Great Science Fiction Books – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

It’s often said that science fiction stories aren’t just about the world of tomorrow, they’re about the world of today. The hopes and dreams of a generation can be given vision and inspire those who could make them a reality. So too can fears and nightmares be explored. The injustices of a particular time can be taken to their extreme so that they can act as a warning and be better understood. Nevertheless, the successes and failures of these stories can depend on how real they feel and in order to make a nightmare feel real you need to give your reader the sense that they’re trapped within it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is the story of Offred, although we don’t learn her name until many chapters in. Like much of the book, her identity is kept on the back burner until an opportune moment allows it to be revealed. This is because everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred without the benefit of having been able to write the details down. She isn’t permitted to have paper or pen so she’s been forced to memorise the course of events by telling them to herself over and over again. As such, her account isn’t exactly a stream of consciousness, but she does gravitate to aspects that help her to remain sane each day. These tend toward a report of events from when we first meet her, poetic insights on the world as it has come to be, and a series of flashbacks to what her life was like in the time before. Offred is being held against her will you see. In the not too distant future, an array of infertility problems have plagued the United States. After a violent revolution, the country has renamed itself Gilead and implemented a law whereby healthy women are conscripted to produce children for a privileged upper class. Offred has recently been assigned to a commander and his wife. Her only job is to produce a child for them but as with her name this disturbing piece of information isn’t disclosed right away, rather, Atwood teases it out like a monster in a horror movie.

As a handmaid, Offred has to wear a red robe and white-winged veil that discourages men from looking at her and prevents her from getting a complete view of her surroundings. In general, the outfit serves as both a symbol of her plight and a practical means of keeping her in line. However, it doesn’t prevent her from maintaining a rich inner life and when she moves from a boarding facility to the commander’s house her limited line of sight lets her describe certain elements of her environment as they happen to cross her path.

Confiscated equipment shows how women in Gilead have been ending their own lives. Barbed wire and armed guards confirm that they’re unable to leave. And when Offred takes on the supposedly respectful position of a handmaid in the commander’s home, we can see that she’s been reduced to the status of a slave by way of her submissive attitude with everyone she meets. What’s more, her access to information is so limited that everything we learn about this dystopian future is seen through a gauze of misinformation and assumptions. Our meagre comprehension of the world is so dependent on the handful of facts Offred can relate that it could all come crashing down as soon as another one is added to the stack. Consequently, if the merits of the novel only require us to feel trapped with Offred then it’s achieved from the very start, but as she examines the boundaries of her prison she also gives us a better understanding of how it came to be.

The flashbacks that intersperse her account reveal that though society has drastically deteriorated, she grew up in a time that was much more comparable with our own. She went to a normal school. Had a good job. She was married to a man named Luke and even had a daughter with him. Now, when she recounts the years they spent together, we also gain a vantage point where we can see exactly how America has fallen so low. In short, toxic pollution is to blame for the infertility epidemic that struck the country. As a result, stricter policies that regulated the agency of women began to take effect and devolved to where they stand during the novels present day. Though the men who enforced these policies were motivated in part by the infertility problem, Offred believes that their actions were driven more so by a compulsive need to control women than out of any desire to help them. It’s not that Offred paid attention to gender politics in the time before, but fresh insight provided by the dire circumstances empower her, and us, to see how the intolerant attitudes that control her future can be traced back to the world of today.

For the first half of the novel, the flashbacks that describe how Offred came to be a handmaid pop into the narrative without any paragraph breaks to separate them from the present. This keeps the flow of the story ticking along at a steady pace, but it also gives us the chance to experience the nature of them as Offred does; memories that occur not disconnected from what’s happening to her at any given moment, but experienced simultaneously like a song that can shift into the background or come to the fore. The memories accompany her during mundane domestic chores or they can startle her at times when it’s absolutely critical she maintains her composure. What’s more, later on when the flashbacks do become separated from the rest of the text we can gather from Atwood’s shift in formatting style that Offred’s finally started to lose a grip on herself. After all, as the memories pile atop one another, we learn that though her husband might have escaped Gilead, it’s all the more likely he’s just dead. Meanwhile, she receives word that her daughter has ended up in just as bad of a place as she has. And while her best friend always served as a model of strength, when Offred crosses paths with her she learns that even she’s become resolved to the current circumstances and has settled into the role of a prostitute for foreign dignitaries. It’s a debilitating series of discoveries made all the more affecting by the simple choice of whether or not to isolate a section of writing with a paragraph break and does a lot to underscore how broken Offred has become by novel’s end.

