The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel from the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It has been published in 1985 and it is part of the literary genre of dystopia. A dystopia describes an imaginary society ruled by totalitarian power where people lose their freedom and self-awareness. This book is a futuristic novel and it has been adapted in TV series since 2017. Here is the story of this book :
Offred is a woman under the Republic of Gilead, a military dictatorship founded by religious fanatics. In this society where fertility has fallen dramatically, women are categorized. There are the Commanders’ Wives dressed in blue ; they’re married to « Commanders », political leaders with responsibilities. These women are concerned only with the supervision of housework and live comfortably. Then there are the Marthas in green ; there are servants and nannies when there is a child, they are sterile. Then, there are the Econowives who are married to poor men. Plus, the Aunts are the women who indoctrinate and brainwash the Handmaids. And finally, the Handmaids are the women still fertile. They are only used for reproduction and they belong to Commanders. They are recognizable by their red dress.
Offred is a Handmaid in this society. Before the new government came, she had a job, a husband and a little girl. Now, she spends her time in her room that contains the minimum and she has the right to walk once a day with a companion like her. Like all the maids, she suffers the contempt and jealousy of other women who are unable to give birth, and especially of the Commanders’ WIves, because it’s the maids who are able to give birth to their husbands. « It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling; of course, they will resent you. It is only natural, try to feel for them. » The Handmaids are therefore very badly treated but have to accept their fate.
Offred doesn’t have a name anymore and the only thing that keeps her going is her memories. She was separated from her daughter and her husband, who was injured the last time she saw him. The reader thus alternates between memories of the past and events of the present, which allows us to observe the evolution of the status of women. Indeed, the Handmaids no longer have freedoms and are conditioned to remain quiet. They live under the threat of being sent to the Colonies: a place where all those who are not executed are sent. The people there live in terrible conditions, which are shown to the maids to frighten them. Religion is also an important part of their « education » done by the Aunts. Maids are kept in the deepest ignorance : « Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you. » They do not have access to television (which only broadcasts propaganda material) or books but only to the Bible.
This novel allows us to discover a new society where women no longer have freedoms and are reduced to objects that are used and thrown away when they become useless. Indeed, this novel shows how fragile women’s freedoms are and are never acquired forever. Simone de Beauvoir said : « Never forget that all it takes is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights are never acquired. You will have to remain vigilant throughout your life. »
As a woman, this novel really sends shivers down my spine because I think I could very well be in Offred’s place. Indeed, the author was inspired only by elements that have already arrived in dictatorships and real authoritarian societies. This makes the novel lively and very touching for the reader, who can very well imagine the society described by Margaret Atwood. This novel also allows us to open our eyes to today’s events, where women’s rights are being challenged. I’m thinking of Afghanistan since the Taliban came : young women can’t go to school and can’t go out without being completely covered and accompanied by a man. I am also thinking of the United States, where a fundamental right is being called into question: the right to abortion. The law in the U.S. Constitution obliging the legalization of abortion could be abolished, which would allow some states to prohibit it. It is estimated that 26 out of 50 states would actually ban or reduce it if the law were abolished (including the great state of Texas). This would be a real massacre for women’s right to dispose of their bodies.
I really liked this sentence from the novel that made me think : « A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze. »