First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale follows the story of Offred, a ‘Handmaid’, whose sole purpose in life is to conceive a baby with her Officer, whose wife is presumably infertile. As the story unfolds, we learn that there are possibly hundreds of women who have been taken into the slavery of being Handmaids. It is unclear how long this system has been in place. Officers are the ruling class, and may take Handmaids if necessary, Marthas (older, female servants) and Guardians (young men who police the towns and do menial jobs for their Officer that are outside of the ability of Marthas).
Atwood has created a complex system, which only adds to the creepiness of the story. In the style of Huxley’s Brave New World or J.G Ballard’s High Rise, how the totalitarian state came to be is shown in fragments, a particularly horrible one involving Offred’s credit card being declined while buying cigarettes, as women’s money is passed to their male next of kin.
Offred, by the way, is a slave name, meaning ‘Of Fred’. From this we can infer the Commander’s name is Fred. Small touches like this make the story more horrible; little details that show the complete marginalisation of women. The true wickedness comes from the constant reminder that, in a few generations, all life as it was before will be completely forgotten. With clever touches making all women suspicious of each other, only being allowed to demonstrate their unhappiness in ways orchestrated by the new government, there is seemingly no hope of revolution. There are no friends, everyone jealous of girls who manage to get pregnant, suspicious of anything underground, and in turn fascinated by the warnings of death that are shown on The Wall.
As is the point with all great speculative fiction, though the social landscape is unrecognisable, it is able to speak certain truths about current society. Reading it now, over twenty years after its publication, its points on victim-blaming in cases of rape and Christian conservatism as a power for evil are perhaps, horrifically, even more relevant. With recent votes demolishing the availability of legal abortion in Texas seeming likely to spread to other areas of America, women’s rights to do what they wish with their bodies is once again against the wall. A major theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is the idea that the women within this dystopia float through their duties, without choice and without thought. The sex they have is against their will and purely for reproduction, their bodies having been taken from them. It is as if these women are playthings, their bodies not their own, everything about them purely for the convenience of the male. The reader understands that no thought of rebellion can exist in a world where your body, your vessel to escape, has been detached from you in such a way as to make you distrust it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic of the speculative fiction genre, and a genuinely important book that both men and women should read.