Literature: The Handmaid's Tale
A 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood
set Twenty Minutes into the Future
. A portrait of a Dystopia
The setting is the new Republic of Gilead
, a country which is at war, where the roles of society are firmly defined, and women have no rights — especially not handmaids. Our protagonist is a woman who has been trained to be a handmaid, one who conceives and gives birth on behalf of those who are officially wives. A sharp-eyed reader might catch her name in the first chapter; the rest of us just know her as Offred, the name she uses as long as she's with Fred and his wife. Handmaids don't get permanent names.
She gives a portrait of the society. She can remember before, when women still had rights; her mother was a feminist. She was married, but her husband was married before, which became important. It was a cashless society, so when the US government was overthrown and Republic of Gilead set up, they simply wiped out jobs for women and money for women at the same time. When things started getting more oppressive, she and her fella tried to flee, but she got caught; since she had been "living in sin," as her husband divorced his first wife, hence invalidating his marriage with her according to Christian fundamentalists that took over, she was made a handmaid.
It has been about seven years since then, long enough for seven-year-olds not to remember how it was before. AIDS and R-Strain syphilis have made many people sterile; pregnancies are rare, healthy births even rarer. Women are forbidden to read or write; handmaids must wear red and are forbidden to have peripheral vision. It's a simple job; get pregnant, have a live and unmutated birth, try to get along with the family, repeat as necessary. Three failures without a success, and the handmaid is killed or worse. Offred is with a tough family; the husband is a military man, and the wife (who must wear blue) was a televangelist who used to crusade about women staying at home and being good wives. She is not enjoying her retirement
. There are also two "Marthas" who do all the housekeeping.
Offred befriends another handmaid, Ofglen, and eventually learns that she belongs to a resistance movement
to fight or flee Gilead. She eventually falls head-over-heels with another of its members. Offred enters a second underground through Fred, who is willing to share extra things with her, things normally forbidden to handmaids, to get extra time with her; its motives are less noble however.
Very popular in Anglophone high school English classes, although the confronting adult subject matter leads to a crusade to ban the book every five years or so
Made into a film in 1990 starring the late Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway. You can find it (with German subtitles) here
This book contains examples of:
- Ambiguous Ending: Of Offred's narrative, at least. Is she being spirited away to freedom in Canada, or actually being arrested and led to believe that she's being liberated?
- Artistic License – Biology: No form of pollution fits what's described in the book, and you cannot screw up the oceans that badly without massive repercussions. Though the book does acknowledge that Offred is an Unreliable Narrator as she can only speculate on what she is told, which as a handmaid is not much, and even then is filtered through state-issued propaganda. The Republic of Gilead could be feeding people false information about environmental disasters for all the reader knows.
- As the Good Book Says: Gileadian society is full of it. Notably, the Theme Naming of the grocery shops; the bakery is called Daily Bread (Truth in Television, but it is rather an obvious name), the butcher All Flesh, the florist Lilies of the Field, etc.
- Subverted slightly when Offred recounts how they are told that Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is Biblical (perhaps they believe Acts 2:44-45 inspired it, as some have theorized).
- As You Know: Atwood provides much of the description outside of Offred's perspective through this, whether that be from Aunt Lydia or the historiographers in the far future.
- Baby Factory: How many women are viewed. A Handmaid is considered little more than a womb with two legs.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Serena Joy spent most of her pre-Gilead career as a televangelist promoting "traditional family values" (i.e. women should Stay in the Kitchen and aspire to be Baby-Factories, etc). But now that everything she preached for has been instituted by the Republic of Gilead, she is not so pleased with the new situation. This may be an oblique Take That to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the US on the grounds that it would destroy women's traditional role in the home, but was herself a lawyer who failed to follow this in her own life; Joy could also be based on Tammy Faye Bakker, a similarly conservative televangelist who was known for emoting on TV and crying tears of runny mascara. Offred's monologue invokes this trope:
She must be so disappointed now that they took her at her word.
- Broken Pedestal: When Offred meets Moira at Jezebel's. Prior to this all she knew was that Moira had overcome an Aunt and escaped - she is understandably shaken to find her in her current position, not just because of the role but because she's finally been broken.
- Bury Your Gays: Or rather, "leave your gays hanging on the gibbet as a warning to others." "Gender treachery" in Gilead is punishable by death, along with many other "crimes."
- Canis Latinicus: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" is carved into the closet's wall in Offred's bedroom. She thinks it's a real Latin phrase; later the Commander tells her that it's a fake Latin joke for "don't let the bastards grind you down".
- The Conspiracy: We can assume it's of the Group variety. Why? Well, how else did a group formed by Fundamentalist Christians, The Far Right and anti-pornography activists manage to infiltrate the highest echelons of the pre-Gilead government and military?
- Confirmed in the book with a far-right cabal in the US government known as the Sons of Jacob that plots its takeover.
