Does the title bring to your mind the picture of a cute and sexy handmaid with her short lace trimmed dress with a dusting brush in her hand? This is the part where I discourage readers from continuing if you are expecting a raunchy thriller filled with sexual escapades. This book is NOT that. Maybe I can interest you in a couple of Mills and Boon novels but not in The Handmaid’s Tale. Also, my apologies to the rest in case I filled your mind with this mental imagery.
The Handmaid’s Tale had been lying neglected in my bookshelf for over a year. Even though Atwood is one of my favourite authors, I was always reluctant to start reading The Handmaid’s Tale. This was because I knew that the book was a dystopian novel and reading it would definitely make me feel dispirited. However after reading Lady Oracle (Review of Lady Oracle), I was in an Atwood spree and could get my hands only on The Handmaid’s Tale. Finally I decided to buckle up and start reading the book.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a unique novel which might leave you feeling morbid and paranoid. The book has all the Atwood elements of feminism in a patriarchal society. For me, this was my first dystopian novel highlighting the plight of women in a fiercely conservative regime. Even though the novel was published in 1985, the premise of the plot is very relatable and might even be looming in the near horizon. The story is narrated by Offred, a handmaid in the fictional Republic of Gilead. Widespread infertility, abortion and genetic deformities brought forth due to nuclear accidents and leakages resulted in fertile women being used as handmaids. The sole function of a handmaid is to reproduce and every influential household without an offspring is furnished with one.
Throughout the book, Atwood moves back and forth between Offred’s past and present to give us a better understanding of Offred’s life before Gilead and how she became a handmaid. Offred was married to Luke, a divorcee, and had a daughter with him. Luke and Offred gets caught while trying to escape Gilead. As Gilead’s laws do not recognise divorce and this was Luke’s second marriage, the marriage of Luke and Offred is deemed unlawful. Following this mishap, Offred is sent to “Rachel and Leah Re-education Center” to train as a handmaid while their daughter is sent to an elite family for upbringing. The fate of Luke is unknown and throughout the novel Offred ponders over the possible destinies that Luke might have had.
The book begins with Offred being posted as a handmaid in the house of a Commander. This household consists of the Commander, his wife Serena Joy (an erstwhile television personality), Martha (cook), a maid and Nick, the driver. Offred goes about her job as a handmaid mechanically, and as a new addition to the household, she is viewed with suspicion. As Gilead’s laws do not allow handmaids to step outside unaccompanied, Offred is paired with Ofglen for all her chores. From Ofglen she comes to know about the existence of a secret resistance group named MayDay. This organisation is quite powerful with spies all over Gilead.
Offred’s life soon gets complicated with the events at the Commander’s house. The Commander starts showing an interest in Offred which is forbidden as per Gilead laws. Unknown to Serena Joy, the commander arranges a daily rendezvous with Offred. Their time together is predominantly spent in playing scrabble or reading magazines which is reminiscent of a normal household. Serena Joy is desperate for Offred to bear a child for the family. Fully aware that the Commander is sterile, she suggests using Nick to impregnate Offred. Things spiral out of control when Offred falls in love with Nick and starts sharing her thoughts. Will Offred be caught and punished or will she find a way to escape from Gilead?
Through Gilead, Atwood paints the picture of a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian government. Gilead is the fruit of religious extremism which completely eradicates the present day social structure. It is the epitome of patriarchal oppression where even basic choices like sex and reproduction are subjected to policing. This lack of freedom for women is clearly emphasised through the portrayal of Offred’s mother. She is a feminist who had fought tooth and nail for women’s right including the right to use contraceptives and the legalisation of abortion. However in Gilead, everything we take for granted today has vanished. Women are not allowed to read, write, wear a dress of their choice, love someone or even have any thoughts! In this patriarchal society, women are owned by their men. Even the name of a handmaid shows her ownership by the commander!
This book is a must read for all dystopian fans and Atwood followers. I would suggest female readers to take up The Handmaid’s Tale as this is a pure feminist novel. Many of the concepts portrayed in this book already exists in today’s world and it will definitely strike a chord with all the readers.
Favourite quote: “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because of what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many”
Favourite character : Moira
Offred’s spirited and courageous friend who, after much casuality, finally manages to escape the “Rachel and Leah Re-educational Center”. She is a shining light of positivity throughout the book and is a great example of a free spirited woman who cannot be crushed by the injustice of the society.