Monday, 30 January 2012

A Cautionary Tale

As I have written before on this blog, my first Margaret Atwood experience was reading her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale in the early 1990s at University. The book appealed to me on many levels – as a work of science fiction, a dystopian novel and as a feminist tome critiquing gender stereotypes. Over the past twenty years I have read it four times, each time gaining more from the novel and a greater appreciation of Atwood’s writing talents.

Set in the Republic of Gilead in the not too distant future, the patriarchal society is dominated by chauvinism and racism. A revolution occurred which reordered society to be militarized and repressive. Society is divided along gender lines with men classified into four groups: Commanders (ruling class), Angels (soldiers), Guardians (workers) and Eyes (intelligence agency). Women are also grouped: Wives and Daughters (ruling class), Handmaids (child bearers for the ruling class), Aunts (who train the Handmaids), Marthas (domestic servants), Econowives (wives of Guardians).

To counter the declining reproduction of the ruling classes, some fertile women are selected to be part of a group of Handmaids who serve as breeders for the wealthy.  These women mate with the men of the household in a monthly ritual known as “the Ceremony” in an effort to conceive. They have no rights and are dressed in conservative red uniforms.

The novel is told in the first person by Offred, a concubine of “the Commander”, who recalls her life before the revolution and how she became a Handmaid.  The Commander holds a high rank in Gilead and his wife, Serena Joy, is a former televangelist. The Commander can access contraband such as cosmetics, which he provides to Offred, plays Scrabble with her and meets with her outside the monthly Ceremony – putting her at terrible risk. Offred also becomes involved with Nick, the Commander’s driver, at the behest of Serena Joy.

Atwood’s writing is lyrical and rich. She uses purposeful language so well (with her vast vocabulary) that the reader is drawn in to the world she has created. The complex themes she explores linger with the reader and I found they became more thought provoking on second and third read. Part cautionary tale and part commentary on existing repressive regimes, this is speculative portrayal of a bleak world I do not want to live in.

The Handmaid’s Tale won numerous accolades including the Governor General’s Award, the Arthur C Clarke Award and was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1986. It was made into a film in 1990 directed by Volker Schlondorff, staring Natasha Richardson (Offred), Robert Duvall (The Commander), Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy), and Aidan Quinn (Nick) with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

My review of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) is also available on this blog.