I took a notion, as we say in Ireland, to read this book again during the week. As I devoured it, I found an old tram ticket which I’d used as a bookmark the last time I’d read it, and it was dated almost exactly ten years ago – April 2005, to be exact.
Somehow, this seemed fitting. This is the sort of book which should be read over and over, because it has different meanings and resonances at different stages of your life.
I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in college, as part of my undergraduate English degree (on an amazing course which took in books by Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter, as well as several from Atwood including my all-time favourite, The Robber Bride), which means I’ve read it three times in total over the past fifteen years. Ten years ago I was undertaking my PhD, and I was in my early – *cof* – mid twenties, living a dream life of independence and freedom in my capital city. This time, I find myself married, and with an entirely different (yet somehow very fulfilling) life from the one I imagined I’d have. As a woman, this means reading this book through several prisms of ‘femininity’, and it made an already fabulous book even better. It’s a landmark feminist text, but it says a huge amount that it’s also an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel; feminism aside, it’s primarily an absorbing story about a future dystopia, a nightmare of SF, a terrible vision into a possible future.
Set, probably, sometime in the 1990s (the book was written in 1985, and the main character describes herself as having been a ‘child’ in the 1970s), The Handmaid’s Tale takes us through the life of a woman known only as ‘Offred’ – or, ‘Of Fred’, which marks her out as the property of her ‘Commander’, whose name is Fred or Frederick. She is a Handmaid, forced to wear scarlet robes and a red-and-white headdress, whose primary function in life is to act as a ‘brood-mare’ to a powerful man. This man (the Commander) is married, but his Wife – the role takes an initial capital letter at all times – is, for unknown reasons, unable to provide him with a child. Women, in this world, belong to several ‘groupings’ – Handmaids and Wives are two of these, along with Daughters (natural daughters of the Commanders) and Aunts (women whose role it is to train the Handmaids and keep them in line). There are also Marthas, who act as domestic servants, and Econowives, women who are married to lesser-ranking and poorer men and who have to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously. Men belong to equally strict segregations, including Angels (armed militia), Eyes (who patrol the morality of their fellow citizens, doling out harsh punishments as necessary), Guardians (lesser Angels) and Commanders. It is a world of no flexibility, no freedom, no comfort and no autonomy, where the threat of being deported to ‘The Colonies’, a certain death sentence, is always hanging overhead. Women have no power, not even Wives, whose influence is entirely illusory and granted to them by their husbands as a ‘sop’ – and, accordingly, their treatment of the women beneath them can be vicious. But the greatest tragedy of Offred’s life is that she wasn’t born into this world – the post-revolutionary ‘Republic of Gilead’, as it’s known. She was born and grew up in the United States, where she had a normal life including a husband and a young daughter, all of which she lost once the ultra right-wing power structures took over after a military coup. She knows what it’s like to live freely, to have her own job and her own income, and to choose whom she wishes to love. She knows how it feels to have a child and have her taken from you, a fate she’s facing again if she falls pregnant by the Commander. Her life in Gilead is a mental and physical torture.
The story seems narrated ‘after the fact’ by Offred, but even so the tension and terror of her life comes through very clearly. She is under control all the time, whether it’s an Aunt or a Wife or her Commander or an Angel keeping her down, or indeed one of her fellow Handmaids – for they must always go about in pairs, in order to keep an eye on one another. She is constantly on the lookout for her husband, Luke, of whose fate she knows nothing, and for her lost daughter, trying to tell herself they are still alive. She knows her ‘time’ is running out – if she doesn’t deliver a child soon, she will be declared an ‘Unwoman’ and killed – and she struggles with suicidal thoughts at several junctures in the story. Her status dictates that she can’t refuse her Commander anything, so when he begins to make unreasonable demands on her – demands which place her life in grave danger – she has no choice but to comply. Add to this her Commander’s Wife’s desperation for a baby, and the implication that she knows what has happened to Offred’s daughter, as well as Offred’s need to find out what happened to the other Handmaids she trained with and the complicated feelings she develops for Nick, her household’s chauffeur (which also put her life in danger), and you have a novel where the stakes couldn’t be higher. This tension is expertly maintained; the language is often soporific and beautiful, and the pace is gentle, but the terror never abates.
This book is often seen as a precursor to Louise O’Neill’s recent bestseller, Only Ever Yours, and there are several similarities – the repressed society, the ‘ranks’ of women, the bitchiness and backstabbing between the groups – but the books differ in several major respects. Most notably, The Handmaid’s Tale is far more body- and woman-positive, despite everything, than Only Ever Yours; Offred is never seen to hate her own body for how it looks, or shown as feeling inadequate or incomplete. She has a sensual side which she does her best, within the bounds of her society, to express, and she never loses touch with her own sense of herself as a woman. She is, despite everything, not ashamed of herself or her body, and even though she’s shown deliberately not looking at herself as she gets dressed and undressed, I got the feeling this was more about fear she’d lose her self-control if she did so, rather than out of any sort of inability to stomach her own nakedness. The Handmaid’s Tale is a more hopeful book, in many ways, than Only Ever Yours, which may reflect the thirty years which have passed between the publication of one and the other; reflecting on their different meanings, and what this says about the real-life world we live in, is the true terror of these stories.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterwork, and it’s a book I’m sure I’ll revisit again and again as I grow older. It has something to say to every stage of a woman’s life – but this isn’t to say it’s a book that only women should read. It’s a vital story for everyone, particularly those interested in ideas of liberty, autonomy and equality between races and sexes. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ll always be grateful to have been exposed to it first as a teenager – and that it’s still a book I find compelling as I draw close to middle age.