Margaret Atwood’s book was published in 1985 and admired by the readers worldwide ever since, but the popularity of the TV series it’s based on, as well as the political turmoil we found ourselves in, helped new readers to rediscover the novel.
The accounts of Offred – a woman who never goes by her real name, but introduces herself with a moniker given to her by the oppressive society of Gilead – mix the memories of her past with her experiences in the time and place she found herself in. She witnessed the revolution that made modern America took a step back, and it happened quicker than anybody could protest: one day, a push of the radical group took control over the country. Our heroine found herself without money in her bank account, stripped of her independence and attached to a man. She tried to orchestrate an unsuccessful escape and shoved into the new order aligned to the biblical legends rather than reality. The people of her past – her mother, a man she loved and her child – persistently remind her that there was another, happier time in her life, that she strives to return to by any means necessary.
The new society treats handmaids as nothing more than surrogates for infertile wives of Commanders, powerful men who decide about their life and death. Women are disposable and cannot aspire to be who they want: a strict set of rules, derived from the Bible, divides them into wives, surrogates and their trainers, or domestic slaves. Most of the women seek emancipation and conspire to get a bit of freedom, often with tragic consequences. Privileged women, like Serena Joy, gave into the society and conformed to the order for a little less humiliation. But the new world has been created solely for one group, as we soon realise – the only way to thrive in it is to be male. Perhaps this is what makes this story resonate today: although far from the dystopian society presented by Atwood, we realise that the modern world can be similar in many aspects. Even for an eager, talented woman, there are still roadblocks of all sorts springing from the notorious misogyny, ranging from the various humiliation tactics and toxic power dynamics to the glass ceiling so often mentioned in many industries.
The contrast between Offred’s memories and her reality paints a dramatic picture of the life in the world where the women’s rights are non-existent, dehumanising the gender to the point of its erasure. The efforts for equality have failed, humans destroyed their habitat and led to a rebellion, the forces blossoming in the background evolved and took control over the society – and the narrator wonders about the effectiveness of the previous fight, sometimes questioning herself for not making more of an impact. An important voice among the likes of Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury or Burgess, The Handmaid’s Tale uses a female perspective to warn us about the consequences of our actions, starting with the politics and closing with the environmental change.