For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 18, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The biggest difficulty in choosing a Margaret Atwood novel to review is selecting which one, as her body of work is brilliant, insightful, and daring. The Handmaid’s Tale, though published in 1985, is still as timely as it was thirty years ago. The novel is dark and dystopian. Its title is a bold tribute to Chaucer, but it is a modern speculative novel about politics, theocracy, the subjugation of women, and the struggle for agency in a frightening new world.
The story is told by Offred, a concubine in a place called the Republic of Gilead. In the not so distant past, this republic was the United States of America. A coup by an ultra-conservative group called the Sons of Jacob kills the President and most of Congress and suspends the US Constitution. The country is reformed into a repressive, militarized, Old Testament-based regime which creates new social classes powered by men. The new rulers strip women of their rights, power, and property, beginning with their finances. Most women are not allowed to read. They are, however, allowed to procreate—if they are able. Many in Gilead are sterile, a result of rampant pollution and STDs. Women who can bear children belong to a select group called handmaids. The handmaids and the men they are assigned to are only supposed to have sex during “the Ceremony.” Wives are present at and participate in the Ceremony, which may be creepy good fun for the men, but is just creepy for the reader and the handmaid.
Offred is the concubine of a high-ranking official known as The Commander. The Commander takes a shine to her and has illicit, non-Ceremonial sex with her. He brings her forbidden items such as makeup and magazines. The Commander’s wife, a former televangelist named Serena Joy, suspects the hanky-panky with the handmaiden, so she makes a plan. She sets Offred up with Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, who may or may not be loyal to the Republic of Gilead, as he may or may not be part of a resistance group called the Eyes of God. Offred doesn’t know. She is a pawn in a society that espouses many upstanding principles but lives out none of them. She decides to trust Nick.
Why is The Handmaid’s Tale a good read for women? Before the coup, Offred was married, with a job and a life. Fascists stripped her and her countrywomen of all rights, but allowed them to contribute in the one way considered valuable in this new world: to serve and service men. Reading this book would be a serious offense in the Republic of Gilead, which is reason enough to read it.