Margaret Atwood stated that her 1985 novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is not a work of science fiction but of speculative fiction. However, since it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was nominated for the Prometheus Award and many science fiction fans appreciate the novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is today’s Throwback Thursday, a column where ScienceFiction.com looks at classic examples of science fiction.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ takes place in a dystopian future in the Republic of Gilead, a dictatorship that was once the United States. Women have lost all liberties and are divided into classes with specific functions and dress codes. The protagonist is a Handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to bear children for the ruling class of men known as the Commanders of the Faithful and their mates known as Wives. Each handmaid is assigned to a specific Commander and Wife and must wear a red habit with a headdress that has white wings. The Handmaid must participate in a ritual known as “The Ceremony” where she lies on the Wife while the Commander engages in sexual intercourse with her.
Throughout the novel, our protagonist named Offred (literally “Of Fred”) describes her current life of enslavement with flashbacks from her former life, the country’s transition to its current state, and her time spent training to be a Handmaid with a class of women known as Aunts. The Commander starts to take a liking to Offred, inviting her to have conversations with him, read or play Scrabble (all of which are forbidden to women). The Commander even takes her to a state-sanctioned brothel where Offred runs into an old friend working as a prostitute. Offred also has a secret agreement with the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, to have an affair with the driver Nick in order to get pregnant, alluding that the Commander is sterile. In exchange, Serena Joy discloses information about Offred’s daughter that was taken away before Offred became a Handmaid.
Earlier this month, Gloria Steinem chose ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as part of her monthly reading recommendation for “Reading Our Way to the Revolution.” Current laws and practices regarding regulating women’s bodies, not just in the United States, are brought up in her discussion with the conclusion, “The bottom line is that men have to control the one thing they don’t have: wombs.”
Without getting political, I think what’s important is that Atwood’s dystopian future has a greater significance than the dystopias in some of the popular YA science fiction stories reaching mass audiences today. Atwood’s dystopia gives us a greater insight into deep-seated fears of what we could become. However the dystopias in some current popular books and movies seem to be used as more of a device to have our heroine meet a boyfriend and do some cool parkour moves. An exception to this trend that I came upon is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “Bitch Planet,” a comic formidable enough to be ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for the 21st century.
I think young readers are smarter than we think. After all, we all had to read ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World‘ in high school, right? Interestingly enough, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ does continue to be challenged in a few school districts, which clearly makes it more enticing to read. What do you think?