Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

***

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book size: Clocking in at 308 pages, this is an easy read. Atwood’s writing style is fluid and descriptive, which isn’t a surprise, given she moonlights as a poet. The book isn’t driven by fast-paced action, but instead, by vivid descriptions of the world in which the characters find themselves.

Why you should read The Handmaid’s Tale: This dystopian science fiction classic has been an integral part of our country’s collective cultural consciousness since it was first released in 1985. Americans never seem to get tired of it: it has been adapted for television, twice —the most recent a 10-episode series on Hulu— as well as for film, radio, and stage. Atwood may have originally designed The Handmaid’s Tale to be a cautionary fable about what the conservative politics of the 1980s might bring into being, but apparently, in the succeeding thirty years, we haven’t done much to make it any less relevant.

Samira Wiley, one of the stars of the series, even remarked in an interview, “I wasn’t familiar with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale before reading the script. I ignorantly thought, “Oh wow, they just wrote this story for this time…like right now, that’s so amazing.” The fact that it had been written over thirty years ago blew her away.

Apart from a few throwaway references to Uber and Tinder, hardly anything needed to be changed…

But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just good politics; it’s a good book — a classic of “show, don’t tell” prose. We learn about Atwood’s nightmare world slowly and subtly. The smallest details are masked by misinformation, just as the characters are trapped in their personal bubbles of misinformation and propaganda.

The story is just weird enough to grab fans of science fiction, while not too far gone to stop it from being fun to read.

 

The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:

The world we know and love does not exist anymore.

It began with the plague.

Sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, most men and women were stricken with a reproductive disease that makes conception and delivery of healthy babies almost unheard of in America.

Then came the coup.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

A reproduction-obsessed cult called the Sons of Jacob, which saw the plague as a punishment from God for America’s wicked ways, killed the president, mowed down Congress with machine guns, and suspended the Constitution.

They called their new country the Republic of Gilead: a God-fearing country that would set things right.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

In a desperate and Biblically-approved attempt to bring the plummeting birth rate back from the brink, the Gileadean regime provided high-ranking men with ‘handmaids.’ These confirmed-to-be-fertile female slaves have sex with the commanders once a month; the officer’s wife present (and clothed).

The handmaids, they decide, will be given a two-year term with a man, with the possibility of a third term, to procreate with their commander. If they fail… well, they’d better not fail.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

Life is more or less hell for the handmaids. Apart from the death threats, rape, torture, and brainwashing, they are also derided by most other women in Gileadean society for their actions. (You know, the sex.)

To the wives, the handmaids represent the fact that they themselves are infertile, and therefore worthless (despite their social status) in birth-obsessed Gilead. For the lower classes, the handmaids represent the rigid class system from which they will never escape. Either way, handmaids are not only sexually abused but treated as the lowest of the low every day of their lives.

The novel follows the story of one such handmaid, Offred, from her normal life before the regime into its deepest abyss.

Illustration by Diana Quach

Before the Gilead uprising, Offred lived the life of an average American woman. She had close friends, a husband, and a child. But she realized, too late, that the world around her had become untenable. Her family did attempt an escape to Canada but were captured near the border by armed members of the government…

She was immediately separated from her husband and daughter and, being deemed a fertile woman, taken to the Red Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts — for indoctrination.

After her successful brainwashing, Offred is enlisted as the new ‘handmaid’ for a man she refers to only as “The Commander.” Her duties include having sex with him once a month while his (clothed) wife looks on, in hopes they will conceive a child — an incredibly rare feat ever since the reproductive disease struck the nation.

In the book, Offred’s “priority is to survive, not rebel”, when she’s first indoctrinated. Then she begins to entertain thoughts of suicide to break free from the stifling life she leads.

Illustration by Renee Nault

And from her ignored and forgotten position at the heart of the household, Offred is able to learn a great deal about her captors.

Despite being a foundational architect of the Gilead regime, it turns out The Commander is less of a fiery religious fanatic than she expected. Rather, he’s a pathetic, lonely man who seeks out secret conversations and taboo interactions with the women he employs. His wife, who is pathetic in her own right, is so desperate for a child she conspires with Offred to commit multiple capital offenses in order to get Offred pregnant by any means possible, even if it means the child is neither the commander’s nor the wife’s.

