Even those people in my book club who were put off by the perception that this book was science fiction found it not just readable but impossible to put down. I first read it twenty years ago, and wondered if I would still find it as terrifyingly plausible as I did then.
The answer is yes. Even more so.
Offred is the handmaid in this story and gives a first-person account of her life under the Gilead regime, a political and cultural system put in place ten years previously, a system which is quite simply the logical extension of what the neo-conservatives and religious right of today say they want: a “return” to the “good old days” when rich and powerful white men ruled with Bibles in hand, and women and minorities knew their place.
In a world where fertility rates have fallen disastrously low due to pollution, epidemics and a nuclear meltdown or two, babies and the ability to make them are prized above everything else. The only roles open to women are wife, housekeeper and baby-maker. The baby-makers are the handmaids, fertile women such as Offred who are given to powerful men to bear their babies, who are then given to the wives to rear as their own. Women are not allowed to hold jobs, attend school, manage money, even read or write. They must wear long loose robes, color-coded for their role—burkas, anyone?—and infractions draw drastic punishments: for a third offense of writing, a woman’s hand is cut off; enemies of the state are publicly hanged. Laws are based on the Bible, hence the servant women are called Marthas, and the handmaids are justified by the story of Jacob and Rachel.
As Offred describes her days and nights in what is obviously Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found myself wondering why she and others seemed to have accepted these changes so passively. After all, she still remembers her previous life and longs for the husband and child who have been taken from her. Yet, when she sees Japanese tourists on the street dressed in skirts and hose, she is shocked by how naked they look. How could she have become so accustomed to the Gilead culture, in just ten years? Then, as I was filling up my car at the gas station, I realised that it has only been a handful of years since gas prices tripled, creating huge profits for the gas companies. Yet in these few short years people—including myself—have come to accept these price increases, even if it is a grumbling acquiescence.
As Offred recounts the events leading up to the coup that created Gilead, I was reminded of Nazi Germany and the way people tolerated infringements of liberties of others until finally it was too late to protest the loss of their own freedom. There were many other echoes of past—and present!—times, such as the Puritans’ approach to justice, making everything just that much more believable. In a recent interview, Atwood said that there is nothing in this book that has not happened in some culture at some point in history.
I was shocked by how powerless this one woman was to prevent her life from imploding along with her cultural world. Yet there was nothing she could have done, save perhaps try sooner to escape to Canada. The book forced me to reflect on my own powerlessness and the precarious nature of the gains we have made. In my all-girls high school, the curriculum included only the most basic math and science because girls’ brains, of course, couldn’t handle such things. Twenty years ago, as an engineer I sat in a smoky office full of chain-smokers, watching unskilled men get promoted over me. We have come a long way, but we could lose it—and more—in an instant if we are not vigilant, if we don’t speak up.