I can hardly believe The Handmaid's Tale, the 1985 Sci-Fi masterpiece, is only Margaret Atwood's fifth novel. And I can hardly talk about the book without getting overly excited, because it is one of my very favorite books by my very favorite author. When I finished reading it, I felt so energized by the subject, the themes, and the language. I kept thinking about it, turning it over in my mind, combing through the details, and letting it sink in.
It takes place in the dystopian, distant-ish future in the Republic of Gilead, ambiguously located somewhere within the former United States. The society is a theocratic military dictatorship initially founded by a radical pseudo-Christian cult via a terrorist coup d'état. Some unnamed kind of environmental, social, and physical degradation presumably motivated the overthrow. Whatever happened left most of the women infertile and most of the newborn babies deformed. The job of having children falls to Handmaids, women conscripted into domestic servitude and used solely for their reproductive capacity. The idea of Handmaids is loosely based on the biblical story of Jacob impregnating his wife's handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah. They distort that idea and use it idea to justify sexual slavery; they're trying to repopulate after all.
The main character (and first-person narrator of the book) is a handmaid named Offred - signifying that she is the handmaid Of Fred. The narrative flashes from the bleak present to her past. She remembers these totalitarian ideas taking hold and her world changing, slowly at first and then at a break-neck pace. In her past she was married to a man named Luke and had a daughter. They were all separated, and the extremely remote possibility of being reunited with either keeps her going. All Handmaids do on a daily basis is the grocery shopping, which seems dull except that all the while she has an intense inner world where she tries to preserve parts of her identity that are gradually being worn away. She has endless, uneventful days which she tries not to fill with painful memories of a world where things made sense.
This book is so rich with imagery and ideas that I could not possibly take it all in on one reading. It was banned in North Carolina for being "sexually explicit, violently graphic and morally corrupt" - hardly things we're unfamiliar with in our world today. Margaret Atwood is very careful to incorporate only things that either had happened in different contexts already or things that were in the realm of possibility. She takes ideas and historical events and pushes them to a very extreme conclusion. That idea gives you a novel that at times seems fanciful, until you really think about it and there are distinct historical precedents. This book forces you to look at the world and see what it could become of the straits were dire enough.
Allie @ Central