Author: Margaret Atwood
First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction
“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3
Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).
Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.
With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?
The Review: The Handmaid’s Tale
Now, the great majority of the book is told through the perspective of its main character, Offred. We are made privy to her innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires—try as she may to suppress the last bit in a bid for self-preservation. In a way, it’s like reading someone’s diary; except we learn soon enough that this is hardly possible, as the women in Offred’s universe are not allowed to read, let alone, write.
We learn early on that Offred isn’t the main character’s actual name. Rather, it is a signifier of her position in the highly structured society of the Republic of Gilead. She is a Handmaid of the state—a woman loaned out to a Commander (a high-ranking officer) and his family for the simple purpose of bearing children. She is the Bilhah to the Commander’s Rachel. Now, the name Offred is a portmanteau of two words—of and Fred. Fred, of course, being the Commander’s first name.
Offred is a member of the first batch of Handmaids. In her account, she reluctantly recalls her life before Gilead. Prior to becoming a Handmaid, Offred was your typical working woman, wife, and mother. She used to work for an insurance company where she transferred the contents of books into computer disks.
During her time, much of everything was already digitalized. Instead of paper money, people had Compunumbers issued by the Compubank. With a person’s every purchase, his or her Compunumber was punched into a machine and the payment was debited automatically from the person’s Compubank account. This is startling insight from Atwood’s end, because if you think about it, at this moment in civilized history, our generation is actually on the cusp of going paperless when it comes to our purchases. It is in hindsight that Offred realizes the folly of this type of practice.
“I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.”
It refers to the sudden rise of an extreme Christian Reconstructionist group called the Sons of Jacob. Offred recalls how one day the news just broke out about how the President had been assassinated and the Congress, machine-gunned. During the chaos, the murders were pinned on Islamic fanatics. Again, a terrifying reflection of our times.
It was a convincing ruse that was used by the Sons of Jacob to implement their military dictatorship. Under the guise of wanting what was best for the people, the Sons of Jacob began executing a series of “temporary” laws, which quickly became permanent. First, it was the media blackout. Then, martial law. And then finally and suddenly, women were no longer allowed to work. These became the stepping stones used by the Sons of Jacob to create the nightmarish Republic of Gilead. Anyone who dared to oppose or escape the regime were quickly and publicly executed.
The Republic of Gilead was using the incredibly conservative and outdated moral code of the Old Testament as a guideline for the state’s new laws. This meant that homosexuality, birth control, premarital sex (or rather, any form of sex outside of the purpose of procreation), heresy (or having another religion), and even education for women (or just reading and writing), were considered offenses that were punishable by death. And while marriages were considered sacred to some extent, second marriages were considered invalid. This is where it became problematic for Offred and her husband.
See, Offred was Luke’s second wife. Under the laws of Gilead, Offred was no better than a mistress or a fallen woman. As for the couple’s daughter, she was deemed illegitimate. This meant that the child was to become a property of the state. To Offred and Luke, escaping Gilead was the only way to keep their family together. Despite carefully planning their escape, their family was caught near the borders of Gilead. Luke tried to distract the guards, instructing Offred to run ahead with their daughter. But the guards were too fast and Offred and her daughter were also separated. She never did find out about Luke’s whereabouts. She didn’t know if he was still alive. Her daughter, she knew, was being kept in some government facility.
As for Offred, after her capture, she woke up inside the Red Center/the Rachel and Leah Center. There, she was kept for months with dozens of other fallen but fertile women. The Red Center was led by a group of older women called Aunts. Through propaganda speeches, torture, and coercion, Offred and the other captives were rehabilitated and trained to become Gilead’s Handmaids.
This brings us to Offred’s position at the start of the book. She tells the reader that she is on her third assignment. She had “failed” her previous Commanders, and now, it was her last chance to prove herself useful to the Republic of Gilead. If she fails this assignment, she will be branded an Unwoman and shipped off to the Colonies to work in the harsh plantations or to get rid of nuclear waste.
Her current Commander is a strange man. He seems to want more from Offred than what’s been bargained for. He seeks a form of companionship and romance with her, despite those two things being completely illegal in the Republic of Gilead.
As for his wife, Offred recognizes her as Serena Joy—a former singer and televangelist. During her turn as a television personality, Serena Joy had made a lot of speeches about the sanctity of the home and the woman’s role in the household. It must’ve been a belief that she held steadfastly in her younger years, but in Offred’s opinion, Serena Joy is just as unhappy with her new role in Gilead. Offred observes:
“How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”
Serena Joy loathes and at the same time feels responsible for Offred. She desperately wants a baby to bring meaning to her life, and therefore she wants Offred to succeed. However, she sees Offred as a manifestation of her own failings as a woman and a wife.
Now, rounding up the household are two Marthas, older, infertile women employed as servants for their domestic skills, and one Guardian. The Guardian isn’t exactly a soldier or an Angel, but is a man of lower means used for routine policing and basic services. In Commander Fred’s household, the Guardian, Nick, is used mainly as the family’s personal driver.
Offred tries to coexist peacefully with the different members of her new family. She tries to appease the Marthas through shows of gratitude and by trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. She minimizes contact with Serena Joy and treats the Commander with deference. But she finds herself a little unsettled over her few interactions with Nick. She is attracted to him, though she tries her best to squash this attraction. In a way, she does it out of loyalty to Luke. But another part of her acknowledges the need to save her own hide. She is afraid of doing something and being found out by the Angels (soldiers) or the Eyes (Gilead’s elite and secret police). After all, the punishment for an illegal dalliance is torture and death.
A part of Offred is also desperate for hope. She wants to believe that one day, there will be a rescue and that she will be reunited with Luke and their daughter. But it’s been years since she last saw her family, and with each passing day, hope dwindles. She wants to survive. But, for what? It was as if the Aunts’ propaganda speeches were becoming her reality.
“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will become ordinary.”
Now, an opportunity to regain hope arises when Ofglen, another Handmaid, tells her about the existence of a secret resistance group. The group identifies its members through the password: Mayday. At first, this is information that brings life to Offred. A flicker of fire burns in her once more.
But when Serena Joy convinces Offred to sleep with Nick to get pregnant, Offred’s hope and resolve begin to crumble. The planned one-night-stand turns into a clandestine, full-blown affair. She learns to trust Nick so completely. She also begins to question if she even wants to escape Gilead. Offred grapples with the concept of trading in the solidness and small joys of her current reality with something as nebulous and dangerous as possibility and hope.
And it is this very human and very understandable turmoil within Offred that makes me truly love The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a very gloomy cautionary tale, to be sure, and is one that offers no promises of happily ever after or even a conclusion, but the way its characters are portrayed—their very humanity—makes the book an immensely compelling and consuming read. Add to that the timeliness of this literary masterpiece, with the chaos and fear being instilled by borderline dictatorial leaders and terrorist groups like ISIS, and I am 100 percent convinced that The Handmaid’s Tale is the type of book that deserves to be read today.