The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood, Fiction, 1985 McClelland and Stewart Publishers, ISBN 0-77710-0813-9

Not long after the publishing of her speculative fiction Margaret Atwood conducted an interview with The Progressive in which she explains how she came to write the The Handmaids Tale.

Having absorbed the New England Puritan tradition during her studies at Harvard, she observed the rise of the U.S. political right in the 1980s and compared the Moral Majority’s grass-roots menace to the phenomenon of Hitler. According to Atwood, the Nazi leader told the world what he intended to do; then he set about accomplishing his heinous aims. The ranting diatribes of late twentieth-century American right-wingers — who steadfastly push women back into the traditional roles common in the 1950s, delight in the AIDS epidemic among homosexuals, and threaten death to members of the gay culture — parallel Hitler’s fascist candor. Atwood claims to have acted on a what-if scenario: suppose ultraconservatives did achieve a coup d’etat and turned rhetoric into a stringent authoritarianism, replete with suspension of constitutional rights, racial cleansing, torture, perpetual sectarian wars, public execution of homosexuals and dissidents, a repressive police and spy operation, and assignment of roles to women based on their childbearing capabilities.

Set sometime after the mid-1980s after a rightwing fundamentalist uprising, Offred is a prisoner in Gilead. Gilead is a society that has disenfranchised women, denying those jobs, money and education. Gilead is bent on eliminating homosexuals, abortionists and all other religious sects but their own. All Jews, old women and non-whites infertile women and homosexuals are settled in the “Colonies.”

Offred is a fertile woman who maintains her individuality while pretending to follow the directions. She has been selected as a potential breeder in a post nuclear and biological world where the population suffers a sharp decline in viable births. Offred is a valued commodity and treated as such by her owners. Offred is subjected to a monthly ritual of copulation in the hopes of conceiving a child for her owners.

The chauffeur Nick and Offred carry on a secret affair in a departure from her monthly duties with the Commander and finds herself pregnant. Suddenly and swiftly Offred is accused of treachery by the Commander’s wife Serena Joy and while she contemplates suicide or escape Nick hurries her into an awaiting black van used to take away those who break the rules.

The story ends some two hundred years later as archeologists study the society known as Gilead and it’s theocratic dictatorship. Professor Peixoto surmises that Offred escaped with the assistance of Nick and lived out her days in Canada or England. Offred’s story is pieced together though the discovery of a series of cassette tapes she has left behind.

Our book club discussion was compelling and at times a bit trenchant and critical. Many expressed a difficulty in reading the book and found the style hard to read. Some remarked how they kept reading hoping for a resolution for the Offred which never came. Her fate was not explicitly offered at the end.

We discussed about what we would do in a given situation. Would we rebel? Would we protest? Would we be concerned only for ourselves or for the greater good? We also discussed how the book portrays women as being disenfranchised and men will never fully understand what it is like to be a woman and visa versa.

The month of December we are reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.