Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Not-so-improbable Dystopian World

Book cover of The Handmaid's Tale featuring an illustration of two women in red robes and white head coverings walking inside a walled space
Book cover of The Handmaid’s Tale

By Madison Teuscher

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian-style cautionary tale set in a radically theocratic America. The Christian fundamentalist regime, called “Gilead,” has divided women based on fertility and obedience. Handmaids are fertile women who serve as surrogate wombs for the Commanders and their aging wives. All women are completely stripped of their rights—everything from reading to purchasing power—and are sorted into classes to divide and control them. The Wives—women married to the powerful Commanders—are relegated to spending their days knitting, gardening, and waiting for their Handmaid to give birth to a child. 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.

One reviewer on The Verge called the story, “1984 for feminists… but a lot scarier.” This theocratic society has based its revolution on a Bible 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 during the monthly ceremony in which the Commander attempts to impregnate the Handmaid, all under the Wife’s watchful eye. If a Handmaid cannot reproduce, she is sent to labor internment camps with the Unwomen—old and infertile women who are no longer valuable to the society. Handmaids are 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 relates a narrative of a world that sounds similar to the one we’re living in now, and she recalls the inequalities we’re expected to ignore—having a husband’s job treated as his birthright, and a wife’s as an afterthought, being fearful when going out at night, and women’s concerns being dismissed as paranoia. Offred remembers 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.” (pp. 205-206).

This is the nature of The Handmaid’s Tale—seemingly subtle patronizing that feeds into a much larger and more terrifying problem. Margaret Atwood has taken a different angle to convey a similar message to Rebecca Solnit in Men Explain Things To Me. 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 return to a society that should remain in the past.

Margaret Atwood’s powerful prose is a chilling story of a society that operates on fear and control. Though this world seems impossible and far off, one needs only to travel a few hundred years back 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 will we know dystopia when we see it? 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 than that) 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 seemed to turn themselves, and I spent many nights gripped by 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 University of Idaho library, or buying a copy for your collection.


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