The Handmaid’s Tale was first published back in 1985. Since then a lot has changed, but the novel still endures. For many, it has become a symbol of female oppression and political control over the body.
Set in the Republic of Gilead, the narrative follows the story of Offred (Of-Fred), a handmaid whose ‘social function is to bear children’ for her Commander and his wife. Though Offred and the Commander’s relationship is at first limited to ‘the ceremony’ in which the wife is present, soon Offred is introduced to the hidden world that exists within the theocratic dictatorship – magazines, cosmetics and even cigarettes are circulated amongst the black market, and wind up in secret brothels run by the state. This knowledge, and fragments of Offred’s previous life before the Sons of Jacob took power, lead Atwood’s protagonist down a dangerous path that will change her life forever.
It is fair to say then, that Atwood’s dystopian offering is as bleak as they come. But it is no less fascinating for it – The Handmaid’s Tale is built around a complex theocratic government, a highly structured female hierarchy, and an overwhelming gender divide. The austere and desolate conditions of life under the regime seeps into every aspect of existence in what was formerly the United States of America, from the clothing of different castes, to the names of its inhabitants, and even the dire consequences of prohibited language and behaviour.
If you have it, read it! The ending will stay with you long after you’ve read the novel, and is a stark reminder of the extremes of totalitarian political control.
If that isn’t enough, you can also take a look at Attwood’s thoughts on A Handmaid’s Tale nearly 30 years on.