Imagine finding a box in the back of a closet in an old house and opening it to find it contains a woman’s diaries. These diaries lack any direct references to dates or places and a vague in the extreme. They focus on the direct thoughts of the writer in the assumption that the reader is privy to the same information as the writer was. Only as they go on to they begin to give hints about life and how it came to be the way it was for the writer and how it was before, still never giving away the full and clear picture. This is The Handmaid’s Tale in a nutshell. It’s a very interesting and effective strategy on Margaret Atwood’s part to suck the reader into the tale. You have to read more because you want to finally figure out what’s going on and how humanity reached that point.
The Handmaid lives in the Republic of Gilead; a state which is intimated to have sprung up after a revolution in which the entire US Government was assassinated and the constitution suspended. What follows is basically a totalitarian state run by a religious sect which seeks to recreate life in the old testament, using the Bible as justification for the repression of women, non-Christian religions and homosexuals. Women are classified into one of several groups including Unwomen, Jezebels and Handmaids. The handmaids are women of child bearing age who have been retrained after having been unchaste in one of many different ways, including divorce and remarriage. They are then “given” to deserving males, or Commanders, of the new regime who are married to women unable to have children. These Handmaids are then inseminated in a bizarre ceremony and any children resulting from the coupling are then given to the commanders and their wives.
I know this is supposed to be a feminist novel, and indeed it is. How could it not be really? I can’t help but think though that the main catalyst for the novel really isn’t the feminine state, or feminist apathy, but the overthrow of the government. That overthrow is what caused the situation to deteriorate so rapidly, and not only on the part of women, but on the part of other religions, races, homosexual men and women and anyone else the regime cared to declare deviant for their own purposes. It’s the lack of democratic structure which is the base of the evil and not just the attitude of men towards women. Had the government continued as it had up until its overthrow, then none of these groups would have been persecuted. As it is, you could actually use the situation to create more tales of the same kind just by changing the perspective from the Handmaid’s to the Jew’s or the homosexual’s or the Unwomen’s etc. In that sense, it really does mirror Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
I could go on and on about this, but I won’t. Just suffice it to say that it’s an excellent book which is not only a good read, but guaranteed to get you thinking on many different levels. A definite 5 out of 5.