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Plain good literature
on December 30, 2000
I have read "The Handmaid's Tale" a number of times, both in English original and in Croatian translation (a pretty good one). First time I read it, it was because I have found it in a library of a Women's Study Centre in Zagreb, Croatia, so I expected it to be "feminist literature", and was therefore a bit cautious about it, thinking it would be some kind of pamphlet for women's liberation. Of course, I did not know anything about Margaret Atwood back then. First thing this book taught me is that M. Atwood is, above all, a great author, and that "The Handmaid's Tale" is a piece of plain good literature.
The somewhat circular narrative centres around and is being told from the perspective of Offred, a woman living in Republic of Gilead, the dystopian, future theocracy established on the teritory of today's United States of America. Gilead's government is organized by a group of very specific religious fanatics, basing their theology on a couple of chapters from the Old Testament, specifically the story about Sarah, Abraham's wife, who could not bear children, and therefore had given Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, to concieve children with her. Also written in that chapter is God's command to Hagar to completely submit to her mistress, and Abraham's observation that Sarah is to do whatever she pleases with her handmaid.
That is the point from which the treatment of handmaids is derived in the Republic of Gilead. As the increasingly polluted land caused infertility withing majority of women, the fertile ones, especially those who have been either married to divorced men (theocracy of Gilead does not recognize divorce), or single, but not virgins, are taken as "handmaids" to be awarded to high ranking families without children.
Offred has been given to the family of The Commander, one of the highest ranking officials of Gilead, married to Serena Joy, a bitter and slightly desillusioned fanatic. Her narrative focuses on describing daily routines in their household, her experiences and her memories of a past, normal life, with a husband and a daughter.
Apart from political description of Gilead's ideology (which is given masterfully, without unneccessary and boring descriptions, yet with frightening details), the main value of this book lies in Offred's introspection. She is a person completely determined by her biological function as a woman and a child-bearer, completely deprived of any other individual merrits or rights. The way Offred deals with that is beautifully portrayed; sometimes in a flow that resembles free-association ("It's strange now, to think about having a job. Job. It's a funny word. It's a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they'd say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet...The Book of Job."), sometimes completely ripped-off of any emotions, yet almost physically hurtful with recognition and fear of it possibly coming true.
Granted, Margaret Atwood did write about a woman deprived of her rights in a male-dominated world here, but I don't believe it is a feminist pamphlet. It's a book about human condition, as any other good book; talking about what people are capable of doing, good or bad.
Another note. This, of course, is a speculative fiction, a dystopian one, like Huxley's "Brave New World" or Orwell's "1984". However, I have heard many people say that this one is the least probable one in terms of ever becoming a reality, and therefore fruitless in its message. To these people, I would recommend reading some news from Afghanistan, since Talibans took over.