At first glance, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like something one might happen across in a collection of fairy tales. Picture the deviant handmaid of a wealthy lady: attractive, rebellious, perhaps overcoming social class divisions by seducing a member of the gentry. In actuality, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale tells a completely different story.
The tale takes place in Gilead, a dystopian Republic in which the traditional division of labour in heterosexual marriage has been dismantled and is divided among women. The jobs historically associated with the female counterpart in a marriage – such as cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children – are allocated to women according to their fertility. The singular role of a handmaid is to provide a child for a ruling-class family; if she fails to do so after three assignments, she is declared an ‘Unwoman’ and is sent away to inevitably die from radiation poisoning. The names of handmaids change depending on the household they are allocated to, reflecting their invariability from one another and lack of identity. For instance, the titular handmaid’s name is ‘Offred’, mirroring how her body and sexual agency are the property of Fred, the commander she was assigned to.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the ideologies (largely based on biblical interpretations) that are used to justify such a regime. Offred regularly has flashbacks to the lessons given at ‘the Centre’, where prospective handmaids are trained. By ensuring that the desires of men are catered for, this has vastly reduced sexual assault cases in Gilead – yet, just like in rape, women’s autonomy is removed from the equation. The handmaids are required to dress in red habits that conceal their bodies in order to appear demure and professional, while the colour symbolises the nature of their profession. They also wear white wings on their heads, which obscure their vision and subsequently narrow their view of the world, reflecting the irrelevance of their thoughts. This novel also features distinctly Orwellian elements; the ‘Eyes’ (secret police) supposedly catch anyone who doesn’t behave according the rules of Gilead.
Atwood has insisted that the world portrayed in this novel is speculative rather than genuinely futuristic, simply questioning what would happen if “casually held attitudes about women” were taken to their logical ends. For anyone interested in feminism, I thoroughly recommend reading this thought-provoking novel because it continually highlights relevant, contemporary issues. Perhaps most significantly, it makes us more concerned about them.
Words by Rose Wolfe-Emery