Set in the near-future Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a young woman used as a concubine in order to reproduce for the head of her house. Offred lives in a highly chauvinistic religious theocracy, whereby men are the most important members of society, and different women are characterised by rank. Offred is a ‘handmaid’, characterised by her red robes, and takes part in ‘The ceremony’ once a month whereby she mates with her ‘Commander’ under the supervision of his wife, in order to get pregnant.
If Offred becomes pregnant and bears a healthy child to the family she works for, she will gain autonomy and will never be able to be outcast. If she does not fulfil her purpose she will become an ‘Un-woman’, the lowest members of their society.
Offred’s stay in the house is plagued with reminders of the previous occupant of her room, who committed suicide, and how she is ostracised from the other women, not being able to communicate about her ‘past’ life, or the daughter and husband she has lost.
The Commander is only seen by Offred during the ceremony, but one day she is asked to meet with him in his office, which is usually strictly forbidden. From that moment on, she and the Commander secretly meet whenever he pleases, where she is offered contraband products such as magazines and hand lotion. The Commander tells her this is because he feels he cannot talk to his wife, and he just wants someone to play Scrabble with (also forbidden).
Shortly after this time, Offred (under the persuasion of the Commander’s wife) begins a relationship with a servant called Nick, where she sleeps with him: initially to become pregnant and claim it is the commander’s, but after just because she has become emotionally attached to the way she is able to be her old self around him, even allowing him to know her old name. The story ends with Offred’s future uncertain, as her relationship with Nick is discovered.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting novel in the way in which Atwood has envisioned a future consequent of our current actions in this world. A society where birth is the most celebratory occasion, whereby religious autonomy is the only way, and women are controlled. Offred is told by her teacher Aunt Lydia that the suffering of few is worth it for the greater good, and this poses an interesting question for the reader to debate in their own minds.
This is not the sort of novel I am used to reading, and some of the subject matter went a little over my head. However, Atwood has raised a very serious question over the future of great nations such as the US in her novel: a question which poses a moral dilemma to the future of women and feminism as well.