Published in 1985, Atwood’s classic novel is making another surge in popularity thanks to the new Hulu series. I don’t have Hulu, but I’ve heard the buzz and it piqued my interest, making me decide that this month would be a perfect time to read the novel that inspired the series. Luckily, I decided to get a copy for my Kindle when I first signed up, because I went to grab a copy from the library and ended up being 21st on the waitlist.
In a post government regime known as Gilead, once New England, set in the not too far future (of the 1980’s), the male holds all control. Women are always to blame, they have no power, and all identity springs from men. The novel starts off quick paced, introducing main character Offred. Offred has become a Handmaid, a woman who is fertile and used by families who cannot conceive naturally…almost like a surrogate meets mistress. The Commander and his Wife, whom Offred is assigned to, are unable to have their own children- they suspect that the Commander is sterile. However, sterile is an illegal word and men can never be accused of it, so they blame the Wife for their inability to conceive. Therefore, they have been allowed the use of a live-in Handmaid, who in The Ceremony once a month, the Commander has sex with while she lays between the Wife’s legs. As Offred describes:
“I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.”
Offred knows that in the new order, she must fulfill her duties or else there’s a good chance that she will be labeled as Unwoman, or one who cannot bear children and therefore unnecessary in Gilead, leading her to the Colonies and certain death. So instead of fighting the system, she chooses to disassociate with the present and let her mind travel to the past, where she used to have a real name, a husband (Luke), a best friend (Moira), and a young daughter.
As time slowly passes, the Commander decides to partake in minor illegal past-times with Offred, such as playing Scrabble, or reading magazines, or just generally spending time talking to his Handmaid. The Wife does the opposite, practically ignoring Offred’s existence until she gets desperate to conceive and plots to get Offred pregnant though the handsome chauffeur, Nick. What nobody expects is the twist that leads Offred and Nick in cahoots.
Overall, I really enjoyed Atwood’s novel. I am a fan of dystopian novels, and am always curious to see what worlds the author creates when the government has gone awry (or away, in some cases). I can see Atwood’s creation easily being plausible, in which extreme religion overthrows the government, blames it on another extreme religion, and creates a cult-like leadership that brainwashes captives who have to decide between a new way of life, or death. Eerily, there were lines that could easily fit a narrative for today’s current events. As far as the plot, I found it a little slow as Offred goes between her past and present. There is action in places, but sometimes it takes a while to get to those scenes. However, I feel the conspiracy aspect with Offred’s observations very interesting and gripping.
I feel that calling this novel classic literature is probably incorrect, but it certainly should be considered a contemporary classic, and that’s another reason why I decided to bunch it together with the other classics this month.
Ok, why is it a contemporary classic then?
Not only does this novel give readers a look at what extreme religion and government control could plausibly do to our countries and life as we know it, but it also addresses sexism and oppression that women still face today. In the novel, these women don’t have names, instead using names derived from their Commander; they aren’t allowed property, or money, or their own freedom; they aren’t allowed to read for fear of gaining knowledge. And the scariest thing is, Atwood even stated that there was “nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere.” A Handmaid’s Tale is controversial, constantly bouncing on and off challenged book lists, but absolutely relevant to the current state of affairs in the world today. This is why legions of readers have been indulging in the read, and why it should continue to be shared among generations. At this rate, we’re 30 years past publication date, and not further along (or minutely, if we’re being optimistic) when it comes to resolving these issues. I fully encourage everyone (well, I’ll give it at least a PG13 audience due to it’s content) to give it a read.