The Handmaid's Tale Book Cover The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
Fiction
Anchor
1986
311

A woman describes her life in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian society where an authoritarian Christian extremist regime has transformed the United States into a nation that operates by a caste system. Offred, named after her master ("Of Fred"), is classified as a handmaid and is therefore subjugated to sexual servitude to help curb infertility. Each month during the time of her ovulation, Offred must have ceremonious sex with her assigned commander (while his cold-hearted wife is required to be present ) in hopes that she may conceive of a child that would belong to the couple. Though women are forbidden to read and write, Offred uses this narrative to reflect upon her current life and directly compare it to the time before, when she was still a working woman, a loving wife and a devoted mother. It was a time, when she was still independent and free.

We are living in an era that has enabled an openly misogynist man to become president. Backed in part by alt-right religious fanatics, Trump’s administration actively works on dismantling protections for minority groups, including women. Reading Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” against this backdrop strikes a particularly sensitive chord with me. Her story is set in a world that represents my worst fears, a world where I’m no longer allowed to follow my passions such as reading, writing and filmmaking, and where I have been forced to relinquish autonomy over my own body. For some, such predicaments could lead to depression and, in the worst cases, maybe even suicide. While Atwood’s tale is fictional, the conditions she describes are realities for many women and girls across the globe. I am therefore very much moved by the inner strength Atwood’s main protagonist Offred exhibits. Her capacity for psychological pain, her ability to talk about her experiences in a meditative, reflective, almost healthy way reminds me of a photograph I once saw:  a still and peaceful Vietnamese Buddhist monk sitting ablaze in violent flames in quiet protest against government forces.

Offred flashes back to “normal” times, when life was full of banal truths: jobs, falling in love with a married man, motherhood, friendships, every day annoyances. They are the perfect juxtapositions to Gilean society and help us relate to her. We know someone like her, maybe we even are her, and we therefore can understand what it means to now be in her Puritan shoes. The flashbacks are skillfully integrated by Atwood and are also used effectively in the 2017 Hulu television series rendition created by Bruce Miller and starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred.

I am deeply moved and disgusted by this tale. I shudder at the bleak situation and I weep for all the Offred’s of the world. Content and story wise, I give this all the stars of the world. For the purpose of a book review, however, I am knocking off one teeny tiny star, because… well, I’m not really into flowery writing. At points it rubbed me the wrong way, because the words seemed to be Atwood’s and not Offred’s. Too “writerly”, overly clever and poetically out-of-character. There were hiccup passages that I had to reread, though they weren’t off putting enough for me to put this tale away.

This book is haunting. The TV show depressing.

Be prepared. You might find yourself become more of a feminist. I mean no judgment on those who have chosen to take on their husband’s name after marriage, but after reading this book, I – for myself – am happy about my decision to keep my maiden name.


Also published on Medium.

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