Published by Emblem Editions, Penguin on September 6th 2011
Format: Print, Paperback
In this internationally bestselling novel, Margaret Atwood has created a stunning vision of an increasingly possible near future. This is the story of Offred, one of the "Handmaids" whose purpose is to breed. In the new social order in which women are told they are being controlled for their own good, Offred lives in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is sent out once a day to the food market, chaperoned; she is is not permitted to read; and she is hoping the commander makes her pregnant, because if not she'll be sent to a toxic work camp, or end up as a sex slave in Jezebel's. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, and a husband and a child. But all of that is gone now... everything has changed. At once a brilliant satire, dire warning, and eulogy for lost values, this devastating novel has become a modern classic.
I’d had this book sitting on my TBR pile for over a year, and the arrival of the television show motivated me to get off my butt and read it. I’d heard so many good things about this book from other people, and so many good things about Margaret Atwood in general, that I figured this needed to happen. I really enjoyed this book. Now, this is definitely not the kind of book that will make you happy while reading it, it wasn’t that kind of enjoyment. This book is supposed to make you uncomfortable; the point is to show people what humans are capable of. This is a dystopia that feels like it could actually happen in the future. We are never told what the year is, which is why it’s so terrifying. We are told about bits of Offred’s life before she became a Handmaid, and it doesn’t seem that far off from where the world is today, it feels like this could happen in the near future. Reading this, it definitely doesn’t feel like it was written in 1985, which is absolutely terrifying.
We follow our main character, whose name is Offred. She is a member of the Republic of Gilead (which used to be the United States). Her name is literally “Of Fred,” she is a Handmaid to a Commander, Fred, and his wife, Serena Joy. A Handmaid is a woman who remains fertile. In this society, women have become increasingly infertile, and are no longer able to get pregnant themselves. Any women that remain fertile are taken and sent to the Red Centre. Here they are trained to be Handmaid’s. Their sole purpose is to provide children for their Commanders and their wives. There a basically caste systems that consist of Econowives (wives for men of lower station, who are poorer), Marthas (housekeepers), and Handmaids (who are basically incubators. We are told all about this not too far off dystopia for Offred’s point of view, and we are told what Handmaids go through.
Society has basically been destroyed. Women’s rights no longer exist. It is illegal for them to have jobs, have money, or do anything of their own free will. The views of society in the time of the Handmaids draw heavily on religion. Of course, it is a fanatical view and interpretation of the Bible and what it means. This shows how people take beliefs to the extreme, and shows how it affects people. I found this to be a really interesting aspect. Offred’s friend Moira is a lesbian (or a gender traitor), and we see what the members of the LGBT community did to survive while the world was falling apart; they created an underground network to protect themselves, and keep in contact with one another. This is very present in our world today with all the homophobia and hatred. Margaret Atwood really thought about how the world slowly deteriorate due to human nature.
After the new laws are in place in the world, the Handmaids are trained and then sent to a household. The Handmaids are told to treat their bodies as a temple in order to have a successful pregnancy and give a child to their commander and his wife. If they do not produce a child, they are basically disposed of. If anything happens to them (i.e., rape), they are told that it was their fault. They really have agency at all. Their lives are very much ritualized. They take their daily walk, in pairs, to do the shopping, and each month, the Handmaids, the wives, and the Commanders engage in a ceremony, where the Commander has sex with the Handmaid in order to hopefully produce a baby. The Handmaids are trained to behave a certain way, they must forget everything about their past lives. Their lives seem very primitive, technology has basically been done away with. The Handmaids that we focus on are a kind of representation of rebellion, which I really enjoyed. It was chilling how little of a fight people put up when everything happened.
Margaret Atwood’s writing is really brilliant. She provides little snippets of the past interspersed with the present. She really makes you feel for Offred, you feel intense discomfort, as well as unease. You become completely immersed in the story. Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book, though I will say, I’m not a fan of the ambiguous ending. I definitely want to read a lot more of Margaret Atwood’s work in the future. Let me know if you’ve read this book, or if you’re interested in reading it. Also, if you’d like to purchase this book, feel free to do so through my Book Depository affiliate link here.