I read the majority of the book in the ICU waiting room where my big brother was confined because of a stroke. The atmosphere, the dread, the worry, and stress just made reading this book, all the more depressing. I would not recommend this book to someone in that situation.
Not to say that the book didn’t deserve the accolades and awards it garnered. The story is fascinating, especially for me, a self-declared practical feminist.
You know what I think? I think Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 should stay the hell away from each other and definitely not make a baby. Can you imagine the result of such a union? The utter perversity.
The feeling I experienced reading the book reminds me of the way I felt reading/trudging through 1984. The feeling was heavy, claustrophobic, and utterly uncomfortable. This is definitely not a light read.
What’s a Handmaid?
The book is a dystopian novel dealing with the role of females in a military theocracy where – surprise, surprise – the society is dominated by men. Majority of the women are sterile and the birth rate is dropping at critical levels. Women are forced into classes – from the legitimate wives, handmaids, econowives (which I thought was hilarious!), Marthas, Jezebels, and unwomen.
When I first heard of Handmaids, I immediately thought of harems and concubines. Turns out I was right. But the sick part is that there are no emotions involved when a handmaid is used by her master. In fact, (SPOILER!) the wife is right there in the bed, holding the handmaid’s hands while her husband boinks the handmaid. Sick, right?
Econowives are really just wives who perform the duties of a handmaid and a Martha. As the name suggest, if you’re an unfortunate man who is not at the top of the food chain, you get an econowife like an economy class plane seat. Get it?
Marthas are basically just maids. No copulation involved as they are barren as the Sahara desert.
Jezebels are basically just the ladies of the evening.
Unwomen are the feminist rebels. They defy the status quo and have idealistic dreams of starting a revolution.
We get to know this society in the eyes of Offred, a handmaid, of – Fred literally. We assume the commander’s name is Fred.
Offred became a handmaid because she’s proven to be capable of reproduction. In fact, the most heartbreaking parts of the book are the flashbacks to a more normal life, recognizable to readers. She had a normal loving relationship and she bore a daughter before the madness and shift in the society. There were flashbacks of their escape attempt and separation. And one of the motivations for the character is the hopeful search for her family.
The novel explores the relationships that develop in the commander’s household — the barren wife’s resentment over the need to have a handmaid, the marthas’ jealousy over the slightly elevated status of the handmaid, the temptation of having an emotional connection to the commander (and his driver).
The story has no conclusive ending. And I loved that about it. The reader is left to imagine what happened to the character and this world where women are suppressed. In today’s world where sexual discrimination is still happening, this book is a reminder of what happens when society goes off the rails and demand obedience without question.