The most harrowing thing that stuck with me when reading this book was how easily women in society were downgraded to nothing but merely possessions. Not only that, but the vivid detail with how it was done resonated with me because truthfully, the very same thing could be done now if the right lunatic came along. There would be nothing we could do to stop it.
That isn’t to say I think it will happen; I don’t. We may have a colourful history when it comes to the royalty and presidents that have made their mark on the world, but I doubt things would ever get this far. I have to, for the sake of my sanity.
The whole story is written from the perspective of Offred, a handmaid who tried to flee with her husband and daughter but regrettably got captured when they tried to escape and they were separated.
The roles of handmaid’s were created in order to re-populate Gilead after a disaster that affected many people. As a result of the exposure to toxins in water infertility afflicted many men and women (though of course you can’t say that about men since they are superior – duh!) Other effects are not immediately present. Some of the remaining fertile women give birth to babies that are unbabies – that is to say that the exposure to toxins in water after said disaster has made mutations common.
Taking inspiration from the Bible – Genesis 30 for anyone curious to know, the roles of the handmaid’s were created to serve as child bearers in place of the wives of the Commanders:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” 2 Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” 3 Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.”
I also want to add at this point that it isn’t purely women that are oppressed in this “modern” society – a lot of men are denied access to a handmaid unless they are of sufficient rank and are therefore denied a family.
Many of you may know that Channel 4 has recently being showing a ten part series in the UK based on the book. As of writing this, I am yet to watch the last episode, because I wanted to finish the book first. To make everybody aware, the TV series is a more embellished version of the book. Some plot lines are exaggerated and some are made up to add to the story. The order of things has also been mixed up. For example, in the book Offred does not attend a salvaging until pretty much right at the end of the book, whereas it happens much earlier on in the series. These little things are slight annoyances to me. Don’t get me wrong; I know they have done it to make things interesting, current and appeal to a wider audience… I get that. I don’t have to like it though.
I think it’s fair to say that despite their differences, they are both enjoyable. It is best to appreciate them separately. Let’s not forget that A Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and there are a lot of differences between society and the readership then and us now. To take one example from the TV series, Ofglen (the original one – the handmaid’s names are based on their “masters”) had a girlfriend back before she was captured and trained to be a handmaid. For conspiring against the society that enslaves her, Ofglen is forced to watch her girlfriend (who is not fertile and therefore expendable) hanged to death. Given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, this is a relevant topic today. I acknowledge at this point it was technically only illegal for men, but as the series is based for the most part around the oppression of women in times where human fertility is dangerously low, you have to work with what you’ve got. This story line wasn’t in the book at all. Ofglen conspired all right, but after she was found out she disappeared entirely, never to be seen again.
It is fair to say that this book is an acquired taste to read… you are either interested in the subject, or you’re not. I tried to read this a couple of years ago, got about a third of the way through and gave up. I hate leaving books unread, but I hate forcing myself through them more – I won’t enjoy it as there is little point. Watching the TV series helped for me. If anyone has watched it and is curious about the book I would recommend giving it a read too. As I said above, there are subtle differences so it’s worth checking out!
Have any of you watched the series or read the book? What did you make of them? I’d love to hear your thoughts!