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abookaweek 2012: week eleven

2012 March 18

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Category: Dystopian / speculative fiction

Story: After a series of nuclear attacks and environmental disasters that have left the overwhelming majority of American women sterile, a totalitarian right-wing Christian regime is ruling the US. Women are used as handmaids (walking wombs), domestic help, or are shipped off to The Colonies to clean up nuclear waste. The Handmaid’s Tale is a retrospective story told by a handmaid (Offred, ‘of Fred’) who lives with an important official, his wife, and their servants. (Also, click here for some beautiful illustrations from a new edition of the book.)

Opinion: Where to start? On a purely superficial level, I found this hard to get into at first, and it never really captured me, thrilled me.

But (and that’s a big but) this is such a clever, important, and gripping story, that it’s hard to put the book down. It has a lot in common with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, not just in the plot and the setting but in that it is completely believable, which makes it all the more frightening. It is an awful story about women being stripped of all rights and freedoms, and being reassigned a new purpose in life, one that fits in neatly with antiquated ideas of women’s functions (giving birth, cleaning and cooking, and looking pretty). The handmaids are completely covered in red clothing with white wings to cover their face, washed clean of an identity. Once a month they have sex with the man they are assigned to, while his wife is present in the room. All of society only has one goal: to produce more children, but only ‘legitimate’ ones.

Atwood has been criticized because she prefers to describe her fiction as ‘speculative’ fiction rather than science fiction or fantasy. Her explanation is valid, though, because, she says, she is merely writing about something that hasn’t happened yet, but which could happen at any moment. The particular ‘possible future’ described in The Handmaid’s Tale has never been more relevant, to me anyway, than right now. The run-up to the US presidential election has made it clear just how moronic some most of the Republican Party’s candidates are, and how far they will go to control women, and to limit their freedoms. Bills are being passed left and right that restrict women from getting birth control and having abortions* or that impose ludicrous regulations on women who do choose to have an abortion.

Annalee Newitz wrote an article about this that delves deeper into the question of what stories like The Handmaid’s Tale can tell us about the future of our own reproductive rights, and I urge you to read it. And not vote Republican.

In the words of state senator Judy Eason McIntyre:


* Even when not terminating the pregnancy could kill the mother. Think about that.

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