What happens when a theocratic government overtakes the administration of a country? What happens when all the rights are scrapped, and people just become subject to the affairs of the government? What happens when one is trapped, forced and ceremoniously raped? Answering all these questions is a period piece work of Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author of international repute, named The HandMaid's Tale. It is a dystopian novel, published in 1985 by McClelland and Steward. Throughout the book, different causes of women suppression are sketched in their true sense, which makes the audience sympathise with the survivors. In an interview with the New York Times, Margaret Atwood confessed to seeing the horrors of a totalitarian government. The brutality meted out the women there catalysed young Atwood to write down the entire novel.The parallels between her fictitious book and the social and political angst that we see in most nations these days make the book an interesting read. It makes you learn more about the corporeality of your country's government.
The Handmaid's Tale was an extremely controversial book during the former days and was banned from the category of public reading for many years. However, today, it is deemed a book not only well described but also compelling as it forces one to question and seek answers about the working of one's country. The book has received many prestigious awards. It was also adapted into a film in 1990 and, recently in 2017, into a web series. Worldwide, Atwood was lauded and celebrated for providing such a chasmic insight into a theocratic society. In 2019, the sequel of the Handmaid's tale, The testaments, was published. From my vantage point, this book opened my mind to a completely new portal.
The landscape of a country's government being overthrown isn't an impossible thing to happen. What if it happens to us? In such a case, protests, campaigns and awareness will hold null character importance because the system will not be held accountable or answerable. One can treat others as it pleases them. Our privacy would be snatched away. It makes us question the system that we are voluntarily a part of. Are we even safe? What will happen to our rights when forcefully subordinated by the government that follows a staunch patriarchal approach?
Overall, this novel is a satirical sketch of the assorted social and political realm of The United States in the 1980s. It also answers the generally asked questions about the 'casually held beliefs about woman race' and the aftermath when it is taken to natural ends. In this book, there are traces of totalitarianism trying to daub the real identity of women altogether.
The Handmaid's Tale is set in New England. The book begins with a well-charted attack on the United States that killed their president and other official men. Then, a fundamentalist organisation that called themselves 'sons of Jacob' used partial- Christian propositions and ideologies to plant the seed of a generational revolution. The constitution that upheld the rights of its citizens was then suspended, media houses were censored, and what was previously known as a democratic country was now a strong patriarchal, quasi-Christian and militarily dictated country, known as the Republic of Gilead. This new government deftly encapsulated all the power and solidified its position in religious ways. Most significantly, the women were left bereft of their rights. Serena Joy and the Commander, the masterminds behind this attack, planned to bring into the political landscape a system that would self sustain itself and aim to promote stability. They curated a hierarchical model that directed people towards their work. "The Eyes" were the guardians of society. They monitored each and every move of the rest. "The commanders" were the head of the society. They administered and made policies and laws. "The wives" were the wives of the commanders and were generally women with weak reproductive abilities. "The handmaids" were the ones who bore children to the Commander and their wives. They were the ones who suffered the most. "the Marthas" were the house helpers. Everyone had a strict code of conduct to follow.
The story is told in first-person narration by a handmaid named "Offred". In Gilead, because of the perilously low reproductive rates, the handmaids were to bear children to the elite class of the society, "the wives and the commanders".This book is a comparative narration of Offred's life before, during and after the attack. However, Offred is not the actual name of the Handmaid. Their names are made up of the word "Of", followed by the name of their Commander. Her real name was June Osborne. Every month, when the handmaids are at the right point of their menstrual cycle, they have impersonal intercourse with the Commander while their wives sit right behind them, holding their hands as they are ceremoniously raped.
Offred's freedom, like all other handmaids, was restricted. She could only leave the house on grocery shopping trips, the door of her room couldn't be shut and "the Eyes" scrutinised every movement. As offred continued narrating the story of her brutal existence in Gilead, she often slipped into flashbacks, from which a reader can sketch the image leading up to the inception of this revolution and the novel. Before Gilead, June (offred) had an affair with Luke, a married man in the former world. He then divorced his wife so as to marry June. They had a daughter named Hannah. June had a best friend named Moira, who was also captured. The republic of Gilead and their authorities rose to power through the military assassination of the president of the US and members of the congress and launched a palace revolution. They consciously butchered all the women's rights, even forbidding them to have their jobs. In such a fearful situation, June tried to flee to Canada with her husband and daughter but got caught and separated and could not see them thereafter. After her capture, the marriage was deemed void. She was sent to the Rachel and Leah re-education centre to be indoctrinated into the theocratic ideologies of Gilead.
Meanwhile, the "aunts" prepared her to become a handmaid. In the red centre, Aunt Lydia guided women through the Gileadic notions, giving eulogising speeches about how women should maintain the subordinated position to men and solely be concerned about bearing child, which was the "casual belief about women'. She also argued that such practices and social order offer women more respect than the former pre- Gileadic world. Soon after this, Moira escaped, and June didn't have any idea about her whereabouts.
