The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1985), is an account of a woman’s life in a world deprived of the expression of individuality and personal desires. It chronicles what Offered, the protagonist, endures while subjugated to servitude in Gilead.
Gilead is a dying Orwellian world. Birthrates are falling for some unknown reason. All societal institutions have become narrowed with a religious fervor for two purposes — procreation and perpetual war.
While Offred exists for procreation, she quickly realizes that compassion, empathy and affection are missing.
…nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere.
Offred’s diary drops readers into this world of no artistic freedom, no deviation from the party line, no diversity of ideas, and no dignity for its citizens.
Since The Handmaid’s Tale is premised on men having control over women, the following passage is telling:
You will never be subject to the temptation for feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. It’s difficult to resist, believe me. But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
From time to time, Offred’s self-talk and reminiscences about her former husband Luke and daughter reveal that her individuality is not lost. She fights, first in her mind, then directly, to keep her identity intact. She refuses to surrender what no rule or decree or institution or government agency could erase — her thoughts and imagination.
However, to prevent a citizen from acting on personal beliefs or ideas, the State uses the most primitive instinct human beings have — the fear of certain death (to be hung on The Wall). Though the option to commit suicide — a uniquely human ability — remains a choice.
Offred’s perceptions, dreams and memories give readers a steady sense of the most complicated human attribute — the want of self-determination, knotted into the advantages of social interaction.
So after Offred has a conversation with The Commander about the human race, he responds:
…everyone’s human after all. I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, what does that mean? It means you can’t cheat Nature, he says.
Their conversation digs into the purpose of Gilead. The Commander, loyal to the State, asserts his truth, while Offred questions it:
We thought we could do better. Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better? Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a long, somber and melancholy account of a community that has extinguished loving relationships and the connection between family and happiness. The community has eliminated the importance of empathy. The book is, ultimately, a story about the haves and have-nots as well as a story about how the powerful dominate the powerless.
The powerless Offred struggles against Gilead’s powerful dystopia. She gains the slimmest control first by satisfying The Commander’s need for socialization, then by going through the motions of having an intimate relationship with The Commander’s driver, Nick.
A government this controlling may be unthinkable, yet there are many examples of totalitarian societies today. To name a few contemporary examples: prisons everywhere, Isis and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and, if we aren’t careful, the United States of America in the future.
Juan’s Book Review