REVIEWED BY JANET BAYLISS
(Jonathan Cape: 1985) by Margaret Atwood
Made iconic through years of readings and intellectual study, a number of prizes, a film and the more recent television series, The Handmaid’s Tale can be seen as a modern classic of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. It is rendered even more interesting by the fact that it was written by a woman, with the narrator and most of the main characters being female.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer and the author of over 40 books including novels, poetry, essays and children’s books. This book was written as long ago as 1984 and is heavily influenced by various political concerns of the day such as the rise of movements like the Moral Majority. On re-reading the novel, I found its messages about the potential subjection of women and the outcomes of the imposition of a right-wing, male dominated totalitarian state to be even more urgent and relevant than perhaps when it was first published.
Written in the first person, the book tells the story of Offred, a ‘handmaid’ in the puritanical regime of Gilead, centred on the old American area of New England. Following wars and some environmental disasters, most of the women (and probably the men) in Gilead are sterile which means that Offred is valuable for only one thing: her ability to breed the next generation. She and other ‘handmaids’ serve as broodmares for the Commanders and their wives and are trained for it by a whole class of overseeing women known as the ‘aunts’.
Although certain aspects of modern technology such as the internet, social media and in-vitro fertilisation have caught up and rather overtaken the constructs underpinning this novel, it remains powerful and immediate with an interesting coda that offers some hopeful final twists in the story.