The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative
This novel is set in the future, in a country founded in the former United States. The world as we know it has changed. In repsonse to the environmental and sociological problems that face the US, a military-coup has taken place. Run by a religious organisation, they stage a terrorist attack that kills the president and they use this as a catalyst to stage a revolution.
Congress to dismantled, the constitution is suspended and women are downgraded to second-class citizens. Taking their inspiration from the old testament, this newly ruling christian sect impose harsh rules on all of it's citizens. Other religions are banned. People that are not anglo-saxon christians are returned to their homelands.
Women are no longer allowed to hold property, have a bank account, have a job, access any reading material or have any sort of freedoms. Women who are single, unmarried or in a second marriage (for either partner) are deemed undesirable. Their partners and children are taken away, and they are put into a new social class, that of the Handmaid.
The purpose of a handmaid is to reproduce. They are allocated to a home that is run by a commander and his wife (the wives being at the top of the pecking order for females) and their job is to get pregnant in a bizarre, sex ritual. If they are not successful in getting pregnant they are made into "unwomen" and thrown out into the colonies to die of radiation poisoning.
The handmaid's also relinquish their real names when they enter a house. Offred is named so because she is the handmaid 'of Fred'. Her neighbour is called, Ofglen as she is the handmaid 'of Glen'.
There are many other social classes in this novel. Aunts, who are in charge of training the handmaid's. Marthas, who are older, infertile women, designated to housekeeping duties for the wives. Econowives, who have married men of lower social status who are in charge of all their own housekeeping and wifely duties. All of these women are distinguishable by different colour dresses.
Offred is forced to be a handmaid because her husband has been married before. In a previous life she was a wife, a mother and worked in a job that required high literacy skills. Now she is lost in a world where her individuality and desires are crushed by this new oppressive regime.
This story is told from Offred's point of view. She slowly reveals what her life is like, how the United States came to change and how soul-destroying her new position in life really is. Regardless of that, she shows the strength of the human spirit, it's desire to survive and overcome all adversity.
This novel studies fundamentalist ideologies and the impact they could have on society if a dystopian future like this existed. What if a extremist christian sect staged terrorist attacks in order to take control of the country and implement a totalitarian regime? Atwood uses this novel as a tool to critique the problems she see's with fundamentalism.
The book studies how Offred's mother was a feminist activist and helped rally for women's rights, and then years later, all this is ripped out from under their feet, leaving them in a worse position than before. This novel asks the reader to consider, what if women were subjugated during a revolt against feminism?
It also looks at how sex is seen, by the church, as purely a reproductive act. Which is fine in theory, but nothing can stamp out both men and women's sexual desire. Not even fear of punishment or death.
This novel touches on some really important issues and raises many questions that could arise, in a dystopian reality. I found myself wondering, while reading this novel, what would I do if this were to happen? Would I risk my life and try to flee in order to stay with my partner? Would I do as I'm told and accept my fate with willingness? Or would I try and fight back? Would I take the risk of joining the underground resistance, intent on bringing down the regime?
This novel was a really interesting read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in feminist, speculative or dystopian fiction.