With every passing day, Offred begins to see cracks in Gilead’s “perfect” society: her doctor offers to impregnate her if The Commander is unable to do so; another handmaid and close friend works for an anti-Gilead resistance movement; the supposedly pious religious group operate a state-run brothel not only for visiting dignitaries but for themselves.

It turns out that when a crazed, fanatical group bent on overthrowing the government actually manages to pull it off, it doesn’t really know what to do with itself, and almost immediately begins to fall apart…

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Ultimately we are left with a brief snapshot of Offred’s life by putting together the bits and pieces as they are revealed to understand who she is, and the world in which she lives.

 

The Characters

Offred. The most prominently featured handmaid. We never learn her real name and Atwood provides little information about Offred other than that she is-thirty three years old and has brown hair. Before her indoctrination, she was married to a man named Luke, had a daughter, and was the picture of a modern American woman in the 1980s.

Offred is timid and passive when the story begins, accepting her unfortunate place in Gilead society as a breeder, and even considers herself privileged because of her fertility. Throughout the course of the book, she slowly chips away at this acceptance, starting small with innocuous, reflective walks and escalating until she is brazenly engaging in clandestine meetings with The Commander. By the end of the book, her confidence teeters on the verge of reckless abandon.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

The Commander The ‘owner’ of Offred and head of the household where she lives. He begins the story unattached and aloof, yet over time takes a personal interest in the trivial desires of his handmaid, for reasons Offred doesn’t understand. He instigates a relationship with Offred, and seems to want her friendship, even her approval, in a world where her only value is supposed to be her fertile ovaries.

The Commander is a supremely high-ranking official in Gilead society, but the Gilead code of morality seems to have very little effect on what he does. In fact, he uses this rank and prestige to enjoy benefits afforded to few others, such as his private room filled to the brim with illegal pre-Gilead propaganda, alcohol, games, and makeup.

Although his name is never explicitly said, it is implied The Commander’s name is Fred. Each handmaid’s name directly relates to the man who they serve. Offred literally means ‘of Fred.’ Fred is the embodiment of corrupt governmental hypocrisy. Publicly he is the picture of the Gilead way of life, yet behind literal closed doors he does what he wants

Serena Joy. The wife of The Commander. Once a woman of considerable power, Serena Joy is now relegated to working in her garden and commanding the servants. She desperately wants Offred to get pregnant, both to get the handmaid out of her house and elevate her own status in Gilead society, and she’s willing to risk anything (including Offred’s life) to make that happen.

Before the rise of Gilead, Serena was a public figure who decried American decay as well as women’s rights, blaming the former on the latter. Now, she is delegated to exactly the housewife existence she spent her career praising, only to find out it isn’t nearly as nice as she made it sound.
 

The Themes and Ideas:

The difference between real and illusory freedom of choice. Yes, this book is about authoritative regimes. Yes, it’s about the subjugation of both women and men in these regimes, even (and maybe especially) those who support it in theory. But at its core, it’s not a book about brute force. Atwood is much more interested in subtler methods of taking away or perverting people’s choices.

The founders of Gilead saw the creation of the regime as an assertion of their freedom and choice: a desperate attempt to free themselves from promiscuous modern society, which they blamed for the plague of infertility that was devastating them. However, in reality, their sexual choices have never been more limited.

In Gilead, men and women are no longer allowed to simply have sex with each other. Sex, according to the Gilead code of morality, should always be a non-erotic act, with the sole aim being procreation. The Commander, in true patriarchal fashion, is assigned a handmaid to bear his children since his wife is unable. Should that handmaid not work out, he will be assigned a replacement sight unseen. Men like The Commander who thought they were gaining control over sexual culture wound up robbing themselves of all sexual choice instead.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

It’s not just sexual freedom the architects and supporters of Gilead have lost control over, either. The entire Gilead political and religious movement has changed, and is no longer based on the principles of counterrevolution and the literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible at its origins. It’s a stagnant, hungry, and dying regime, focused only on clinging to the status quo, which they manage by capitalizing on people’s fear and ignorance.

There is no captain at the helm of this ship, no engineer running the train. This is not the utopia the founders of Gilead chose for themselves; they are trapped inside a twisted ideal as it unravels, without a way to stop it.

