The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale

Gilead is the fundamentalist dystopia that replaces the USA, in the bloodbath that follows a series of social and environmental disasters. The victorious Christian right takes on the character of sections of the Islamic right in parts of today’s Middle East. Women’s social status is hurled into the abyss. Fertility and the birthrate have collapsed. Few women can conceive, even fewer successfully.

Women are channelled into rigid castes with colour-coded apparel – the relatively privileged but infertile Wives; the Aunts, lieutenants weilding a level of authority, backed up by electronic cattle prods; working class Econowives; Unwomen sent to work to death in the poisoned land of colonies, African-American house-servants called Marthas; and Handmaids – fertile baby-makers, concubines of the patriarchal Commanders, but living day to day under the thumb of the Wives.

These are the early days of Gilead. People can still, inconveniently, remember their former lives in the USA. One of the stronger aspects of the book is its glimpses into how personal life changed during this time, seen from the perspective of a hitherto apolitical woman. The female protagonist recalls how she had been stripped first of her job and bank account (her money become the responsibility of her huband) and then, after a failed attempt to escape Gilead, stripped of her daughter and her own name. She is now the Handmaid Offred, “of Fred”, a Commander. There are many ideas to be corrected, facts to be suppressed. Terror is still more important than propaganda, with mutilated corpses of men and women on public display. Because political resistance continues, and she is caught up in it.

Apart from women, sexuality itself has been suppressed by extreme puritanism. Offred does what little she can to resist both: swinging her hips as she walks past guards in the street becomes a subtle act of defiance. The sexual act itself has become a bizarrely ritualised, joyless threesome of Wife, Commander and Handmaid – though needless to say the Commanders have other sexual outlets, pathetic and furtive though they may be.

The style of the novel is fragmentary, reflecting the smashing of cultural and personal life, the tight confinement of Offred’s existence, and her inner turmoil/deadness after the agony of losing her daughter.

The book was written in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution (which had begun so heroically with the smashing of the Shah’s revolting terror machine. For the mullahs, the suppression of the women’s movement was indeed the first tactical step in the process that ended with the destruction of more powerful oppoents, such as the independent workers’ committees in the oil industry. As I write this review, women protestors in Egypt are being brutalised by backers of the old regime). But the author reminds us of how much latent hatred against women still exists in the west, and how a deep crisis could bring it out.

[Spoiler alert]

An epilogue follows up on society long after the fall of Gilead, in which ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred’s secret account, is subjected to supercilious discussion at an academic conference. Clearly something close to the author’s heart, but it depressingly suggests that society can’t escape the pendulum swings between authoritarianism and neoliberal banality.

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