I had thought I’d been given The Handmaid’s Tale for my birthday, but it’s not on the list of things I got. Nor was it on the list of things I got for Christmas. I must simply have been wrong. I suppose I eventually gave in and decided to treat myself. After all, you can only go through life for so long before you start to feel like you’re making a terrible mistake by not reading Atwood, right?
I have been meaning to read The Handmaid’s Tale for about a decade and I honestly wish someone had made me do it sooner. It’s a fascinating, compelling and deeply uncomfortable book that I never wanted to put down. It was only when I had finished reading that I heard about the new TV series and now I can’t wait to watch it (but I am waiting because, as of writing this post, not all of the episodes have been released and I want to watch them all in one go).
In Gilead, there had been some kind of disaster. A totalitarian regime has taken over, removing the rights of women and most citizens. Fewer and fewer children have been born each year and many people are now infertile. Those women still able to give birth are forced to become Handmaidens and are required to have perfunctory sex with powerful men in an attempt to recover the population.
Offred is one of these Handmaidens. Her name literally strips her of any identity – Fred is the powerful man to whom she has been assigned. She’s Fred’s now. She describes her life as a Handmaiden and her life before. She wonders what happened to her husband, her child and her old friend, Moira. And she worries about how long she can go on living in this way.
People sometimes describe the Handmaid’s Tale as “science fiction.” There are certainly science fiction themes, but Atwood has talked about how she was very careful to only include things that had really happened, in the real world. She combined ideas from many real places and regimes to create her terrifying, but very possible world. The parts of the book that describe how things changed are particularly scary for this reason. It all sounds so possible.
Of course, it feels timely to be reading The Handmaid’s Tale, given the current political climate. I’d like to think things could never get that bad – but it’s good to have a reminder that we need to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen.