Author: Margaret Atwood.
Publisher: Vintage Classics.
*Note: Contains discussions about sensitive subjects, i.e. sexual abuse.
A classic dystopian from the pen of Canadian author Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is set in the Republic of Gilead, a future nation geographically located in present day USA where birth rates have almost dropped to zero. The country is tyrannical in nature and women are enslaved for their reproductive purposes. The handmaidens belong to their host families and are bred/ raped on a monthly basis in order to provide children for the future of Gilead.
The novel is written from the perspective of Offred/ June who describes her harrowing story from being separated from her family during the pre-Gilead period to becoming a concubine for childbirth in her host house. Her journey explores how violence against women, rape, and imprisonment are used to punish transgression in Gilead. The authority uses passages from the Bible to justify the structuring of their society and the women are made to believe childbirth is their purpose in life.
Atwood tackles real life issues head on through this novel, highlighting how women can be sexually abused and controlled by men. Although she locates these events in a fictional location, the abuse, rape, imprisonment, sexual slavery, etc. can very much be translated to real life. She doesn’t shy away from description. The pain and anger she includes in her prose are for those women who have experienced abuse, and who have felt injustice.
The novel is undoubtedly a feminist text. Atwood accomplishes a lot with this narrative from the violence of men, the need for female liberty, and bodily autonomy. She also manages to create a feminist piece that is inclusive as she explores how lesbians are punished for their “transgressive” behaviour. This is important because when this novel was published in 1985, some feminist movements excluded gay women from their ranks, meaning their rights for equality were ignored by some. Atwood’s inclusion of queer women’s struggles in this novel are important as it shows that women of all backgrounds belong to the feminist movement. This point is ever more relevant today as women of colour, transgender women, and working class women continue to be disenfranchised from some feminist movements.
It is a piece that should continue to be read and analysed as it is a classic novel about the ordeals and injustices that women endure on a daily basis.