This iconic dystopian novel is a must read – set in the near future, a new society has been created in the form of the Republic of Gilead, a highly controlled and restrictive society which represses women. Complimented by a brilliant adaptation for television.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE
BY MARGARET ATWOOD
Even if you haven’t yet read 'The Handmaid’s Tale', or seen the TV adaptation, it is impossible not to be aware of the impact of this iconic novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1984. The book is set in the near future where a new society has been created in the form of the Republic of Gilead, seen to be as somewhere in the United States of America. It is a highly controlled and restrictive society. Women are repressed and held like modern day slaves, shut off from the outside world they knew and categorised according to their age and what they can offer to Gilead.
Offred is a Handmaid, marked out by her red dress and large white bonnet to cover her face. Her role within this dystopian future is to produce a baby which is managed every month with clinical precision. However Offred can still remember her previous married life with Luke and their daughter although she has no idea what has happened to them. It is the fear of what might happen to them if she doesn’t comply which adds to her complicity. Added to this is the horror she witnesses, as the Handmaids are forced to walk past the market where anyone who has disobeyed the regime are hanged and left hanging for those to see as a reminder of the consequences of disobedience.
Alongside the Handmaids are the Econowives who wear stripes and form the lower part of society. As Gilead is puritanical, luxuries are forbidden. Offred is desperate for hand cream and hides butter to use as a moisturiser. The only glimpse into her previous world, is when she visits a brothel with the Commander.
Although this is a dystopian future with its specific power structure, Atwood acknowledges parallels with society in many parts of the world today. Some of us were lucky enough to hear Atwood talk at the National Theatre in London, where she referenced the women and children who disappeared in Argentina whose children were often adopted by military families. Only now are they finding out that their fathers are not their fathers and that these same men were also responsible for the death of their real fathers – an unimaginable discovery. The fact Atwood thinks we are moving closer towards this regime is rather frightening.
Surprisingly, this book split the Den which may seem remarkable given its iconic status. Views varied from it being seen as a work of dystopian genius, to others finding it unfulfilling, perhaps because the book ends without knowing Offred’s fate. There is however plenty to discuss for any book club gathering. It will be interesting to see how many of us choose to now go on and read 'The Testaments', especially as in paperback from September.