Published in 1986, this book has the profound ring of George Orwell's 1984. Perhaps the era called out to Ms. Atwood. I don't know. But her tale is only a little less grim than Orwell's.
The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred (short for Handmaid of Fred). Separated from her identity, child, husband, and all connection to her past life, Offred has but one purpose in life -- to have a baby. She is a lady assigned to a high-ranking official's house. His wife is childless, so Offred's job is to bear a child by him. This is her only function in the household.
In her time and community, anyone who deviates from the society's doctrine is tortured, publicly killed, and left on "the Wall" for all to see. Most women have no names, no rights. It is illegal for them to read. Divorce is impossible, as is running away, since security checkpoints are instated for just the purpose of ensuring everyone stays just where they're supposed to.
Offred spends her time reminiscing about her past life when she had a career, friends, a husband, and a daughter. She imagines all of the possible fates of her loved ones and dreads her own.
Her character is not particularly brave or intelligent. She is not a heroine who will rise above this situation with little effort. One can imagine that she is at least an ordinary woman with strong feelings, not the least of which is fear -- fear of pain, of loneliness, and of death.
The society and its ways reveal themselves slowly. The narrator seems to assume that no explanation is necessary. This is a strong point for the book, which does not insult the intelligence of the reader, but leaves it to him/her to determine certain facts and draw certain conclusions on their own. It reminds me of The Giver also, as it reveals slowly such truths that the narrator seems sometimes to take for granted. Such truths sometime change the way you see other events from earlier in the novel. It's strongly written.
Also, for James Joyce lovers, there is the sense of stream of consciousness. Later, in the Epilogue, we find out just why it seems that way. In the meantime, you feel as if you're wandering through the thoughts of a woman desperately trying to hold her sanity together. It makes me think of the women in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in charge. Educated women were forbidden from working anymore and needed a man to conduct any business for them. There are similar echoes here.
Except that it is not radical Islam that plays a central villainous role. It is Christian extremism which preaches that the woman is subservient to the man, that divorce is adultery and punishable by death, and that anyone who does not follow "the way" is a sinner who must be harshly and swiftly punished.
The tale is rooted in fear. What could happen in a society consumed by such fear of each other, of the government, of outsiders? Margret Atwood centers her story on the females and what the regime does to them. But there are inklings that many males also suffer -- particularly those who are not well off or influential.
It's a good book -- about 300 pages and a real page turner. Very suspenseful. But difficult to read. So many things in it are quite appalling. It will get you thinking, though, about extreme Christian movements and what might happen if people without the purest intentions found their way into power and began using religion as a weapon. I don't think that this could actually happen (optimist that I am) in the US in my lifetime, because I believe that people are inherently good. But then, it happened in Afghanistan, didn't it?
I am a serial re-reader -- If a book really gets stuck in my head, I revisit it like an old friend over and over again. I may read it from cover to cover or only spend time getting reaquainted with my favorite parts of the story. That said, I've read The Handmaid's Tale at least 10 times -- and counting. I love dystopian literature, and this is one of the best in my opinion.
The novel tells the tale of the heroine Offred (not her real name -- in Atwood's future, women are addressed by an explanation of who they belong to, i.e., "Of Fred.")Society has crumbled, and some unexplained global tragedy has occurred leaving most women sterile. Those who can still conceive -- the Handmaids -- are forced to bear children for those who can afford it, society families, military men and those in good standing with the new uber-spooky government. Big Brother is hard at work in this book, which still terrifies me every time I read it. One of my Top 20 books without a doubt. Just writing this review makes me want to pick it up and begin the story all over again. [close]
This would make an excellent book club book. Great fodder for discussions. It was a very bizarre book, but a bit too sci-fi for me. I also felt the ending left too many questions unanswered.
Very interesting. A nightmarish projection of the future and a harsh analysis and critique of women's traditional roles. Rich with suspense and emotion.
Haunting tale of the horrors of gender roles in a futuristic society.