An Iconic Dystopia for iconically dystopic times

The Handmaid’s cover I remember.

The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopic novel from 1985. Though it was published more than three decades ago, it nevertheless functions as a contemporary cautionary tale, warning society of the path it will take if it does not check its values. It remains extremely relevant in the first quarter of the new millennia, with themes surrounding basic civil and human rights regarding freedom of speech, religion, and marginalized populations, including women.

The novel follows the story of Offred, a handmaid assigned to the Commander and his wife. In the Republic of Gilead, fertile women are forced to become handmaids to bear children for sterile upper-class women via monthly, ceremonial copulation. Offred (a name derived from the words “of Fred”, forever branding her the Commander, Fred’s, property) fails to become pregnant and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, suggests she allow herself to be impregnated by Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, ostensibly to protect her station as their handmaid. When, on a shopping trip, her companion, Ofglen, introduces Offred to Mayday—an underground organization devoted to overthrowing Giliad—the otherwise unnamed Offred suddenly sees the hope of a better life, and she dreams of being reunited with her husband, Luke, their daughter, and her friend, Moira.

Given the current state of world politics, Atwood’s vision of the future couldn’t be more prescient. Women have lost reproductive rights and self-determination when it comes to their own bodies. Gilead is surrounded by a wall from which the bodies of dissidents are hanged and left on display to serve as warnings. The lines between Church and state are blurred. Secret police (aptly named “eyes”) are everywhere. Gilead is ruled by martial law. Rather than “speculative fiction”, Atwood’s novel reads like a tome sent to warn us against the not to distant future. In spite of Offred’s suffering, the underlying theme of the novel is that no matter how dystopic a person’s situation may seem, people will always move forward by clinging to whatever ray of hope they can find, be it family, personal freedom, or striving for change. Is that not ultimately the definition of human nature?      

Atwood’s writing style—though disjointed at times—sets the tone for Offred’s lamentation of the loss of the world in which she was raised. It is also reflective of Offred’s thoughts as she tries to adapt to her “new normal” way of living. The novel is information-heavy, at least in the beginning, which can be overwhelming, but this soon changes and becomes more compelling as Atwood slowly enlightens the reader to its significance.

While The Handmaid’s Tale may not be considered groundbreaking literature—consider dystopic staples like 1984, Children of Men, and Fahrenheit 451—it is visionary in its scope. Having spawned versions in a gamut of media including film, ballet, theatre, radio, the Hulu television production, and The Testaments, the upcoming sequel novel, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has permeated our popular culture as more than simple speculation. Rather, it should be viewed as a warning for the trajectory of society should those in control in the new millennium continue to trample on the civic and social rights of its citizens.      

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