I’ve been slowly working my way through a long list of books I probably should have read decades ago. I’d been meaning to read this one for years, even before I made the list. Most people I know read it contemporaneously or within several years of publication. Then along came the Hulu series based on the book, which kept it top of mind, for me. Released in 1985, the book garnered several awards in the wake of its release.
This is a gut-wrenching story, told from the perspective of an average woman in the opening years of an oppressive regime. The events leading up to a second civil war in America and the subsequent rise of a government called the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship. It is based on various interpretations of the bible, the fact of which is only dropped in hints. Atwood’s writing in this novel is masterful in telling the tale of ‘Offred,’ a handmaiden, the breeding caste of the subjugated women. Her value is entirely held within her ability to bear children and she has no remarkable talents, otherwise. Since the regime has banned any sort of artificial insemination and there is a case to be made for surrogacy, handmaidens are assigned to ‘Commander’ homes in order to be impregnated. When a handmaiden is reassigned, their designation is changed according to the name of the patriarch. In fact, there are few names in the book, most people are referred to by rank or position. This desperate attempt at increasing the population is driven by a severe drop in pregnancy that’s attributed to radiation poisoning from the war. Food is scarce, the population seems to be in decline, and the regime’s logic is driven by Biblical directives. I couldn’t help but be reminded that there is currently a decline in “white” birthrates that some have found troubling over the last few decades. The Gileadan regime prefers “whites” overall, there’s little to no mention of any ethnicities. The white supremacist notions of the misogynistic regime are made most clear in the final chapter of the novel.
Tension abounds throughout, we are never treated to the inner thoughts of other characters and Offred’s journey to suffering is made clear in short flashbacks leading up to the moment her partner and daughter are taken. It’s also unclear how reliable a narrator Offred is, since the text is ostensibly a remembrance of hers. Since the reader is never given a view beyond Offred’s, the goings on in the rest of the country, and the world, are completely unknown. The point of view heightens the already palpable fear. The story is set in New England—around Harvard University, in particular, I think. Walls have been erected, hangings are a regular occurrence and women have been divided into castes where ‘Wives’ have the most value and ‘Aunts’ are the penultimate enforcers. In between are ‘Marthas,’ women who work in the homes and assist the Wives, and a few other castes. Men hold all the power above the women. The list of horrors visited on women is long.
Frankly, reading this book was difficult, not only for the constant tension and slow-burning horror, but for how eerily it crafts realistic characters—people who feel familiar with. So many of the novel’s characters reflect the fantastical desires of prominent Evangelicals, Christian Fundamentalists and Dominionists—including women. I was often reminded of the opinions of certain, fiery American religious leaders as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the shift in Iran after their revolution, or Puritanical New England in the 1700s. Some particular points that creeped me the fuck out because they’re issues that remain in effect today:
The parallels with chattel slavery
The parallels with the Nazi regime
Nothing the men do struck me as out of character for men
The unlikelihood of an average person escaping such conditions
Horrific and pervasive interpretations of the Bible to justify atrocity
Propaganda is terrifying
The very realistic manner that people can be inexplicably cruel to each other when they should be sympathetic
It’ll be years before I’ll be able to handle reading this book again.