The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date published: 1985
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Literature has been obsessed with the notion of a post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian world for a long time. Early Science Fiction novels were not just concerned with monsters. They were also starting to realize the evils of corporation and the environmental collapse and subsequent effect on human being’s functioning. Technology was not just viewed with awe and amazement on its own, but also with wariness (which I suppose has always been the case). A complete breakdown of society and its structures seems to be the natural (or unnatural) progression as women lost their ability to breed. Select women then become ‘breeders’ in a world that has silenced women completely in every way possible.

This is basically how I think the collapse in society occurred in this scenario. Now we are left with a completely new social structure, one in which women have been stripped down (so to speak) into different societal roles according to their child-bearing abilities or lack thereof. In this new world order general citizens are also being publicly executed because of their crimes against humanity. These crimes include the roles they played in their past (the time before everything changed), and are declared for all to see with placards depicting their ‘crimes’ placed on their corpses hanging from a wall at the entrance to Gilead.

In this awful and very scary scenario Offred is our protagonist and a handmaid, and it is through her POV (point of view) that we are taken into the inner world of those privileged enough to live in stately homes and have access to so-called luxury. Offred is not privileged (though some may beg to differ) as she is forced to ‘mate’ with the master of a very affluent household. She is there in this home merely to produce an offspring for his wife, who is unable to do so herself. This rather unhealthy combination occurs in all houses of ‘reputable’ standing. Once the handmaid has performed her duty and produced a child she is then passed on to another household where she can further be of service to another couple. If she fails to produce a child she will be declared an ‘unwoman’ and be sent to the Colonies where she will spend her last remaining days doing manual labour under such appalling conditions that she will probably not last very long. This is the fate of womankind in the fictional land of Gilead.

Another aspect of the story is that Offred may be here now but she was once a mother and a wife. She had a job and access to her own savings. She had a past filled with friends and higher education and fun. All of this is taken away from her, and in her own words and reminiscences she becomes the reader’s only link to what the world was like before, and what it is now.

I think that even though The Handmaid’s Tale was published in the mid-80’s this story will be relevant in the Women’s Struggle forever. With the rise of women’s empowerment marches, the Equal Pay debate and the #metoo movement it has become more relevant than ever that literature such as this one is read and discussed. However, and I say this with love and respect, we should also not be too quick to always allow works of art to only become popular because of the supporting relevancy in our times. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been an amazing work of fiction, and always will be in my opinion. The significant advancements for women’s rights in the last 5 years should not detract from the fact that this book is still an incredible work of science fiction, and also written with such clarity and foresight, that it almost seems to be very clear in its prediction that our struggle will always be there. That is the way of the world. And that is important.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards get you down 

Leave a Comment