Welcome to The Republic of Gilead.
Where your worst nightmares become reality. Especially if you have a pair of breasts, a barren womb and, God forbid, the audacity to deviate.
Somewhere, some day in the future, within the borders of the country currently known as the United States of America, in a former gymnasium turned into barracks, we meet an unnamed woman who gives us a horrifying account of living in a repressive society that offers her only one function: to breed.
As a result of the revolution launched by a fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob”, after killing the President and the Congress, the “order” in country is restored by way of going back to good, old, “traditional” values. All of which boils down to abolishing the Constitution, introducing extreme religious fanaticism, segregating people into newly created social classes (labeled, surprise surprise, by sex) and limiting human rights. Or should I say, stripping women of any rights whatsoever.
When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.
Our protagonist, introduced as Offred (meaning, she is “of Fred”, belongs to him; the name is nothing more than the description of her function), is a slave, ekhm, a Handmaid, placed in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy. As a “national treasure”, “a two-legged womb”, she had been chosen to bear a child for them, which in a way saved her from even worse scenario of being sent to the Colonies. In an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases someone had come up with a brilliant idea to classify women as either “legitimate”, or “illegitimate” (the category stretches as far as to “unwomen”), depending on their reproductive ability. If you are fertile, you’ll be given the chance to lead a “safe”, monotonous, uneventful life as long as it results in conception. Your every step will be supervised by the old Aunts, who will do what it takes to squash your sexuallity and make sure you do not act contrary to the rules of the life in The Red Center (a re-education center for future Handmaids). That you do not leave your Commander’s home more than once a day. To do shopping. At the market, where there’ll be only pictures, since you’re not allowed to read, so forget about books, magazines – they’re forbidden, buried in the past, for fear of their ‘promising immortality’. From now on, you’ll be your Commander’s property and your duty is to lie on the bed when asked and patiently wait for insemination. And may The Wall with hanged sinners remind you every single day of how powerful Gilead is and what happens to those who dare to rebel against it.
In this dreadful reality, kept under constant surveillance, once a loving – and loved – wife and mother, Offred recalls only glimpses of her past life and slowly loses her senses. She describes how she and other women, those belonging to the lower classes “have learned to see the world in gasps”. How the memories of her husband and daughter fade away and how desperately she clings to the remains of the old, happy, days. How each movement, each word, each furtive glance has to be controlled, for fear of the omnipresent Eye. How any trace of feelings like love, emotional attachment is unwelcome and eradicated. Finally, how the sexual act (I should better use the word coitus) is deprived of intimacy and its function is merely to ensure procreation (“I remember Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter Close your eyes and think of England. But this is not England”).
The narrative of the story is somehow jumbled and shifts back and forth, describing the lot of Offred and other Handmaids, like Offglen or Moira, the protagonist’s unusual relationship with Fred (their secret meetings, playing Scrabbles) and his wife, Serena, at some point also with their chauffeur Nick and how she gets involvement with a resistance movement Mayday (“(…) French, from M’aidez. Help me.”). Brainwashed, she confesses and excuses herself for her “bad” behaviour resulting from a desperate need to break free, for the only glimpse of hope that is given to her when she starts sexual relations with Nick (increasing her chances of getting pregnant, which seems impossible to happen with the allegedly infertile Commander). Despite being rather an ambiguous figure (was he really a part of the resistance or a party loyalist, serving The Eye?) Nick promises her a chance to flee. However, as terrible, appalling even, as may seem the scenes from the dull, hard life of women O that Offred evokes, it is in the “Night” parts, when we get the most touching and striking fragments, revealing her deepest fears, the overwhelming feeling of being transparent, white, flat, thin; marked like a cattle with a tattoo on her ankle (four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse). We feel the excruciating pain of a mother who lost her daughter and trust me, even as a diehard “unwoman”, not easily moved by poignant stories, whose very last desire would be to have a child, I was reading about her futile attempts to get any information about the lost family with a tight throat. At the very end we do not know what happened to Offred, since the author opted for an open-ending, the choice of which I second, contrary to many disappointed readers. The novel closed with the epilogue from the year 2159 (after the fall of The Republic of Gilead) in a form of an university lecture given by Professor Pieixoto, the co-discoverer of Offred’s tapes and it’s a true cherry on top, shedding a completely different light on the whole story and its credibility – I’ll not reveal more, just read the book and let’s both adopt this slightly ironic smirk.
Did I like Margaret Atwood’s work? Yes, and immensely, even though I have some difficulty explaining why, exactly. It just happens so with the books that for some reasons engross me and impress me. Of course the novel has its flaws, for instance, the reasons behind the rebellion and the rapid changes that seem to have happened overnight, leading to the new “order”, are not well explained, neither is the functioning of the whole system explored in depth. (And then, suddenly and much to my surprise, comes the quote: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Sensing a bit of incongruency here, Margaret). Some of the characters are just present and not developed, but this is quite understandable, as it is supposed to be a one-woman story. In this, the author does not fail and she managed to create a protagonist with whom the reader feels a special bound and can truly relate to her feelings. I only wished for her to be less, hm, insipid and more active, but hey, after all she handled all this tragic fate fairly well. Atwood’s writing style is also an asset, however, it wasn’t always easy to keep track of the events, it all seemed a bit chaotic, but you can blame it on my reading the book in chunks, while traveling and a total lack of focus
Many people claim that the world described by Atwood is our reality nowadays. While it strikes me that it was written so long ago as in 1985 (yep, exactly one year after the famous Orwell’s dystopian vision was supposed to materialize) and yet seems so topical that it will no longer shock a present-day reader (we’ve all seen it happen, you’ll say), I dare to disagree that the distorted reality of living in Gilead represents the world surrounding us. I mean, come on, all the feminists crusades, human rights movements, they’ve fought and achieved enough to assure women that they’ll be treated as legitimate members of a society. We have the right to vote, to work and earn our own money, to love, get married or to have no strings attached sex, to decide whether we want to have babies (even if there’s a prevailing pressure to follow the traditional model of the family… blah, blah, blah). We are not forced to clothe a long, red robe that will not reveal even a glimpse of a slender, so tempting an ankle and renounce our sexuality – rather the opposite. Ours is not a society driven by the importance of procreation, but rather the pleasures of the flash. What about the Islamic countries and their burkas, you will ask? Or the totalitarian countries like North Korea? Very well, you’re most probably right, but to me it feels like each person can, and will, perceive the story differently depending on the vantage point – the cultural background, the ongoing political situation in their country and so on and so forth. That is why – and being a completely apolitical person and a rather unaware citizen – I perceive Atwood’s novel as a universal tale that touches upon, first and foremost, the issue of freedom and how easily it can be taken away. Needless to say, it perfectly depicts the fragility of human mind, so susceptible to manipulation and subjugation.
All in all, finally a 5-star read after a long time and definitely to be re-read in the future. And now off to see the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale: the tv series created by Hulu. The expectations are high and the curiosity even bigger, but I’ve heard only praises so far – let’s see!
Oh, and I forgot. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
My rating: 5/5 stars.
Read in: English
Format: Kindle/ Paperback
Date read: August 2017
PS: I’m more and more into dystopian fiction, so far I’ve read only Orwell, Huxley, Ishiguro and Suzanne Collins, so any recommendations you might have are much appreciated!