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The Handmaid’s Tale

December 27, 2007

just your typical prototypeConsidering that I’m a big fan of both Canadian literature and dystopias, I have an Arts degree, and I actually bought a copy six months ago, it’s pretty unbelievable that I haven’t read a classic like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale until just now.  Regardless, here we are.

So: The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a Handmaid called Offred in the theocratic totalitarian Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States at some point in the future.  Actually, and this is one of the most interesting things about The Handmaid’s Tale, the story probably takes place chronologically in the present, or even the recent past.  The narrator Offred reminisces often about her life before the rise of Gilead, in 1980’s America.  Unlike most dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World, the totalitarian society in The Handmaid’s Tale is very recently established, and people are still adjusting to it.  It’s a very interesting approach, and one that lets Atwood avoid using the same story arc that most of these books usually end up relying on.

The society depicted here, again, is unlike any I’ve seen in such a book before.  It’s an incredibly repressive and patriarchal regime, apparently inspired by the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980’s; American Christian fundamentalism taken to its logical conclusion.  In Gilead, women are deprived of all rights, and treated as property: “Offred” is so named because she is a government-provided concubine of Fred, her Commander.  Her true name is never given.  All women, in fact, are organized hierarchically under this caste system; from the high-ranking but still powerless Wives, to the enslaved Handmaids, down to the bottom rung Unwomen.  In Gilead, Atwood has basically created the most misogynistic literary world I’ve even seen outside of, like, Gor or Sin City or something.

Offred’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale is chilling and moving and still extremely relevant.  Even though Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan aren’t in power anymore, it feels like their brand of religious conservativism is only on the rise, you know what I mean?  It’s easy to imagine this kind of philosophy taking hold in America in the face of a Children of Men-style birth rate crisis.  If, like me, you’ve somehow managed to not get through The Handmaid’s Tale before now, it’s absolutely worth reading.

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