The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In the Republic of Gilead, women are free. They are no longer “free ‘to'” (free to do as they wished) as they were in the old United States, but now they are “free ‘from'” (free from fear of rape, degredation, etc). A new government has taken over, one that ‘values’ women, particularly their roles as givers of life in a time when the birth rate as plummeted. Men of rank whose wives are childless are given ‘Handmaids’ to bear children for them. This rule had been established by the biblical precedent of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Women are closely guarded, precious resources. None are allowed to read, Handmaids must not smoke or drink alcohol, Marthas seem not to ever leave the house, daughters are given in arranged marriages at 14. Women cannot hold jobs or own property, they are subject to the rule of men and of the government.
It is in this world that the Handmaid Offred lives. Unlike the protagonists of “1984” or “A Brave New World,” Offred did not grow up in this society. It was not until she was married, with a child that the President and Congress were massacred by ‘Islamicists’ and a new, theocratic government took over. Offred is not even her real name, it is only her temporary name, effective as long as she is at her current posting and is ‘of’ (belongs to) the commander Fred. Offred can remember her job, her husband, her child, her name. Be that as it may, she is not part of a resistance but is simply, however unwillingly, following the dictates of her new society.
Although this book was written in 1985, it seems as if it could have been written yesterday as a dire prediction of future possibilities. The use of “Islamicists” as an excuse to overthrow the government and institute new, draconian laws has been compared many times to the precepts of the Patriot Act, in both cases also the populace failed to react significantly. There is also an ever-present war in the background, censorship, and political witchhunts.
This book was eerie and disturbing in a manner that other dystopian novels such as “1984” and “Brave New World” have not quite achieved, probably because of the narrator’s memories of life as it was before the eastern United States became the theocratic Republic of Gilead. I was never emotionally attached while reading this book, although I was often disgusted. Although I could simply not stop reading, it was always in a detached way. I think this was completely intended by Margaret Atwood based on the end of the book (read it if you want to know!) and the feeling of detachment that Offred seemed to have towards her current situation.
This was my first novel by Margaret Atwood and if it is any indication of her body of work (which it seems to be, based on the raves about her on LibraryThing), she is an author I will continue to read.
Buy this book on Amazon: The Handmaid’s Tale: A Novel