‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was written by Margaret Atwood, who has now and again proven herself to be an excellent writer of dystopian fiction. Her realities are deliberate and strong, and her writing is something that I enjoyed thoroughly. She has written several collections of short stories and poetry, and her language and writing style reminds us of this. Both her poetry and short fiction were enjoyed by me, and I finally picked up her novel for a Science Fiction class.
Looking at the world as it is today, and knowing a little about history, makes me optimistic about how the oppressed sections of humanity are treated. Women’s position in the world has changed for the better in the last 50 years or so, even if the India is slow to change. However, it cannot be ignored that the transition that happened in Afghanistan after the strict regime of the Taliban, did happen. Under the strain of religious fanaticism, human rights may tend to lose their value. Atwood describes such a world in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It is a description of a world where women are legally reduced to being objects, objects that are only required for their fertile wombs or religiosity. The women are identified (at least the ‘handmaids’) only according the men that they serve. Atwood uses Offred and her memories to create a world that seems unbelievable, but truly might be possible. Offred has had a life before the life that is forced on her. She talks of this previous life often, and it is difficult to believe that a woman who lived a life so free, could submit to one of restriction.
We find Offred craving a cigarette now and again, and we understand that she does not have the liberty to smoke one anymore. What is also important to understand is how Offred’s mind works. She is shown to be envious of the tourists out on the streets wearing clothes she wore as a younger woman (as a handmaid, she is only allowed to wear red clothing which covers her entire body). She tells herself, though, that the pleasure of wearing skirts and short dresses is not worth the torture and injustice that happened against women during the time before the Gilead (the religious regime in control of the United States in the novel). This complacency and rationalisation may seem bizarre, but entirely possible in the face of something like that actually happening. She showcases this behaviour several times in the novel, forcing me to think about my own life choices, and how much I have truly compromised.
To enjoy slight freedom in light of an oppressive world, is an exchange that Offred sub-consciously accepts. This raises the question how much submission we have given into by telling ourselves that we are free. Is the freedom to be able to read a magazine enough to distract her from wanting to not be treated simply like a pair of ovaries?
The question of human behaviour can only be raised when the author is strong enough to assert it. This is most definitely true for Atwood. It seems like the characters that exist in the novel – Offred’s mother (a women’s rights’ activist in her time), Luke and Moira, exist to bring perspective in the story. Offred’s fear for Luke that almost turns into acceptance of his death, Offred’s own passivity against her mother’s agitation, Moira’s aggressiveness and where it leads her, all are symbolic of a larger context for Offred.
The world and the society, as Atwood describes it, is dystopian. There is not regard for individuality or liberty. Men and women who go against the moral code set up by Gilead are brutally murdered and displayed for the world to see. This book will make you think about a lot of things that we take for granted. If nothing, it is a slow broth of poetic language, feelings of an oppressed woman and a scary world.