The first thing you need to know about The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already read it is that it isn’t science fiction. At least not according to Margaret Atwood, the novel’s Canadian-born award-winning author.
Atwood has had to defend her novels from being labelled as ‘science fiction’ on countless occasions. Not that there is anything unbecoming about a book being a member of this genre, but because, to Atwood, her novels – and The Handmaid’s Tale in particular – fall into the category of ‘speculative fiction’, meaning that the events contained within their pages could actually happen.
They might stretch the imagination, but they are ultimately feasible. And that is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so powerful.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a slightly futuristic America, where a sharp decline in fertility rates has culminated in a complete reordering of society, and a reversal of the feminist movement. The United States of America has been overthrown and replaced by the dictatorial Republic of Gilead, which employs a seemingly endless army of Eyes to keep close watch on the citizens – and women in particular.
In this oppressive and violent world, women have been stripped of every human right, enslaved, and labelled according to specific social functions. We see this world through the eyes of Offred, a young Handmaid – one of the lowest social orders – whose sole purpose is now to breed.
As Offred goes about her everyday life under the ownership of her Commander, we catch glimpses of her life before the novel began. We begin to realise that a quiet mutiny against the regime is beginning to brew beneath the surface, and a longing for escape.
The novel was written in the 1980s, when sexual equality was a relatively new phenomenon, and when there were increasingly critical mumblings about the ‘excesses’ of the sexual revolution. In response, The Handmaid’s Tale offered a stark portrait of the consequences of going back to a pre-feminist society.
However you choose to define The Handmaid’s Tale, this peculiar but profound novel sheds a new light on the world around us, and forces us to recognise the importance – and fragility – of freedom.