- The fruits of their plan? The President's Day Massacre: In which The President was assassinated, Congress massacred, the Constitution suspended and martial law declared. In other words, nothing less than the total collapse of the government. Goodbye America, hello Gilead.
- And they blamed it on Muslim terrorists - predating 9/11 and resulting conspiracy theories of an "inside job" by 16 years.
- Color-Coded Characters: Women in Gilead are divided into castes, reflected by the color of robes they wear. Wives wear blue, Daughters wear white, Aunts wear brown, Marthas wear green, and Handmaids wear red. Econowives wear garish multi-color robes to show that they play multiple roles.
- Corrupt Church: The country is run by a new Fundamentalist Christian group fulfilling some of the most extreme fears of what the most extreme Fundamentalist Christians might want to do if they had the power. It was explicitly compared in the book with Iran.
- Crapsack World: Pretty much so.
- Day of the Jackboot: At the time the novel was written, Iran had recently changed from a secular, westernized country into a misogynistic theocracy and Afghanistan was in the process of a similar transformation. It could never happen here, right?
- Distant Finale: The epilogue reveals that the narrative preceding it is being presented at an academic conference some decades later, with its historical authenticity not conclusively established.
- Also a textbook case of Dystopia Is Hard; the fundamentalists got exactly what they asked for, but actually running a brutal theocracy is a hell of a lot harder than founding one. There are already cracks showing a mere seven years after the initial coup... although the epilogue mentions the fact that the society survived long enough that historians have designated the story as falling in the "Early" period.
- Future Imperfect: The epilogue
- Faceless Eye: The Republic's Secret Police are called the Eyes of God, or simply Eyes.
- Female Misogynist: Serena Joy made a living as an advocate before Gilead took over, claiming that women should refrain from taking up careers and fighting for equal rights and instead seek a life of blissful peace in servitude to their husbands. Of course, now that she has (or rather, has been forced into) everything she preached about, she's pissed.
- Fictional Document
- Genre Shift: The emotionally-laden story of Offred is immediately followed by the transcript of a speech given at a future study symposium that clinically dissects the story, dismissing a lot of it as too vague and unreliable as a primary historical source.
- Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: The Handmaids' jobs explicitly involve them having sex with married men. In order to justify this, they're forced to do it in a bizarre ritual designed so that the husband and wife can pretend they're the only people present, and any deviation from this is considered adultery. This creates a dilemma for many Handmaids, as they are liable to be punished for non-conception; however, any attempt to sleep with their Commander under more natural, less stressful conditions, or with somebody else if they fear their Commander is infertile, will put them in danger of an even worse punishment.
- The regime finds Biblical precedent for this in the stories of figures like Jacob or Abraham who impregnated their wives' handmaids when they couldn't have children. Many slave societies did not deem it adultery to have sex with your slave.
- Happiness in Slavery: Some women like the lifestyle of a Handmaid. Others view sexual slavery as a better option.
- Especially true for the Marthas.
- IKEA Erotica: Intentionally invoked to show how passionless, loveless, and chore-like sex has become in Gilead.
Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who's being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he's humming; like a man who has other things on his mind. It's as if he's somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits.
- Ironic Name: Serena Joy, the televangelist who becomes the Commander's wife, whose name becomes ironic when the very things she preaches about comes true and she is forced into retirement because of it (though it turns out that this isn't her real name, but one Offred apparently gave her in the recordings, possibly as a pseudonym that contained a Take That against her less-than joyful or serene manner).
- Jerkass: Selena's not-so-subtle attitude towards Offred.
- Knitting Pregnancy Announcement : Subverted and played with. Serena spends hours knitting scarves with human figures in a motif along the bottom, and Offred comments that these are the only children Serena is making these days. She also hypothesizes that the scarves get sent out, unraveled back into yarn, and re-knitted.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: The epilogue is the transcript of a presentation at an academic conference decades later where it is revealed that the novel you just read is a transcript of tapes Offred recorded as she was being smuggled out of the country.
- Lady in Red: Played with. Most people assume that Handmaids are massive sluts.
- La Résistance
- Literary Allusion Title: The book is named in the fashion of the stories from The Canterbury Tales. In case you didn't figure this out, it's explicitly spelled out in the epilogue.
- Mandatory Motherhood: Played straight in Gilead, because of the fact many high-ranking women are infertile or too old to get pregnant, so going on the Biblical precedent of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, they force "handmaids" to bear a child in their place.
- Note that it is also speculated in-universe (though never openly during Gilead's reign) that in some cases it may be the men who are sterile, but Gilead rejects that possibility on theological grounds. Forcing women into reproductive slavery is almost a reaction to fundamentalist theology running headlong into reality and choosing the bad theology over risking heresy. A creepy doctor who examines the Handmaids for fertility offers to "help out" Offred in case the Commander is the one who's sterile. She rejects him, but later on the Wife has her have sex with their driver for the same reasons.
