Book review: The Handmaid's Tale

03:10, Oct 18 2012

It's strange how novels can sometimes predict what happens in real life. Take Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale - the tale of a young woman called Offred ("of" Fred, geddit?), who lives in a dismal dystopian future America, run by religious extremists who have established a country of their own called the Republic of Gilead.

Offred is a Handmaid, a woman who has basically been assigned one function, that of breeding cow. She lives in a patriarchal nightmare, where women are relegated to the function of Wives, Handmaids or servants. 

When Atwood wrote this novel in 1986, she based it upon political events unfolding then. It appears that nearly 30 years later, humanity is no closer to resolving those issues. Totalitarian, male-controlled regimes that oppress women, the use of religious ideology to promote political and social conservatism, and attempted state control of female reproduction are all issues we struggle with in 2012.

I didn't find The Handmaid's Tale an easy book to read, mainly because I could picture the bleak future that it painted, a little too closely for comfort. The patina of religion that overlay the Republic of Gilead hid a seedy underbelly, much like our world.

For example, though it is forbidden for Handmaids (or in fact, anyone at all in the republic) to enjoy sex for any purpose other than reproduction, Offred is propositioned by her doctor, who suggests that he can help her get pregnant because the commander she has been assigned to is probably infertile.

The commander meanwhile visits a dystopian brothel to get his kicks, and the commander's wife, desperate for a baby so she can feel fulfilled, arranges for Offred to have secret trysts with the family driver so he can try to impregnate her.


It all feels a little nakedly sordid, but so vividly imagined that it's frightening. There are examples of it all over America. Last year Missouri, for example, passed legislation that said employers would not have to provide birth control as part of their employee healthcare plans if it went against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan is calling for the overturning of Roe vs Wade, which was put in place 40 years ago to protect the rights of pro-choice women. These are all things that are very real and happening now, which smacks of the same despotic regime described in The Handmaid's Tale.

I'll leave you with some fantastic life lessons from the novel, which could apply to all arenas of living:

"Nilo carborundum illegitimi - don't let the bastards grind you down."

"You can think clearly only with your clothes on."

"When we think of the past, it's the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that."

"A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze."

"To want is to have a weakness."

"We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories."

Have you read The Handmaid's Tale? What did you think of it?

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