“We want wisdom. We want hope. We want to be good. Therefore we sometimes tell ourselves warning stories that deal with the darker side of some of our other wants.”
Margaret Atwood, Interview with The Guardian, 2005
In 1986, the author, literary critic and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood introduced a work of speculative fiction which has had a lasting effect on the public. Although written over 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale maintains relevancy in a number of ways. The most obvious, of course, is the recent television adaptation by HULU. Before you binge-watch the entirety of season 1, I highly recommend picking up Atwood’s original piece. I have now read the novel twice through and I’m glad to have done so. This story is an important one to tell.
Let’s start with a little overview. This story takes place sometime in America’s future; and although specific dates are not disclosed by Atwood or her characters, the reader can assume the United States has been grappling with a number of issues which stem mostly from environmental decline and social discontent. In attempts to take control of the situation, the country slowly transitions into a totalitarian state. Renamed “The Republic of Gilead,” the state keeps order according to unyielding religious law. The people who were once able to take pride in freedom and individuality, have now been categorized according to functionality. We see a socioeconomic hierarchy forming reminiscent of medieval Europe. Even the Constitution has been suspended.
“The chances [of delivering a healthy baby] are one in four…The air got too full, once, f chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up…sure death to shore birds and unborn babies” (Atwood, 112).
The depreciation of environmental and physical health has led to outbreaks of cancer and syphilis, to name a few health issues. However, the most troublesome problem Gilead faces is their inability to keep up its population. Procreation has become nearly impossible, with case after case of infertility in women. This point brings me to our narrator and the main character, “Offred.” She is a Handmaid: a child bearer. “Handmaid” is a confusing space to occupy in Gilead’s hierarchy. One one hand, the Handmaid is a valued member of society. They are trained and protected. On the other hand, however, this training states Handmaids have but one purpose in society: bear children for women who cannot do so themselves.
Reflecting on the effects of this message, Offred comments, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136). I am struck by the starkness of this particular line. Just like that, Offred is plainly saying “I am an object and I know it.” And at this point in the text, she is not exclaiming or complaining about this fact. She is simply stating something she knows to be true. There are many other times throughout the book when either Offred, her friend Moira, or even one of the Aunts who train the women comments on their condition in this way. I am left speechless by the perceived normalcy of it all.
I didn’t see too much dialogue from male characters, but when I did, I almost wish I hadn’t. Offred’s Commander (the man with whom she has been paired to become pregnant) says the following of women in Gilead: “We have quite a collection… That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position” but will also state that women “can’t add” (237, 186). He sees no contradiction in these two statements at all.
I start to think about the blatant objectification of women and the focus on environmental in this book and am convinced that every woman needs to read this book. As fictional as this novel may be, I stress the word “speculative,” as the genre states. We need to remember these kinds of stories are possible and that we do have the means of writing our own future.
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