Once assigned to a commander's house, Offred's life descended into a very stringent routine. She was sent to Commander Fred's and wife Serena's house. Coming from a former independent society, it became explicitly difficult for her. In Gilead, the dead bodies of rebels were hung from a wall to instil fear in people's minds. A cardinal event in a handmaid's life was the "ceremony" in which the Commander read excerpts from the Holy Bible, then went to the bedroom, where the Handmaid laid in the lap of his infertile wife. He then had intercourse with her so that she could bear the child. After one such ceremony, the Commander sent his personal assistance, Nick, to call Offred to his study room. During this meeting, they played scrabble. After this, her visits became more regular. The Commander provided her with magazines and books to read since women could not read and learn. Days passed by until one day Offred learnt from Ofglen, another handmaid, about an underground organisation named "The Mayday Resistance" aiming to overthrow the Gileadic government. She had to keep it a secret. Things took a different praxis after some time when Serena, the wife of the Commander, realised that Offred wasn't able to bear a child because of her husband's infertility. To avoid the shame, Serena offered Offred to have intercourse with Nick. To bribe her into doing so, Serena promised to bring a picture of Offred's daughter, Hannah, to her. Following this, love developed between them.
Shortly after this, Offred was impregnated by Nick. She had earlier tried to escape from Gilead, but after many futile attempts, she was determined to give it a last push to at least save her child from growing up in a rotting system. She did so with the help of Nick. Even after a well-planned idea, Offred got caught and was brought back. Her dedication to escaping catalysed all her plans, and she ran away again. This time, being in the final stage of her pregnancy, she gave birth to her baby alone, without any help. Despite all her efforts, she was caught this time, too and was punished brutally. After this, Offred lost hope and accepted the reality.
Meanwhile, the mayday resistance still kept working. In one such utterance, Offred again decided to escape with another handmaid, Emily, with the help of a relational web formed by the Marthas. But this time, while escaping, Serena caught her, but a difference came into existence when Serena consented to this because she wanted the very best for this baby. Offred escaped, but midway, she recalled that Hannah was left behind. Upon this, she gave the baby to Emily and asked her to leave.
Meanwhile, she went back to Gilead to bring Hannah. She was soon arrested by The Eyes and was again punished. Meanwhile, Emily escaped from Gilead and was found by the police of Canada, who brought her back to the refugee camp along with the baby. After this, Emily met Offred's real husband, Luke, who was a resident of Canada and handed over the baby to him. After some days, a video posted from a protest in Canada surfaced, which showed Luke and the baby's face. Upon this, the maternal instincts of Serena kicked in, and she wanted the baby back. After many issues and hurdles, when the Commander and Serena Joy went back to get the baby, they were held by the Government of Canada as war criminals and were arrested. Serena turned her back on The Commander and confessed to the police, and was allowed to leave with the baby and start a new life. Hearing this, the Commander confessed how Serena forced Offred to have intercourse with Nick. Thus, both of them were detained.
Meanwhile, Offred and the Marthas gave shape to the Mayday resistance back in Gilead, and a considerable number of children, Marthas and handmaids, escaped from Gilead to Canada. In this process, Offred was hurt by The Eyes. She couldn't escape. The book ends with the note of bravery that Offred showcased that made the lives of hundreds better. The sequel of the Handmaid's tale, "the testaments ", talks about the fall of Gilead and the role of Aunt Lydia in it.
I feel some parts of it spotlight the current political ideologies that even today exist among some leaders. I was fascinated with the protagonist's inner monologue and how Atwood politically and realistically crafted this in the internal dialogue of someone trying desperately to compartmentalise. What if our democracy fails and we are attacked and taken over? How will we sustain ourselves? What happens when the authorities won't listen to us? This book answers all of it. Although overtly, The Handmaid's Tale appears to be sexist and anti-feminist, upon an in-depth study, it is apparent that the book anchors women empowerment and gender equality because it paints a world where gender bias rules, showcases the brutalities women face and how they are analogous to the tortures of our contemporary society and implicitly conveys sentiments against women objectification and subjugation.
The book portrays Gilead, a society where rape, or as they call it, "the ceremony," is legitimate, where non-consensual sex is a way to combat infertility, where an entire nation freely deals with handmaid trafficking and where women are tagged as "Breeding Stock" to provide the audience with a unique, first-person perspective on the nodus that is primarily not acknowledged. Although it may be considered anti-feminist, this image of the crude practicality implicitly does introduce us to these many depictions of women oppression that often are left under the radar. The Handmaids Tale also sheds light on minor acts of belittlement that almost all females experience at some point. For instance, the book showcases the commanders' wives as domesticated souls who, regardless of their qualifications and capabilities, are deemed lower than their male counterparts and denied any opinion in any decisions. They are not even permitted to enter the offices of the commanders. This explicitly shows how disturbingly common it is for them to be looked down upon.
Still and on, even today, many cultures mould and misinterpret scriptures and belittle women under the name of religion. Hence, by highlighting the oppressions faced by women, The Handmaid's Tale uniquely brings in the horrors women have to go through and conveys sympathy for them. Although The Handmaid's Tale is set in a male-dominant society, Offred's thoughts paint unjustified male superiority and the issues with patriarchy. Gilead's belief of males as intellectually and physically superior is comparable to today's societal norms, too. Although women's position has been uplifted, they are still stereotyped as inferior to men and considered incapable of managerial skills. This book depicts the strength of women and their cardinality. This way, it effectively utilises its prowess to enhance the notion of gender equality, drifting our contemporary society away from the concepts of Gilead and hence, will strive for betterment. Lastly, I would say that these kinds of books actually make us think through notions and simultaneously promote equality and awareness about concepts we would otherwise stay unaware of.