a review by Nalini Haynes
Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has been on my ‘to be read’ list for two years, ever since the Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe academic conference that preceded AussieCon4 in 2010. This was one of those rare times that high expectations did not lead to disappointment.
Offred is a handmaid in a dystopian society where women have become chattels once again. Not allowed to own property, to work, restricted in their movements, their past-times, wearing clothing not unlike the most restrictive Moslem garb, the greatest risks these women face are insanity, suicide or accusations of misconduct.
Written in a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style, the story unfolds in the present and in flashbacks as Offred, in her boredom or her fear, reflects on her past. These flashbacks are, superficially, in no discernible order other than their emotional relevance to the present tense of the story or their reflection in the build-up to the climax.
Heralded as a great work of feminist speculative fiction and referred to this year by many as ‘a warning not a manual for GoP’, Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Wives whose world is limited to managing households, bearing children and restricted relationships with other Wives. Handmaids are women who have been proven fertile but who are ‘unfit’ to be Wives – perhaps they were de facto or had been in a second marriage – so they are treated like chattel whose sole purpose is to bear children to the wealthy elite. Marthas are housekeepers or servants and econowives are poorer class wives who assume all roles in their households. Each woman knows her place, which is emphasised by mandatory uniforms. Child-bearing of Chrysalis-style ‘real’ babies is the highest achievement for any woman. All blame for sterility and birth defects also resides with the women.
Women’s liberation came so far in the twentieth century but took some steps backwards towards the end of the century and in this new century. I strongly identified with Offred about the loss of her job and her feelings of inadequacy, inequality and being owned that arose as a result. Atwood also exposes toxic dynamics of women’s relationships in this novel in that women are used to control women, the rivalry, the hierarchical structures… Much of this novel is real in the here-and-now, although obviously to a lesser – or less obvious – degree.
Handmaid’s Tale is an iconic work of feminist speculative fiction as real and as relevant today as 1984‘s Big Brother. It’s a must-read for every SF fan because Handmaid’s Tale is an essential formative work from which other works derive or to which other works refer. As a work of feminist literature it’s also essential reading for feminists regardless of their views of SF. The lectures at the Utopias conference inspired me to seek out and read Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not writing an academic thesis on this novel as there are an abundance on the webz already; I’m simply urging all SFF people to read it.