Margaret Atwood, a Canadian Booker Prize winner completed her dystopian novel titled ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in 1985. This book has not been out of print since then, selling more than a million copies with multiple number of translations and editions. The idea behind this book does not lose its relevance and charm even in present era and it would remain so in the years to come. Writers try to communicate mostly to future generation ahead of time and a book becomes an epic if it doesn’t lose importance in any era. Margaret Atwood is one such convincingly brilliant writer belonging to a rare genre and her book is undoubtedly a modern epic.
A distinction needs to be made between utopian and dystopian fiction. Both try to explore the nuances of social and political structures existing in a society. Utopian usually agrees with the author’s ethos where as a dystopian world does not agree with what the author believes. George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are a few other dystopian novels worth mentioning. Margaret Atwood did her graduate work on dystopian literature in Harvard and developed a secret desire to write one such novel herself. This novel was inadequately and wrongly classified as a ‘feminist dystopian novel’ . In a feminist dystopia, power would be vested entirely in women. But the society in Gilead mentioned in this novel existed like a pyramid from bottom to top, with men being more powerful than women at every level.
Margaret Atwood wrote this novel at a time when there was a fear about declining fertility trend in the West due to liberal abortion rules and easy availability of contraceptives for women. Margaret Atwood delayed writing this book for three years after she got the idea because she felt it was too crazy. She wrote,”I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist.The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.”
Atwood tries to examine the lives of women and men under a theocratic regime, like the one she proposed in Gilead. The story is about a Puritan regime which overthrows the ruling government in USA, near present day Maine and creates a new State of Gilead. The new regime holds on to principles of Old Testament, considering women as mere child bearers, a ‘uterus on two legs’ in Atwood’s own words and prevents women from reading, holding property or doing a job. Atwood gives a description of the various categories of citizens of Gilead based on sex and power. The protagonist of the story, whose name is Offred, and whose real name is not revealed evidently anywhere in the text, but can be deduced to be ‘June’ from the mention of various other characters in the novel, tells the story in a back and forth narrative style. ‘Offred’ is a patronymic and has a possessive preposition; ‘Of Fred’ indicating the name of the man who possessed her. She is one of the Handmaids chosen by the new law for the purpose of procreation. Handmaids are owned by men from ruling class in a household . Handmaids assume the names of men who possess them and names change when they are transferred from one house to another; thus Offglen becomes Offred when transferred from Glen’s house to Fred’s house! This is undoubtedly a resemblance to present day, where a woman after marriage is expected to take up her husband’s family name leaving behind her maiden name. Since Gileadeans were Puritans, Handmaids were used only for purpose of procreation, law warranting complete detachment of pleasure from that act. Gilead was a world where religion and state became one and the same. State ruled by religion does not consider men and women equal because every manmade religion inherently thrives on gender inequality.Substantial intelligence is unnecessary to understand that many of the countries in the world at present are already Gileads or Gileads in the making.
Unlike other dystopian novels, the book does not end with a pessimistic view. It ends with enough optimism where the author speculates that Offred could have escaped to a safer world. There is a ‘future in a future’ mentioned as historical notes in this book where a group of people in academics are discussing this book, indicating that future of humanity does not look so bleak inspite of its hunger for power and authority.