When I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale back in the 80s, I believe my reaction was that the Canadian author might be over-reacting to the rise in American religious fundamentalism, although that also made it fairly scary reading. Not only does the novel translate well into this century, it is even more effective and foreboding in a time when hard-won civil and reproductive rights are being abrogated, education is being dumbed down and tampered with (as we know who have to fight the “intelligent design” battle every two years), and fundamentalism of all kinds is on the rise. Everyone should read or re-read this book.
Atwood presents the story skillfully. It is from the point of view of one person, the handmaid, as she struggles with her everyday life but remembers her previous one–one that we would consider normal. Instead of explaining what happened, she muses about her life as her thoughts come to her and as things happen, so it takes us awhile to understand what is going on. More than 20 years later, I still remember my horror when I realized the handmaid’s function in this dystopian society.
All we understand at first is that the handmaid lives in a rigid, stratified society in what used to be the U.S. in the not-too-distant future. It is a time of war, and there are terrifying checkpoints everywhere. All women are forced to wear uniforms in specific colors that indicate their station and function, and hers is red. She is treated as an outcast, and almost her every action is supervised. It takes us awhile to figure out that she lives in a theocracy, the laws of which were made as an apparent backlash against the successes in the late 19th century of women’s rights. In a foreword to the version I read, Atwood says that she purposefully didn’t include anything in the book that people have not already done to each other, which makes a statement in itself.
The novel is beautifully written. Although education for women is against the law, the handmaid was educated in her previous life, and constantly plays with language as she muses.
Read in the current climate, some of the themes and statements in this book will send a chill down your spine.