The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart, 1985)
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of Margaret Atwood’s most popular novels. Published in 1986, female characters in the novel are stripped of their independence and rights, helping to highlight the importance of feminism. The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead a dystopian state that has replaced the USA. Females are a subclass in Gilead. Unable to vote, read, write or venture out alone, they are confined by their female bodies and fertility. The feminist movement had made great progress by the 1980’s: women had access to contraception, abortion had been legalised and females could vote. By stripping characters of these progressions Atwood reminds her readers of the importance of the feminist movement. Females are expected to become accustomed to their new, restricted way of life. Atwood’s words carry weight beyond the novel, suggesting that readers shouldn’t simply accept the gender roles they have been confined to. The Handmaid’s Tale encourages readers to adopt a feminist mindset rather than being passive.
The novel is narrated by Offred, a handmaid. Handmaids are the totalitarian government’s solution to fertility problems in Gilead, where birth rates are dangerously low. Fertile females, who have committed ‘gender crimes’ (such as remarrying), are re-educated and allocated to elite couples who are unable to reproduce. Offred becomes a sexual slave to the Commander. At the most fertile point of her menstrual cycle, her duty is to have impersonal intercourse with him, while Serena Joy– the Commander’s wife– sits behind her. The Handmaids do not have their original names which have been changed to show that they are the property of their commanders. Offred literally means ‘Of Fred’ similarly her fellow Handmaid is called Ofglen. It is important to note that the society in Gilead believes that infertility is entirely down to females and doesn’t consider that males could also be infertile. In The Handmaid’s Tale women’s position as the second sex has been firmly re-established. Offred often hides feeling of isolation and suffocation. Although society values the Handmaids, who provide children, the women are often viewed as only a means of reproduction rather than humans with their own emotions. A society that values females simply for their bodies is disturbing and alarming. Females are so confined by their own bodies that suicide often seems a viable option. Offred’s friend and fellow handmaid Ofglen, is an active female who rebels against the totalitarian government by joining ‘Mayday’ the resistance. Ofglen hangs herself near the end of the novel; her partaking in the resistance has been discovered and she chooses death over torture.
It is likely that the Commander is infertile. Offred becomes increasingly aware of this, her doctor offers to have sex to impregnate her and Serena Joy bribes her into sleeping with Nick, their chauffeur, by providing Offred with information about her family. It is clear that the society that confines Offred is corrupt. Handmaids serve a couple for two years. If they do not fall pregnant after spending time with three couples they become void from society and will have to choose between prostitution and being sent to the colonies. Offred’s honest narration allows us to see the effect male oppression has on her character. She is depressed and confused, feeling empty. We can see frequently throughout the novel that Offred feels like her womb is ‘more real’ than she is.
The Commander arranges secret meetings with Offred. In his study the Commander allows her to undertake illicit activity such as playing scrabble and reading women’s magazines. It is ironic how the main male figure who oppresses Offred also gives her back some of her lost freedoms… reading and writing. Forbidding females an education is a scary prospect to educated readers. Uneducated females are almost powerless to overthrow a patriarchal system. Education is a privilege that many of us take for granted. The new society that Atwood creates is not a far cry from the past, during the eighteenth century women were viewed as men’s shadows and Atwood’s fictional Gilead echoes this. Offred is risking her life by partaking in these meetings (amongst others) with the Commander; she will not be forgiven or saved by the Commander if she is caught.
The Handmaid’s Tale can be seen as a warning to those who are passive to feminism and the freedoms it has won for women. It can be difficult to recognise inequality when you are a part of society. The novel may be dated but highlights the importance of appreciating feminist movements both in the past and currently. Reading about Gilead makes us reconsider our own society and how damaging passivity can be.
You can follow The Handmaid’s Tale‘s feminist author on Twitter @MargaretAtwood
Rosie Maynard is a second year undergraduate at Bath Spa University. She studies publishing with English literature and hopes to go into the industry on completion of her degree.