After a staged attack that killed the President of the United States and most of Congress, a radical political group called the “Sons of Jacob” uses theonomic ideology to launch a revolution. The US constitution is suspended and a new radical group rose to power that works on the interpretation of old testaments and put a severe limitation on people’s rights, especially those of women. Offred, our protagonist, is one such woman stacked between the growing new regime and one of the pasts where women are brutally subjugated.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”

Written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic dystopian novel. Utopian and dystopian fiction are genres of writing that specify speculative fiction which is not entirely fiction but rather a possible consequence of today’s actions. It explores social and political structures portraying a setting that agrees with the author’s ethos, having various attributes of another reality intended to appeal to readers.

First published in 1985, the plot is set in a near-future of Cambridge Massachusetts, in a strongly patriarchal, white supremacist, totalitarian theonomic state, known as the Republic of Gilead. In this new ruling class of Gilead, women are stripped of their basic rights and are thrown into deep unassertive male chauvinism. Cambridge itself has a history where it has been ruled by theocratic Puritans. As Atwood studies Puritans for several years at Harvard, it isn’t surprising that her Republic of Gilead resembles the Puritans in many ways like rigid moral codes and regulations of people’s lives.

The Handmaid's Tale

Though there are several reasons why I loved ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, here are a few to make it to your priority list!

Ever since the Hulu series started, many people are interested in reading the novel, and surprisingly despite being written back in the 1980s, the novel is much more relevant to today’s time. The content and theme of Atwood vividly disclose facts over emotion. Even the protagonist’s real name other than Offred is not disclosed.

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Offred was a name given to her when the authorities declared her new identity as a Handmaid based on the name of the man she has been assigned to. Offred could be perceived as Offered because in a way she was offered to the man for childbearing. Before the rise of “Sons of Jacob”, Offred had a real identity, family, and name but that identity of her was never disclosed. This suggests a very important aspect as Atwood describes the role of women in society in an extremely prejudiced world.

In this new world, sensuality is stifled in reaction to “the old testaments”, when promiscuity and pornography prevailed like never before. Because Offred was one among few fertile women, she was given the title of Handmaid that produce offspring for the commanders. Apart from Handmaids, other women were also classified socially- ranked highest to lowest. The Commanders’ Wives in teal blue; the Handmaids in burgundy with large white bonnets to be easily seen; the Aunts (who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids) in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids possibly sterile women past child-bearing years) in green; and Econowives (the wives of lower-ranking men who handle everything in the domestic sphere) in blue.

The Handmaid's Tale

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

One of the striking beauties of the book is that Atwood never put anything in the book that hadn’t already occurred in real life. Be it slavery, polygamy, child abductions of women exploitation, all were driven by actual events that had happened throughout the past. Thus, the book being dystopian fiction is not actually fiction but rather inspired by actual events.

The most important reason why one needs to read The Handmaid’s Tale is that it’s full of eerie parallels to our present reality as well as a warning about what could happen if we get too comfortable thinking that the hard-won rights, especially rights for women will never be lost. Things could always change and change is never spontaneous, it takes time and that time is exactly what will define the course of the future.

Does Offred ever escape her circumstances? That is something left ambiguous by Atwood who brilliantly left the book at a cliff-hanger that does not clarify the reality of the situation. The hidden theme of the book is ‘double’ and that is what defines the beauty of The Handmaid’s Tale.  

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