This terrifying future world of Gilead occupies the former United States, a country that was taken over by a uprising of rich men who have twisted society into a rigidly structured patriarchy that has segregated the world into castes based on gender and class. In this extremely fundamentalist Christian society, women are broken into positions that totally solidify their lives. Wives exist to elevate the stature of men. When they cannot have children, for one reason or another, their husbands can be assigned a Handmaiden. This handmaiden exists as a walking womb for the Wives. Sex is highly ritualized and when a Handmaiden becomes pregnant, she carries the child and after birth, hands the child over to the Wife, this child then serves to elevate the stature of the family and enters into an exalted position in society. The Handmaiden is then reassigned to a new family and the cycle starts all over again.
What makes this story so engrossing... and so terrifying is the way it feels so real, so close. Every woman has experienced the crushing sense of powerlessness and outrage that accompanies sexism or the debilitating pressure of beauty standards that tell us how we're supposed to look and act. This story examines what happens when the very worst aspects of patriarchy and gender discrimination take over and press society into a mold that cannot be broken.
Atwood's incredible writing style manages to create both a crushing sense of bondage and an inescapable sense of hope at the same time. I think that's what makes the story so engrossing. I can see now why this book is considered so important in the world of Feminism. It represents the worst-case scenario, the terrifying outcome of the gender discrimination we see today. ESPECIALLY the discrimination present in so many of laws being floated or passed today.
I've wanted to read 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood since high school, since the first time I realized that reading it was incredibly important. All of the Feminist reading lists I'd read listed it in the top five and every time it was referenced, it was referenced with a reverence, a chill of what could be.
That chill is what made me find every reason in the world to read something else first. So when I was recently offered a test-drive of the new Amazon Kindle Unlimited service and saw it featured as an Editors Choice title, I finally felt it was time to dive in.
Honestly, I am SO GLAD I finally took the time to read it. From the very first page, I was hooked. The story itself is incredible... and terrifying. The writing is gorgeous and Atwood chose to write this story in the first person. Readers are invited to see the world of Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaiden to the powerful Commander and his wife. Seeing the world through Offred's eyes creates the feeling of being bound, a feeling of powerlessness that grips the reader and make the story feel so realistic that it's hard to step in and out of the pages without feeling of responsibility for Offred.
In this world, Offred orients herself based on these rules. She moves through her days like a wraith and observes. Through her eyes we see what has become of things under the power of greed and entitlement.
The most powerful part of this story, is the way Offred describes the world around her. The way she has been indoctrinated through fear and the memories of her life before the takeover that haunt her. We observe as Offred tries to maintain her sanity while she is used to suit the pleasures of others, she must learn to play the game, she must find a way out, or die trying. We are invited into the home of the Commander as Offred navigates the world she has been forced into. We learn about how she is viewed through the eyes of those around her, and we cautiously cheer her on as she searches for hope and tries to poke holes in the facade around her.
This book was such a fascinating read. I can't even begin to describe the incredible conversations it brought up for me, P and our friends. Understanding what it would look like for women to be truly subjugated to the complete will of men is terrifying. Terrifying for women, of course, but upon talking this over with P and several of our guy friends, terrifying for men too.
Most often they brought up how lonely it would be to exist in a world where women weren't able or encouraged to have an opinion. How difficult it would be to think of them as property and then think of the children born of others as never a part of the mother at all. They wouldn't even discuss the idea of having sex with a Handmaiden. Every one of them felt thoroughly disgusted by the whole ritual. Perhaps these great guys are just biased, they've all chosen outspoken and rebellious women to walk through life with, but they agreed that the type of man who would find this society appealing, would be the exact kind of men they'd NOT want in power.
At the end of this book, I remember simply sitting back to let the story wash over me. The incredible writing, the vivid imagery, the beautifully outlined characters and the importance (and heaviness) of the story felt like an important experience to let soak in. I can see now, as I read through my daily news articles, that the lessons of 'The Handmaiden's Tale' still resonate within me, and I believe I'm a better Feminist for it. Take the time to read this book. Let is settle in and mark you. Let it remind you, every single time you experience a jab of discrimination, that the fight is still on, that we women must stick together and work with those enlightened men we so love to make sure that a horror like this society of Gilead never takes roots in the hearts of those who would exploit us all. Remember that your voice matters, use it.