Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret AtwoodReviewed by Johanna Garnett
Back when I was 17, a very large bosomed, jolly female lecturer stated that we would be required to read ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
I expected it to simply be another novel that I’d refer to in the future as ‘a book I once had to read’.
However, 14 years later the book is the most read on the bookshelf. Numerous pages are dog-eared, it has an abundance of coffee rings dotted about and the cover is hanging on by a thread.
So why has it endured?
Set within the future, the state of Gilead (likely to be the modern day USA) is created after the assassination of the President by extremist terrorists, Congress is ousted and the Constitution suspended by a group referring to themselves as the ‘Sons of Jacob’. Based on the Old Testament, society is redefined by religious and traditional social views with the removal of the rights of women and other ‘undesirables’ alarmingly quickly and evocative of Germany in the 1930s.
Told through the eyes of the main character, a women named Offred, we witness the simplicity with which ‘freedom to’ is converted into ‘freedom from’. Offred could be the woman seated next to you at work, who you meet up with for coffee and who shops at the local market today. A woman who had freedom to do anything, own anything, say anything and love anyone.
Offred’s place in this new state is defined by her biological usefulness. Deemed valuable because of her previous birth to her daughter, taken away from her under the new regime as she had an affair with a married man, she is classed as a Handmaid.
Allowed only to dress in red and protected like a valuable commodity, her sole purpose is to provide a high ranking Commander and his wife with children by performing a sexual ‘ceremony’ each month with the ultimate aim of ‘bearing fruit’.
Ultimately we witness Offred struggle to understand where does protection ‘to’ end and protection ‘from’ begin and if society is any better under either choice. During the novel, many relationships are highlighted for their complex nature and how in any situation, actions and reactions are defined not only by our own personal views but are influenced by what society deems acceptable. After all if the Government decreed tomorrow you were unemployed, penniless and completely dependent on your husband we would assume we’d react with outrage!
But what if these rights to protest, to act, to voice were taken away? Your children removed from you and given to another couple simply because they were deemed of higher social status than you? Or you were sent to the ‘colonies’ to clean up nuclear and biological hazards and declared an ‘unwoman’ simply because you could not have children either through medical or age reasons?
The novel addresses some very complex issues about the fundamental and biological role that men and women play in the universe. Also it has shadows of foretelling the future, with today’s society facing lower birth rates and increased rates in sexual diseases which are affecting the birth rate on a global scale, coinciding with the ever threat of nuclear or biological accidents or attacks. I only hope that Atwood doesn’t possess a crystal ball…
Whilst this book could be viewed as apocalyptic and does address some thought provoking questions, I love this book because ultimately the basic human need to love, hope, desire and feel will always give one freedom to be and that I feel, is the biggest message of all.
Flourishnote: Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? Please let us know in the comments box below.
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