‘Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.’ Goodreads.com
This is the MOTHER of all dystopian novels – and I’m surprised it took me this long to read, but I’m glad I waited this long somehow. Written in 1986, it centres around Offred, who has somehow, in a new world under military control, been recruited as a ‘Handmaid’, whose only purpose is to procreate for their ‘Wives’, who for some reason cannot procreate themselves with their husbands (or ‘Commanders’). Although a complete fabrication of Atwood’s mind, the story is less about the why’s and how’s of the new world Offred (not her real name) finds herself in, but the struggles of having to be silent, subservient and find comfort in a world that is ready to turn you in at any moment. The world she lives in acts more as a backdrop to her personal and often heart-wrenching stories. She leaps from one period in her life to another, and the fact that you can sense exactly which point in time Atwood is telling her talefrom, at any time, is testament to what an amazing writer she is.
It’s obviously the pioneering dystopian novel, along with 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but not without differences. Offred is different in that she’s not bold like other dissenting protagonists in dystopians, she’s kind of resigned to her new life in the controlling state she lives in. She is more hesitant to digress away from the new world (unlike the Snowman in Oryx and Crake for example)- and usually adheres to what she’s been assigned to do – procreate and be subservient, and it is only when she is ordered to by her superiors that she will break the rules. In her words there is ‘comfort in ritual’, referring to her mundane tasks as a Handmaid such as walking, shopping, clad in her red robes, and she gets intense pleasure from even tiny acts of subversion, such as hiding a match under her mattress.
However, Offred still retains the qualities that make her relatable to a reader, such as her need to have a meaningful human relationship however taboo it may be, exactly like Winston in 1984. If you think about it, the two novels are extremely similar in the characteristics of their protagonists. I loved Offred so much as a character and one of the few criticisms I have of the book is that it is way too short and it ends way too abruptly. So much more could have been explored in this world and it would have been equally as gripping. Atwood also manages to create the perfect imagined world that is also fairly realistic. This is a book that I feel like I need to read again, and I’ve literally just finished it.