My rating: 4 stars
The Handmaid’s Tale can be described as a dystopian novel or as a work of speculative fiction, but at the same time it is far more than that. Margaret Atwood created a classic full of enlightening remarks about equality, freedom (or the lack of it), love, feminism and women’s agency, which serves as a warning that even the most fundamental rights can be lost.
The novel takes place in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and repressive state that has established a puritanical society in the USA, where there seems to exist a problem of infertility. People are set apart according to functions, each group having a specific name and rules to obey.
Handmaids are fertile women whose single purpose is to be used by the Commanders, men who are part of the elite, to breed, since their own Wives can’t conceive. The Handmaids have had children, but they were not married, remarried after getting a divorce, or married someone who had been married before. As every second marriage was deemed illegal, their children were taken away from them. They are prepared for the role of Handmaids by the Aunts. If any baby is born, the mother will be the Commander’s Wife, however.
Offred, who is a Handmaid, is the narrator of this novel. Although she has to deal with quite abysmal circumstances, the narration doesn’t have a blatant angry tone. Instead there is a feeling of quiet and hidden revolt, fear, and also of sadness, mainly when she remembers her previous life and the family she has lost. But, at the same time, she also makes quite sarcastic comments about what is happening around her, and still manages to show empathy.
The narration of present-day events is interspersed with memories from the days before the establishment of the repressive state. I kept wondering what had happened to cause the current circumstances until what led to them ended up being revealed. It is appalling how the most common things, such as wearing casual clothes or a bikini, read a book or walk alone, are forbidden.
Women completely lost their agency and freedom to make choices. But the ruling institutions acted like that was desirable and needed.
“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you’re being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
“These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then.”
Elements characteristic of the Republic of Gilead are revealed as they come to be important for the narration of events. It isn’t all conveyed at once. Sometimes Offred gets quite lost in her thoughts and we have to place her memories together in order to make sense of them, understand how people are supposed to behave in this society and how her life was like before.
As in every totalitarian state, there are mechanisms to keep the order and avoid dissent. Besides having spies, known as the Eyes, and censoring the news (“they show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?”), they also use religion to maintain the regime’s guidelines. This is a society full of restrictions where pleasure doesn’t have a place, although those in power find ways to bend the rules.
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”
There is no place for love or desire. But can humans really live without them? When Offred is assigned to go to one of the Commanders’ house, the novel gains a new life, since the characters start to interact more and the absurdity of this society is clearer than ever.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful read that I really recommend. However, I would have liked it even more if the story had been told in a way that had enabled the reader to know other points of view, what was difficult to achieve with the story focusing mainly on Offred’s experience.