The Handmaid’s Tale, dystopia considered by many Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece is mandatory for anyone who loves the genre.
It’s a new America: the Gilead. Christian extremists overthrew the American Government and burnt the Constitution, replacing it with code based on values considered old-fashioned by any modern and developed society. Similarly to Brand New World by Aldous Huxley, this society is divided in social classes each having its respective colour (blue for the Wives, green for the Marthas, red for the Handmaids). Every class has its own well-defined role in that society.
The plot develops from a Handmaid’s point of view, a woman whose only purpose is to reproduce, to generate heirs to the richest and more powerful families. If she is proven infertile she will be considered an Unwoman (after all, the role of any female is ensure the future of the species) and sent to the Colonies, a dirty, filthy place, in which the odds of survival are very small. If she is able to bear a child her future is secured: she won’t ever be sent to the Colonies. She will be sent to another home, she shall try to get pregnant again but, if she fails, she will not be punished.
A Handmaid’s function, though considered essential for Gilead, an honourable position some say, is no easy task. On the one hand, the men imposed to Handmaids, the patriarchs of the families, the Commanders, are almost always old and infertile. But if they find themselves unable to procreate it will be their fault: no man can be considered infertile, it will always be the woman’s defect. On the other hand they are despised and hated by the Wives who see them as an insult. After all, Handmaids are only used when a Wife is considered infertile.
The story told by the main character, Offred (a name that is given to her, meaning Of Fred) is set in an early phase of the Gilead Regime. There is a confrontation between her former life, free, happy, worthy, and the one she was obliged to accept. Flashbacks of her past are all that fill her long and empty days. She is not allowed to leave her room (which she often calls the room in which I sleep and not my room, for she is not allowed to own anything) except for her daily walk. She can’t read, in fact women aren’t allowed to read.
Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a society that disrespects some of the values we consider most important and fundamental: freedom, equality and dignity. A society in which the woman’s role is completely disrespected and in which she is oppressed. Despite having been written in the 80’s, this dystopia shows some elements that unfortunately are already observable today. In a recent interview Margaret Atwood said that when she wrote this book she wrote it because she found some of it possible to happen though she dearly hopped it would never happen. This is, after all, the role of every writer, to cause change, to change the course of events and fight for a fairer, more just world with the weapons they have at their disposal: words.