The Handmaid’s Tale

Posted: July 25, 2010 in books
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One of the books that I recently read is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’ve been a fan of Atwood’s poetry since high school, but I never got around to reading her novels until much later. Let me make another recommendation to my high school literature teachers: Please include “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the feminist literature reading list. (Ah, but do they still teach feminist lit in St. Scho? I sure hope so.)

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a work of speculative fiction, set sometime in the near future. Atwood has created a dystopia, the Republic of Gilead, governed by a militarized totalitarian regime that has used religious fundamentalism/fanaticism to carve out social classes in the republic.

The story is told from the point of view of Offred (not her real name, but she is “Of Fred”), a handmaid who belongs to her Commander. She is part of a group of women kept as concubines, solely for reproductive purposes, by the ruling class. At each particular time of the month, Offred must have sex with her Commander, while his wife, Serena Joy, holds her hands. The narrative is disjointed, with Offred recalling her life pre-Gilead, her experiences in the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center (where the women were indoctrinated into Gilead’s ideologies), and her life as a handmaid.

What I find most striking about this novel is that here was a lead female protagonist who has been reduced to submission in a society that has stripped women of all their freedoms—from political freedoms to the freedom of a woman to use her body as an instrument of desire. Interestingly enough, Offred has been surrounded by strong women in key points of her life: her mother, a single parent and feminist activist; Moira, her fiercely independent friend at the re-education center who attempted to escape; and Offglen, the maid with whom she did her regular grocery shopping and who is a member of the Mayday, the underground resistance fighting the Republic.

More interestingly, Atwood’s novel resounds with so much relevance, even in today’s times. Throughout the world, there still are societies where women are treated as second-class citizens, where their liberties are severely curtailed. The novel resonates with the stories of these women, who have been relegated as vessels to create the next generation—perhaps not even with the healthcare that they really need. It also calls attention to the fact that throughout history, women have been spoils of war—relegated as a commodity, defined by the capacity to give birth.

Perhaps that is the power of speculative fiction. It does heighten the realities that we have, but which we are not completely aware of.


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