Margaret Atwood, originally published by McClelland & Stewart, 1986
Reviewed by Linda Rusenovich
Who are the women in billowy red robes, looking as though they have just stepped out of an Elizabethan time machine into contemporary Washington, D.C.? They were seen in costume protesting outside the Kavanaugh hearings and stood out at the Women’s March in their habits and white winged caps, personifying the “handmaid” character from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale published more than 25 years ago in 1986.
Atwood’s book imagines a future earth ravaged by pollution and disease. The Caucasian population crashes. Panicked white men take over a large portion of the United States and turn it into a patriarchy called Gilead. They rescind the legal rights of women and minorities. The handmaids are forced to serve as surrogate wombs for the Commanders and their sterile wives. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a young woman known by the pseudonym “Offred” journals her existence as the handmaid of Commander Fred.
Second-wave feminism feared that women’s gains would be eroded during the Reagan era. But while the oppression of women certainly occurs in some places around the globe, our Constitution guarantees women equal rights with men here in the United States. Therefore, it’s difficult to imagine these dystopian scenes occurring in the foreseeable future in Massachusetts, where the story is set. As Offred narrates her days interacting with the other characters, the reader gleans random facts about Gilead’s structure and history. However, so much is left unexplained that the reader has difficulty accepting the premises of the story. How could a revolution like this succeed if carried out by a small minority of the population? Does Atwood think that all or most men would be complicit?
Atwood links the patriarchal structure of Gilead to Judeo-Christian tradition. Her characters quote fragments of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. For example, the Commander’s household gathers weekly for Bible readings, but the Commander takes verses out of context in order to reinforce the oppressive practices of Gilead’s administrators. Offred views scriptural teachings as archaic and irrelevant. She observes:
It’s the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the moldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Center. (p. 88)
Atwood reveals her own feminist ideals through Offred, who reflects on her losses. Before the Revolution, she had a secure job and income, an egalitarian marriage, and one child in daycare. Offred misses her female coworkers and friends, but trusts no male. Even Luke, Offred’s husband, entertained sympathy for the Revolution at first.
This book is not for younger readers as it includes descriptions of rape and other sex scenes and contains profane language. It falls short on plot, requiring the reader to blindly accept the novel’s implausible premises. One can, however, read it to better understand the symbolism of the Handmaid for feminists. Her message: “Sisters, beware. Your career, family and freedom will never be truly safe from the patriarchy.”
Linda Rusenovich is a free-lance writer, who discusses political ideas with her Great Books group, and has spoken up for the American flag and conservative values before her local Board of Education. She recently celebrated 34 years of marriage and is the mother of four adult children.
Editor’s Note: While The Handmaid’s Tale was initially published in 1986, it remains an important book today because of its resurgence in popularity since the 2016 elections. The handmaid costume itself has become a symbol of abortion rights, which was used by feminists to protest the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as the review notes. Groups clad in handmaid’s gear have also appeared at venues outside of the nation’s capital, including the Golden Globe awards in Hollywood in 2018. A (streaming) television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in April of 2017 on Hulu.
Despite numerous attempts to ban the book over the years, mostly because of its sexually explicit content and profanity, it remains required reading in some high schools and middle schools. Parents may be allowed to request an alternative, but often, they are not even aware that their children are being exposed to such brutally graphic content as rape, torture, kidnapping, and police brutality. The book’s dystopian message is that biblical Christianity is bad, and deeper even than that, it foreshadows the demise of the United States as a nation, to be replaced by totalitarianism; not exactly uplifting reading for young minds still in their formative stages.