Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

As Atwood says so eloquently in The Handmaid’s Tale, there are two types of freedom: Freedom to and freedom from. Freedom to do what ever you want, or freedom from women being shouted at in the streets. I’d argue that you cannot have both at the same time. There is, however, a fine line in between these two types of freedom that we, as a society, must walk. The Handmaid’s Tale provides a fascinating examination of the intersection of these two types of freedom, and left me questioning whether good will win in the end.

Shortly after You-Know-Who was elected in 2016, there seemed to be a rise in the sales of dystopian novels like “1984” by George Orwell, and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. Call it a coincidence but this might have something to do with the recent threats to our basic freedoms taking place south of the border.

As with other dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a world where many basic human rights are restricted and surveillance keeps citizens in constant fear of being prosecuted for violating the rigid rules of society. In this fictional world, an epidemic of infertility has struck Gilead (the nation that once was the United States) and the group of women who are still “fertile” are now called “handmaids.” These women are forced to live with families and have sex with the man of the household to become pregnant. Once they give birth their baby belongs to the family they work for.

Our narrator throughout this story is called Offred, or “of Fred,” as she is considered a “possession” of the wealthy family with whom she lives. Her real name is never spoken or used throughout the book and she has been reduced to one function: procreating. Offred provides first person narrative of her experiences in Gilead and talks about how the changes from normal society to this dystopian world were subtle; happening slowly at first, and over a long period of time.

The circumstances leading to the removal of basic rights and freedoms seemed to begin with the restriction of news. Throughout the book this strategy is used as a control mechanism to keep the public in the dark about what’s really happening in the world. On page 22, Offred says about her companion Ofglen, “Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.” Hmm… does “false news” sound a bit familiar to anyone?

Another reason The Handmaid’s Tale is surging in popularity today, despite its having been published in 1985, is the fact that many things in the book that had previously seemed too unrealistic, but are now more likely than ever to come true. Since the election of Donald Trump last November, false news has become a reality. Not only is the President of the United States lying to American citizens on a daily basis, but his views on women’s rights are dangerous and becoming more pervasive as time goes by.

By trying to take away women’s rights to health care, and based on the degrading remarks the president has made about women in the past, Trump is slowly starting to bring us closer and closer to the dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Throughout the novel it is clear that all women are in service to men. Everything women do in the book is to please men, and is never something that’s done for our their own pleasure. Offred even goes so far as to ponder whether “boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.”

At another point in the book Offred reflects on a time when her husband wanted to have sex and she didn’t. “That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still felt numbed. I could hardly even feel his hands on me.”

How many times have women been in this exact situation and force themselves to fake their way through it? Why do women always feel pressure to please men? These are exactly the kinds of dangerous ideologies that prevent us from realizing our true power and worth.

It’s been extremely difficult for me to write a review of this book, because I’m still not sure I’m done processing it, if I will ever be done. But one thing that it left me questioning was whether right will overpower wrong; can good defeat evil? It’s my personal belief that people should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they are not doing harm to anyone or anything. We cannot allow a small group of people’s fear and hatred of what is unknown to them, take away our basic rights and freedoms.

It is now more important than ever for education in science, math, climate change, literature, history and basic human decency to be at the forefront of our efforts so we don’t end up in Gilead twenty years from now.

What do you think the future holds? Are we headed down the path towards Gilead becoming a reality, or will peace prevail?


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. From a broader perspective, I think utilitarianism is a major theme within the book. By examining a lens wider than that of our narrator, we can consider the ethical implications of living in a world were the human race is an endangered species. We can imagine how human nature will persevere through the most dire of circumstances and the psychological impacts of scarcity on a society accustomed to excess. Can’t wait to finish this one!

    1. That’s a great way to look at it. It’s also unclear to me whether the threats to the human race were just being experienced in Gilead, or whether it was a worldwide phenomenon. If the former, I’d put forth that the country should have opened its borders, rather than sealed them off. It’s almost as though their ignorance and intense clinging to a religious dogma sentenced them to extinction.

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