In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….
“I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” So explains Offred, the narrator of our story. We see this bleak future that Atwood has created and glimpses of the “time before” through her eyes–the eyes of a handmaid, a mere vessel for ovaries and babies she will not be allowed to raise even if she is lucky enough to conceive. Even her new name, Offred, is dehumanizing. It literally means “Of Fred.” No woman is her own in this new world. All she has is her bed and four bare walls in her Commander’s house. She hasn’t even seen herself in a mirror since the Republic took over and she was forced into training (read: brainwashing) to become a Handmaid. Mirrors have all been destroyed because so many woman killed themselves with mirror shards. So many wasted wombs…
The scary thing about this novel is that it’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy. Women are treated like objects all over the world. Even in the United States, in the not too distant past, women were treated as second class citizens. When we are given glimpses into Offred’s “time before,” it is our time. It’s the world we are living in now. One of the reasons the Republic was able to render women inconsequential seemingly overnight, is that everyone’s money was electronic. Offred attempted to use her debit card one morning and found that she couldn’t–later that day she learned that it had become illegal for women to own assets, land or have their own money. Of all things, this struck me as frightening because it’s entirely possible. All someone would have to do is flip a switch and “poof,” all our money could be gone or worthless. “Where are the riots?” you might ask. They get mowed down by the government. Peaceful protests don’t exist anymore. One bloody massacre is all it took for the country to lay down at the Republic’s feet.
But all is not lost. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a spark, there is a fire. Offred stumbles upon the “May Day” movement, an underground group of people who oppose the Republic. We aren’t shown too much of what May Day does, other than unite non-believers to show them that they aren’t alone, but the end of the book leaves Offred at a crossroads where perhaps she will find out.
I chose to read this book because it is on every dystopian must read list. Being relatively new to the genre (ushered in by The Hunger Games and Divergent), I had to start somewhere and I am so glad that I started here. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this book. I have many ways of measuring whether or not a book is good to me. One indicator is how long a book sticks with me. Another is how much of the book I highlight because I love the way different things are written. The Handmaid’s Tale scored off the chart for both of these internal methods. This story stuck with me for days, even long after I was done reading it. I couldn’t shake the realism, imagery, injustice, horror or the sadness I felt for the characters and their circumstances. As far as highlighting, I felt I was back in college when I would highlight only the important parts only to realize I’d highlighted everything. Atwood is an amazing wordsmith, a truly prolific writer. Every word she writes has a purpose and they dance off the page. I can’t wait to read more by her.
Needless to say, I loved this book. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of a definitive ending. But even that may be a stroke of Atwood’s genius. We are left up in the air–hanging uncomfortably in suspense–just like Offred. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her and neither do we. She is confused and scared, but hopeful. And so are we.
Fun Fact: If you’ve read this book, you may have been disappointed that we are never told Offred’s name from the “time before.” It’s so important to her, and she references her name so many times, but it’s never given to us. I know I was disappointed. But a quick Google search yielded this gem: “The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,’ and all are later accounted for except June.” So we can deduce that her name was June. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to know that, but it does.
Final Thoughts: READ THIS BOOK!