For much of the book, Offred is only able to undertake small acts of rebellion against the ruling class. She aims to steal a withered flower just to know that she can get away with it and smuggles a stick of butter from the kitchen only so she can maintain a skincare regimen like in the time before. However minor these transgressions might sound, it’s incredible how rage-filled Atwood is able to make them. Because Offred is constantly expected to limit her behaviour to that of a well-behaved child they often come across as monumental acts, urgent as any armed rebellion, yet they’re also more frustrating because they never actually culminate in any real change. All too often Offred has an appropriate insult on the tip of her tongue but is forced to repress it because she knows that voicing it would cause more trouble than it’s worth.

What’s more, the gilded cage that she’s kept in is so maddeningly stripped of anything useful that at times when she wants to throttle somebody over the head the only weapon she can find at hand is a pillow. In this way, the tension of rebellion and despair oscillate so frantically that you half expect there to be an explosion before long. But because Atwood makes sure to close every door that could possibly lead to escape, you begin to feel as impotent as Offred when you realise that you aren’t trapped inside a standard page-turning novel that would aim to raise the steaks just to reward you with a cathartic feeling of release. On the contrary, the story has little to no interest in becoming a heroic myth that showcases something like how Offred could break free. What The Handmaid’s Tale tries to do is act as a parable that asks you to scrutinize the mechanisms of what could get such an oppressive administration like Gilead’s into power in the first place and that illustrates exactly how far the harmful effects of it can go when left unchecked.

Still, it would be selling the novel short to say that it only reads as a political screed. Before she became a novelist, Margeret Atwood made a name for herself as a poet, and you can see how this experience feeds into her portrayal of the book’s titular handmaid.

Offred is a wonderfully rendered character. Though her knowledge of what’s happening in Gilead is extremely limited, she often displays a far greater depth of intelligence than those who are in higher positions. The smallest of gestures from another person could potentially contain a hint about the wider world and it’s rare that she lets one of these inadvertent clues pass her by. Yes, she is essentially fighting for her survival, so it isn’t surprising that she’d experience a heightened sensitivity to anything that could affect her wellbeing. But she also demonstrates a tremendous amount of curiosity in an environment that expects her to be satisfied with boredom and want for nothing more. Generally speaking, Offred’s need for stimulation usually leads her into a kind of wordplay whereby she turns a given phrase over in an attempt to gain a better grasp on the nature of her situation.

For example, at one point she asks herself what meaning does the word chair hold? It can be something you sit in as well as the French word for flesh. While at another she considers what was implied by the design of a woman’s blouse in the time before. It had buttons that could be undone, so did that mean the woman wearing it had the choice to be undone too? These kind of poetic exercises might seem a little abstract, but while many of them are only a meaningless distraction, in the grand scheme of things they enable Offred to get to the root of the fundamental problems that have driven Gilead to such extremes. What’s more, the semantic examination of reality creates an incredibly engaging use of language that both stimulates the reader and helps us to relate to Offred all the better. With its use, she’s able to draw parallels between our time and what’s happening to her in the future as well as dissect the alienation she experiences from her own body as the system demands to take a little more from her every day. Above all though, through everything that happens, you never lose sight of Offred’s personality as a woman with a wry sense of humour and a desperate need to include some joy in a story that isn’t necessarily going to have a happily ever after.

