“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.”
With these words, the author weaves a powerful connection between Offred’s story, her readers, her lost family and her inner state of being. It tells volumes about what it is to be a woman in a man's world. These words do not tell a story from the past but rather stand as proof of the character’s life as she lives it. The act of telling her story even to an imaginary reader is Offred’s rebellion against a society that actively seeks to silence women.
The Handmaid’s Tale, an acclaimed dystopian novel by famed Canadian author Magaret Attwood is set in the near future where a theocratic and totalitarian Christian fundamentalist regime has replaced the former United States as a response to a fertility crisis that aims to subjugate women and turn them into mere uteruses alive for the sole purpose of child bearing. Offred stripped of her identity and incorporated into this regime as a Handmaid; tells the story of her daily life. Published in 1985, Attwoods dystopian world continues to be relevant, it continues to resonate with the lived experiences of women across the globe. One can almost say that The Handmaid's Tale is an exaggerated version of women’s lives across the millennia.
The feminist movement since many years has activelycampaigned against the bioethical concerns related to reproductive advances in the field of science and its possible commercialization. The viewing of women's bodies as political or scientific instruments is so expertly depicted in the novel. Women in this new regime; the Republic of Gilead are reduced to their fertility; Offred in one of the key scenes lies in the bath and reflects that, in the old world she had always viewed her body as an instrument of her desires but now she is just a pair of ovaries and a womb that must be filled in order for her to survive. Gilead seeks to strip women of their individuality and their identity and make them docile carriers of the next generation. Even Offred’s name is not her own-Handmaid names consist of the word “of” followed by the name of the Handmaid’s Commander. For as long as one can remember, in the real world one of the key ways of acquiring women's subservience has always been targeting their reproductive capability. Women for generations have been led to believe that the only greatest achievement of their lives is to bear a child. Also via the institution of marriage, men have expertly taken away women's identities and psychologically manipulated them into believing and even propagating their own subjugation for generations. This is also one of the key messages Attwood indirectly delivers; that the children particularly female children born in Gilead will not be rebels, will not question the regime, they will not be aware of their oppression. And this is such a big revelation because it is what has actually happened with the womenfolk. It is only recently that women are starting to come into their conscience.
But The Handmaid's Tale is not only about Offred. It is also about Aunt Lydia, Moira, and Serena Joy. All women in their respective positions have their own tales of survival. What binds them together is their complacency and its varied causes. Offred though living through the most horrible conditions does not actively rebel, she seeks compensation in her affair with Nick. Aunt Lydia acts as willing agents of the Gileadean state and this is her way of surviving even if one might condemn the horrible profession. On the other hand, we find Serena Joy who has no power in the world of men yet she seeks compensation in the authority she is able to exercise in her household. What really stands out is that Attwood condemns these women for their complacency yet at the same time, we the readers understand her bleak message that even if these characters mustered strength and rebelled against the state it would make little difference.
The novel explores the ways in which ordinary people become complicit in appalling acts of a totalitarian regime and Attwoods story despite being dynamic is skillfully written in a simple language that connects the reader to the character at a ground level. This International Women’s Day, if I had to make a book recommendation, this would definitely be it. Margaret Attwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that will make one ponder the gender inequalities that continue to exist today; 36 years after the novel was first published.