The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of mass indoctrination and female oppression hidden beneath a thin veneer of religious piety, as a teenager. It made me uneasy then, navigating as I was 80s attitudes towards women and equalities, and it continues to do so each time I read it, because that need to control never really goes away, it simply presents itself in a different form; and, as the recent decision on Roe v Wade in the US has shown women, those things that we take for granted can be easily lost.
Set in New England during a steep decline in the birth rate, variously blamed on environmental pollution, moral decay and the audacity of women’s life choices, The Handmaid’s Tale is the account of a woman, June, coping with the brutal aftermath of a coup that has replaced the government with a quasi-military religious dictatorship, the loss of her husband and young child, and her identity.
The new government imposes strict rules on its citizens. It categorises its female population according to their status and importance to the re-ordered world, marking them as easily identified by the compulsory dress colour-code. Children are forced into the regressive stereotypes of pink and blue. Men wear black.
June is sent to a camp with hundreds of other women to be conditioned and indoctrinated in preparation for their purpose in Gilead – that of forced childbearing. The are told that theirs is a privileged position, but most of them understand that they will become Gilead’s shame and that, once they have served their purpose they will be erased from history, and so they whisper their stories to one another in their dormitories at night, sharing personal information to keep themselves alive, even if it’s just in memories.
When they are sent from the camps to carry out their “duty”, the Handmaids, in their heavy and full scarlet dresses, are sent into the households of senior officials, known as Commanders, and, for the duration of their captivity, they are renamed for that house’s Commander. June becomes Of Fred: Offred.
Offred inherits a room inhabited by the Commander’s previous Handmaid. Who that woman was and what happened to her is unknown. As Offred is a prisoner in the room, allowed out only with permission, and never alone, she searches for clues about her predecessor, exploring every part of the room to discover some trace of her, finally finding a single sentence scratched into the wood, hidden in the base of the wardrobe: noli illegitimi carborundum. She is sure that this message, illegal as it is because they are not allowed to read or write, is meant for her: the passing of a defiant torch from one woman to another. Only later does she learn that it is nothing more than school-boy Latin, no more profound than graffiti on a wall: don’t let the bastards grind you down.
With no means of escape, hope is all that she has, and she is fortified by small acts of defiance she sees in other people, most notably through the network of Handmaids as they are brought together at mass events. Here, they can speak, albeit furtively, and they pass on any information they have in the hope that it will mean something to someone.
As exercise is good and is believed to aid in fertility, Offred is permitted to walk to the grocery store with an assigned partner, another Handmaid. They are each expected to ensure that the other is conforming, and to report back if they are not. It is from her shopping partner, Ofglen, that she learns of the Mayday resistance group and the underground railroad smuggling Handmaids across the northern border to Canada.
Removing the women’s capacity to make friends or to trust anyone, further isolates them and makes them easier to manipulate. When Ofglen is replaced without warning, Offred has no way of finding out what happened to her. The government erasure of the women’s identities and moving them from house to house means that they all but disappear. Ofglen may have been moved to another household, but she may have been arrested for her involvement with Mayday, and Offred will never know.
Whilst the lives of Gilead’s women see a seismic shift, those of the men barely register change. Commander Fred has his library and reads freely, he smokes and drinks, all things denied to the women of Gilead, and he even frequents the state sanctioned brothel.
Conversely, his wife, a pre-Gilead evangelical Christian television star called Serena Joy, is forced to accept a woman in her home who must endeavour to conceive a child with her husband, and then she must raise that woman’s child as her own. Regardless that she is a Commander’s Wife, she completely understands her status and worth are wholly dependent upon that other woman and her husband and any resultant child.
The child is key and, suspecting that her husband may be infertile, Serena Joy offers Offred information about her own stolen daughter in return for her sleeping with the Commander’s chauffeur, Nick.
As the Commander starts to engage with Offred as a human being, Serena Joy becomes suspicious that there is something more going on. Perversely, she seems less distraught by the idea of her husband’s infidelity than by Offred’s perceived treachery.
Offred confides in Nick that she may be pregnant, and she is afraid of what that might now mean, and when Nick arrives with the State’s secret police at the house to forcibly remove her, it isn’t clear whether this is a Mayday rescue to save their child, or a death sentence for Offred once the child is delivered. She has no choice but to go with them and hope that she will be saved.
We don’t find out what happened to Offred, whether her faith in Nick was rewarded. Like so many women in Gilead, she simply vanishes, and the reader is left wondering whether her innate will to survive, her hope, will keep her and her unborn child alive.
The swiftness of the coup is easily compared with the events around the Iranian Revolution, as is the neighbour-informants with the late 20th century communist regimes; and the parallels with the daily dangers currently faced by the women of Iran and Afghanistan are vivid. Indeed, at a time when women’s reproductive rights are still being debated and bodily autonomy cannot be taken for granted, Margaret Atwood’s book even now has the ability send a shiver down even the strongest spine. The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing and serves as a cautionary tale against taking freedom for granted, but throughout it nevertheless offers hope in the small things, not just for Offred but also for humanity, and in the long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, that hope seems to have been justified, even if it is does not end quite as neatly as we may want it to.