Misogyny is obviously the main subject at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Gilead is a society built on the idea that men should have complete control. To some extent, people such as the commander do recognise the extreme means they’ve gone to fulfil this vision. They’re aware that the women they’ve conscripted to produce children don’t see things the same way they do and that severe forms of reeducation are required. Even so, most of the leadership are convinced that they’re improving the state of the world. As a lecturer in the re-education facility explains, women might have thought they had the freedom to do things in the past, but now they have freedom from things, which is all the more secure. No longer will they have to worry about paying bills or, ironically enough, altering their appearance to please men. By taking radical measures to reverse the anomalous social change of the twentieth century, the upper class of Gilead are convinced that they’re simply returning humanity to a more natural state. They consider themselves to be Christian after all and have cherry-picked only the most relevant bible passages to justify what they do. Of course, in some cases they’ve gone so far to alter the religious text, so you won’t be surprised to learn that there are nonbelievers among them.

Throughout the book, we meet hucksters that have merely taken the opportunity to make a grab for power and men who know that what’s happening is wrong but have to submit to it for fear of losing their lives. This is because in essence, Gilead is built on the conceit that you don’t actually have to agree with their core values, you just have to go along with the lie. As such, like any political cult, every single aspect of citizens lives are steeped in pompous ceremony, ridiculous rules of etiquette, and a clear understanding that there is a system of rank that must be followed at all times. It’s true that there are armed guards on every corner, but what really keeps the state running is this strict adherence to social customs to the extent that even the act of copulation must be undertaken with an absurd formal arrangement that strips the occasion of any comfort or love. Evidently the people who run the country are all men. Make no mistake about it though, the issue is a systemic one. Women in the book often do as much to prop up the regime as their male counterparts. The commander’s wife was once a religious speaker who lobbied for everything that’s come to pass. The lecturer in the re-education facility is a woman who implements the government’s violent policies with no small amount of glee. And even among the group of handmaid’s there’s a perpetual atmosphere of suspicion that drives them to treat each other with an extraordinary level of vindictiveness. Offred herself sometimes relishes the opportunity to rise above the women around her such that the moments of sisterhood she actually manages to experience are seen as genuine victories in an environment that’s done everything it can to divide any alliance that could be formed.

Taken together, it’s undeniable that despite the Christian values Gilead purports to represent, its people are mostly used as objects in a machine that favours those at the top. Women’s bodies become slabs of meat to be utilised as a political tool and children who are born deformed are labelled as unbabies simply so they can be killed by a society that’s supposedly against the idea of abortion. Nonetheless, it’s important to point out that not all Christians in the book are as warped as those of Gilead. In fact, the traditionally Christan group known as Quakers are reported as having helped women escape the oppressive regime. And, most importantly of all, it’s clear that the kind of patriarchy which Margaret Atwood is decrying isn’t limited to a particular religion, but finds its origin in all levels of society. Afterall, it isn’t religious preachers that Offred compares the leadership of Gilead to, but bankers, stockbrokers and football coaches; men who in her previous life always appeared to be small-minded dullards that didn’t deserve their power. There’s a scene in the book wherein Offred has a secret rendezvous with the Commander in which she expects him to attempt to seduce her, but in which he ends up asking her to play a game of scrabble instead. In Gilead, it appears, simple human companionship is the true illicit affair, and though the absurdity of it takes Offred off guard, she quite rightly understands the nature of it when she remarks that, ‘Context is all.’ It’s a theme that can be applied to just about every experience she goes through and indeed, underscores the point that the people who make her live through such abuse really aren’t anything new, only the conditions that allow them such a high place in the hierarchy are. In this way, though the book showcases an imaginary dystopian in the future, it’s very much in conversation with the world of today.

One thing to note about The Handmaid’s Tale is that Margaret Atwood didn’t actually consider it to be science fiction, at least at the time of publication. Because everything that transpires within the novel is inspired by something that’s really happened, she was of the mind that it was much more grounded in reality than the kind of space-opera she associated with sci-fi. While this discussion is clearly a can of worms, the more essential point to take from it is the idea that everything that happens in Gilead really isn’t too far beyond things that have already occurred.

