If you are looking for some extra reading on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale try Paul Gray’s review of the novel on the Time website.
Canadian Author Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel will remind most readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That can hardly be helped. Any new fictional account of how things might go horribly wrong risks comparisons either with George Orwell’s classic or with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. To a remarkable degree, these two books have staked out the turf of contemporary antiutopias. Which punishment is it to be this time? Relentless, inescapable totalitarianism or the mindless, synthetic stupors of technology? As it turns out, Atwood’s look at the future takes place under conditions that Orwell would recognise. Repression is the order of the new day in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the villains in this piece are not the ones that Orwell accused, and the most prominent victim and hero is a woman.
She is also the narrator, and the events that led to her current condition must be pieced together from memories she has been conditioned to forget. The United States of America is now the Republic of Gilead, a Fundamentalist Christian theocracy that arose after “they shot the president and machine- gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” The current regime is militantly opposed to the recent past, especially all traces of the moral permissiveness that arose in the U.S. during the waning decades of the 20th century. The embattled state must also try to reverse a disastrously declining birthrate, which began to slide with the growing acceptance of abortion and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the bad old days. It grew worse after the toxic effects of various ecological disasters.
Hence women like the narrator who are of childbearing age and still possess “viable ovaries” have been forcibly recruited into the ranks of Handmaids. After a period of indoctrination, they are assigned to two-year tours of duty with the important men, the Commanders of the Faithful, whose wives are barren. Handmaids are slaves to their own biological possibilities and derive their identity solely from their Commanders. The narrator’s new name, Offred, really identifies her owner; she belongs for the time being to a man named Fred. She explains the duties of her station: “We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us.”
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