I first started reading this novel sometime back in the 1990s when I was in college or graduate school, and still fairly new to the world of academic feminism where The Handmaid’s Tale is (was?) considered a must-read. I started it, but didn’t finish it, and don’t remember how far I read. I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time.
It is probably a book that I’ve lied about reading. Well, maybe not actively lied about, but nodded and said yes, yes when others talked about it. Like Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood is a writer that I’ve read more about than have actually read of her work.
But The Handmaid’s Tale was a novel that I knew I’d eventually read and it was one of the first books that I included on my reading list for The Classics Club.
For those of you unfamiliar with this novel, it’s a dystopian story about a future America that is organized into districts. The U.S. government was destroyed in a brutal takeover by a militaristic Christian organization called the Sons of Jacob. The new country is renamed the Republic of Gilead. Like some of our contemporary politicos, the new leadership warps Christianity to fit their purposes. Women are not allowed to read and Bibles are kept under lock and key. Women are subjugated, races segregated, and Jews given the option to convert to Christianity or to move to Israel.
In this future society, many people are rendered sterile. Let me rephrase that, many Caucasians of the upper classes are sterile or just don’t procreate as much as other races. In addition to sterility, another reason for the downward trend in Caucasian reproduction is the increase in birth defects, access to birth control, and women having careers. After the Constitution was eliminated, one of the first steps taken by the new government was to dismiss women from their jobs and eliminate their access to their own money. Money is available only to husbands or to the male next of kin. Centers are set up behind the scenes that indoctrinate young women into becoming handmaids, women who will be used for breeding purposes by the leaders of the new government.
The story is told by Offred, a youngish woman who is of the first generation of women selected for training and work as handmaids. In the days before the new theocratic government, Offred was married and had a child. It’s through her eyes that we learn about life before the takeover and during the early years of the new republic. Her mom was an activist feminist and her best-friend, Moira, a lesbian. Neither woman fares well in the new society. Indeed, no one really fares well in this new society, not even the elite men who designed this society. For a time, these elite men try to have their cake and eat it, too.
At the end of Offred’s story is a surprise “ending,” a metafiction that takes the reader even further into the future, into a lecture hall at an academic conference where a scholar who specializes in the Republic of Gilead talks about the discovery and significance of what has been named, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It turns out Offred’s narrative was a recording made on cassette tapes which were already an archaic form of technology when the tapes were recorded. We learn more about the society through this lecture.
The story itself is excellent–thought provoking, tense, thrilling. There is fear, secrecy, longing, resignation, risks, betrayals, and executions. The social critique that Atwood offers is still highly relevant, perhaps even more relevant today than when it was published in 1985.
It was also enjoyable to see the influence of this novel on subsequent books that I’ve read. Two recent novels that come to mind are The Hunger Games, which also divides its totalitarian United States into districts, and The Passage, which incorporates a futuristic academic conference as part of the story.
Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? Are there novels that you’ve read that were influenced by it?
Oh, and if you’re an Atwood fan, which novel of hers should I read next?