Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: dystopian, books on TV
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for years- numerous friends have recommended it to me and discussions about this book have bounced around on Facebook for the past year or so. I finally moved this book to the top of my currently reading list after Hulu released a TV adaptation of the novel.
The events in The Handmaid’s Tale take place in the United States in the not too-distant future (the novel was written in the 1980s but is still relevant 30 years later). Congress has been disbanded and the Constitution overruled by a group of elitists that set up a theocracy and rename the United States as the Republic of Gilead. This theocracy is also highly patriarchal- they reduce women’s freedoms one by one- in one day it becomes illegal for women to work outside the home and all their financial assets and credit cards are frozen. Add to this mix social instability due to environmental disasters that have contributed to declining birth rates.
This patriarchal theocracy also believes in and enforces strict gender roles according to their interpretation of the Bible. The theocratic government, set up by a group called “The Sons of Jacob” round up fertile women, separate them from their families, and force these women to become Handmaids to the childless elite. Childbearing by these Handmaids is placed on a pedestal in this society- there is a once-a-month ceremony where the male head of household has forced sex with his Handmaid- with the Wife in the room, holding down the Handmaid’s hands (yep, the Wife is in the room, sitting in the same bed. Pervy, no?). The Sons of Jacob cite Biblical precedent for this as well: “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 1-3, King James Version). The Sons of Jacob seem to forget all the drama and jealousy this caused between Jacob and the women in his life…
Life for Handmaids in The Republic of Gilead, as you can imagine, Is not kind. They are stripped of their former identity- a Handmaid’s name changes depending on which house she is assigned to; the Handmaids wear a uniform of red dresses (to signal their fertility and special status in Gilead). Women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write and are separated by a strict hierarchy based on fertility status and/or age. Young, fertile women become Handmaids, Marthas are childless women placed in servile roles, the Aunts are childless women who train the Handmaids on their roles and life within Gilead, enforce the rules, and deliver punishments. Older women or women that are viewed as corrupting influences or untrainable are sent to the Colonies to clean up nuclear waste or engage in backbreaking labor picking crops. Lesbians are branded as “gender traitors” and are usually executed by hanging.
In the book, these changes happened slowly over decades while in the TV show these changes happened in a shorter period of time. In the book, The Commander and Serena Joy are older with wrinkles; in the TV show they are around the same as our protagonist, Offred. Offred’s name from before is never mentioned in the book; on the show she confesses her birth name as June. In the book Offred/June never sees her husband again after her kidnapping and assumes he is dead. In the TV show we see Luke escape to Canada and rebuild his life while holding out hope that he will be reunited with June. The book and the TV show both end on a cliffhanger- Offred/June is taken away from the Waterfords but the reader/viewer doesn’t really know if it’s to her doom or newfound freedom.
I have mixed feelings about this dystopian novel- it’s not action-packed, the reader spends time in the protagonist’s head. After the cliffhanger there is an epilogue that takes place 200 years in the future and the epilogue is basically a transcript of a Canadian college conference on “Gileadan Studies.” I found this change in point of view to be jarring and a bit of a head scratcher- it doesn’t really answer the cliffhanger question. A friend of mine who has read the book thought that the point of the epilogue might be to point out that such regimes and extremism is temporary.