The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

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Set in late 20th Century New England, United States, only a few years after the onset of a civil war and the instalment of a military dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale explores the living conditions in a religiously conservative and totalitarian patriarchy where reproduction as a result of a drop in fertility rates has become the centre of government policy. Despite the fact that Margaret Atwood has argued that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction, not science fiction, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1987) and was nominated for the Locus and Nebula awards.

Treated as a found text told in first-person by Offred, posthumously discovered long after the events, the story follows Offred as she is forcibly placed in a family with the one purpose of producing a child. As one of only a few fertile women left, Offred is part of a social class of women known as handmaids who rotate between ruling-class Commander families. This is her third placement. And her name like all handmaids’ is patronymically given after the male in the household. The narrative is driven by a series of mysteries only gradually unwrapped or hinted at, some of which are only revealed in the postscript added by a future generation of academics. She knows that her relegation to servitude happened as a the result of a second marriage, an offence in the newly imposed religiously conservative regime, but she doesn’t know what happened to her husband, mother, or daughter. The events leading to the civil war remain an opaque part of the novel’s background tapestry. We are told that a doctor carries a pistol, and we are witnesses to public executions, but we are not given explicit explanations. Like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), The Handmaid’s Tale demands that the reader becomes a forensic examiner. 

The totalitarian nature of the Republic of Gilead is perhaps best expressed in the highly regimented dress codes imposed on women. Commander wives are dressed in teal blue, Handmaids in burgundy with large white bonnets, Aunts (responsible for educating the handmaids) in brown, Econowives (the wives of lower-ranking men) in blue, red and green stripes, Marthas (primarily cooks and maids) in green, young girls in pink, young boys in blue, and widows in black. With food rationing described in detail, Atwood strikes a hybrid tone between post-war austerity, 1950s gender roles and Amish society. Even plastics have started to disappear from everyday life. Atwood has since explained in interviews that the work was an intervention in the cultural wars of the 1980s, imagining the imposition of a radical right-wing agenda. 

As abhorrent and extreme as the regime is, Atwood’s entirely plausible tale is an all-too-familiar case of how desperate times call for desperate measures. The result of pollution – toxic chemicals and radiation – a mutant syphilis has brought humanity to the brink of demographic collapse: fertility rates are down, birth defects (Unbabies) are up. It is only too easy to imagine how a surge in religious conservatism gains ground in uncertain times where the ills of society can be linked to a sexually transmitted disease. Anti-women laws are implemented. ‘Unwomen’ (women who haven given birth to Unbabies) are sent to colonies. By the 1980s schools started to close down for a lack of children. No temptation escapes the authorities’ draconian measures, be it films, magazines or reading. Executions of doctors known to perform abortions, heretical priests and homosexuals, are turned into public spectacles as a warning to the public.

It is the daily routines of Offred’s reality, painted in painstaking detail, and her reminiscing on her past, which serve best to develop the totalitarian nature of life in the Republic of Gilead though. Memories of her carefree years at university betray that she is denied a future. The regimented life in the Commander household underpins the totality of her lost freedom, recalling Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Offred ritualises even the smallest of pleasures granted her, her daily life marked as much as by the things that are denied her, even the most basic such as human touch, as the direct violence she routinely suffers: the jealous wife, the spiteful staff, the guilt-ridden husbands. Systemic violence encroaches on everyone in the Republic of Gilead.