Gary Hoggatt's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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Apr 17, 12

bookshelves: science-fiction, all-fiction, favorites, dystopian
Read in March, 2012

Dystopian fiction is most powerful when it reflects fears about what could really happen. The more likely such a future is, the more terrifying the story. As such, there is perhaps no better time than now to read Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place during an unspecified time in the future, after the former United States has been replaced by the theocratic Republic of Gilead after a coup. Every part of society is aligned with the official doctrine, none moreso than the place of women. Women are assigned to color-coded classes based on their reproductive status and usefulness to society. The blue Wives, married to Commanders of the Republic, are the highest class, the green Marthas are domestic servants, and the brown Aunts enforce orthodoxy. The red Handmaids are fertile women assigned to Commanders and Wives who are unable to have children of their own due to the widespread drop in fertility attributed to environmental damage, their task being to stand in for the Wives, then hand any resulting children over to the Wives to be raised, as occurs in several stories from the Book of Genesis. No women are allowed to work outside the home or have money, and few are allowed to read.

The title character is Offred ("Of Fred"), a Handmaid assigned to a high-ranking Commander. She is of the first generation of women to be made a Handmaid following the rise of Gilead. In her pre-Gilead life, she was a college graduate with a job, a husband, and a child. Offred struggles to keep some sense of herself alive after everything she was has been stripped from her. In the new society, her only function is procreation.

The narrative follows Offred's assignment at her present Commander's household. Offred relates her story, which at first sticks to the routine of her duties. However, it doesn't take long before complications arise. A fellow Handmaid tells her of a resistance, and those in charge of enforcing orthodoxy have the same failings they did before Gilead, entangling Offred in dangerous activities. Interspersed with the current events are Offred's recollections. She tells the reader about her previous life, about how the Republic of Gilead came to be, of her experiences being indoctrinated as a Handmaid, and of the fates of those she knew from before.

It's a sad, gripping story, watching Offred try to keep what control of her life she can, hearing how this situation came to be, inch by inch until it was too late to escape. The narrative technique used by Atwood is powerful, as it keeps us in Offred's head at all times, almost trapped with her in her prison of red. Often times, we can't be sure what's real, as Offred herself is unsure, can't remember, never knew. But that sense of oppression always remains.

I've read several dystopian novels before, and The Handmaid's Tale is as good as any of them. I'd absolutely rank it right next to Orwell's 1984. Atwood and Orwell speculate on different origins and methods of dystopian oppression, but both are powerful, frightening, and too-often accurate.

With the political debate surrounding reproductive rights in the United States in 2012, The Handmaid's Tale is more important than ever. This book is Atwood's warning to us. This novel needs to be read. It needs to remain a warning, and not become prophecy. I can't recommend The Handmaid's Tale highly enough.
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