The Handmaid's Tale (402; 1985) is an imaginative dystopian about a fictional world; a place where all rhetorics about women's place in the world are realised. It is also a world that has been lived before. In this novel, Atwood relied on all that had been said and is being said about women and what they should and shouldn't do. In the fictional world of Gilead, the constitutional government of the United States had been overthrown; its place place taken by Gilead, a state based on the Christian teachings and its purpose for women.
In Gilead women are grouped into Wives, Marthas, Aunties, and Handmaids. Handmaids are reproductive 'machines' that keep the population of Gilead from declining. And children are the most prized assets of the day. Rich couples unable to bear their own children contract these handmaids to get pregnant for them. A Handmaid who's unable to get pregnant after several 'servicing' with Commanders are described as unwomen. These unwomen are sent to other parts of the colony.
Offred, the narrator of this story, was a handmaid. She tells of her life as a handmaid and what she went through. It was almost like diary entries, written not to be read by none so that most things are not described detailedly. The reader sometimes feel like the cover was half-closed instead of half-opened. If it were a pot, one would have stretched one's neck to take a full look into it; but this wasn't so. However, in Offred's (or Of Fred) tale, she contrast life in this utopian turned dystopian regime with her life in the earlier period where all things were working well and women had the opportunity to do whatever they wanted to do; where there were women's movement, of which her mother was one, which fought for the rights of women. Like every strictly managed society, there were saboteurs and those unwilling to fit in Gilead, individuals working to bring down the Theocratic state, which itself wasn't theocratic to the core. For though micro- and mini-clothings have been banned and uniforms have been prescribed, prostitution and drugs have all been superficially eliminated, there was a building within which all of these are done with abandon, by the very Commanders who instituted Gilead. Amongst such 'unwilling' individuals was Moira.
Offred's Commander seemed to have some love for past things as 'love' and 'scrabble'. In Gilead, love is not the key. Women function. Men function. Love is not something you fall in in Gilead. However, this primordial emotion awakened itself within Offred's Commander, and most of the commanders for that matter, and as told, unreliably though, by Offred, the commander began showing some levels of love to her during their secret scrabble games. Offred's narration could not be fully reliable as she herself sometimes say one thing only to tell us that it wasn't true, it didn't happen that way. But we can be sure that the glimpses she offered us, which were not reliable, were the watered down versions. The real deal were more macabre.
Atwood dispassionately wrote this novel and it was difficult to see where she actually stands in this grand scheme. Does she incline towards the period before or the current period or a bit of both; for, in writing, she brought the good and the bad from each side. There were, superficially, no drugs, stealing or any form of blatant crime on the streets of Gilead. It was a peaceful place though the internally, within the people, there was chaos in the first generation of Gileads. Individuals missed the things they were, in the previous period, most likely to term immoral and also of things most likely to be ignored or glossed over. Like women magazines, like lipsticks, like prostitutes and more. However, even though naturally the puritanic ideology of Gilead failed, Atwood, nevertheless, showed how people conditioned themselves to live in such conditions. Later, in the historical notes, where the major impact of the story is felt, Gilead becomes just one of the many past civilisations: Mayans, Aztecs, Hittites and many others.
Is this world the best it can possibly be? In Atwood's Handmaid's Tale where the issue was fully implemented, tweaking the current dispensation would lead to problems; just as capitalists don't want governments to interfere with business. Academicians studying Gilead, several years later, provided interesting analysis and it is there that story finally converges.
Though this novel is said to have been inspired by Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and also set to have no mean a place beside Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, I can only say that this novel is Atwood-esque. It had all the characteristics of the only Atwood I have read, Oryx and Crake. The time difference between the books was palpable but taking this out, we see Atwood projecting before us, the very things we have been experimenting and preaching. Whereas in Oryx and Crake it was the scientific world doing all these splicing of genes to create a better world - that novel inspired my poem Middle Sex - in The Handmaid's Tale, it is the religious world or specifically the Christian world. Again, these two books illuminates the age-old rivalry-cum-love affair between science and religion.
In the end I can only say that I enjoyed reading this book. It helped me a lot on my trips to different communities. Sometimes reading this imaginative world and entering a rural community where pastoral life is dominant is almost akin to landing on Mars blindfolded. An interesting book. All should read especially those who think they need to change the world to conform to a universalised law in a homogeneous world. And the changemakers. This is an Atwood and every Atwood is a must-read.
For the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge
For the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge