As I was writing a review on Goodreads, I thought “why not writing one here?” and here I am. First, I will leave you with my Goodreads review and then, we will cover more thorough topics and dive deeper into the meaning of this amazing dystopian novel that is, according to The New York Times, “The patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction”.
NB: I wrote “Can./U.S.” as it has been written by a Canadian writer but takes place in New England so, I let you choose.
Goodreads review = no spoilers involved
This book belongs to the “we pretend we have read these books” category, does not it? I think it should belong to the “I started this book and could not help continue reading” category.
I think most of us love Margaret Atwood as an author, of course, but as a human being as well. The more I learn about her, the more I want to read her books.
In the Handmaid’s tale, we follow the evolution of Offred. Why such an original name? Simply because she is “Of-Fred”, meaning she belongs to Fred. I already hear my feminist sisters asking how it is possible to belong to a man. My answer is: read this book, and you will see.
I will give you a few keys to answer the question above: the story is set in a world in which most women aren’t fertile anymore. In order to keep humanity afloat, the ones who are need to become… not more than “walking wombs” – or “Handmaids”- , but the worse is yet to come… (because yes, there is even worse than being considered a “walking womb” by a sick society.)
And now, do you want to know what happened to Offred and what made her become the propriety of a man? Read if you dare, and you will understand. But I warn you, you may wonder if this story is set in 1985, or in a 2030…
(By the way, I highly recommend the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale: the author of the novel makes a special appearance there, and she helped writing the synopsis so the series really matches the novel.)
Discussing the main themes and my thoughts on the novel
Speech in The Handmaid’s Tale
The first topic I would love to discuss with you is “speech” in The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t go into a whole essay as we are not at school but it is the first topic I would like to bring awareness to (there are far more topics I would like to cover but this post will already be faaaar too long). In dystopias, language is usually one of the first things the totalitarian regime tries to take control over.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaids must talk to each other through a set of expressions inspired from the Bible and, thus, never talk about anything private. For instance, when meeting another Handmaid and instead of a regular “hello” that might have them recall their past lives as free citizens, they must say:
“Blessed be the fruit.” / “May the Lord open.”
I think what sums it up the best is this sentence written in The Principles of Newepeak at the end of 1984 by George Orwell:
“The purpose of Newspeak (meaning, a new simplified language invented in the novel) was to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
Indeed, language allows people to think differently and to develop their own thoughts as we think thanks to words. By limiting language, the regime of Gilead limits the Handmaid’s personal thoughts and, thus, limits the risk of rebellion. It is especially true for the generations to come who won’t even recall what language sounded like in the past.
Oppression: Handmaids only?
You may think I am going to talk about Handmaids. In this novel, everyone (I hope) understands how oppressed Handmaids are. However, I would like to show how oppressed the Wives and men are.
This dystopia seems to be a utopia for Wives and Commanders (Commanders, especially) but absolutely not. If, indeed, it seems to be the expression of secret male desires, they actually feel lonelier than ever. When talking with Commander Fred, Offred says:
“and there it was agin, that sadness.”
In fact, Commanders feel lonely in this world where they live with Wives they can’t have a healthy relationship with (how could they do so while having sexual intercourses with handmaids?) and with Handmaids who can only scorn them for what the system they have created is doing to them.
Wives aren’t happy either. We must remember that they were in relationships with the so-called “Commanders” before they became Commanders: at that stage, they simply were in a (more or less) healthy marriage. However, it all started and they are now forced to share their husbands and even to be involved in the “Ceremony” and watch them have sex (if we can call that this way…) with other women ON THE VERY SAME BED THEY SLEEP IN. After a Ceremony, Offred thinks as follows:
“Partly I was Jealous of (Serena); but how could I be jealous of a woman so obviously dried-up and unhappy?”
Offred acknowledges that Serena has nothing she could envy and even wonders who all of this is worse for as this woman is actually forced to share her husband with a stranger.
According to me, what we must keep in mind is that, in this totalitarian regime of Gilead, nobody is happy.
The importance of book covers
I would like to touch quickly upon a topic that is very often forgotten when it comes to books; I want to talk about covers. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we all more or less judge books after their covers, do not we? I personally do (more or less depending on the reputation of the book) and I know
(hope) I can’t be the only one.
All covers of the Handmaid’s Tale are related to the story it tells: sometimes, we see Scrabble tiles (as the ones Offred uses when she plays with Commander Waterford), sometimes we see red dresses (the Handmaids’ traditional outfit) made of bricks that embody a prison (the prison they Handmaids are caught in everyday) &c.
I find it very interesting that absolutely all the book covers I have seen (and I have studied quite a lot of them for the purpose of this post) are linked to the story that much. When it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing is left to chance and everything has a purpose.
A dystopia that is a story of the present
This novel has been beyond disturbing for me. My teacher asked us to read it for our American literature class and it simply hit me hard.
Dystopias are usually quite easy to identify with as the world described tends to be similar to ours in one way or another, I particularly think of 1984 by George Orwell but in my eyes, this one is the most relevant to our contemporary society. This novel has been published in the last 1980’s so some argue the events must have taken place in this writing context but another theory is that, given that Offred was 33 by the time she was placed at the Commander’s, Atwood might have written for her daughter who was 33 in 2009. Thus, this book must have taken place in 2009 and have been written in order to prevent her daughter from making the choices that placed humanity in such a terrible totalitarian regime.
Gilead has so much to do with our modern world and has all the traits that make a totalitarian regime: like in 1984, the use of language is restricted (as language opens the way to different modes of thoughts) , women are used as tools (what happens to women in The Handmaid’s Tale actually happens in some countries at the time I am writing: in India, forced surrogacy still exists.) and women subjugate each other. This idea of surveillance is really common in dystopian fiction: indeed, forcing people to spy on each other creates a climate of insecurity. Moreover, the fact that handmaids are always in pairs prevents them from committing suicide: they actually suffer the most total lack of freedom. To conclude, in The Handmaid’s Tale, it is pollution that made women infertile but is not pollution a big underrated problem in our contemporary society?
There are far more reasons to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a story relevant to our contemporary society but I hope that, in touching upon these key-topics, I would have you think of this novel as a little bit more than a
“Cool feminist dystopia of the 1980’s”.
Hoping you will want to (re)read this book,
Lots of love,