Monday, September 08, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is such a compelling and thought-provoking novel. The story surrounds a dystopian society ruled by a totalitarian government where women are stripped of their rights and live in a caste society.

The narrator of this tale is a Handmaid known as Offred who belongs to a Commander and his Wife, Serena Joy. The purpose of the Handmaid’s is to breed children for the Commander. In the society of the Gilead, people have become infertile and women who are of age and have had at least one child are forced to become Handmaid’s. Sex is solely for procreation and only performed once a month in hopes of conception.

Women are no longer allowed to hold property, money, read, write or be educated. Guards watch over the city at all times and Handmaid’s must walk in pairs to be protected. They are given no civil liberties and if they disobey they could be shipped off to the Colonies to die or hanged on the Wall as a warning to others. The Eyes see all and know all.

Offred recalls tales of her former life where she was married to Luke and had a daughter. They tried to cross the border into Canada, but failed and she was taken to the Center to be re-educated by the Aunts as her new role as Handmaid. She has no idea what has become of Luke and learns her daughter has been adopted by another Commander and his Wife. Offred resigns herself to this life in hopes that one day she will escape and be reunited with her husband and daughter.

I could go more into a plot summary of this book, but I think you get the idea. The Handmaid’s Tale starts off slow, but really begins to pick up after the first coupling ceremony. Soon Offred is secretly meeting the Commander in his office after hours and begins an affair with the driver Nick, who ultimately helps her escape (or so I hope).

This book was hugely moving and scary at the same time. The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1986 and it’s interesting to note that Gilead became after the President and Congress were gunned down and the blame was put on Islamic fanatics. The Constitution was suspended and a new military took over. It was all supposed to be temporary, but instead opened the door to this new regime; it was the catalyst they were waiting for.

It makes me wonder, if the 9/11 attacks had been more widespread, would our government have responded in return? Would we be under a military government and stripped of our rights of free speech and thoughts? Could a society like this ever form in this modern era of technology and lack of values and beliefs?

I think Atwood’s writing is stunning. There were so many passages that I earmarked that I thought were poetic, thoughtful, serene, sad and hopeful. Here is one of my favorite passages,
Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls,
instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can
see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the
horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen
fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city.
Maybe night falls because its heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes …
Night has fallen, then. I feel it pressing down on me like a stone
.”

I love books like this that really make you think and question your life or society. I think it’s interesting to read how cultures evolve, form new shapes/roles and the long-term affects of these outcomes. How was Offred to predict that events leading up to Gilead would force her to become a Handmaid, thereby losing her very identity, her place in the world, her very self? Could these acts have been prevented? How did humanity recover from this time frame (we learn that in the far future, the world is no longer like this)?

I wonder what history books will write about my generation and how we contributed to the world. I wonder how we will change the world.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

It seems like this is one book that everyone says is a must read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.