If you want to read a light story that will help you pass a couple of hours do not read any of Margaret Atwood’s books. Just don’t. Grab a Dave Barry book or something by Dan Brown. Just stay the hell away from Margaret Atwood’s books. Not that they’re good or anything like it. On the contrary. To say they are perfect would be underestimating them. But they are everything but light reading. They might even (God forbid) make you endeavor the rusting gears in your mind, or worse, leave you with something to think about.
The United States of the not-so-distant future falls in the hands of an extreme religious sect that forms a deadly totalitarian regime. Anyone who opposes the new regime finds himself hanging on the wall or worse, so it is not surprising that as the years go by, we see less and less resistance from the side of the residents, which in their turn, start to internalize the new dynamics. The new world, characterized mainly by the oppression of women, is divided into different classes that are differentiated by their dress colors (or rather – the women dresses. As expected, in a totalitarian and misogynistic regime, most men are in uniforms). The wives, married to upper-class men, are wearing blue. The upper-class women who have not yet married are wearing white. The servants that serve in the upper classes homes (called “Marathas”) wear green aprons, while the handmaids, whose sole purpose is to conceive for the upper classes, wear red.
Unfortunately for our narrator, she belongs to the lowest class among of the four. You can probably guess that she didn’t volunteer for this role, otherwise, our story would undoubtedly have been a little different, but she did not have too much choice. From the moment she was recruited to this position, she has only two options. Perform her role quietly, as dirty as it might be, or not. Though the second option is a bit tricky when they remove any hook that you can tie a noose to from your room and avoid leaving you by yourself with sharp objects.
The new government is aware of the fact that the women of the heroine’s generation will have the hardest time adapting to the new conditions, because they can still remember different reality, before the revolution that changed their lives and took away their freedom. But it does not stop them from developing re-education techniques that will erase any attempt of rebellion or the possibility of free thought of any kind. Perhaps the most disturbing in this book is the ease with which the heroine and her peers get used to their new status, even if they do not accept it with their eyes closed.
The narrator is stripped from her personality and is forced to wear the red dresses that are reserved for the handmaids along with a pair of white wings that limit her vision and her capability to communicate with the outside world. Even her name is taken from her, and she is given a new name that is derived from her owner’s name – Offred – that will change when she will be transferred to a new owner (unless her new owner’s name will be Fred). Actually, we will never know her birth name, which is forbidden. Using it means treason, and we wouldn’t want to take that risk.
Margaret Atwood likes to challenge her readers with stories that pull the rug from under their feet. She did it in Oryx and Crake (the wonderful and depressing), and she does it perfectly in The Handmaid’s Tale. She focuses on Offred’s little microcosm and doesn’t give us too many details on the upheavals the world we know went through to turn into the way it is in the narrator’s world. The whole story will be revealed eventually, but it will be at the slow pace that she dictates, one small piece of information after the other, and even then, she only briefly touches anything that isn’t directly relevant to the narrator. The flow of this tale might be a little slow for some of the 21st-century readers that got used to getting their stimulations poured down their throats, but if they will have the patience that the book requires, at least in the first few episodes, they are bound to go through a breathtaking experience.
This book managed to bother me more than many other apocalyptic or dystopian books I have read over the years. Especially because the world he describes is not so far from the one we live in today. It is true that almost every speculative novel of this species has some sorts of elements that can remind our world, but even then, the distance is far enough for me to calm myself, saying this is just a book. But here, long before Osama bin Laden and the Patriot Act and Guantánamo Bay, Margaret Atwood shows us how easily the world’s largest democracy can turn into a dark police state. All you need to do is press the right trigger and the masses will give you the power to do everything, even to establish a theocracy that favors the superiority of certain races and genders over others. Imagine how much fun it is to read this book in a country that drifts into a religious frenzy, giving its religion clerics more power with every passing day.
The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, only one year after the most significant year for the dystopian literature. And indeed, the Orwellian influence is perhaps the strongest and most notable in this book. The feeling of persecution that accompanies this book, when at every given moment there is no way of knowing which of the characters will be revealed as one of the regime’s spies, when you read the book and feel the watchful eyes of the people around you, not knowing which one will betray you in the first given opportunity. In one part of The Handmaid’s Tale the connection between the two books becomes blatant (at least, in my opinion), the commander explains the heroine that when women add one and one four times, they would not necessarily get four, in some kind of a murky reflection of Winston Smith and O’Brien’s conversation during Winston’s re-education.
Like in 1984, and the same goes for any totalitarian regime, the sole purpose of the government is to keep its power, no matter what measure they require. But while Orwell’s Room 101 adapts to each patient’s individuality, Atwood’s “eyes” and their black pickup vans of terror does not refer to the individual as a subjective entity. Perhaps this is the main difference between the two books and the regimes they represent. And to tell you the truth, I have no idea which of the options is worse.
In conclusion – an excellent book, even if somewhat disturbing. Five red robes of extra-thick cotton.
The Handmaid’s Tale / Margaret Atwood / McClelland and Stewart
I have no idea how to even start referring to the book’s epilog, so I’ll just give up in advance. If you read the book you probably know what I mean.
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