McClelland & Stewart, 1985, 324 pages.
After a staged terrorist attack kills the President and most of Congress, the government is deposed and taken over by the oppressive and all controlling Republic of Gilead. Offred, now a Handmaid serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife, can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Despite the danger, Offred learns to navigate the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules in hopes of ending this oppression.
The Handmaid's Tale is one of the few science fiction novels on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Margaret Atwood rather famously insisted once that she writes "speculative fiction," not "science fiction," which got SF fans in an uproar, with the implication that she wanted to distance herself from those groaty nerds with their Martians and rocket ships. (Atwood rebuts this at length in her essay The Road to Ustopia.)
Personally, I think she just wanted to distance herself from Sherri S. Tepper.
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!"
The Handmaid's Tale presents an alternate future history in which widespread sterility has left only one woman in a hundred able to conceive. Amidst plummeting birth rates and an implied environmental catastrophe, a fundamentalist Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government, and transforms it into the Republic of Gilead, a police state as brutal and resonant as Orwell's Oceania.
You can call The Handmaid's Tale many things: dystopian science fiction, a feminist version of 1984, an alarmist political screed, a cautionary tale, but to read it as simply any of those things is, I think, missing what makes it a great work of literature.
It's perhaps closest to 1984, in that like Orwell's book and unlike most contemporary dystopian novels, what "resistance" there may be is small, ineffectual, and possibly fictitious. There is no plot to take down the government and not much hope within the pages of the book that either the main character or the oppressed citizens are going to escape.
And the Republic of Gilead is, while frightening, not particularly novel or unprecedented. It's a religious dictatorship that hangs dissidents. They reduce women to objects, even high-status, privileged women. They make birth control and abortion capital crimes (along with pretty much all other science and medicine). The scenes in which homosexuals, Catholic priests and nuns, doctors, and anyone else who offends the strict Biblical regime, along with political prisoners, are hung up on the Wall or torn apart in "particicutions," are chilling and nasty, as they are meant to be, but nothing Atwood had to stretch her imagination very far to create. Most police states do things like that, and places as oppressive as the Republic of Gilead already exist, from villages in Afghanistan to FLDS-dominated towns in Utah and Arizona.
But, it's not Atwood's imagined takeover of the U.S. by Talibaptists (I use the term ironically; in the book, Baptists are one of the rebel groups being hunted down and slaughtered by the regime) which makes it so well executed, even if "like something out of the Handmaid's Tale" or "Welcome to Gilead" have become catch-phrases in contemporary political debate over reproductive rights. In fact, while Atwood's novel is obviously presenting a nightmare vision of a right-wing Christian dictatorship, reading it in its entirely makes it clear that whatever her politics may be, her primary purpose was not simply to get up on a feminist soapbox and rail against the Patriarchy. (Do you hear that, Sherri S. Tepper?)
The Handmaid's Tale is about the mechanics and psychology of dehumanization.
The narrator, who becomes known as "Offred" ("Of-Fred") — in the movie, she's named Kate, but in the book we never learn her real name — relates how she went from being a modern, 20th century American woman to a "Handmaid," or concubine and surrogate mother, for a high-ranking Commander in the Republic of Gilead. Offred is a very passive character, by no means a heroine in any real sense, but that is the point of her story, explaining how someone who grew up with a feminist mother, who had a college degree and a professional job, could turn into someone who bows and prays and submits to an unthinkable new order, even joining in verbal and literal stone-throwing when commanded to.
It is the small things that make an impression in this novel, not the forced births and the public executions.
On the third night I asked him for some hand lotion, I didn't want to sound begging, but I wanted what I could get.
Some what? he said, courteous as ever. He was across the desk from me. He didn't touch me much, except for that one obligatory kiss. No pawing, no heavy breathing, none of that; it would have been out of place, somehow, for him as well as for me.
Hand lotion, I said. Or face lotion. Our skin gets very dry. For some reason I said our instead of my. I would have liked to ask also for some bath oil, in those little colored globules you used to be able to get, that were so much like magic to me when they existed in the round glass bowl in my mother's bathroom at home. But I thought he wouldn't know what they were. Anyway, they probably weren't made anymore.
Dry? the Commander said, as if he'd never thought about that before. What do you do about it?
We use butter, I said. When we can get it. Or margarine. A lot of the time it's margarine.
Butter, he said, musing. That's very clever. Butter. He laughed. I could have slapped him.
The Commander is a perfectly horrible cipher, an inscrutable, personable and banal manifestation of evil. "I'm just a regular guy," as he once tries to tell Offred. He never mistreats Offred or his wife, he just quietly takes for granted the power he has over them, the ability to grant or withhold trifles that are of immense value to those who have been reduced to chattel. It's implied, but never revealed, that he's probably committing Gestapo-like atrocities during the day, but when he comes home he's just a "regular guy" who wants to play Scrabble and steal a kiss.
All of the women (and to a lesser extent, the men) are dehumanized in this fashion, turned into breeding or non-breeding units for the State. There is a caste system among women, and a less explicit one among men. But, engineered deliberately to be so, the most visible agents of women's oppression in Gilead are other women. The wives rule their households but are ultimately barren prisoners of those households themselves; the Commander's wife, Serena Joy, is a former televangelist, enjoying the bitter fruits of her reward after preaching that women should be subservient to men and men took her at her word. While she is Offred's chief tormentor, she also becomes a conspirator with her, both of them prisoners of their situations.
Don't read this to see Offred attempt a daring escape or join the rebellion. Read it for a finely executed narrative about what it's like to live under oppression dressed up as liberation, and all the ways in which people can be broken down. The particular path to tyranny that Atwood describes may be what scares people who are afraid of religious fundamentalists, but just as in Orwell's classic, the means by which the state holds onto power, controls those who remember the time before, and rewrites history are far more important than the specific instruments.
The Handmaid's Tale (1990)
Natasha Richardson as Offred, Robert Duvall as the Commander, and Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, the Commander's wife. This was an effectively horrific movie, all harsh indoor lighting contrasted with brightly-colored scenery to represent the stark brutality and pseudo-utopian vision of Gilead. It's a very impressive movie visually, and follows the novel pretty closely until the ending, where it adds some twists that were not in the book, I suppose to fix the problem of Offred being a very passive and uncinematic main character.
Duvall is particularly effective as the Commander — charming and casual, and while you never actually see the monster under the mask, he gives enough clues to let you know it's there. And the coldly utilitarian sex scenes of the Handmaid "ceremony" are truly nightmarish. Like, "Ewwww!" and "Brrrr!"
Have you read The Handmaid's Tale?
Have you seen the movie?
Have you read anything else by Margaret Atwood?
Verdict: I take back all jokes about Margaret Atwood "slumming" in the sci-fi genre. The reason this book is a classic is that the methods of dehumanization ring so true. The Handmaid's Tale is most famous for adding political catch-phrases to the abortion wars, but it does the book an injustice to say it's only about a religious dictatorship that forces women to have babies. It's a portrayal of just how insidious a tyrannical regime can be, and what it's like to be dehumanized on a personal level.
My complete list of book reviews.