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The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This is a book that definitely fits my preferred designation of speculative fiction, a term the author herself has used on numerous occasions. It is set in an unspecified near future, but science doesn't enter into the narrative at all, just political and social changes. It is difficult to say if this is more relevant today than when it was written, or maybe easy to say that it will likely always be relevant. At that time, the Moral Majority was well established, aligning with the New Right, the Christian Right, and the Republican Party. Just a couple of years later, televangelist Nehemiah Scudder...sorry, Pat Robertson, mounted a Presidential campaign. It is possible movements of that sort are as vocal now as then, perhaps even more powerful, with Republicans such as Mike Pence and Paul Ryan invoking religion as the basis of their political agendas.

The Handmaid's Tale is told in first-person, but the style is not as in a journal written as the events unfold. The short epilogue indicates it was edited by others from cassette tapes found in an abandoned house, and it is quite rambling, filled with interjections of dreams and flashback memories. Some of the names might have been fabricated to protect others, and we never learn the narrator's real name, we only know her as Offred. That means she is the property "of Fred," no last name given. He is one of the Commanders in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship, born from the remnants of the former United States of America. They came to power through political assassination and suspension of the Constitution, but there are areas of the country not under their jurisdiction with whom they have been fighting for several years. Their rule is one of White Christian Male Supremacy, and woe be to those, even if Christian, who do not subscribe to their narrow-minded views. Women are not allowed to work, outside of supporting a household, nor to even read. "Legitimate" women are classified as Wives (of Commanders), Daughters (either born to elite Wives or adopted), Marthas (domestic servants), Econowives (mates of lower class males), and Aunts, who are the trainers of another group, Handmaids. Daughters are sheltered and pampered, then given to men in arranged marriages, some at a very young age.

Offred is a Handmaid, her sole purpose being to bear children for her Commander, whose own Wife is barren. Infertility is blamed on environmental disasters, chemical dumping, possibly chemical/nuclear warfare in previous years. She has no reason to assume she is barren herself, even though her current Commander is her third, and final, chance to give birth. She had been married before, and had (has?) a daughter. She has no idea if they are still alive, since they were separated after an attempt to flee to Canada. The events recounted are centered in the Boston area, in the first three or four years after her capture, within the first decade of the regime change, so Offred and her generation have full memory of the before times, when they had freedom. She had a college education, so her account has an intelligence and lyricism to it, although also a dream-like quality. She knows the previous Handmaid in her household committed suicide, and is fearful of her fate if she doesn't conceive. As depressed as she is for her own situation, she is baffled when she learns that many of the elite are not as pious as they pretend, practicing in secret some decadent activities from the past. The end of her account sees her taken away from the house by two "Eyes" (intelligence operatives), but then the epilogue seems to confirm that a confidant was an undercover agent of a resistance movement. The tapes were found somewhere in Maine, and the people who transcribed them speculate she was able to escape the country, but there is always the possibility she was captured again.

There are mulitple examples of repressive religious regimes throughout history, including in the US. Many Puritans wanted a religious based government, but luckily there were enough other liberal minded members of the colony to prevent that. A lot of fundamentalist sects are extremely male-centric, and lately the far right have pushed back on women's rights, most specifically against reproductive choice. As is the case with more technology-driven science fiction, it is not the author's job to convince the reader their scenario is likely to happen, but one that relies only on social mores has less of a burden in that regard. It is clear to me that the scenario in this book is possible, although hopefully not probable. The Republic of Gilead oppressed other religious faiths, either banishing those who would not convert, or in some instances imprisoning them, enslaving them, or executing them. Previous marriages were only accepted if both parties conformed to Gilead dictates, but any second marriages after divorce were annulled, and any children of those unions, or of single mothers, were taken away for adoption into proper elite families. Offred and her daily shopping partner Ofglen (Handmaids can never go anywhere alone) frequently walk past the Wall, to see the latest victims of "Salvaging." Even though the bodies always have sacks over their heads, she wonders if she would be able to recognize if her husband Luke was among those hanging there. Ofglen had confided knowledge of the underground movement, later a new Ofglen says the previous one had killed herself, perhaps as a precaution of not divulging the secrets of others. Shortly after that, Offred is led away by the Eyes.

Adaptations of the story range from stage and radio plays, to ballet and opera, with the most well known being the 1990 theatrical film with Natasha Richardson as Offred. I honestly don't think I've ever seen that, although I'm familiar with it and probably saw a trailer or short scenes, maybe on Siskel and Ebert's review show. I am looking forward to the Hulu mini-series starting next week (April 26, 2017), and might review that as well. [EDIT: I have now HERE.] The book has never been out of print since its first publication, and I'm sure that will be the case for a long time to come. It's still a powerful and disturbing story, well worth your time whether or not it is something that will ever happen. Atwood's perspective is cautionary, so heed her words and be vigilant, help make sure nothing like this ever comes to pass.


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Margaret Atwood


Winner of:
Arthur C. Clarke (UK)
Governor General (Canada)

Nominated for:
Man Booker

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