First published over 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale has never been out of print. The first person who read it in the spring of 1985 told the author, Margaret Atwood, “I think you’ve got something here”.
The drastic nature of this understatement has been revealed in the decades since. Tattoos of its most famous lines decorate bodies across the globe where its outfits can also be found populating protest marches.
In Atwood’s own words in a 2012 article, her creation has “haunted” its readers, as well as the writer herself.
What is The Handmaid’s Tale about?
Part of a lineage of politically-foresighted books (George Orwell’s nineteen-eighty-four arguably the best known of them), this short novel describes a totalitarian regime called the Republic of Gilead, sometime in the late 20th or early 21st Century.
References describing a life familiar to us disappear vaguely during the 1980s when an authoritarian regime manoeuvres into absolute control. As the book unfolds, we learn a patchwork of information as to how that control was gained. Decisive, strategically-timed actions paralysed parts of society one-by-one, bringing them into absolute, fearful obedience.
The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is told by ‘Offred’ – not her real name. She is a Handmaid, a fertile woman whose function in society is to procreate with a Commander.
Her Commander, a man from the upper echelons of the patriarchal Gileadean society, has been unable to have children with his stern, suspicious and jealous pastel blue-clad Wife. Romance between Commander and Handmaid is strictly forbidden—it is merely a functional relationship—but this very human threat (or temptation) hangs in the air throughout.
The suspicion that fizzes between each character is mixed with the personal, unguarded wants of Offred (escape, love, the freedoms of the past) hold the reader in a constant state of tension. It had me turning pages in that addictive way only the best books truly manage to elicit.
What else makes The Handmaid’s Tale a great read?
This oppressive environment creates a tightly squeezed mélange of fear, obedience and desire.
The book suggests that desire and want can never be entirely vanquished, even under such total oppression and constant fear. Cracks appear and we suspect every character of jimmying them open them up when backs are turned. While this offers us some solace, The Handmaid’s Tale also cautions us that the desires of others may not be the same as ours, or don’t include us as we may wish.
How Atwood guides us through this tightly-bound experience is nothing short of masterful.
The narrating character portrays her faults in a way that gains our trust, whispering her dismay and her resistance to us while outwardly behaving as is expected of a Handmaid. We see her fighting nature and intelligence; we see her own softening, sadnesses and submissions.
While we know her by her Gilead-era name, Offred (which is itself a genius of simple construction and Atwood’s original title to the manuscript) I feel that we really know her by her original name by the book’s conclusion.
So why should you read The Handmaid’s Tale?
Atwood’s genius is two-fold.
Firstly, she created a compelling, complex and realistic world, reduced into the perspective of a single character. The genuine ingenuity of this is reflected in the final section, which I found to be an incredibly well-conceived and novel way to conclude the book (no spoilers here though!)
Secondly, her mastery of language reveals layers of empathetic meaning. Without this literary finesse, we would not find ourselves genuinely experiencing the decadence and decay of the house, the grief in Offred’s disappearing memories and the feeling of oppression found in the clothes she must wear and the behaviours she must follow.
Atwood entirely caught me from page one, and it is her precise language (I would draw comparisons in efficacy with Adrienne Rich here) that achieved this. Take this passage from the very first page, in which she is describing an old gymnasium in which the trainee Handmaids sleep:
“Dances would have been held there; the music lingered; a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.”
Throughout the novel, the vivid presence of nature in the descriptions of the flowers, sky and textures of objects Offred that observes creates a strong belief that, despite the oppression of this world, beauty, delicacy and the natural way of things still finds a way to keep us present in it. Nature here, as is so often the case in real life, brings us hope.
It is this balancing act between historical rigour and creative empathy, achieved through masterful language, that makes this a vital read.
Why is The Handmaid’s Tale vital?
As Sarah Churchwell outlines in her excellent Guardian article, the potential of an American brand of fascism and other dystopian possibilities have long been accurately outlined by foresighted authors from Sinclair Lewis in the 1930s to Philip Roth as recently as 2004.
Whether or not what they have described is a reality that we are now actually facing after the events of 2016, understanding its foretelling, and then resisted and ultimately unravelled in the minds of our literary greats, may well be exactly the knowledge (or solace) that enables our own contemporary articulation.
That The Handmaid’s Tale describes a particularly patriarchal and misogynistic dystopia may well make it all the more pertinent a read. After all, whatever strides we continue to make towards gender equality, that we are still striving is a sign of our society’s saddening failures on this issue.
There is much to be learned from this literary canon; leaders who do not have time to read are certainly made poorer by it. No lesson is more important than the truth that our imaginations have every ability to foretell.
One line from The Handmaid’s Tale has stayed with me more than most, perhaps because I suspect there is a vital truth within it.
“…there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is published by Penguin books under its Vintage label. It is widely available from all good bookstores and online outlets. I urge you to include it on your reading lists.