Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Although it might seem strange now, there was a time when science fiction was perceived as an overwhelmingly male genre. Although there were exceptions like Ursula K  Le Guin, there were few prominent female writers and the readership was – somewhat unfairly – stereotyped as consisting largely of introverted  men. As such, science fiction was rarely seen as a means to explore the experience and viewpoints of women.  In 1985, Margaret Atwood challenged these assumptions with The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian speculative novel about the subjugation of women in an America which has been renamed Gilead and is under the oppressive rule of a Christian theocracy. In this regime, a woman’s main function is to produce children. They are forbidden basic freedoms, including the right to read. The handmaids of the title are a class of women who serve as concubines to conceive and bear children for men of rank. Failure to do so carries grim consequences.

The narrator of the story is a woman who has been rechristened Offred – literally ‘Of Fred’ indicating her status as the property of a man rather than an individual in her own right. She is handmaid to a man known as the Commander, who over time, appears to develop an interest in her beyond her role as a surrogate mother. Whilst this strand of the plot is unfolding, Offred also encounters others in her world who appear to be trying to resist the powers of the state.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable book. Much of it is told as an internal monologue, which emphasises Offred’s position as a woman without voice. At the same time as describing the regime in Gilead, she also recalls her past life, including those she has lost. These are some of the most touching sequences in the novel. Offred’s separation from her family, the enforced death of a family pet and the brutalisation of one of her friends are as upsetting and horrifying as anything in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is not a plucky heroine out to defeat the regime, but an individual doing what she must to survive in a nightmare situation. Although most of us like to think we would resist the forces of oppression, Atwood demonstrates how quickly things can change for the worse and how easily people fall in to line to stay alive.

There is a strongly feminist strand running throughout much of the writing. Offred reduced to the status of an object is a reminder of how religious and political forces have sought to control women’s bodies as a means of forcing them into subservient roles. Atwood also  shows how such societies persecute sexual and ethnic minority groups. Even straight men, she suggests, might find much to fear in such a regime. The repressive state becomes everyone’s nightmare.

In some respects, The Handmaid’s Tale anticipated the way in which female voices would increasingly come to be heard in Science Fiction. More than that, it is a profoundly thought provoking,  disturbing and humane novel. Essential reading.

Damian

My next read: The Bees by Laline Paull

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