The world is always in a state of constant flux. Change is inevitable, change is the only constant – clichés thrown around carelessly in a reality whose extremist elements vehemently oppose the currents of this change on the fringes. What if their restlessness grew beyond what it is today? What if they grew in strength, consolidated power, overthrew the government?
What if your rosy vision of a world embracing change for better was banished to those very fringes of society?
Margaret Atwood explores this terrifying reality in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The nation of Gilead, in much of what was mainland United States, is ruled by a bunch of religious extremists obsessed with a radical interpretation of the Bible. Women are no longer allowed to choose their own paths; their independence is a thing of the past. They are instead vessels for the State, with their sole objective being nurturing families.
But not everyone is blessed with the fruit of being able to conceive, and the population of Gilead is rapidly dwindling. The few men at the top cannot maintain their grip on power without more men to trap within the toxic tendrils of a flawed notion of masculinity.
In this harrowing book (and the subsequent TV adaptation), Atwood imagines a country where women can only have four roles: a Wife, whose identity is quite literally married to her powerful husband’s; a Martha, who cannot have children, but can cook and tend to other domestic chores; a Handmaid, whose only objective is to subject herself to State-sponsored assault, so-called divinely sanctioned surrogacy for families where Wives cannot bear children and finally, an Aunt, who makes matches for marriages and trains Handmaids.
The terrible treatment of the Handmaids is justified during the horrific “Ceremony” (which is but glorified assault) using the following ‘holy’ verse:
“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.”
This book (and the Hulu television series) follows the tale of a Handmaid: Offred, a woman stripped of her child, her family and every ounce of her freedom, including her name. Offred, shortened form of ‘of Fred’, describes her as the property of a man. The entire story is set from Offred’s perspective, and her internal strife is portrayed masterfully by Atwood. She unquestioningly lets go of her past, falling into a slumber, allowing her identity to dissolve as she takes part in the regime’s countless backward practices.
Everything pertaining to self-expression is a sin in Gilead; the guilty are subjected to capital punishment, often in the manner of dreadful Particicutions, where hundreds of Handmaids let their frustrations and inner turmoil to the surface through animal-like stonings and much worse.
Offred is numbed by her new reality. She lets herself exit her body; she is merely an observer now. The book (and the series) are at a lot of instances overwhelming, but the sheer trauma that Offred faces is portrayed to such a heartbreaking degree, it seems too raw and real, and the reader/viewer feels like a co-conspirator, an agent of Gilead.
Atwood leaves us with this poignant line, one that speaks volumes about a multitude of themes that prevail even in our less harrowing reality:
“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.”
Offred needs to watch every move she makes, every breath she takes, every thought she has.The State’s Eyes quite literally watch over everyone and everything. The State knows. The State will know. It always does. The panic and the suffocation are as taxing to the audience as they are to Offred.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Inscribed in Latin on a corner in a cupboard by a previous Handmaid, a phrase of rebellion. A seed of change planted in a seemingly dead vessel. A seed which dramatically escalates the storyline.
The story is one of revolution, of retribution, of resistance. A quest to be free again from the shackles of regressive thought. Where hope prevails even in the darkest depths of your hollow self, where innate human strengths unite the broken. Through page after page (and frame after frame) of hurt, Offred evolves into a stronger, unafraid, unflinching version of herself, and this transformation is exhilarating.
The characters are multifaceted, their conflicts and emotions raw and real. You hate, you loathe, you love, you adore – often all of them at once, all of them directed towards the same character. The so-called sympathisers of Gilead, the oppressors themselves, seem to have depths of their own, having stashed all remains of their conscience far beneath their harsh exterior.
A gripping work of fiction reflective of the horrors that can become everyday truths lest we control the elements of society that crave for a world where powerlust is enveloped in a convenient casing of ‘values and tradition’, The Handmaid’s Tale is worth every second.
It is not for the faint-hearted, no, but once you are through, you somehow feel free, emancipated. For this and Atwood’s remarkable (and chilling) worldbuilding, The Handmaid’s Tale is a veritable modern classic that will remain iconic for decades to come.
Chin up. Resistance isn’t futile. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.