Our protagonist is Offred, or Kate as she was known before the government was overthrown by a religious totalitarian regime. She lives in what used to be the USA, now the Republic of Gilead. She is a handmaid. Handmaids serve one function in this regime. They are placed with elitist couples who cannot have their own children in hopes that they will become pregnant by the male head of household. In this society, population is dwindling and people are unable to reproduce. The book doesn’t go into much detail about this, other than perhaps it is due to hazard environmental health mishaps from nuclear plants or pollution.
Offred’s story is told from the beginning of this regime. She remembers what life was like before. She remembers having freedoms and taking them for granted. The story skips around from her new life as a handmaid to memories of before. She tells of us her husband, her daughter, her mother, her best friend Moira. She often thinks of them and wonders what has happened to them, hoping they are still alive somewhere.
There are a few criticisms of this books. Some found the story that jumped around too disorienting. I find that it fits perfectly with the story of someone whose rights have been stripped away, being left with nothing to fill her time other than reflect on her memories. She spends her days in boredom. She is constantly being watched. She only exists for the one goal of creating life. All she has are these memories.
Another criticism was the lack of answers. I’m not clear on why everyone wants answers and wants everything to fit so neatly in a story. Offred herself is not given any answers. She needs none. This must be frustrating for all the women who go through this. In turn, it is frustrating for the reader. Imagine living in a society where knowledge was something that someone else decided you couldn’t have.
Some have cited inconsistencies. An example that has been cited stems from the nebulous reasons why the population is dwindling and people are unable to be conceived. The controlling regime’s entire rationale for the new way of life and creating the role of the handmaid was because births were dwindling. Towards the end of the story, Offred finds herself in a sort of brothel, where she learns that the women that work there have had an operation to ensure they don’t become pregnant. Why would both of these things exist and be encouraged in the same society? Do any totalitarian regimes really make sense? It’s never about the principle of the thing—it’s always about control.
I highly recommend this book. I highly recommend any book by Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is a glimpse into a possible scary future. Not only is it a glimpse into a future without feminism, it speaks volumes about women’s rights today. When we give up and are content with gender inequality, what rights we have already fought for can still slowly erode away. There are many that believe feminism is overrated or unnecessary anymore. Atwood proves we need it now more than ever to hold on to what we have already achieved and to continue to fight for inequalities still prevalent today.