Margaret Atwood’s book is incredibly well-known, and at first I was reluctant to add my voice to the thousands of others who have expressed opinions on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ I had a myriad of prejudices before reading this book, but nothing could prepare me for how hard-hitting, brutal, and real this book is- and how much it would affect me. This is one of those books that will stay with me.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is set in the dystopian world of the Republic of Gilead, which is basically the whole of the US. The book follows Offred, a handmaid, whose sole purpose is to breed. Handmaids are given to male members of society or, in Offred’s case, to elite, ruling families who cannot have their own children. The Republic of Gilead has strict rules and customs, and those who break the rules are killed.
This is a place in which men dominate, and when the Republic first comes to power (killing the president, Congress, and halting the US constitution) the new government puts in measures to repress women, making them reliant on their husbands in every way.
It was the passage where Atwood described the measures gradually put in place by the government that shocked me the most. I was reading a fiction book, and yet the way in which men dominated and managed to cleverly create this patriarchal society seemed all too close to reality.
“They’ve frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective’s too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We’re cut off.
But I’ve got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered.
Women can’t hold property any more, she said. It’s a new law.”
The rules of the Republic of Gilead are all aimed at creating a ‘better’, more moral world. Sexual desire is prohibited, and the handmaids are used solely for increasing the population, which has reached an all-time low due to the amount of contraception readily available to young women. Divorce isn’t permitted, and those who have remarried are separated, their children taken off them.
Everyone has a specific function, from the Marthas, who do the cooking and cleaning, to the Aunts, who keep the women in check. Handmaids are re-named after the man for whom they breed (hence Of-Fred) and they are not allowed any freedoms, speaking only when spoken to, and wearing a specific outfit. Abortions in Gilead are strictly prohibited, with doctors who used to administer them in the pre-Gilead world being treated as war criminals, often killed, along with any dissenters.
“These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.”
Although men are also repressed in this new system, it is the oppression of women that Atwood clearly wanted to put forward in this book. She paints a bleak world where women are dominated by men, given no choice over their decisions, body or thoughts, with reading and writing even being an offence in this new world of no questioning, and limited knowledge.
This is a world in which women are punished for aborting children which have been forced on them through rape. A world where women are blamed when they are the victims of violent crimes, due to the clothes they were wearing, or the way they acted….Wait, hold on? As much as I didn’t want to, the Republic of Gilead certainly had some similarities with places across the modern world, and it was hard not to draw similarities between the handmaids in the book, and the fate of many women now.
“It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion… But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.“
Atwood wrote this book in 1985, and so, if we go by her novel, we are probably living in the Republic of Gilead right now. A scary thought, and one that made this a realistic, and all the more terrifying book, despite ultimately being a dystopian novel. I can see now why women dressed up as handmaids in order to protest against illegal abortion. It certainly made a loud and blatant point.
Men are not blamed for anything in this world. If a woman cannot have a child, it is her fault, and to suggest a man is sterile is treason. In fact, to speak out of turn at all is treason, particularly if you’re a woman.
Throughout the book, Atwood also presents a very negative view of religion, showing the way in which it can become something which controls society, and incites fear, rather than love, in the name of creating a ‘pure’ and ‘moral’ world.
The new religion kills all those who disagree with its principles, and it’s clear that Atwood has based this book on historical examples of religious fervour going wrong in the past. In fact, in an interview, Atwood stated that the examples of punishment and deaths she uses were based on actual cases from religious groups in the past.
“I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”
I absolutely loved this book, as horrifying and disgusting and scary as it was. It was written in such a hard-hitting, straight-forward way, and the prose wasn’t too descriptive or over-embellished. I really liked the character of Offred, and I thought her story was written in an engaging and compelling way.
I could really relate to her thoughts and feelings throughout the book, and I couldn’t imagine what it must be like, to go from having every liberty as a modern woman, to being placed under constant supervision, and never being able to read or write anything, or even speak to who you wanted.
If anything, the book was too hard-hitting in its brutality, and the way in which Atwood drew similarities between the anti-feminist attitudes in today’s society, and the society of Gilead. And the increasing power and control of religious groups was also scary to read. This really was a tale of when men gain total control, and was too close for comfort as a female reader.
I really liked the ending of this book. It was so clever, I really didn’t expect it, and I thought the way Atwood showed the ignorance of modern men towards the Republic of Gilead. While the whole book made me so so so so angry and so so so so so terrified about the path society could take without much change, it also really made me think. Atwood is definitely a fantastic writer.
When I finished this book, I was physically shaking. Through anger, anxiety, shock? Who knows. All I know is that this book reiterated the importance of not taking anything for granted. The Republic of Gilead came into power so gradually that no one even noticed the changes, until suddenly women were devoid of any power, and their husband (or next male of kin) controlled everything. And then even more changes came in, and suddenly the world was a different place entirely. And this idea really scared me.
“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest, but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”
I am not a fan of saying that a book is a ‘must-read’, because I don’t think anyone should ever be forced to read a certain book, reading should be for pleasure! However, I think with this book, policy-makers should definitely read it.
This should be required reading for those in power, or those considering going into power. In fact, most people should read this book. Because as much as those in power are to blame for the way in which society becomes so male-dominated, the men don’t exactly do much to fight against it.
Even Luke, Offred’s husband, doesn’t seem to really understand how bad it is for Offred, when she loses her job and her money and becomes his property. He seems blasé about the whole thing- and I worry this would be the case for many men in modern society. I never want to find myself in the Republic of Gilead.
Have you read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood? Does it cover topics you’re interested in, or that really rile you up? Would you consider reading it in the future?
Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below 🙂
Can’t get enough of Margaret Atwood? Check out a great article about her and her books here.
Happy reading x
Picture credits here