“First published in 1986, Atwood’s novel describes an America much different but easily imaginable from today’s democracy. Offred tells her story of life as a Handmaid, in the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy, run by the Sons of Jacob. The birthrate has plummeted and the leaders of Gilead lay the blame on the “sinful” ways of women. Now Offred and other Handmaids are valued only as long as their ovaries are working. They live, one to a household, with their assigned Commander and his wife. Once a day she is allowed to leave the house, meet up with her assigned partner, Ofglen, and walk to the market to shop for food. There all signs have been replaced with pictures, because women are not allowed to read. Once a month, Offred lies on her back for the Ceremony – hoping the Commander will get her pregnant so she can prove her worth.
What I find particularly fascinating – and frightening – about this novel is how very plausible it seems. A little change here, a slightly bigger change there, and before you know it all the freedoms we take for granted are gone. Of course the powers that be insist it is for the good of mankind, that these measures are necessary to build a strong nation. But the realities are different. The powerful are hypocrites, having their Jezebels in their private clubs, and squashing any possibility of protest or revolt.
I was also intrigued by the possessive names of the Handmaids – Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, “Of” the man who is supposed to get her pregnant – nothing more than another item of household furniture, a vessel for his future offspring. But when I first read her name, I didn’t see it as Of-Fred, but as Off-red, and this, too, is symbolic. The handmaids wear red gowns (wives wear blue, Aunts wear brown, Marthas wear green). The red gowns symbolize their place in society – fertile, givers of life. But our narrator’s color is decidedly Off-red, because she remembers “before,” – when she wore sandals and shorts on a hot summer day, when she attended university and was free to think and discuss ideas, when she had a husband and a job and her own money – and these memories fuel her hopes for a chance to leave this existence.
The book’s final chapter is titled Historical Notes and is written as a transcript of a talk given at a conference in 2195. It provides more detail on the society Offred is both part of and removed from – details she could not have known because of the secrecy and censorship of news. It provides a little humor to lessen the impact of Offred’s story, and hope for a better future. I nearly skipped this section, not immediately recognizing it as part of the novel. I’m glad I read it.
I’ll be thinking about this book for a very long time.
umm i think you have the publication year wrong.