I recently did a reread of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read this many years ago and had pretty much forgotten everything. But the TV series was fresh in my memory. I wanted to do a reread before moving on to the sequel The Testaments. I was once again blown away by this powerful book. It’s a book with themes that are scary because they are so plausible.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a dystopian novel set in a United States of America that has now become a totalitarian and theocratic state named Gilead. Society has been completely rearranged into different roles. Women suffer the most in this new society as they are not allowed to have bank accounts, own property, read and must be completely subservient to men. They have completely lost their rights. The country is ruled by elite men – commanders – who are allowed to have wives and handmaids due to the low reproduction rates. The role of the Handmaid is to bear children for these elite couples before they are moved on to the next couple. Really they are little better than a brood mare and are valued for their fertility.
Offred is one such Handmaid. Before the war, she was an independent woman, married to a divorced man and mother of a daughter. She got caught trying to flee the new regime and due to her fertility and the fact she had an affair with a married man, she is made a Handmaid. Her reeducation is conducted by a woman called Aunt Lydia who teaches the Handmaid’s their role in this new society. Offred has little to no freedom and can’t trust anyone, not even her fellow Handmaid, Ofglen. She has an uneasy relationship with the Commander’s wife who wants a baby more than anything and is willing to do what it takes to get one. This means getting Offred to have sex with the Commander’s driver, Nick. Meanwhile, the Commander keeps asking Offred to break the strict rules of their relationship, putting her at danger.
The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1986 but it’s still as relevant today. It’s a bleak look at an unthinkable future – a future that many women already live in some way in some countries. Even in the West, women still continue to fight for their rights to own and control their bodies and fertility and often it’s men making these important decisions for women. This is a bleak, uneasy read but that’s what makes it so powerful.
I found this book difficult to read but I still loved it.
Verdict: A must-read classic. Five stars.