The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, who is the victim of a totalitarian and dictatorial Christian regime called the Republic of Gilead. Set in the year 2195, it is a haunting tale of what can happen if we continue to ignore the misogynistic ideas which form our society’s foundation. Women of the Republic of Gilead are deprived of all their civil rights, including the right to work, right to property and right to privacy. Margaret Atwood brilliantly juxtaposes smaller conflicts with their larger counterparts, and paints a beautiful picture of the entire situation in front of the readers’ eyes.
In the novel, both men and women have been vertically divided into certain categories. However, the plight of women is relatively more miserable. Their division includes ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ women. The ‘legitimate’ side includes the Wives of the commanders, the Daughters, the Handmaids, whose main function is to carry their Commander’s child, the Aunts, who train the Handmaids, the Marthas, who are old, infertile servants and the Econowives or the wives of the poor men. ‘Unwomen’ and ‘Jezebels’ comprise the ‘illegitimate’ women. Atwood’s heroine, Offred, is a handmaid. Her name literally means ‘Of Fred,’ i.e., she belongs to Fred, her Commander, whose child she has to conceive.
The narrative adopted by Atwood is deeply indulging and dark. The reader feels for each and every victim of the authoritarian orthodox regime, which is based on the Old Testament. Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance; and this tale is no exception. In the novel, Mayday is an underground organisation preparing to overthrow the ruling government. Through the clever narration of the writer, the readers find themselves rooting for this organisation and what it stands for.
In my opinion, the novel plays with ideas greater than that; it showcases totalitarianism in its true sense and the oppression and resistance it provokes. Apart from emphasising the violent control of lives, certain acts in the novel reveal feelings from the other end of the spectrum of human emotions. The residents of Gilead Republic live in a world of infertility, owing to a tremendous amount of pollution. This is a reflection of Atwood as an environmental activist. She unifies elements of dystopic and gothic fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale, like fear, death, gloom, intense emotions, powerlessness and the natural. She has been successful in following the tradition of dystopian novels prevalent during that time, with the publishing of various dystopic fictions, including Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and The Clockwork Orange by Burgess (1962). What makes Atwood’s novel different from the aforementioned novels is that it is written by a female author, featuring a female protagonist.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant work of fiction which is now more relevant than ever. This is another aspect in which it deviates from the conventional dystopian novels of that era. It raises concerns regarding issues such as patriarchy, inequality, extremism and environmental degradation that are currently prevalent across the globe. With this grotesque reality in front of our eyes, it is hard to ignore this novel’s relevance. However, certain recent events ignite a spark of hope in the grimness of the situation. With the recent ‘Me Too’ campaign gaining full force across the world, millions of people, especially women, spoke about their experience of being sexually assaulted, naming and shaming the predators. Similarly, the strict abortion laws in Ireland, which costed women like Savita Halappanavar her life a few years ago, have now been repealed. (images credit-internet)