WWend. I think I can see why it has a certain appeal to both readers of genre fiction and those who prefer mainstream fiction. I found it to be a fascinating read but also a book full of very, very unpleasant things.
In the near future plagued by environmental degradation and decreased human fertility, Christian fundamentalists manage to take over the United States. A war ensues and a new theocratic government is established. Soon they start to stripping away rights from women and persecuting other religious groups. Our narrator, a woman renamed Offred, is separated from her husband and child and given to a high ranking member of the new regime. It is her job to provide him with the child his wife has been unable to conceive.
Atwood's description of a theocratic United States, renamed to the republic of Gilead, is pretty extreme. Offred is little more than a broodmare. She has no say whatsoever over her life. She can't own property or money, can't hold a job and even her own body is in effect property of a man. Sex is relegated to a job, devoid of any kind of affection or intimacy. Atwood describes the monthly ceremony in which the Commander she is supposed to provide a child for tries to get her pregnant. It must be one of the most revolting sex scenes in the history of literature. Which is precisely the effect Atwood is aiming for.
One of the critiques this book has gotten over the years is the comment that something like that could not happen in the US. I think what Atwood describes is a bit too extreme to be likely. Too few people would benefit from such drastic change for the new regime to create enough support to survive in the long run. There are places in the world however, where the situation for women in particular, is little better. Perhaps even more scary is the fact that a large portion of the US population would approve of more than a few things mentioned in the novel. Not to mention the surge of distrust for anybody who doesn't identify themselves as Christian. I don't see Atwood's vision of a theocracy in the US become reality tomorrow but to put it completely outside the realm of possibility... that would be dangerous.
The story is told entirely through the eyes of Offred. She is a woman who clearly remembers her freedoms and accomplishments in her life before the republic of Gillead was founded. Through a series of flashbacks we get to see her life before and after the revolution, although Offred admits she is not the most reliable chronicler. Reading and writing has been forbidden for women so her story is only as reliable as her memory. It is one of the many ways in which women are reduced to possessions. The scene in which Offred witnesses a group marriage and realizes that in a few years, the women who are given away will not remember a life before Gillead is painful to read.
The way in which Gillead was created is nebulous and not all that believable but the manner in which is stays in control the population is frighteningly realistic. Atwood describes the brutal indoctrination the women destined to become Handmaids are forced to undergo. Those who cannot be bullied into accepting their new role are sent of the to colonies, a network of work camps with a reputation similar to the Soviet Gulag system. There is a huge purging of everything that is considered sinful or subversive. Book burnings, destruction of anything that empathizes female sexuality, suppression of homosexuality, complete control over the media and of course a security service to rival the Stasi. Atwood has even taken into account the need for release when a man convicted to rape (it is suggested in the book that he is actually a political prisoner) is literally being torn to pieces by a group of women gathered for a compulsory ceremony called Salvaging.
There is little in the way of hope in this book. On the surface her fertility is prized by the regime but she meets jealousy and condemnation at every corner. Perhaps the most painful of these is the way other women treat her. A commodity to men, a slut to women. Whatever the fundamentalists think they may have achieved, hypocrisy and double standards most certainly haven't disappeared. Despite being surrounded by people and checked upon all the time, her position in society makes her lonely. Something the first person perspective reinforces. The text radiates loneliness and paranoia.
Offred clings to tiny things to make life bearable. A cigarette, a picture of her daughter, the daily walks she is allowed to take to get groceries. Anything that distracts her from her purpose becomes something to look forward too. Even a message in mock Latin scratched into the wood of a piece of furniture is cause for excitement. What is even more encouraging is the discovery that resistance is still possible despite the insane level of oppression. Offred has no idea what is going on in the world but gradually a picture of corruption within the government and small scale resistance emerges. Her world is kept so small however that bu the end of the novel there is no telling how effective they are or how far their influence stretches.
The Handmaid's Tale is a thoroughly depressing novel. Atwood has taken just about every outrage committed against civil liberties in the US and pressed them into one nightmarish scenario. Not terribly likely perhaps, but given the fact that just about everything she describes has historical precedents, it is still very disturbing. The first person perspective of the story give us a very intimate view of the horrors of this particular regime. Atwood grants us luxury of an open ending so I guess the reader could choose to believe in a happy end. That is about the only ray of light in this tale. I am glad I read it but it is such an intensely disturbing book, that I doubt I'll be up for a reread any time soon.
Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Everyman's Library
First published: 1985