Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Summary: The Handmaid’s Tale is a book review of the critically acclaimed dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) written by one of the most celebrated Canadian authors Margaret Atwood (1939). It attempts to critically analyze the lives of women, examines their roles and their social status in Gilead and highlights the various feminist themes such as loss of individual identity, violation and curtailment of their rights, gender inequality, misogyny and oppression of women in a patriarchal society where a woman’s body has treated an object, a tool and consumable item. This paper explains how the female characters of the novel are treated and forced to experience a life of passivity and submissiveness and are subjected to both the dictatorial government of Gilead and the patriarchal society.

Introduction: The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. It was written by the critically acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood in the year 1985. The novel is set shortly in a military dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead that overthrows the United States Government after a military coup. The novel is narrated in first person by a character named Offered who belongs to a group of women known as Handmaids. The Handmaids are women capable of bearing children who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the “Commanders” – the ruling class of men. Through this novel, Atwood explores themes of patriarchy, loss of individual identity, gender discrimination, oppression and objectification of women and their bodies, misogyny, violation of human rights, and the numerous ways by which women resist and attempt to gain individuality, assert their independence and show their resentment and resistance towards the authoritarian government. For this novel, Margaret Atwood was awarded the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The novel was also nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize. In the year 1987, she was awarded the Prometheus Award. The novel was later adapted into a film in 1990 directed by Volker Schlöndorff and finally, it was adapted into a television series in 2017. The sequel novel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments was published in 2019.

Review: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction set in a post-apocalyptic feminist dystopian society which criticizes the evils omnipresent in our contemporary world such as violence against women, shaming rape victims, rape in general, infidelity, gender discrimination, loss of individual identity, objectification of women, oppression, loss of bodily autonomy, etc. and challenges the imposed inferior status of women and rejects the cultural and the biological mechanisms of oppression and presents women as not only at par with men but also as sole arbiters of their reproductive functions. In this context, the violation of basic human rights of women forms a major theme of the novel. It reflects the innumerable challenges that millions of women face in the contemporary world.

The dystopian nightmare conjured by Atwood depicts a world ruled by men who profess high moral principles, but are self-interested and selfish. It is a society where women are treated as second-class citizens who are meant only to bear children. The State has robbed women of their rights and forced them to live a life of passivity and submissiveness in a patriarchal and oppressive society where women have voices and opinions of their own. Most significantly, women are deprived of control over their bodies. The Handmaid’s Tale shows that the women of Gilead, suffer from the oppression imposed upon them not only by the Republic of Gilead power but also by the patriarchal ideology which is similar to the situation of colonized subjects, particularly women, in previously or currently colonized countries.

Equally horrifying is the lack of empathy and bitterness demonstrated by women at the apex of this social hierarchy. Their frustration and bitterness is an outcome of the loss of their identity and their inability to accept their reduced role in Gilead becomes the ultimate weapon in the hands of the State. It becomes a means for women to oppress other women. In this manner, the novel sets itself apart from other works of feminist literature by subverting the traditional “women helping other women in times of crisis” ideals. Instead, it presents a new form of misogyny; hatred of women for other women.

Another major theme is the study of power highlighting how it gradually deforms and corrupts the people who live in typical dictatorship shaped like a pyramid, with the power of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom. In this context, however, the novel cannot be classified as a purely feminist dystopia since not all men have greater rights than women. The contents of the novel may be considered feminist. However, it does not intend to serve any political message whatsoever. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a cautionary tale and that, the Republic of Gilead is only an extrapolation of the trends that are already seen across the globe.

The novel also points out and critically evaluates and explores the possible consequences of a neo-conservative religious society – a sexist world of forced surrogate motherhood. This, however, should not be understood as an affront to religion, rather it should be viewed as a critique and an affront to the use of religion as a front for tyranny. It depicts how the concept of traditional marriage and the Biblical story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilhah are interpreted in a manner to suit the needs of the white supremacist men in positions of power. The novel also highlights various other themes such as environmental degradation, chemical pollution, radiation, water contamination, infertility and venereal diseases such HIV which was a relatively new disease at the time of Atwood’s writing and its impact was still unknown.

Conclusion: This book comes in the wake as the world has been marred by innumerable instances of countless horrors that millions of women around the world face daily. Through this novel, Atwood suggests that gender discrimination, sexism, patriarchy and misogyny are deeply entrenched in society and serious attention must be given to eradicate this problem. Margaret Atwood’s novel not only reflects the casual attitudes about women but also depicts the possible outcomes if these attitudes were taken to their logical ends. In the same vein, Atwood also criticizes religious theocracies that have forced women out of the public sphere and into their homes, as in Gilead. Furthermore, Atwood also attacks those societies that use religion as a mask to belie their autocratic tendencies. Centered on themes of gender discrimination, deepening identity crisis, human rights violation, and struggle for power and sexuality, this novel successfully dramatizes the potential consequences of the current trends of the world and presents a gripping narrative of marginalization as well as the struggle of women to survive and resist the patriarchal order in a world of whispers, silence and lies.