Books Every Woman Should Read: The Handmaid’s Tale
WHILE the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed out in public without a male chaperone. They couldn’t hold jobs or even speak aloud in public lest they inflamed male passions. One poor unfortunate had her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish.
Many of us here in the West watched on with sympathy, but with a certain quiet relief that such a fate could never befall us. How could women allow themselves to be treated so? This is the question explored in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. First published in 1985, its eerie parallels with the Taliban regime in particular make this dystopian novel especially chilling.
The Republic of Gilead used to be known as the United States of America. Its citizens used to be free to choose their path in life. But an extreme Christian group uses a terrorist attack on the president as a cover to overthrow the government and install a new regime, based on the Old Testament. Women find their bank accounts frozen and themselves unemployable. Soon they are second-class citizens in a new system which classifies women according to their usefulness.
Offred (we never learn her original name) is a ‘handmaid’ to Commander Fred. Environmental disaster has left many men and women infertile, but it’s illegal to insinuate that men are impotent. Handmaids like Offred are assigned to couples in order to help them conceive, based on an odd passage in the Bible where Jacob has a threesome with two of his wives’ maids. This is called ‘the Ceremony’ and is a humiliating experience for the women involved.
We learn of Offred’s life under this oppressive regime and how her husband and child tried to escape to Canada (their marriage was declared null and void because he had been divorced previously). Offred does not know if they are alive or dead. Serena Joy, Commander Fred’s wife, resents Offred’s presence, especially during the ceremony. Suspecting that her husband may be infertile and knowing she will get Offred out of their lives if she becomes pregnant, Serena Joy arranges for Offred to have sex with Fred’s chauffeur Nick.
So begins Offred’s journey into the dangerous underworld of Gilead, and she begins to take risks that may lead to her losing her life. Atwood has created an amazingly detailed and convincing world and the pace never lets up. She skillfully weaves a chilling and all-too-realistic vision of the future and while it’s incredibly dark, it’s an engrossing read.
It would have been easy to make men into the demons of this story but Atwood is too clever for that. Instead, the enmity between women which often leads to petty dramas in a free society becomes something sinister and life-threatening in Gilead. Nobody wants to be an Unwoman – the infertile, aged, widows, lesbians, feminists etc. who are exiled to toxic wastelands to die a slow death.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an important book, one which reminds us not to take our freedoms for granted and to fight to maintain our human rights.
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