With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood offers us another version of the dystopian novel, and a pretty great one. Atwood creates a haunting vision of a future not too far off, and while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the classics that came before such as 1984 or Brave New World, it is still a captivating and highly enjoyable book in its own right.
In a not too distant future America has ceased to be America and is now the Republic of Gilead. Not much introduction is given to this society, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that this is a backwards, sexist state ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists. Babies are scarce, and the sole purpose of women is to get pregnant, everything else including reading, working and unsanctioned socializing is strictly prohibited. Offred, the protagonist and narrator of this story, serves as a handmaid to one of the high ranking Commanders, a job which requires taking part in a monthly “ceremony” where the Commander tries to impregnate her. This is her only purpose, and everything else such as contacting her missing husband and daughter, or even going by her real name, is forbidden.
The rest of society has likewise been divided into specific sectors each with a specific purpose and costume to match. Commanders, wives, handmaids, servants and focus on their tasks, hoping to avoid being publicly hung, or banished to the colonies. The devolution into this dystopian state is sketched out vaguely in Offred’s flashbacks, although their main purpose is to reveal her separation from her husband and daughter, who are now lost to her in this dark new world.
Atwood has crafted a world that is both hard to believe, and hauntingly realistic. She takes many modern issues and stretches them to their chilling extremes, forming disturbing forecast of a not impossible future. She explores the dark connections between politics and sex, while avoiding sounding like a feminist manifesto.
This story is not so much about the characters, but rather the world they inhabit. Atwood’s portrait of Gilead is engrossing. The utter confusion and terror that accompanies this rapid societal regression permeates the entire story, and Offred remarks that if she could ask any question of her superiors it would simply be “What is going on?”
A well written, immensely readable, almost poetic novel that acts as a satire of modern society, and a warning for future generations, The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful and important book.