The Handmaiden's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Finished May 23, 2010
Wow. Well, let me start this by saying this book made me think. And I'm still thinking about it. I can't believe I didn't read it sooner in life. It's a book that could be set in the future, and yet, feels like it's in the past. As if the vision of progress for some is to go back in time 100 years.
The book takes place - well, I'm not quite sure when it takes place. During the end of the 20th century or early 21st century. The United States is no longer - it is now the Republic of Gilead. The far religious right has taken over - and along with that many rules are now in place. And fear is how everyone is kept in place. Hangings are televised, bodies are left up for several days to serve as reminders, punishment is severe, swift and my guess often given to the wrong person. Birthrates are dropping and many babies are born with problems - so birthing perfect babies is a very prized thing in this new society.
Women, who have put back in their "right" place are now subjected to extreme rules. They can no longer read. Money is obsolete - instead they are given coins with pictures on them (a coin with eggs is for eggs, bread picture is one to buy bread with, etc). The stores are also identified by pictures - as if even that much reading would be too taxing on poor women. There is clearly a caste system - where you fall in it can be identified by the clothes you wear. The higher you rise, the more you are given.
Men are rewarded for doing good with, well, women and homes. If you are upper class, you are given a wife, a cook, a maid, and if needed a handmaiden. If you are lower class you are given econowives - who will also act as maid, cook, etc. Again, each women's role is clearly identified by her dress.
Offred is the main character - she is the handmaiden to Fred (hence her name "Of Fred") who is referred to as Commander through the story. A handmaiden's job is simply to bear children for the family she is placed with. Once a month in a quite strange ceremony - designed to take all the love out of the act - the handmaiden, wife, and husband meet in the bedroom in an effort to make her pregnant. The pressure to get pregnant for the handmaiden's is very high. It seems her entire worth is wrapped up in whether she can manage to do this AND give birth to a healthy baby.
Offred's partner is Ofglen - the handmaiden's are not allowed to go into town alone, they must always travel in pairs. Offred learns through Ofglen there are people out there willing to help get the women out of these situations.
I admit at first the story is hard to get into. It has been written based on tapes found in the future that Offred recorded. It bumps along, not quite in order, with flashbacks, bits of info given on this page, and a little more a few pages later. There is not a lot of action in the story - and yet, it doesn't need to be. And eventually the story falls into place. The first few chapters were very confusing to me I admit. Some women are referred to as Aunts - it took me a few chapters to realize they were not in fact real aunts, but aunt is their title so to speak.
And yet, I couldn't put it down. I couldn't stop thinking. I couldn't stop thinking there are some out there today who probably think this book sounds like utopia! Not me though, this would be a nightmare to live in. And yet, today - in parts of the world, this is how women are treated. Historically, many women were treated this way. I can't imagine having to live like that - to not be able to read. To not be allowed to leave the house except to shop. To be at a man's beck and call. Yikes. This book has stayed with me in a powerful way. I wish I had read it much sooner in life!
On a related note - this book was made into a movie. I'm trying to get my hands on it so I can see how it translated into film! If I do watch, I promise to come back and write about it!!