Guest post by Ashley Fryer
It’s hard to escape the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale. Recently adapted into a big-budget, star-studded US TV series, the 1985 dystopian novel is enjoying the top spot in the book charts as people discover or rediscover Margaret Atwood’s harrowing tale. And while the new series shows a lot of promise, the source material still has the power to captivate a reader and transport them to a dark but tangible world. In the wake of the women’s marches and the growing amplification of women’s voices (particularly on social media), the story feels strongly resonant with modern audiences. Spoiler alert – it’s worth a read.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship within the USA. After the president and congress are shot and the constitution destroyed, the new world order strips women of their rights and re-categorises people within a totalitarian regime. This happens in a backdrop of a sterility pandemic, leaving much of the population infertile. Our narrator, Offred (literally meaning ‘of Fred’, the commander she serves) is a handmaid – a still-fertile woman placed within the household of a high ranking officer and his barren wife. The handmaids’ role in society is purely functional – they are expected to bear children for the commanders. They are forbidden to read, have no material possessions, and are treated with suspicion and scorn by women of other social classes.
Offred’s story of her life in Gilead is interspersed with the history of how they got there, including flashbacks of her life before everything changed, when the world resembled ours as it was in the recent past. The non-linear narrative style – latterly revealed to be a written account of an oral retelling – means that pieces of the jigsaw are revealed one at a time. It’s only really by the final parts of the novel that you have a clear picture of the world they’re living in and how it came to be. It would be foolish to assume this wasn’t Atwood’s intention in bringing the jarring and harrowing world of Gilead to life, echoing the handmaids’ experience, as they can only glimpse snapshots of the world through their winged headdresses.
Offred is a compelling narrator – her instinct to fight against the oppression is muddied by the evidence of her indoctrination and backlit by feelings of futility. The relationships she forms are fraught with tension and suspicion. But resistance is at the heart of the novel – particularly in the repeated line: ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ – don’t let the bastards grind you down.
The plot is pacy and they don’t waste time. Characters bloom on the page, becoming increasingly interesting and increasingly complex. The realities of their world – from the public executions to the ritualistic ceremonies – are vivid, harsh, and difficult to swallow. But they feel important. Atwood’s style draws you in and refuses to let you go until the end.
Over thirty years later, the difficult questions brought up by The Handmaid’s Tale are still relevant – questions about class, slavery, sexism, inequality. Could this happen (again)? Atwood has argued that her story is based on historical evidence that these regimes have existed before. In an interview with the New York Times, she described The Handmaid’s Tale as follows: ‘it’s a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime…You could say it’s a response to “it can’t happen here.”’
The Handmaid’s Tale is not a story that you can forget – indeed it stayed with me for a long time after reading it. I’d recommend squeezing it in before getting stuck into the new TV series. You can easily read it in a couple of days over a weekend.
And remember – nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Ashley writes – mostly about food – over at Peach Trees and Bumblebees. You should check it out.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale a long time ago and then re- read it when I heard about the TV series – which I am currently enjoying. I love Margaret Atwood’s novels – and also re-read recently The Blind Assassin and could hardly leave it out of my hand. Thanks for the review.