The possibility of a section of North America seceding from the United States to oppress a minority is certainly a very real event that occurred in the not-too-distant past, but so too is the threat of a religious movement attempting a coup in a major region. Just four years prior to the American Civil War, for instance, Mormons tried to take control of Utah only for the rebellion to be suppressed by military intervention. In more recent times, women’s bodies have become a battleground for political ideologies on which to duke it out and many of the disgusting laws seen throughout The Handmaid’s Tale are directly linked to attitudes Offred experienced in the time before. All things considered, though it can’t be escaped: The book takes place in an imaginary future, so Atwood inevitably has to refer to some of the technology being used. Devices with names such as compudocs, compucounts and compubanks are scattered throughout the pages. Whenever they appear it’s difficult to tell whether Atwood is just being a wee bit clumsy with these cheesy sci-fi sounding names or if she’s actually poking fun at a genre she didn’t want to be associated with. That said, it’s not just the iconography of science-fiction that finds its way into the book, but some of the storytelling methods too.

As the events come to a conclusion and Offred is carried off into the night, the final chapter releases us from the nightmare and takes us to a classroom in the far-flung future where a lecture is being given on what happened after her narrative came to a close. Offred, it seems, finally managed to reach safety and record a version of the story. Now students are studying it in school and as a final irony, the lecturer seems more interested in the machinations of Gilead than with the very human experience Offred so eloquently expressed. An academic summarising the story like this is a bit of a common trope in science-fiction, but whether Atwood knew of it or not doesn’t change the fact that its an effective way to put Offred’s experience in a historical context and warn us against dehumanising the people we read about in our own history books. At the end of it all, whether or not you find the plot of the book difficult to swallow probably doesn’t come down to the futuristic name of a calculator, but whether you believe that the sequence of events it outlines could possibly follow on from where we are today. In this manner, it’s to Atwoods credit that she doesn’t always offer simple answers. The greatest strength of the work is that it isn’t shy of complex moral dilemmas born of an environment where people don’t always understand the reason behind their actions. The characters seen throughout are in fact riddled with contradictions that allow them to become more than just the sum of two-dimensional words on a page. What The Handmaid’s Tale does so well is to put you inside a pair of Offred’s shoes. Empathy is the goal and by rearranging elements of the world as we already know it Atwood is able to elicit it from the reader by the truckload, regardless of what the genre is called.

As a woman from the time before, Offred would be all too familiar with how stories like this are usually told and would probably long to be in one that better fits a commercial mould. It should be a melodramatic tale, you can imagine her thinking, full of intense confrontations that lead to the inevitable destruction of the Gilead. There wouldn’t be any need to have the flashbacks of her past exist simultaneously with the horrors experiences in her present day. They could be relegated to predictable dramatic turns and only serve to enlighten her as she journey’s down the road to ultimate freedom. Instead what Offred has to live through is a devastating blend of George Orwell’s 1984 by way of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The pettiness she experiences, the unfulfilled desires, the lost love and the tragedy of her stolen child, all of it seems to have little shape from her point of view. The only thing she can do is hope that there’s somebody to listen to her account someday, which, at the intersection of fiction and reality, has certainly come to pass. Nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum is a faux Latin phrase Offred finds etched on the inside of her closet. It means Don’t let the bastards grind you down. In the book, it’s a rallying cry that she clings to. As things progress, the commander informs her that it was just an old children’s joke he knew as a boy. In real life too, Atwood claims to have learned it from other children when she was at school. However, the roots of it supposedly have their origin in the Latin sounding name of an old cleaning product. British army intelligence adopted a variation of the phrase during World War II and it went on to gain popularity among a number of politicians as well as a line in an unofficial Harvard university song. Funnily enough though, it’s become an incredibly iconic adage for women who find the power to rebel from Offred’s story. Context is all, as the handmaid says, and if we’re lucky enough it might become just a silly schoolyard phrase once again.


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Simon Fay

Simon Fay

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