I remember the first time I had read The Handmaid’s Tale — I was twelve, I was at my grandparents’ house in the Philippines, and I had found a beat-up copy amongst my mother’s things. My mother’s books were always forbidden to me, mostly because she read (and still reads) the sort of literature that includes a lot of bodice-ripping, flashing eyes and strong, muscular arms. There was something about the cover of Margaret Atwood’s novel, though, that I couldn’t resist, and for about a week or so, I would sneak-read it whenever I stole a chance. I ended up smuggling the book back to the States with me, buried deep within my T-shirts and shorts.
For me, The Handmaid’s Tale has held up over the years; its dystopian and distant future always makes me think about what we consider to be important and how much of that actually is expendable. The novel, interestingly enough, takes place in Cambridge and Harvard Square, areas I never imagined at age twelve that I would eventually become intimately familiar.
Atwood tells the story of a mother who has been — over the course of a short period of time and an internal war within the United States — separated from her young daughter and husband, who may or may not be dead. She goes through what I suppose could only be called behavioral rehabilitation so that she can learn her new role in society, and what it means to be a handmaid. In the story, some women have somehow become barren, making children especially precious and valuable. The narrator and her equals are used for reproduction; they are the few whose ovaries are still viable, and are allocated to high-ranking members of the military. The narrator is given the name “Offred,” which I always inevitably read as “off-red” even though I now know it is actually intended as “of-Fred,” as in “belonging to Fred.” Fred, as it happens, is the name of the military official to whom Offred is designated, though she refers to him solely as The Commander.
Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is about more than women’s roles in society, though it is incontestably about exactly that. Atwood writes about the power religion holds over us, as well as the multiple meanings behind the word and the act of sex. She writes about motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood, as well as the traps our own minds will set for us during a time of great distress. Told through a mixture of haunting flashbacks and equally disturbing depictions of the novel’s present, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately describes the lengths some women will go through to survive.