The handmaid of the title is Offred, one of the few fertile women in a totalitarian theocratic state. Offred serves the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. Every month she must have impersonal sex with the Commander until she becomes pregnant.
Let’s just say this novel is not exactly fiction.
The Handmaid’s Tale is considered by some to be a work of science fiction and by others as social commentary on the way a state seeks to control women’s bodies. It’s thought that Atwood was ‘inspired’ to write it after visiting Afghanistan in 1978.
Do you know what it came from: said Luke. Mayday? No, I said. It’s a strange word to use for that, isn’t it?
It’s French. From M’Aidez. Help me.
I started reading the book while on a trip to London and nearly 31 years after its release date, I could not help but feeling that this type of future was very similar to a world described in the comics called “Y- The Last Man”, where all the men in the world (except one) die and women have to look at cloning in order to save humankind. In The Handmaid’s tale it’s not the men who die but due to a virus, most men and women become sterile. Pregnancies become the desired result of any intercourse and any women that are known to have given birth before are turned into Handmaids, uniquely identified by their red habit.
“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”
The book is written in first-person by Offred, the Handmaid of the Commander. She was the first generation of Handmaids, still remembering how things used to be, the liberties that women used to have, the ability to have a choice in one’s future.
Time’s a trap and I’m caught in it. I must forget about my secret name and all ways back. My name is Offred now and this is where I live.
Her despair is palpable as every other thought turns to suicide as means to escape her imprisonment. You would have thought that if you had something that nobody else had, you’d be special? No. The handmaids are spit upon, looked down by the wives (who wear blue habits) and who have the right to do whatever they please with them. The men lead a rough life too, reduced to sperm donors once a month, stripped of the intimacy that makes a couple work. For example, the Commander takes the Handmaid aside and asks her to play Scrabble with him. To have a drink with him. To let him kiss her when she leaves back to her drab quarters.
It’s a world that’s lacking so many things.
Food is scarce and the ticket system is in place. There are wars raging – mostly between Jews, Quakers, Baptists and other religions. The cast system has been re-introduced and the warriors in the army are called Angels. They are given virgin wives when they return from battle and they can receive a Handmaid, like she’s an object and not a person, when they need a child. The population decline is a real issue and they need to keep their Handmaids young, healthy (no smoking or drinking allowed) and in service.
Every two years, the Handmaids are moved about. They are allowed to sit with a potential offspring for no more than three months to breastfeed and afterwards they are sent to another household.
The handmaid needs to produce a baby within those two years or else she may be sent to a worse fate, in the Colonies – much resembling the 12 districts from the Hunger Games – where their expected life span would be reduced to 2-3 years by gathering toxic waste. Human nature, being what it is, shows a work-around for the pregnancy to happen to inform the Handmaid to pick either a younger servant (Nick in this case) or a Doctor (but Doctor’s can’t be trusted not to blackmail) do the impregnating instead of the ageing Commander. Here, Serena (the Wife) brings a photo of her daughter to Offred as payment for their agreement to allow the chaffeur, Nick, to give it a shot:
I take it from her, turn it around so I can see it right-side-up. Is this her, is this what she’s like? My treasure.
So tall and changed, Smiling a little now, so soon, and in her white dress as if for an olden-days First Communion.
Time has not stood still. I has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water. I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes: I am not there.
But she exists, in her white dress. She grows and lives. Isn’t that a good thing? A blessing?
Still, I can’t bear it, to have been erased like that. Better she’d brought me nothing. (p. 228)
Offred appears to be upset by the loss of herself in her daughter’s life; more so than with the loss of her daughter. She appears to resent her child’s life: Smiling a little now, so soon — evidently too soon for Offred’s likes. She uses the metaphor of “a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” Laying blame on a child is another resentment of her daughter’s life without her. And the final lines: “Still, I can’t bear it,…” would seem a true motherly anguish, are spoiled by the self-centered “to have been erased like that.”
Offred falls in love with Nick, but he does not feel the same way. He’s there to please but his head is on the line if they get caught. The Wife is happy with the arrangement, until she finds out that the Commander snuck the Handmaid out on a night with the boys to show her off. The Commander found some worn skimpy underwear, make-up and high heels to dress her up in and while at this Jezebel’s Gentleman’s club, the Handmaid is told that some of the other women here are former Lawyers, Doctors and Judges – all of them too smart to belong to the new order and only good enough as prostitutes. Among them, the Handmaid meets her dearest friend, Moira.
Moira finds freedom in a time when pleasure is limited, mediums to escape reality are prohibited, and handmaids steal butter to use as lotion.
“So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure out some way of getting in here. You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the bone-yard. The food’s not bad and there’s drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights.”
“Moira,” I say. “You don’t mean that.” She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something-what?-that used to be so central to her? And how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? (Atwood 249).
Offred is trapped, there is no escape other than death and the resistance that formed against the new order, called MayDay, is the one that might or might not save her from her life.
What I loved: The subtle ways she wished for death but was too cowardly to act towards it.
The knife she uses is sharp and bright and tempting.
She’s not a martyr, she knows she had no choice but to become a Handmaid but still, she had the semblance of a choice. She misses her daughter dearly and keeps thinking of her missing-presumed-dead husband, Luke, even when she is probably cheating on him with Nick. I even loved the way they described the intimate love-making between the Wife, the Handmaid and the Commander:
After the prayers and Bible reading, the Ceremony continues as usual. In the bedroom, Offred lies on her back between Serena’s legs, her head resting on Serena’s pubic bone. Serena is fully clothed, while Offred’s skirt is hiked up and her underwear is off. The two women hold hands, and Serena’s rings dig into Offred’s fingers. The Commander has sex with Offred in a brisk, impersonal fashion, then zips himself up and leaves the room promptly. Serena orders Offred to leave, even though Offred is supposed to rest for ten minutes to improve her chances of getting pregnant.
I also loved the way they described the totalitarian regime imposed by the new order. There are spies everywhere and people are encouraged to rat on each other in order to get in someone’s good books. Any movements are tracked by the military. There is no central government anymore, no constitution, no rights. Just the all-seeing eye of God. Divergents are punished by hanging in public places and mob killings are allowed and encouraged. Having lived through a Revolution, I can tell you that this is a very possible book and all the facts can and have happened somewhere else already.
There is this very powerful scene where a beaten-up soldier is given to the Handmaid’s hands for killing after being accused of killing a pregnant Handmaid. The fury is palpable. He does not even have enough time to defend himself and barely murmurs “I didn’t kill” before he gets brutally beaten with a rock.
I also loved the way they inter-mingled life before the change and post-change in the book. It’s always lovely to see how it all started, where we, as a nation, went wrong, to be able to learn from it. To use it as a cautionary tale as what would happen if we left power unchecked.
What I didn’t love: Not many things – I think the only thing that bothered me is why did Offred choose to be with Nick and not join the MayDay revolution? Did she desire a bit of Heaven for herself in the Hell that was happening? Or was she a woman before she was a fighter?
Stills from a Handmaid’s Tale Movie (1990)