Author: Margaret Attword
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
After an attack wipes out most of the United States government, the Republic of Gilead is formed. Now the northeastern coast of the United States is controlled by a group of religious fanatics, and men have lost many of their rights, and women even more. Disease has made conception difficult, and now most women are valued for their ovaries. Offred is one of these valued women, and as a Handmaid, her daily routines are strictly controlled. As Offred dreams of her past before Gilead's conception, she hopes to one day regain her freedom.
The Handmaid's Tale is written in a series of short sections that are broken down into smaller chapters, which are in turn broken down into many sections separated by page breaks. In short, there are a lot of breaks and quick changes that changes where the characters are at physically or where they're at mentally. The assortment of short sections creates the effect of a broken mind.
Offred's narration takes place mostly in three distinct time periods: the present, her training during the early days of Gilead, and in the more distant past during the events that led to the fall of the United States. In the present, Offred is serving a commander and his wife along with a handful of other women. As Handmaid, Offred is required to have sex with the commander once a month. The ritual which is described in detail, is as creepy as creepy gets, since the Commander's wife also takes part, and because everyone involved would rather not have to perform it. Offred also begins to take part in activities that are considered illegal, as she slowly begins to rediscover herself.
In the early days of Gilead, Attwood explains all the new restrictions placed on society, along with all the various roles that women will have to play. Offred also reunites with her best friend from college, Moira. While Offred finds herself lacking the courage to stand up to the new order, Moira doesn't. In the distant past, Offred makes vague allusions to her true name, not the one Gilead gave to her. She remembers her young daughter, and her husband Luke, and hopes that they're still alive.
The future Attwood describes, especially for women, isn't too far a reality of what it is to be a women in certain countries in our present day world. The punishments for breaking rules are oftentimes severe, and of course very public. And everyone lives in fear of the white vans that show up, taking people away never to be seen again. With a well crafted world, and a great set of characters to boot, I found myself enjoying Atwood's prose more than anything else. This is a really well written novel.
The Handmaid's Tale is worthy of comparison to literary fiction's other two major dystopian science fiction novels, 1984 and Brave New World. It's focus on gender oppression should resonate with everyone, and it should serve as a warning to the dangers of fanatical religious belief.