(Summary via Goodreads.com) Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
I consider myself to be well-read in the world of dystopian novels. I have a great fondness for this genre of writing because it challenges its audience to consider what would happen in a world in which traditional rules for caste assignments and social norms have been disregarded, due to war, famine, supernatural factors, or simply an alternate universe has been created by the author. When we ask ourselves, “What if?” dystopian novels answer, “Be grateful for what you have.”
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is no different, yet it challenges the reader to consider more than just a parallel existence, but a true possibility of what life would be like if the marginalized population had their rights were taken away in a similar fashion to what we have seen throughout history. Her creation of a lifestyle only a few years removed from our current standards is enough to make her audiences consider the realistic possibility of “what may be” in a genre of writing called speculative fiction. This is what stayed with me throughout reading this novel.
The forbidden, indulgent lifestyle that the new regime of Gilead enforces upon its citizens brings to mind the phrase, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” which Atwood utilizes towards the end of the Offred’s story. The frivolous nature of life that the theocratic dictatorship attempted to squelch out of its citizens did not erase the desire, but forced them to hide it behind closed doors. In this futuristic society, due to pollution and sterilization, there has been a decline in population. In an attempt to increase the human population to the standard set forth by the new political/liturgical regime, children could be produced by fertile women, the Handmaids, and the head of the household for which they worked. Children were conceived and immediately passed over to the Wives, rendering the Handmaid as a uterus on legs. Sexual contact was restricted to the monthly “Ceremony” in which detachment overruled passion. The threat of being sent to the colonies, publicly humiliated, or hung in front of the Wall was not enough to keep our protagonist, and many others with and without power from seeking out their pleasures. This was the case during the American Prohibition days, and because of the epilogue, we can deduce that similar conclusions were met in Gilead.
My overall response to Atwood’s novel is one of great appreciation. I was taken in by the direct, first person retelling of Offred’s story, the removal of the fourth wall at pivotal moments drew me in:
I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant less distracted by trivia…I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?..By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are. (p 267-268)
Switching back and forth from retelling her story with the Commander, Nick, and the resistance, to her attempt to flee the country with her husband and child, provided a roundness, an authenticity to Offred and the life in which she was subjected to. With this being my first experience with a Margaret Atwood novel, I do anticipate more to come.