Doren Damico
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What if the U.S. became a puritan and tyrannical society that used control of women and babies as a repressive tool?

America after a twentieth century civil war, New England is now the fundamentalist Christian totalitarian state of Gilead. In this highly stratified society, women have few to no rights. Radiation poisoning, chemical pollutants, and various diseases, have caused a rise in infertility rates. Handmaids are fertile women who are forced to the sole purpose of producing children for powerful men. There is a high rate of birth defects, and Handmaids who cannot produce healthy children are relegated to the “colonies” where the life expectancy working in the agricultural and pollution fields is less than 3 years. Nearly 200 years later, the story of Handmaid Offred, is discovered on hidden cassette tapes.

On punishment…

It was the feet they’d do, for a first offense. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet or your hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential. (p 118)

On pollution…

The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies.  (p 143)

On prayer…

My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within. / I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will do as well as anything. / I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant. / I have enough daily bread, so I won’t waste time on that. It isn’t the main problem. The problem is getting it down without choking on it. / Now we come to forgiveness. Don’t worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.  (p 252)

The Handmaid’s Tale won the first Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction, in 1987, although we could argue (and Atwood has often argued) that the book is not best categorized as science fiction. Regardless, it was recognized as a powerful dystopian novel and provoked much debate, which has had a resurgence with the recent Hulu tv adaptation, directed by Reed Morano

There are so many elements of this book that intrigue and terrify, especially as it pertains to Atwood’s claims that it is founded in historical and contemporary fact.* Her studies of American Puritans, repressive regimes throughout the world, her background in biology and concern for the effects of environmental pollution on infertility, all contribute to making the Handmaid’s world. 

Whether or not this is a “feminist” dystopia has been fiercely debated. There are men in the story that have less power than women. There are areas of life, and events that are firmly reserved as the realm of women. Yet, Atwood has twisted these areas where women should be helping women (home birth, household duties, motherhood), into a strange vehicle for perpetual distrust and repression, a place where duty disavows real connections. This is perhaps one of the most darkly satirical themes in the book.

After a local Handmaid has given birth to a healthy baby…

The Commander’s Wife looks down at the baby as if it’s a bouquet of flowers: something she’s won, a tribute….We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this….She’ll be allowed to nurse the baby, for a few months, they believe in mother’s milk. After that she’ll be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn.  (p 163)

And a bit later…

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (p 164)

Margaret Atwood is a consummate storyteller, and The Handmaid’s Tale, like many of her books, is structured as a kind of oral history. Offred’s narrative encompasses daily anecdotes interrupted by flashbacks, sometimes reporting, sometimes reflective musings. We learn that Offred is one of the original Handmaids through her recollections of life before being abducted into the theocracy. We are led to understand how a series of small changes can one day become terrifying societal upheaval. Like Offred, our knowledge of exactly how this regime came about is sparse, filled with holes and questions that will never be answered. 

This is perhaps the metaphorical reflection of Atwood as writer/storyteller. Offred struggles to maintain her sanity through her determination to tell her tale. In our real world of historical atrocities, current crimes against humanity and serious ecological damages caused by environmental irresponsibility, Atwood uses storytelling to provide her own life purpose and clarity. 

The Handmaid’s Tale Triptych Summary

In Essence: This cautionary tale is about how fertile women–regardless of the repression they must endure–represent the future survival of humanity.

A Lesson: Atwood teaches us that power may be inherent in societal structures and interrelationships, yet it is wielded by our individual choices.

For Writers: Allow your characters to be storytellers. They are the most authentic witnesses of the worlds you create. 

*Read more regarding Atwood’s claims about the historical accuracy of her book and it’s place in feminist literature with the Triptych Introduction.

Learn more about how Atwood’s personal biography influenced the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale in her 2017 New York Times article.

Read this Biblioklept post by Edwin Turner, for a great examination of how The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Learn more at margaret atwood.ca

Read the Next Triptych Review: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Pathbreaker: The Left Hand of Darkness

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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.

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