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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaids tale

International Women’s Day is celebrated as a national holiday across the world, from Cuba, China, Uganda and Afghanistan to Vietnam, Mongolia and Russia. The theme this year is Make It Happen, but the aim of IWD- to shine light on the injustices and inequalities that women face worldwide- is unchanged, sadly, since 1907.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (BOOK ZONE 823.91 ATW) is set in the fictional Republic of Gilead (formerly North America) where declining birth rates threaten the human race. Poisoned by nuclear weapons and chemical spills, only one in four babies that make it to term will survive without any deformities. The men in government, now stuck with wives unable to conceive, conscript any fertile woman who has gone against biblical law: our narrator, known as Offred, is targeted because her partner Luke was previously married. Separated from her young daughter, she is assigned to a man known as The Commander, but not before she has undergone a hellish ‘re-education’ at a compound known as the Red Centre. Though Aunts and Guardians watch her every move, Offred finds some freedom with the Commander himself, who allows her to read and takes her outside the house to forbidden parties. At the same time, she becomes aware of an underground network of women who will help her escape in return for information. Serena Joy’s plan is even more dangerous- force Offred to sleep with Nick, her husband’s chauffer, in an attempt to get her pregnant faster. Nick, who has some chemistry with Offred, also has a way for her to escape. The version of English spoken in Gilead is laced with biblical references and the kind of ‘newspeak’ George Orwell used in 1984– all women are required to attend “particicutions”, where everyone pulls a rope to hang convicted “unwomen”. Offred isn’t allowed to read or write- shop signs have reverted back to paintings of meat, milk and thread. As a result, the way that Offred thinks is changing- how can she hold onto her memories, or find the strength to run?

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The butcher’s shop is represented by a slab of meat in this illustration from the Folio Society edition of The Handmaid’s Tale

Many women in The Handmaid’s Tale are complicit in the new regime. Ofwarren, who was raped in the time ‘before’, is loathed by Offred for her religious fervour. She has chosen to believe the Aunts, who say that women have it better now the choice of how to dress and who to see has been removed. The Wives see the Handmaids as little more than prostitutes, but know they represent their only chance of raising children, and crave the status that comes with a fertile Handmaid. There were protests in the early days, when the government took Offred’s job and gave Luke her money, but Offred stayed at home, content to raise her new baby. When she tried to take her family and flee from those same powers, it was too late. The Handmaid’s Tale says that by accepting small indignities, we give the people in power permission to enact more and more radical change. This means that we should all fight, even when the issue at hand does not affect us directly. Read about some of the many charities trying to keep women in education here, here and here

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Some women have Handmaid’s Tale tattoos- this one is of the poorly-written Latin phrase that Offred finds carved into the back of her wardrobe. It translates as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”!  

If you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, try:

Never Let Me Go by UEA alumnus Kazuo Ishiguro (BOOK ZONE 823.91 ISH) is narrated by Kathy, who has had a sheltered upbringing in an English boarding school. As she gets older she learns more about the world outside- it’s best to read this book without knowing too much, but it’s often categorised as science fiction… Never Let Me Go was filmed in 2010 and stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as well as indie actors Domhnall Gleeson and Angela Riseborough.

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Andrew Garfield as Tommy in Never Let Me Go

The Handmaid’s Tale movie was scripted by Harold Pinter, who found it nearly impossible to re-write the first-person novel. As well as giving Offred a real name, the film has a definitive, optimistic ending. Worth watching for the costumes, which are very true to the book. Find a copy in the BOOK ZONE 823.91 ATW

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A “Particicution” from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale

1984 by George Orwell is a truly chilling dystopian story which first used the name ‘Big Brother’ to describe a state of constant surveillance. Essays within the novel describe the creation of Newspeak, a language which promotes new values like “bellyfeel”: the unconditional acceptance of a government idea.  The novel’s protagonist, Winston, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history books and editing photos, and is tortured into believing in “doublespeak”- the idea that the mind can accept two contradictory opinions. The film adaptation starring John Hurt is particularly bleak- find it in the BOOK ZONE 823.91 ORW

1984-OrwellBig Brother is watching you- John Hurt in 1984

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