English Literature A-level students in the mid-2000s will be familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, having had to study it for the Dystopian Fiction module. I wasn’t one of them – we were given Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker instead. Looking back, I’m thankful for that, as I don’t think my 17-year-old self would have fully appreciated the themes of the novel, nor its veiled commentary on real world attitudes towards women.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Handmaid’s Tale (including those of you who haven’t seen the recent US television adaptation), the novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, formally the United States of America. Nuclear war, reduced fertility rates and increased religious extremism have given rise to a new society – a military dictatorship where women have virtually no rights.
We explore this oppressive world through the eyes of Offred – literally “of Fred”. She is a Handmaid, living in the household of The Commander, a high-ranking official, and his wife. In order to combat the falling birth rate, wealthy households are permitted a Handmaid for reproductive purposes. In a society where sex is considered a sin, these women are fetishised by men. Meanwhile, the wives look on with jealous eyes.
During the day, Offred describes life in Gilead, the various rituals and ceremonies that take place, as well as the roles that men and women fulfil. Beneath the ruling class of the Commanders of the Faithful, there are the Angels (the soldiers), the Eyes (Gilead’s secret police) and the Guardians – low-ranking men used for routine policing and other tasks. Women mainly hold domestic roles with the exception of the formidable Aunts, the women who train and monitor the Handmaids.
At night, when Offred is alone, she narrates how she became a Handmaid. We learn Gilead is a recently established regime, having come into being after the President and Congress were wiped out in an attack. A revolutionary movement led by Christian fundamentalists quickly established power, taking away women’s rights and reorganising society into the hierarchical system described above.
Despite being written in 1985,The Handmaid’s Tale feels eerily contemporary. This is no accident. When imaging a future world, Margaret Atwood purposely excluded fantastical gizmos and advanced technology, instead referencing real world scenarios. In Gilead, we see Nazi Germany, where informants spied on their friends and neighbours. We see Argentina’s Dirty War, where left-wing pregnant women were snatched in the night and their babies given to more “suitable” right-wing parents.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale about what happens when we become complacent about the world around us. Now more than ever, we need stand against oppression and ensure we’re moving towards equality, not away from it.
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