Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Classic Group of Hotels
Cover of "Handmaid's Tale"

A Powerful Picturization of Dystopian Puritanism Let Loose on Unsuspecting Bostonians Left to Obey the Theocratic State

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and published by McClelland and Stewart Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1985. Many people mistake the book as a science-fiction book although it is under the genre of “speculative-fiction”, confirmed by Margaret Atwood in various of her interviews. It has never been out of print yet the book has gained immense popularity amongst today’s generation because of the 2017 Hulu series of the same title created by Bruce Miller, for all the good reasons. Margaret Atwood is very much involved with the creation of the series.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first of Margaret Atwood’s works written under the genre of Speculative Fiction. She was 44 years old then. The Handmaid’s Tale is mostly set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A in 1984 where a very powerful religious puritanical regime overthrows the democratic city of Boston, America by a coup and forms a new totalitarian and theocratic regime by the name of The Republic of Gilead. Even if there has been some notable books written under the speculative fiction genre such as 1984 by George Orwell and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne, The Handmaid’s Tale stands out in its very own unique light in terms of Margaret Atwood’s writing style, the intensity of the plot, the timelessness of the story, the development of the characters and the roles each character play, the relevance and importance of the story written in layers of utmost honesty and fascinating imagination.

The story is of an American woman named June Osborn who is married to her lover named Luke and they have a daughter together; whose life gets turned upside down by the coup. The whole novel is narrated by June Osborn who comes to be called Offred after her capture and after she has been brought to a puritan elite’s home as a “handmaid” in the newly formed state called The Republic of Gilead. Her daughter has been taken from her and she has been sent elsewhere. She has no idea where Luke and her daughter are. There are many other women like her in this place the Gileadeans call the ‘re-education center’ where they have been brought because they are “fertile” women; which used to be a gymnasium as June recognizes it. In this place, the women who are to become the handmaids get indoctrinated into Gilead’s ideology which include very rigid moral codes and modest clothing, amongst the least severe. Gilead’s constitution is created by a handful of elite and supremely powerful people who believe that all the fertile women within their capture and within Gilead have to become handmaids and give themselves completely to the elites who are deprived of children, for their wombs to be used as baby manufacturing vessels for the whole of Gilead. The handmaids are to wear red and have forceful and unconsented sexual intercourse with their commanders (the elite men of Gilead who are powerful) in the presence of the wives as a service to God and their nation of Gilead.

“Offred: I am a two-legged womb for increasing Gilead’s waning population.”

The wives wear teal color, the Marthas (the servants) wear faded olive green color that fades into the background of the homes of these commanders signifying that they are invisible to the elites and the ‘aunts’ wear dark green uniforms which are militarized and defeminized. They supervise and help control the handmaids and the marthas. Each group has specific roles to play. Nonetheless, even the wives of these commanders think they have it better, but they don’t. All the women in Gilead aren’t allowed to have actual jobs that pay, anything that can empower them in any way. All these women are at the mercy of powerful men in Gilead. The novel is certainly not about the senseless war of opposite sexes, most commonly of men and women. The novel is anything but black and white. Atwood does not endorse pseudo feminism given her work is a strong voice for the need of an egalitarian society, pushing back against the horrors of complacent ideologies shoved down people’s throats by theocratic puritans whose self-righteousness and lack of human empathy make them torturers instead of angels. The book is also about class divide and gender divide, and shows directly what shall happen if we don’t stand up for our fundamental rights as human beings. It also has many symbolisms on how the death of free speech, restrictions on the freedom to clothe oneself howsoever one desires, restrictions on the freedom to choose one’s partners according to one’s needs and desires, restrictions to move about wherever etc., become a normal thing in a totalitarian regime. There are many layers into the topic of inequality which shall not be revealed here as it will become spoilers. One has to read the book for a holistic understanding of what this book is all about. The hypocrisy of the power holders also comes through on this novel as the novel unfolds. The way Atwood captures the moods of the people involved in this novel and the moods of certain political temperament are spectacular. The best part about the book is that these things that take place are inspired from events from the past even if the book seems prescient, as Margaret Atwood has said in many interviews. She has said very clearly in one of her interviews that this book is surely a “warning of the path of destruction” if we were to imagine complete totalitarian regimes functioning effectively today. One such symbolism in the book is where the Gilead regime hangs bodies of rebels on “the wall” which used to be Harvard University. Atwood has said (in one of her interviews) that “It would not have been an atheist, communist society if America was a totalitarian regime” and that rings true for any society where a few powerful lots would ambush a perfectly democratic society with the deadly mix of puritan ideologues and totalitarianism and the result of that is horrifying because that has happened in the past, for example, the rise of the 17th Century American puritans, the holocaust instigated by Adolf Hitler et cetera.

This book sheds light on various important topics that the new generation and the old can take so much away in a positive way even though it is a dystopian novel because certain privileges such as the right to express oneself freely (of course, without violating some else’s rights), the right to express dissent, the right to court and marry whom we prefer to etc., are not acceptable in many countries in the world, the least to highlight a few of the injustices today amongst many other, much severe, much horrifying violations of human rights.

It is a must read.

The book has been made into a movie in 1990 by the same title, directed by Volker Schlondorff. The Handmaid’s Tale has currently been adapted and made into a series created by Bruce Miller and Margaret Atwood. It has been made available to watch on Hulu since 2017 and on Amazon Prime since 2020.

Also Read