Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, critic and essayist. She was born in Ottawa in 1939 into a wealthy family. In 1957 she enrolled at university and graduated with honours. Later, she graduated from Radcliffe College, Harvard, with a master’s degree. Her career as a writer will officially begin with the publication of the poetry collection The Circle Game. At the end of the ’60s she published her first novel, The Edible Woman, which was a huge success and was rated by critics as the best novel of the year. In the ’70s Atwood publishes numerous works including novels, collections of poems and all sorts of other books, establishing herself as a writer. In 1985 she published her most famous work, the Handmaid’s Tale, with which she won several awards. About ten years later, she published a historical novel, Alias Grace, inspired by a true story. Finally, with the novel The Blind Assassin, Atwood makes her mastery of being able to manage the most diverse literary genres very clear: the book, in fact, has the characteristics of the Gothic novel, detective story, science fiction and news report.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. In the aftermath of a nuclear war that had devastating effects on the population because of the radiation released, the United States became a totalitarian theocratic regime, the Republic of Gilead. As a result of the war, a large number of women have become infertile and, therefore, the birth rate has fallen dramatically. The aim of the regime is to tackle this problem, by enslaving the few remaining fertile women for reproductive purposes, and by re-establishing order through strict rules and inhumane punishments.
Society in the Republic of Gilead is divided as follows: the Commanders detain power and set the rules; they have the right to their legitimate wife, often infertile, and to a Handmaid; immediately after the Commanders there are the Angels, namely the soldiers of the regime, followed by the Eyes, namely the members of the Secret Police. Finally, there are the Guardians, who are drivers and waiters. Among the women there are the wives of the Commanders. They are sterile and become mothers through the Handmaids; the Aunts, severe and unscrupulous nuns, are in charge of educating and punishing the Handmaids; then there are the Marthas, or waitresses of the Commanders.
The Handmaids, true protagonists of this story, are the fertile women who are enslaved and assigned to the Commanders for purely reproductive purposes, according to the Genesis passage on which the Republic of Gilead is founded:
Rachel saw that she could not have children for Jacob, and she became jealous of her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”
Jacob became angry with Rachel and asked, “Can I take the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
She said, “Here’s my servant Bilhah. Sleep with her. She can have children for me, and I can build a family for myself through her.” (Genesis 30; 1-3).
The Handmaids study in the Red Centers and are supervised by the Aunts. They are not allowed to keep their first names but are given a new name consisting of the preposition of and the name of the Commander to whom they have been assigned. Finally, there are the Unwomen, namely all those women who are useless for the purposes of procreation, who are deported to the colonies, where they are destined to die.
The story is told by the protagonist herself, the Handmaid Offred. She was captured and taken to the Red Center while trying to escape with her partner Luke and their daughter. The Commander to whom she has been assigned, however, is sterile, and his wife knows it, so, one day, she proposes that Offred have an affair with Nick the guardian and pretend that the baby is Fred’s son. Meanwhile, Fred and Offred start seeing each other in secret, even beyond the set hours, and when the wife finds out about it, she threatens the Handmaid to punish her. In the final part of the story, an Eye Truck will pick her up at the Commander’s house, but it is not revealed whether to take her to the colonies with the Unwomen or to save her.
The novel inspired works of various kinds, including a film in 1990 and a TV series in 2017. The latter, according to critics, is the most successful version: the narrative has remained very faithful to the original work, albeit with some changes due to the time lag between the publication of the novel and the TV series. In the series, for example, technology is very present, just to emphasize that the episodes described by Margaret Atwood could occur even today. Another substantial difference is that the real name of Offred in the book will never be revealed, while in the series, the Handmaid says she’s called June in the first episode; this is both for reasons related to narrative fluidity, and to emphasize the differences between the two “Offred” characters: the book character is a passive woman, subject to the regime, whereas the one in the series is full of anger, nonconformist, rebellious. Even the society is described differently: in the book the protagonists are only white and heterosexual, while the series wanted to portray a more heterogeneous population in order to represent the modern world. In short, everything in the series is more vivid: the characters are angrier, the emotions are stronger, the punishments are harder, and the themes denounced are more explicit.
The Handmaid’s Tale is considered by many to be a feminist novel because of the themes it addresses. Although the genre of the novel is defined as dystopian, unfortunately sometimes a comparison between some aspects of the Republic of Gilead with recent events in the news might be quite accurate. One of the main themes is the political exploitation of women’s bodies: as already mentioned, the Republic of Gilead has a single objective, namely the control of reproduction. To do this, it uses an iron fist, brutally subjecting women and depriving them of their rights all at once: their jobs, their right to read, and to identify themselves with their own names, all in order to prevent them from being independent, and to rebel and boycott the regime. The only aspect worthy of attention and respect is the reproductive apparatus. There are only two types of women in Gilead: women and Unwomen. This latter category includes all those who dare to fight for their identity against the regime, but also women considered “useless” for reproduction, namely homosexuals, sterile, nuns. Although The Handmaid’s Tale is an open criticism of a clearly patriarchal and sexist government, Atwood also points out the similarities between Gilead’s supporters and radical feminists, such as Offred’s mother. Both groups claim to protect women from sexual violence, and both are willing to limit freedom of thought to achieve this goal. Offred at one point in the story, remembers when her mother and other feminists burned pornographic magazines. Just like the founders of Gilead, these feminists forbid certain expressions of sexuality, reminding the reader that there is a dark side to even the most well-meaning feminist rhetoric.
Over the last few years, the work has been used several times as a symbol of the feminist movement: in Texas, Ohio, Argentina, but also in Aosta, Milan and Ferrara, dozens of women have dressed up as handmaids to demonstrate in favour of the law on abortion.
Personally, I find that The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly a feminist work, but not only that. The crimes reported, unfortunately, do not tell anything that has not yet happened, just think of the women made slaves by the Isis, the child brides, Apartheid, the deportation of Jews during Nazism. Therefore, I deemed the work to be overwhelmingly current, and I believe that it is a formidable tool to support the historical memory of all readers.