The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985.
This eBook edition was purchased and dnloaded in December, 2011

Offred, once a citizen in the state of Massachusetts in the U.S., is now a Handmaid in the early days of the Republic of Gilead (late twentieth century,) a totalitarian state predicated on religious fundamentalism as a recourse to the moral decay and societal upheaval, including declining birth rates, in the former democracy. Gilead, in addressing the need for more well-baby births, creates and dictates the role of the Handmaid, a surrogate mother for infertile couples, via a literal and patriarchal reading of Genesis 30: 1-3:

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 Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? 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.

*Italics mine

Offred, a fertile woman, is assigned the role of a Handmaid; but the role, as prescribed by the Genesis passage, also entails the presence of both the wife and the Handmaid during attempts at conception; and in the event of a birth of a child, the wife plays the role of the birth mother in terms of societal recognition and esteem.

This return to Biblical precepts and melding them into intransigent law and an absolutist government creates an atmosphere of awkwardness, fear and suspicion, thereby sacrificing wisdom and compassion on a metaphorical altar to the God who needs to be appeased. As primitive a reaction to to societal misfortune as this is, it is an enduring practice as demonstrated by current events and Margaret Atwood’s vision of a very possible future.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a neat trick of remembering our future. By leaving the actual time unspecified, grounding the vision of the dystopian future in realistic terms (there are cars, guns and surveillance, but no UFOs, intergalactic wars or time travel), having some of her predictions come true (ATM cards, the concretization of a Middle East country as a security threat as opposed to the Soviet Union) and, adding an epilogue that provides “historical” perspective, Atwood creates a work of speculative fiction that has currency in the present as a cautionary tale against the combination of religious fundamentalism and government, the ease with which citizens can be marginalized and, how good intentions and technology can work against the society it was intended to help. Offred chronicles her life as a Handmaid (a birth mother for infertile couples) in the optimism that there will be a future audience, that her story will be a matter of future history from which something may be learned, if nothing else, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

See also:
The Scarlet Letter (by Nathanial Hawthorne) – a review of the print edition of the Classic Flashback Friday: 1984 (by George Orwell; narrated by Simon Prebble) – a mini-review of the audiobook

Other Stuff: I purchased and dnloaded a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale (by Margaret Atwood) from Barnes & Noble/nook. I receive no monies, goods or services in exhange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.