Published: 16 March 1998
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
Having fallen in love with the television series last year, I couldn’t wait to read The Handmaid’s Tale because the book is always better, right? As it turns out there are always exceptions to every rule and I found the book disappointing more than anything else because I was looking for explanations that just didn’t materialise.
Margaret Atwood wrote this book in the 1980s in Berlin when the wall was still up and the city had a distinct air of menace about it, so it naturally fired up her imagination and she began to imagine what it would be like if something similar happened in America.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, political upheaval and severe pollution have changed the landscape to the extent that food is scarce and fertility has become a serious problem. Women have essentially lost their rights and have been grouped into different classes within a patriarchal society with only the handmaidens able to conceive. The women wear different colours to suit their rank with the wives in blue, the handmaidens in red and the servants in green.
The sole function of a handmaiden is to produce children and in order to do so they have to take part in a monthly ceremony which is essentially a form of rape as they have little choice in the matter. If the handmaiden fails to conceive within a year, they are moved on to a new family or expelled to the colonies which are outside the habitable areas. Handmaidens are also denied the use of their own names and are generally known by the first name of their commander with the word “off” meaning “belonging to” prefixed. The handmaiden in our story is called Offred (belonging to Fred) and we never get to know her real name, although the general consensus is that her name is June and that is what she is called on the series.
The entire story is told from Offred’s point of view and as she describes her life in the Commander’s house, she frequently flashes back to a time before all this happened to draw parallels with her present life. While Offred behaves outwardly in a meek manner, she has a rebellious streak within her which is revealed in her inner thoughts and it can be quite amusing despite the seriousness of the situation. Just think of all those times you’ve told your bosses to go f**k themselves in your head!
For me, the most chilling part was realising the changes had been introduced so gradually women didn’t fully realise what was happening until it was too late. The society Offred now lives in is controlled entirely by men and although it may seem like the wives have some sort of equality, you soon realise that isn’t the case. No one is really free as even the commanders have to answer for their actions to someone.
At the beginning of the book, Offred is arriving at her second placement, having failed to conceive in her previous one, and she believes this may be her last chance to avoid being sent to the colonies for failing to do her duty. The commander’s wife, Serena Joy, is older than Offred and lame to the extent she needs to use a cane, however she makes it very clear who is in charge and that her husband isn’t up for grabs. As time goes on, we discover the Commander has a habit of breaking the rules concerning the handmaidens as he likes to dress them up in contraband lingerie and take them out on dates.
While Serena Joy behaves like an obedient wife, she is willing to break the rules herself to secure a child and that includes encouraging Offred to sleep with Nick, the chauffeur, because she knows the Commander is infertile. Exposure to Nick and her fellow handmaiden, Ofglen, makes Offred realise there is a secret underground organisation known as May Day which is working against the regime and they are keen to recruit Offred as the Commander is highly ranked. However, Offred’s every move is being watched and associating with May Day is dangerous.
One of the things that frustrates me the most about this book is the lack of explanation as to how everything came about and why American society fell the way it did. All we are told is that the government was toppled after everyone in Congress was killed and it was blamed on Islam, however there is very much a sense that the threat was closer to home and had gone undetected. It’s not mentioned again and we are not told who is really in charge. There is also no explanation as to whether the pollution which led to the fertility problems was the result of a gradual thing or something far more sinister. And wouldn’t you revere the women who can still have children rather than vilify them? Then again, that’s men for you.
There is so much to love about The Handmaid’s Tale, yet at the same time, I found it a frustrating read because my questions were never answered and it certainly suffered in comparison to the series which has been cleverly updated. The themes do strike fear into your heart when you compare it to what is going on in the world, especially in the States, and you can’t help but think it could happen for real which is entirely unnerving.