Most of the future dystopias of modern literature seem to follow the communist Russia path. Religion is nonexistant, there’s generally a personality cult around the leader, and the revolution that led to the current situation happened so long ago that no one remembers firsthand how life was before.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, reverses all of these common themes. Offred, our narrator, still remembers life before the revolution, and the descent from a modern society to the conditions as they are now. She remembers the day the military showed up at her office and her boss was forced to fire everyone. She remembers the day her bank card stopped working and all of her assets moved into her husband’s name. She remembers how quickly her husband seemed to enjoy the power that the new laws gave him, and the benevolent protector role he assumed.
She remembers the failed, last-ditch effort of her family to escape the country, where she watched her husband be shot and her daughter be taken away from her.
This is also a religious dictatorship. Whatever biological or chemical warfare was used during the war before the revolution, it has left the people nearly unable to conceive or carry a healthy child to term. This revolution and the society that was formed under it is based off of corrupted Christian bible scripture. Women are subservient to men in every way. The only reason for many women’s lives, known as Handmaids, is to be breeding stock for the upper class or more important men, with the barren but obedient women known as Marthas, working as servants in their households.
After the revolution, couples in traditional Christian families were allowed to stay in their family units, especially if they already had children. Second marriages, however, went against the new interpretation of God’s wishes and were voided. Children from these unions were taken away to be raised by proper families, but the women had value as well, since they’ve been proven to be able to have a child.
Proven fertile by these illegitimate children, they were given a choice: become a Handmaid or become an Unwoman. Handmaids are given to important, high-ranking men whose wives have been unable to provide them children (because it’s blasphemous to suggest that it might be the man who is infertile). The other option was to be classified as an Unwoman. This is the fate reserved for the most disobedient women, as well as those who were unable to bear children, having been sterilized or beyond childbearing years before the revolution. All Unwomen are taken to what is essentially a death camp, have their hair (and symbol of femininity) shaven, and forced into hard labor.
Of course, no matter the reeducation given, there will always be dissidents. New people are regularly featured hanging from The Wall with their crime emblazoned on their chest. Crimes range from Homosexuality to Judaism to Reading. Mandatory attendance at hangings, stonings, weddings, and births are the main entertainment for the masses, along with religious ‘study’ and prayer.
The story of The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred, as she learns that perhaps the government does not have as tight control over the country as it seems, and she remembers more and more about her life before, that she’s tried to forget.
As amazing as this book is, along with all of Atwood’s novels, I do have a problem with the author herself. She absolutely insists, even in her later novels that do have a technological aspect to them, that her works only be classified under ‘speculative fiction.’ She sees science fiction and fantasy to be the ghetto of the fiction genre and wants no part of it. This type of literary snobbery has crushed the confidence of many a genre writer in college or at workshops. Someday, perhaps, genre fiction will be welcome outside of Clarion, but not while people like Atwood are in charge.
Beyond that small personal problem, however, The Handmaid's Tale is an amazingly well-written, thought-provoking story with a fascinating world, and it's an absolute pleasure to read.
Highs: Top notch writing quality, truly thought-provoking
Lows: The appendix, while helping to give the story perspective, also raises more questions than it resolves
Verdict: If a high school or college teacher didn't make you read it, seek it out on your own
Further Reading: Oryx and Crake, Shadow of the Wind