. The reader gradually learns of her life in the time before with her husband and daughter as well as the things she experienced as the world around her changed.
An odd but interesting afterward adds a whole additional tweak to the readers’ perspective.
I remember reading this book when I was in my late twenties and finding it quite unsettling. When Margaret Atwood wrote this in the early 1980’s it was a time when the ‘Moral Majority’ was growing and in the news along with the activities of some of the more well known televangelists and other religious organizations becoming very politically vocal and active. At that time of my life it was not a huge stretch to imagine a government like that of the Republic of Gilead in power somewhere and sometime.
Re-reading it now was still a bit unsettling. Different things jumped out at me this time. Beyond the ‘religion’ that developed in Offred’s world there were other things I found jarring. I just about dropped the book when the description of the collapse of the United States Government included the statement “They blamed it on the Islamic Fanatics”. Hmm – the more things change, the more they stay the same? 25 years after the book was published and parts of it still sound like the evening news.
I think what stood out for me while reading it this time was the difference from most other dystopian fiction I’ve read in the past couple of years. In most of those the current society and government has been in place for a long time and any references to a time before that remotely resembled our current world was far in the distant past. In The Handmaid’s Tale the storyteller is very much a participant in both the present and past societies. The drastic changes have taken place fairly recently and she had a full adult life in the time before and to read of her longing for that while she’s facing the facts of her current existence made it seem that much more real and touching to me.
You’ll have to forgive me. I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it.
This was definitely worth a re-read and I although I was only able to participate in one of the scheduled discussions hosted by Pam, I enjoyed it very much. Next week, I’ll be watching the movie version and our last Margaret May discussion will be about the book versus the movie.
If you are thinking about reading and discussing this for the first time or as a re-read please check out the Classics Reads Book Club at http://classicreads.wordpress.com/. They’ll be reading and discussing this book together beginning in July.