I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as a teenager during the 1980’s. The horror of this dystopian story has stayed with me for more than thirty years.
I decided to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale prior to reading The Testaments and I’m glad I did. I think I took more from the story as an older reader but despite considering myself to be older and wiser (!) I am still wondering what I can say about this book which hasn’t been said a million times before…
Regardless, I’ll start with a recap of the story which is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead (formerly the USA) in an alternate version of the future which started around the 1980s. Prior to her present-day life, Offred (her real name is unknown) lived and worked in the USA, and was married to Luke with whom she had a daughter. Her mother was a feminist who had fought hard for women’s rights.
Following an overthrow of what we would call normal life by a regime who followed an extreme interpretation of Christianity, women all over the USA lost virtually all of their rights. Offred lost her name, her job and all access to her bank accounts. She lost the right to read, write and to be educated. As Luke had been married previously, their marriage was considered void by the regime. The family tried to escape to Canada but were unsuccessful.
Because of a series of events including nuclear disasters, very few women were fertile so the regime divided women into categories with the intention of using surrogacy to increase the population. When the story began Offred was a Handmaid, a member of a household whose role it was to become pregnant on behalf of those who were infertile. The Handmaids had very little freedom and wore red to signify their status, along with bonnets that blinkered them. Offred’s name signified that during the time of the story, she was posted to the household of a man named Fred.
The wives in Gilead wore blue, to signify their status and the Marthas, or household staff, wore green. The Econo-wives, who were expected to carry out all household functions, wore stripes. White was for young girls and black for widows. ‘Unwomen’ are sent to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste, a task which they will soon die at.
Offred’s third posting was to the home of a Commander in the regime. She told the story of her day-to-day life alternately with stories that provided a glimpse into her past. Offred was well aware that the Commander’s wife resented her, even though she recognised her as a former Christian television personality who had publicly supported the new regime. (Having said that, it is doubtful if the wife knew she would be supporting the practice of her husband attempting to impregnate their Handmaid as the two women lay hand-in-hand in the marital bed).
Offred was disconcerted when the Commander invited her surreptitiously to his study to play Scrabble, as contact outside of the prescribed sexual ritual was forbidden. Their personal contact increased over time until the Commander had Offred accompany him to a government brothel, dressed as a whore. Without any irony the Commander commented to Offred that men had always required a variety of women sexually and that women subliminally knew this and prior to the changed regime, owned large wardrobes to provide variations of themselves to men.
At the same time as Offred was seeing the Commander without the knowledge of his wife, the wife arranged for Offred to have an affair with their chauffeur, as she believed the Commander was infertile.
Things came to a terrible climax when the Commander’s wife realised that her husband and Offred had been meeting outside of the prescribed ritual sex sessions.
Most frighteningly, and something I don’t believe I realised the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, was that it was mostly women who were watching, reporting on and judging the Handmaids and other women in Gilead. The Handmaids were trained by older women called Aunts who were also responsible for choosing and carrying out their punishments. The wives and daughters had limited social lives and control over their households but their wishes could also determine the fate of a Handmaid. The Handmaids couldn’t even trust each other as some Handmaids were spies for the regime. Everything that happened that required blame to be attached was a woman’s fault. In real life, sadly this is often also the case too and women are often each other’s own worst enemies.
Many of the character’s motives, actions and outcomes are ambiguous which added to the sense of unease I felt as I read this story. I frequently felt angry, too, as I compared the female character’s lives with real life. Women in many countries still don’t have the same rights as men and probably won’t in my lifetime. Women in many workplaces don’t earn the same amount of money as men. Women in many households don’t have a voice. Women across the world have less educational, career, sporting, religious and political opportunities than men. More women are affected by domestic violence. Women have difficulty voting in some countries. I’m not even going to touch the controversial issue of women’s right to manage their own fertility.
While you never know what you will get from a Margaret Atwood novel, you do know in advance that the ideas in her novels will be shocking, far wilder and madder than you could ever have imagined yourself, let alone written down or been brave enough for others to read and judge what goes on in your imagination.
While I am really looking forward to reading The Testaments I will wait a few more weeks and read some books from other genres before I start it to let my emotions settle down again.