Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a near future dystopian novel set in an America renamed as Gilead and existing as a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship where women exist in a situation of slavery. As with most dystopias the Nazi references are strong and this is combined with strong allusions to the history of American slavery, including a resistance movement known as the Underground Female Railroad. Yet the strongest reference point comes from the author's ancestry. In the distant past one of her forebears, Mary Webster, was hung as a witch in Connecticut and the image of New England Puritanism is strongly conjured up in this dystopia set in Cambridge, Massachusetts (incredibly, she survived the hanging). The Handmaid's Tale won the Arthur C Clarke Award (1987) and was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. In addition it also won the Governor General's Award for English Language Literature (1985).
The story is narrated by its main character Offred, a 33-year-old who is part of the handmaid programme to provide a womb for the senior members of Gilead society, known as commanders. The narrative is told as a slow reveal in which what is going on in this society is only gradually revealed to the reader and at the book's end there are still several questions unanswered even by the Epilogue, which is a depiction of an academic conference speech about the book long after Gilead (and Canada) have ceased to exist. It is unclear how the United States could so easily be taken over or whether this was primarily an East Coast empire. The slow reveal is much preferable to large amounts of information dumping, but it also reflects the compliance of the system's victims in a way that might be influenced by Atwood living in West Berlin when she began writing the story. It also gives a feeling similar to many who suffered under Hitler or Stalin and thought that going along with the system was the way to survive it.
The Handmaid's Tale is not in the dystopian tradition of when the going gets tough the tough get going. It is more along the lines of when the going gets tough the soft survive. Less Hunger Games and more 1984. The tempo of the novel reflects the compliant nature of the main character: it is a story of Offred's attempt to fit in with what was required of her. As a result there is little narrative tension in the novel, but a lot about suffering under oppression. I was left with the impression that it was an interesting concept, but that so much more could have been achieved with the narrative. Yet Offred's resigned compliance is probably a better reflection of how people live in repressive regimes than any of the narratives that I might have expected from the novel. A good and thought-provoking read.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.