We see an echo of this conundrum during Offred’s handmaid training. During her indoctrination in the Red Center, Offred is spoonfed one-line platitudes, from “the future is in your hands” or “all flesh is weak” to “from each according to her ability; to each according to his needs” (bastardized from the Communist Manifesto but passed off as Biblical scripture). She’s brainwashed and tortured, but also repeatedly hammered with the “fact” that she “chose” to be a handmaid (even though it was a choice between servitude and death). So, the Gileadeans rationalize, everything happening to her is therefore her fault.

The end result is that handmaids come out of the Red Center believing they not only deserve but have agreed, to their hideous lot in life. Offred won’t even call what happens to her rape. Just like the rest of Gilead, she’s trapped in a situation with no choices, believing all along the choice was hers.
 

We learn from those who are seen and not heard. By design, the handmaids in this story have no identity. They are stripped of their name and any individual identifiers (besides the name of the person to whom they belong) while wearing identical red frocks, red gloves, red shoes, and white hats. The hats themselves have wings on both sides so the handmaids can neither see or be seen. Like all women in Gilead, they aren’t permitted to read or write. They serve the necessary function of reproduction but are mocked, exploited, and abused by all of the other castes in the story. They have no voice. In the best case scenario, they will be nameless, a forgotten vessel for children they will never know. The worst case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about.

Yet despite their status as nothing and no one, the handmaids are the lens through which we view the entire world of Gilead.

Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood © Anna & Elena Balbusso

Through them, we see not only the overt caste structures but the personal suffering and loneliness it has created in its citizens, both men and women, both victims of the regime and its supposed supporters. We learn that people are still so starved for affection they would risk their own lives to seek out a connection with another person, even if it is punishable by death. We learn that despite its promises and pretense, Gileadean society isn’t any healthier, more moral or selfless, or even, less sex-obsessed than the society it replaced. The handmaids may not have names or families, but they are our ubiquitous guides through this world, and air all its dirty laundry.
 

We need others, whether we want to or not. So much of The Handmaid’s Tale is about personal relationships and how they exist in the context of Gilead. As the narrator of the story, Offred is at the heart of these relationships. Her relationship with The Commander is a business transaction at first, nothing more than a contract born from flesh and flesh alone, yet he comes to want more out of their relationship for reasons Offred doesn’t know.

Offred discovers he had reached out to the former handmaid in a similar way, inviting her to read and spend time with him in his private study. Now, with the previous Offred gone, The Commander has repeated his process and reached out to the next in line, searching for the scraps of human connections that have been lost with his wife and those close to him.

As the story draws out, it seems everyone in Gilead is risking it all to feed their long-neglected, desperate hunger for human connection. Everyone has a secret: something they will risk ex-communication, torture or even death to keep alive. The commander has his collection of pre-Gilead magazines, books and games as well as his trips to the brothel to keep him feeling connected to his handmaids and other human beings. Serena Joy orchestrates the relationship between Nick and Offred, because the only truly human connection her society allows her is with the child Offred might someday bear her. Even as their society forces these people into an Iron Maiden of rules about how they should interact, what they can and cannot do, they still break free in their own way, doing whatever they must to battle loneliness.

Atwood makes clear people need to be close to other people. This isn’t a want or a desire, but a human necessity. In the absence of human proximity, the characters here have created new channels for human interaction and relatability to take place. Without it, none of them can survive.

TL;DR:

Life in an authoritative theocracy constrains everyone, even those in power. The only way to break free is to forge relationships, one person at a time.

 

 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays inside the maze.

 

Side Effects of Reading The Handmaid’s Tale May Include:

A strong nose for authoritative regime encroachment.

 

Further Reading:

If you liked…

Totalitarian governments and the speculative ways in which they go horribly wrong, check out both 1984 & Brave New World. Both are classics of western literary and science fiction canons. Start here.

Feminist science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the books that kicked off the genre. The story follows the journey of Genly Ai, a human, as he visits the planet of Winter and attempts to assist and an alien race, who can choose their gender at will, to join the intergalactic community.

Understanding how individuals in future societies deal with the situations they find themselves, see A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr; comprised of three short stories spanning one thousand years and following post-American monks saving the knowledge of science for the future of humanity.
 
 

 

***

All illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso are from The Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale.