Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”: A not-so-improbable dystopian world

“You Read Like A Girl” Book Review Series

By Madison Teuscher

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian-style tale set in a radically theocratic America. The regime, called Gilead, has classified women into based on fertility and obedience, with different ranks identified by their unique uniform. All women are completely stripped of their rights—everything from reading to purchasing power—and are sorted into classes to divide and control them. Handmaids are fertile women who serve as surrogate wombs for the Commanders and their aging wives. The Wives—women married to the powerful Commanders—are reduced to days of knitting, gardening, and waiting for their Handmaid to give birth to their children. Handmaids are completely powerless, and everywhere they go, there are Eyes—the military division of the Gilead regime—watching and waiting to kill them for any misbehavior.The cover of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale"

One reviewer writing for The Verge called it “1984 for feminists… but a lot scarier”. This theocratic society has based its societal revolution on a passage in the book of Genesis about Jacob’s wife, Rachel, allowing her handmaid to conceive Jacob’s child on her behalf. This passage is recited in the book during the monthly ceremony in which the Commander attempts to impregnate the Handmaid under the Wife’s watchful eye. If a Handmaid cannot reproduce, she is sent to a labor internment camp with other Unwomen—old and infertile women who are no longer valuable to the society. Handmaids are only containers for babies, and nothing more.

The reader follows the story of “Offred” (literally “Of Fred”, the head of household), a Handmaid who remembers the old world well. She recalls a world that sounds similar to the one we’re living in now. She recalls the inequalities we’re currently expected to ignore—where women have husbands who treat their jobs as their birthrights, and their wives’ as an afterthought, where women are fearful when going out at night, and where women’s concerns are being dismissed as paranoia. Offred recalls when the regime first began to take over—women’s bank accounts were frozen, with only a male relation able to take over her account, and all women were released from their jobs. Offred is distressed and turns to her husband, Luke—“It’s only a job, he said… you know I’ll always take care of you. I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.”

This is the nature of The Handmaid’s Tale—seemingly subtle patronizing by men who feed into a much larger and more terrifying problem. Margaret Atwood has taken a different path to speak a similar message to Rebecca Solnit in Men Explain Things To Me which we reviewed a few months ago. When we invalidate the voices of women—and in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a very extreme way—we annihilate their essence, and we return to a society that should remain in the past.

A black and white picture of author Margaret Atwood.
Author Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s powerful prose offers a chilling story of a society that operates on fear and control. Though this world might seem impossible and far off, we only need to travel a few hundred years back (or travel to certain countries) to experience circumstances very similar to the totalitarianism seen in The Handmaid’s Tale.

If we live in a society where pointing out inequality and misogyny is anti-religious, silly, or paranoid, have we reached equality?

If equal representation between men and women is seen as a “female takeover”, and we can’t be trusted to name the obvious inequality that surrounds us, how can we know a dystopia when we see one?

We can’t even imagine what an equal world would look like—where men and women hold the same amount of power, are given the same opportunities, face the same dangers. We view a world where women hold equal seats in the Senate (let alone more!) as fearful, and a matriarchal nightmare.

We can no longer see the appalling rape statistics, pay gap, or the consistent underrepresentation of women in nearly every aspect of public life as matters of personal preference or unrelated events. The dismissal and silencing of these statistical realities is one way to silence women’s issues, and the story of The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately about the dismissal and silencing of women in the most extreme way.

The Handmaid’s Tale is an intelligent, mysterious, and alluring read. The pages seem to turn themselves, and I spent many nights pleasantly lulled into the book’s rhythm. The book read almost like prose, and although it is not a short read, it was absolutely worth the time I spent with it. This is an engaging novel that I would recommend to the avid reader, the feminist, and fans of dystopian or historical novels.

Read it for yourself by checking it out from the library or buying a copy for your collection.

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