‘I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.’
Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.
Masterfully conceived and executed, this haunting vision of the future places Margaret Atwood at the forefront of dystopian fiction.
After watching the first episode of the TV series 'The Handmaid's Tale', I realised from the credits that it was based on an 80s novel by Margaret Atwood, so I decided to buy a copy and read the book as well.
Having seen some of the first episodes by the time I started reading the book, I could easily put a face on all the characters and I could clearly visualise many of the scenes and the atmosphere of the book. The fact that the author herself was one of the producers, ensured that the TV adaptation adhered as much as possible to the book's script.
"Don't let the bastards grind you down."
In this dystopian novel (I don't usually read dystopians but this was too tempting to resist!), Atwood takes us forwards in time to 'the near future', to the Republic of Gilead, the land that once used to be called the US. Gilead is ruled by a ruthless, fanatically religious and brutal regime that took over after the president and all the Congress were eliminated and the Constitution suspended. This is a place, a future, in which I certainly wouldn't want to exist, not even dead! It's a bleak, oppressive, perilous world in which everyone must adhere to a strict set of rigid laws, in which there's no freedom of expression, no tolerance, no human rights. Imagine that!! Anyone caught breaking the regime's rules is harshly punished, on many occasions put to death. Gays and lesbians don't stand a chance. And women have no rights whatsoever. They can't work, they can't own a property, they can't have a bank account, they can't read or write, they can't wear what they want, they can't listen to music. Women serve just one purpose - produce babies, procreate or end up in the Colonies. They're regarded as 'two-legged wombs' and used to counteract a steep decline in birthrate.
The story's main character is Offred (Of Fred - Fred's property), a handmaid living in a tiny room in the childless Waterford residence. A handmaid is not a concubine or a courtesan, she's not a cleaner or a cook. She's there just for breeding purposes. She's regarded with distaste by the rest of society. Offred's main scope is to produce a child for Mrs Waterford. In the past Offred, like thousands of other handmaids, used to have another name, she was an independent, happily married wife and mother, she had a career and lived a normal life. Now, separated from her husband and child, she's a shell of her former self, a ghost in red, a lost soul to be used and abused, a wreck of a woman caught in this terrible reality, seemingly with no way out other than death. For how long can a person endure such violence and oppression before throwing in the towel?
There is so much pain, fear and cruelty in this novel that at times I found it a bit difficult to keep reading and had to take breaks. It's a powerful tale in which the author has managed to create such a terrible far-off reality, filling and shocking the reader's mind with messages, questions, thoughts, what ifs. At times I felt as if I was reading a historical book, of times when public executions were the norm, but I had to constantly keep in mind that the story is actually set in the near future, with cars, computers and all the gadgets and mod cons we're used to have in our day-to-day life. Just Gilead is a closed territory, a scary place cut off from the rest of the world, ruled by an iron fist and from which there's no escape.
The story constantly jumps back and forth in time as Offred remembers her past life when she was happy, when the trouble began, when she was separated from her family. With no clear distinction of where memories and the present start and finish throughout the book, this could be a bit confusing at times. The ending made me think, hope and ask questions. I'm not sure it will go down well with all readers though. The book ends at the point where season 1 on TV ends, but the producers stretched their imagination further and have also produced season 2.
This was quite a different read for me, but a great book nonetheless with a powerful message that I think is almost more relevant to today's society, than to that of thirty+ years ago when it was written. I just hope we don't let our societies deteriorate to such an unimaginable extent.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than thirty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays.
In addition to the classic The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and Oryx and Crake, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, was published in 2009. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2008.
Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto, Canada.