The Handmaid’s Tale
324 pages • McClelland and Stewart • 1985
The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel. First published in 1985, it won the Governor General’s Award that same year. In 1986 it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in 1987 won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. The book is a first person narrative told by Offred, the eponymous Handmaid, and is set in the Republic of Gilead in the not too distant future.
Atwood dives straight into the story, and details build up to create a sense of the world into which she introduces the reader. Information is revealed as it relates to the unfolding of Offred’s tale. There is no jarring historical information delivered in the form of expository tales told in order to help the reader along. The result is both spellbinding and bewildering; a mystery that is waiting to be revealed. The truth is in the detail, which is why Offred’s observations are so specific.
The story that unfolds is that of a society ordered by category. There are the Commanders of the Faithful, who are the ruling junta of the military leadership of Gilead; there are the Angels, the soldiers, the instruments of the military rule; further down the ladder are the Guardians of the Faith, who are used for menial jobs and routine policing. The women are divided into five main groups: there are the Aunts, who are the teachers; the Marthas, who run the household; and there are the Wives of the Commanders. Lower down the ladder are the Econowives, who perform all the duties of the household; and then there are the Handmaids, the tested and trained vessels of reproduction. Each one is assigned to a Commander and in that assignment she takes his name. Offred belongs to her Commander, Fred. The Republic of Gilead is a Fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, and idea of the Handmaid is taken from the Biblical tale of Jacob and Rachel. When Rachel cannot produce children with Jacob he reproduces with her maid, Bilhah.
The uniform of the Handmaid is that of red robes and white wings that shield her face on either side so her line of sight is always forward, never peripheral, never complicated. It is around a third of the way through the narrative that the Handmaid reveals her assigned name. This is an astute move on Atwood’s part. It becomes a moment of validation that follows on from her small acts of defiance, acts that determine that she is more than her role, and which are measured in terms of stolen looks with those of a different station, such as the young Guardian at the checkpoint, the Guardian who drives the Commander’s car.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a look into a world in which a patriarchal order has displaced an era defined by disorder and chaos. Through the course of her story, Offred reveals her past, as she reveals how the Republic came about. In an era in which religious Fundamentalism is once again on the rise in response to the chaos of modern living, the book is as disturbing today as it was in 1985.
The conflict at the centre of the book is about categories. The Republic of Gilead forces its people into pre-defined categories so that its leadership can exercise control. Yet the pre-Gilead society, the one that led to the crisis from which Gilead is borne, is one in which the breakdown of categories led to a breakdown in society. It is in this conflict, in this crisis, that the narrative stages a philosophical deliberation on the nature of society and the dark corners to which it turns in a time of crisis. It is sexuality, and the control of sexuality, that is the core of Gilead and the core of the book.
Atwood has dismissed the categorization of The Handmaid’s Tale as Science Fiction. Her preferred term is “speculative fiction”. It is an interesting term, as far as it goes, but Atwood’s idea of what comprises science fiction is mired in pop-culture. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen”, Atwood has said. Well, no, it is not that simple. It is more likely that Atwood paled at the prospect of her vision being limited to a maligned genre, which is fair enough. The Handmaid’s Tale, no matter what category one tries to force it into, is a powerful literary and visionary work. Categories are for booksellers and English departments.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a virtuoso performance, and Atwood’s great definitive statement on the dangers inherent in the postmodern era.