My husband lent me his copy of The Handmaid’s Tale about two weeks ago, thinking I would like it because of my passion for feminism as well as my interest in awesome/bleak literature. After having finished it, I heartily commend Joe on his recommendation. Atwood creates a world only slightly removed from our own — perhaps only three, four years in the future, a world that has drastically shifted under a fundamentalist military coup and changed how society operates based on gender. The world is a little different here and there, though we still recognize it so well it sends shivers up the spine: toxic waste, environmental infertility, biological warfare, completely automated banking. We glimpse this world through a document left behind by a Handmaid named Offred, who describes her day-to-day life as well as memories of the time before, when she had a normal life with a family and a job. She also describes the shift, how slowly yet suddenly America became the extremist nation state of Gilead, and her reprogramming experiences at The Red Center in an attempt to assimilate these women to the new regime.
I don’t want to give too much away, because if you have never read it the shocking nature of a Handmaid’s purpose is made all the more powerful. I will say that it was moving, upsetting, and intriguing all at once, and punctuated perfectly by a “Historical Notes” section at the end, which serves as a kind of in-world epilogue. It is the future, more than a century beyond the events that Offred shares, and a symposium is being held to discuss research into Gilead society. It is with great levity that they touch on the heartbreaking, terrifying moments of Offred’s life, and is perhaps the most chilling part of the entire story.
This is a must-read novel for everyone, as it remains eerily timely almost 30 years after its first publication. Dystopian literature can sometimes be dismissed as too unlikely, too advanced, too brutal to really exist. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale gives pause, for it is a timeline that could all too easily fall into place.