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A tale of the past, present, and future— The Handmaid’s Tale

Book introduction

The book is set in the future where the United States is taken over by the Republic of Gilead. Under the regime, women and men live under horror and bizarre consequences, and women are especially demoralized to birth-giving machines. The book is fascinating and written brilliantly. The unique point of view and narration also spark great discourse on feminism and women’s voices in literature.

Book recommendation

A dystopian and feminist fiction, the book is delicately written, funny, horrifying, and intriguing. It is highly recommended for readers who enjoyed 1984 and other dystopian novels. The book brings its dystopian nature to a new level by focusing on women’s future based on present tendencies.

Rating: 4.9/5

A Tale of the past, present, and future

book review of The Handmaid’s Tale

Most dystopian novels are books of the future: they deal with imaginative characters and societies and extends creativity to the far future, where things are unlikely to happen in the current world we live in (even though many dystopias are actually based on the present world). The Handmaid’s Tale, a brilliant book written by Margaret Atwood, however, is not only a dystopian and feminist novel of the future, but is a tale of the past and present. As a dystopian feminist novel, the book is based on historical events of the past, which laid the foundation of Gilead, a monotheocracyregime (religion-based society); the book is also highly relevant to our present world as it deals with modern issues, such as feminism, equality, birth control, pollution, etc.

The author refuses to categorize the book as science fiction, a genre where books are based on things that are not present in the world, such as time machines, transfer portals, and other highly advanced technologies and imaginative forces. Instead, Atwood believes that The Handmaid’s Tale embodies the definition of speculative fiction: the book is based upon existing things–it is of the past and present, but it also extends to the future. 

The book is a dystopian novel, meaning that it creates an imaginative world that reminds us of the resilience of humanity and the blessedness of our current world. However, what makes the book so unique and meaningful is the fact that the envisioned world is actually a possible outcome of society based on history and our modern world. The contradiction between the dystopian nature and the realism (can be reflected by the historical reference of the rituals, ceremonies, social norms of the Gilead regime) is the further testimony that the book is for the past, present, and future, and it provides the audience with unique perspectives into the definition of feminism and women’s rights in the modern world.

While it might purport to be contradictory to claim a dystopian novel historical, most dystopian novels are actually based on some historical events and facts. For instance, George Orwell’s 1984 is inspired by the Russian totalitarian government. The Handmaid’s Tale, as acknowledged by Atwood, is based on many historical precedents that include New Jersey Handmaidens (the reference of the name “handmaids”), the Romanian “decree 770” that outlawed abortion and contraception, the concept of theonomy, witchpersecution, slavery, and other Biblical references.

History repeats itself, and with progress, there is also degradation. There are interesting similarities between the Gilead regime and the world two hundred years ago, where the triangle trade was encouraged. Both slaves and handmaids were dehumanized and demoralized into animals, both of whom lost their real names and identities, but are instead given names that declare their identities as possessions of white men (in The Handmaid’s Tale, all handmaids are named by “of” and the name of the commander, and names included “Offred”, “Ofglen, and “Ofwarren”). Moreover, the slaves and handmaids also lost their right to literacy and are forced to separate from families (both enslaved women and handmaids are forced to discard their children to the hands of others).

The concepts of past, present, and future are interconnecting in the book. Atwood establishes the Gilead regime, a world built upon various historical facts that we are familiar with; the relevance to the present of the book, including the discussion of sex, gender, feminism, freedom, sexuality, and humanity closes down the gap between a speculative fiction (and fancy) and reality.

From the reason behind the decrease of birth rate to the brutal society that seeks to solve the problem of low birth rate, readers can find traces in our current world that lead to the one possibility of Gilead. The low birth rate, according to Atwood, is a result of pollution and environmental unfriendliness. In our world, there are already signs of ongoing pollution and a possible outcome of climate change in the near future. Our aggravating environment has already become a sign of the start of the dreadful prophecy. As readers are shocked by the Gilead monotheocracy regime, they also need to become more aware of sustainability issues, which are the cause of the horrific dystopia.

Besides pollution and sustainability, the book has a close-knit relationship to the present in the sense that it pertains to the ongoing debate surrounding women, gender roles, job markets, homosexuality, women’s rights and birth control, and idealism (including the basic human rights of independence, freedom, and control over one’s body).

In the book, Atwood questions women’s many basic human rights that are still under discourse today. 

One of the discussions is women’s bodies. In the book, Offrednarrates, “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” Although the gender norm that connects women closely to their human flesh has been challenged in the past years, the remnant of such norm is still present in society, where many women, instead of owning their bodies, become controlled by their bodies.

The completely dehumanized system and handmaids also raise question on what makes women, an important half of society, equal to men. Offred, the protagonist values freedom and independence over anything else. Even opening her palm under the sun gives her a sense of liberty and empowers her. The character says, ” I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.”

The Gilead rule reduces Offred from an independent working woman to a handmaid, whose own existence is justified by the ability to give birth. In the book, Atwood goes back to the present day contention of women in the work place. The discussion goes back to Gilman’s Women and Economics essay where the author discusses the absurd relationship between women’s status and domestic obligations: because women were “unworthy” to sustain themselves economically, they had to pay their husbands by subjecting themselves to household duties. In the book, the author brings up a similar case where women’s status is lowered (and even the fact that they become birth-giving machines) when they no longer work. Even with Offred’s beloved husband Luke, the protagonist feels that “something had shifted” and feels “shruken” and “small as a doll”. As soon as she lost her job, she realizes that “we are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his. Unworthy, unjust, untrue.”

Throughout the book, many of Atwood’s arguments about women’s deserving rights can still be found in today’s conversations about femininity and gender expectations. From creating a world in our future, she links the topics of feminism back to the past and present.

Finally, as a dystopian novel, the imaginative tale is set in the future. Like most dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale carried the existing tendencies of the present to their logical yet dreadful conclusions. Under the regime, women are completely dehumanized and are at loss of freedom. Even though society has not yet developed into such a horrific world, the book is the most convincing warning against a religious regime where the only purpose of women’s existence is to continue the absurd cycle of giving birth.

Based on the past, set in the future, about the present, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story that sparks conversation of feminism and gender roles. The dystopian feminist novel goes beyond the boundary of time and tells a great tale of what it means to be women and what it means to be human.

Date: 12/23/19

Information: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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