Paperback: 311 pages
Publisher: Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)
Target group: adults
Welcome to the near future. Protestant fundamentalists have taken over the US government and created the Republic of Gilead. The new Republic faces many problems but the most keenly felt issue concerns reproduction. Pollution and nuclear accidents have left many people sterile so men and women who can still conceive are the utter luxury. Eventually, the government declare all second marriages invalid and all fertile wives of these marriages are subject to deportation or to service as Handmaids. Handmaids are forced to couple (you can’t call that sex) once a month with aristocratic men with the aim of continuing the race and to give birth to as many children as possible. If they don’t conceive with their first “Commander” they change houses getting two other chances and then they are deported to Colonies where life is hard, environment polluted and nobody survives long. By the way women are no longer allowed to work, study, read or write. They must wear horrible uniform-like dresses, and cover their heads with veils.
Offred (not her real name – “of Fred”?), the narrator of this story, chooses to become a Handmaid. After a period of training at the “Red Center”, she is assigned to a series of households. She ends in the house of a high-ranking Commander, Fred. It is her last chance as it is her third man, she is already 31 and hasn’t conceived again since becoming a Handmaid. She can’t forget her former life, wondering whether her mother, husband and daughter are still alive. She misses many luxuries like nail polish, cigarettes, jeans, high heels, coffee. Now her world revolves around a number of different women, separated into distinct societal roles: Marthas (household workers), Wives (the mistresses), and Aunts (kind of morality guards cum teachers).
Once every month the Commander couples with Offred as his infertile wife sits behind her, holding her hands. Offred doesn’t have the slightest idea that the Commander cares about her situation. However, within a few months he invites her secretly in the middle of the night to his study, an offense punishable by death. They play Scrabble and the Commander brings Offred old books and magazines to read, another capital offense. Then he gives her even more valuable presents – a hand lotion and an old lipstick. Eventually he even takes her to an underground nightclub/brothel where officials can indulge their sinful whims and treat women as sexual beings. Meanwhile Offred, risking her life, learns a little about the resistance from another Handmaid of her acquaintance, Ofglen. The matters complicate when Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, comes to the conclusion that her husband is probably sterile. Serena Joy wants a child so badly that she bribes Offred to have sex with her husband’s chauffeur Nick. It is a real affair for poor Offred and she becomes so caught up that she stops gleaning information from Fred for the resistance as she visits Nick definitely more often than she should.
Will Offred prove her worth to her superiors by becoming pregnant? Is there any other way out of her predicament? Will her tale, recorded on cassette tapes, change anything?
What I liked:
It was a feminist and very adult take on dystopia – an interesting and even momentarily entertaining read, although a bit scary. Despite the fact that we deal with a book from the early 1980’s (Ronald Reagan was US President then!) it remains momentarily a very persuading vision. I must admit it is written very well – when you start it you must finish, no matter what. Fortunately it is not very long either.
The characters are well-rendered and original, especially Offred and other women she cooperates with. I started to feel for them very early on and then I just choked with anger reading about their lives and daily humiliation. I suppose only a woman author could know how to move you this way.
What I didn’t like:
To tell you the truth there were too many disturbing moments in this book – it is certainly not a light read. Apart from that the whole dystopian world was so horrible that it seemed overall just improbable after a while. I couldn’t believe there were not enough confident and capable women left – women who would oppose the fundamentalists earlier on and in a more decisive manner. Women usually are in the majority so how come they became so subdued? After all for several millennia there have been more female births than male births and men tend to have shorter life spans than women (wars, diseases, accidents, speeding, alcohol – you name it). Even the religion factor didn’t explain it sufficiently well (how come all these ladies were so religious all of a sudden?).
To sum up this novel seems today a bit dated (but believe me, you will be grateful for that) and misguided. It didn’t age well.
I changed this section three times – I am more conflicted than ever. It was an interesting read but I am not madly in love with it. However, I’ve always been a bit afraid of reading Atwood novels because of her disturbing, dark visions of the future. Perhaps after some time I will be tempted to try her other books but right now I am not sure.
I other words I am STILL scared. Call me chicken.