Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
My third, and final, book for Banned Books Week on the blog.
Why was it banned?
Unsurprisingly, due to the content and nature of this novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frequent presence on banned books lists the world over due to its allegedly anti-Christian themes. Another popular reason, usually cited right along with the criticism of religion, is that the book is considered to be pornographic.
Why did you choose it?
Goodreads browsing, yo. I kept seeing it on must read lists for feminist and dystopian fiction so you know, I had to read it. Because of reasons.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, one of many women living the lives of ‘handmaids’ in the not so distant future. Because of incidents in the past, such as abortion versus pro-life movements and high divorce rates, coupled with a rising fear that the human race would wipe itself out of existence by allowing women the choice to not continue with a pregnancy, religious fervour took over and gradually built up a new system of life in one country. In this ‘new world order’, the word of God is considered to be the highest law there is.
If this sounds familiar, it should be. Offred’s present isn’t even fifteen years away from her past, in which women could have an education, fall in love, have jobs and were allowed agency of their own bodies. It’s a brilliant and chilling vision of a future that doesn’t arise from anything more than the kind of struggle we, in our present, are already witness to.
It’s that mindset, once Offred reveals her past to the reader, that makes this novel so intensely uncomfortable to read. I have read some books that have scared me, ones that have made me cry and others that have made me feel angry and frustrated but The Handmaid’s Tale is as unsettling as it is accurate; I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do more – keep reading or put the book away and never finish.
So, in the world of Atwood’s novel, women no longer have rights – married women must have children or, if found to be sterile, ‘handmaids’ are brought in to bring a child to term. Offred is one of those handmaids – her duty in life is to bring a child to term, fathered by the husband in the family she’s brought in to, and then to hand the child over to be raised by the family while she moves on to repeat the process with another family considered to be ‘in need’. Sex no longer has any intimate connotations – love is a concept that is pretty much unfathomable in this new society. Adultery, casual sex, homosexuality, doctors who perform abortions, priests who condone abortion, women who refuse to conform – all these people are killed in grim ceremonies that are seen by the public and their corpses displayed for all to see. Imagine the kind of world in which women must be covered by clothing lest they invoke feelings of lust; a society which prohibits women from speaking except in the most mundane situations, having no agency over their own bodies and somehow, worst of all, having women turn against each other with many supporting a system that oppresses them.
There are so many upsetting scenes in this book, which I think proves how successfully Atwood brings this nightmare world to life with her prose. For one particularly horrific example, Offred talks about a scene she was witness to. In a group session one woman who revealed that she was brutally gang raped in her past was forced to admit that she was complicit in her own rape, with the other women encouraging her to accept the blame for inviting men to treat her in that way. She is given no choice but to admit to her own ‘sins’ and beg forgiveness.
What really makes this novel so socially conscious is that it could honestly happen at any time – there are already serious infringements of women’s rights across the world, and it feels like Atwood reacted to that by pouring all her rage and fear into her writing, and it does make me angry that this book has been banned in the past and will continue to be contested in the future. Do I think you’ll get a good night’s sleep after reading this? No. Do I think it needs to be read and discussed? YES. And I think most important among all the bleak horror of this novel are the words scratched into a small room by a handmaid:
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”