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Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

Every good author has at least one science fiction novel in her and this is Atwood’s. It is perhaps the best-known of Atwood’s novels, not least because of the film. It is set in an America in the future where a dictatorship forces women into slavery and makes them produce babies for the government elite. Chemical pollution has left most women infertile and right-wing fundamentalists have managed to take control of the country and establish a theocracy, called the Republic of Gilead. As with the slaves of the United States, the women are not allowed to read. Offred (= Of Fred (the commander’s name)) is a handmaid in the house of the commander and his wife and she must hope that the commander makes her pregnant in their monthly tryst. There are other categories of women – the house servants (Marthas), wives, the working class wives (Econowives) and the schoolmistress/matron types (Aunts), all of whom have their designated uniform.

While very successful, this book has been condemned on three counts. Firstly, some critics said it could not possibly happen here. Of course, it more or less happens already in many countries, particularly but by no means exclusively Muslim ones and, of course, full-scale repression in the US is just one economic crisis away. Secondly, it has been said that this novel is not as forceful as some of the previous dystopias1984, Clockwork Orange or Brave New World. Maybe it is because this book was written by a woman and she did not see the need to be as pushy as her male counterparts. (For more feminist dystopias, see Laura Quilter’s excellent feminist science fiction page.) Finally, this novel has been accused of lacking humour. Why should it be humorous? is the first question. However, I think what is meant by this remark that Atwood does not employ the blunt, forceful satire that dystopian writers – from Swift to Huxley – have used. But humour is not lacking in her work – from the humour of the commander having an affair with Offred (and being caught by his wife) to a whole variety of sly remarks about how women are treated in Gilead when any careful reader can see that Atwood is referring not just to Gilead but our present-day reality. Not a comfortable book but one in which Atwood brilliantly points out how we might turn out.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by McClelland & Stewart