- Meaningful Name: "The Sons of Jacob", with the name Jacob meaning "supplanter". The far-right group that used this name ended up supplanting the United States government with the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
- No Ending: Subverted immediately by the Literary Agent Hypothesis epilogue that follows on the next page, although Offred's ultimate fate is still ambiguous.
- No Name Given: Our protagonist, and all other handmaids, but if you really read between the lines, her first name is probably June, implied by a line in the first chapter: "We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June". Everyone in the list appears later in the story, except June. And then we consider that June (the month) is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth....
- Although, it's revealed in the first chapter that she has apparently changed the names of the others (Moira, Fred, Nick etc.) to protect her friends remaining in Gilead, so potentially the whole list of names given is made up. Though it could also be an author Easter Egg as the theme of summer is strong in the text.
- Subverted in the 1990 film adaptation, where Offred's name is Kate.
- No-Paper Future
- This is a major plot point as when the Fundamentalists take over, they simply freeze all women's bank accounts so their money is gone, then make it illegal to employ them (Offred mentions having all-electronic money made this easier as well). Then women reading is banned...
- No Woman's Land
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Offred and most other handmaids.
- A few subtle hints in the book lead some to believe it's June.
- In the film adaptation Offred is called Kate.
- Oppressive States of America: It's unclear how much of the former USA constitutes Gilead, but the professor in the epilogue vaguely mentions that the revolution "redrew the map". The story takes place in New England. Some areas, like West Virginia, appear to be in open rebellion.
- Playboy Bunny: Moira wears one of these costumes when she ends up in a brothel. Offred tries and fails to work out why men find the rabbit motif sexy.
- Precision F-Strike: "My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body."
- Punny Name: The location of the convention at the end of the book is Denay, Nunavit—Deny none of it.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Offred wears red, while Serena Joy, who despises her, wears blue.
- Released to Elsewhere: Possibly, with the TV report about the Children of Ham being "resettled" to "national homelands" (a la apartheid South Africa) in North Dakota.
- Also, Jews can convert or go to Israel, most choosing the latter (however, many of the ships carrying them are in fact scuttled at sea).
- Being sent to the Colonies initially sounds like it might be a cushy alternative to living in Gilead proper. Then it's revealed that they're forced labor camps in which people clean up nuclear waste, i.e. a sentence to inevitable, painful death from radiation poisoning.
- Rule 34: Or at least evidence it exists inside Gilead.
- Shout-Out: A few celebrities get shout-outs in the Distant Finale: Elvis Presley, Boy George, and Twisted Sister.
- Slut Shaming: Happens as part of Handmaid training. They encourage the women to confess to sexual activity in their former life (anything outside of procreative sex within marriage now being considered obscene), and then use the information to try to break their spirits. This goes so far as to have a group shaming session for one member who was gang-raped when she was 14 as having "led them on". As if that wasn't bad enough, there's an unspoken implication that they should be ashamed of the job they're currently being forced to do.
- State Sec:
None All are safe under the Eyes of God.
- Stealth Parody: Very few people seem to get the digs Atwood puts in at certain aspects of radical feminism.
- Stealth Pun:
- "Pen Is Envy."
- One of the more mundane discomforts for women in Gilead is that skin lotions and moisturizers are forbidden as vanity products, a microcosm of the general harshness of a life without human comforts. Or to put it another way, there is no balm in Gilead.
- Sterility Plague: Declining fertility rates due to AIDS, "R-Strain Syphilis", and nuclear fallout when the reactors in California melt down from its earthquake is a central theme in both the film and book versions.
- Strange Bedfellows: The anti-pornographic alliance between radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians shown before the United States became Gilead. This undermined them in the end, as their fundamentalist "allies" turned on women in general. This was a then-current pairing in the early 1980s.
- Take That: Atwood includes a mild dig at the concept of cultural relativism used in anthropology research in the Epilogue.
- Earlier in the novel, a group of Japanese tourists are being led around Gilead, looking frankly disbelieving about the whole thing. They ask Offred for a picture; when she hesitates, the tour guide explains they have a different culture. She's actually just afraid of getting into trouble.
- Also against radical feminists for allying against pornography alongside the Christian fundamentalists.
- The Theocracy
- Triang Relations: Practically mandatory in Gilead, at least if the man can afford it, but it had better be the correct triangle.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future
- Unperson: The unwomen.
- Unreliable Narrator: The writer of the epilogue seems to think Offred was one of these.
- She even says "This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction." There's some initial ambiguity as to whether this refers solely to the following scene or to the entire tale, but she goes on to explain in general terms why her recollections can't possibly be complete and accurate.
- The epilogue notes that there's uncertainty as to which of two possible historical figures Fred might have been, and expresses puzzlement over why she didn't tell her story once she got out, assuming she did.