The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Rating: ★★★★

The Handmaid's Tale is the internal monologue of a woman trapped under the control of an oppressive, theocratic state in its earliest years, and her service as a child-bearing slave. Spawned out of the United States, amid crises over increasing conservatism and the role of women in society, the state of Gilead is a totalitarian body attempting a violent transition toward a patriarchal, highly structured and religious society. We see only glimpses of the wider picture of the state, however, as this story focuses on the experiences of the narrator and her conflicted hopes, memories and emotions.

The story is very much one of female suffering and repression. While the narrator mostly focuses on the strict controls placed upon her by Gilead law, wherein she cannot own property, must clothe herself as instructed and is expected to offer her body and reproductive ability in service of the state, she also notes unpleasant memories of modern times, of having to make sure that her door is locked and to be careful around strangers, fears curdled by news reports of vicious sexual attacks. Yet it is also an examination of female power. The narrator has a silent strength and focus, and manages to exert influence over the men and women controlling her, and take part in small rebellions against the seemingly all-powerful state. Other characters demonstrate different aspects of this power, from Moira: who physically rebels and nearly escapes, and later finds a niche as a prostitute; to the Aunts, whose compliance with the theology of the state lends them authority, and powers proscribed from most women -- the ability to read being foremost. As an out-of-text epilogue states, there are elements of matriarchal power in Gilead, if only to act as a release valve.

One point worth dwelling on is that to the narrator, the transition was sudden and inexplicable -- a new order swept in overnight. Yet we see through her memories that the transition was not so sudden at all. Her own conservative dress compared with her mother's points to a rising conservative trend in society, something the author no doubt sees glimpses of in modernity. Her friend Moira's radicalism, much brushed-over, points to an active counter-movement fighting a losing battle. This is the background which allows Gilead to be formed -- the transition cannot be entirely enforced from above.

A well-written dystopian novel, with distinct tones of modern issues, A Handmaid's Tale rings alarm bells while communicating a complexity and resilience of humanity.