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The Handmaids Tale

Margaret Atwood

First published in 186

Life as we know it has changed. Women are seen as inferior beings to men and they are ranked. There are the handmaids, whom all other women look down on, the Marthas, who are maids, and the wives. The novel begins with an oppressed handmaid in a training camp, which is really a disused school gym. This is where the girls are educated and taught to abide in an appropriate manner for a handmaid. Throughout the novel there are many flashbacks, which portray to the reader that, these girls once lived a normal life just like us, yet they were suppressed by men and forced into becoming inferior beings.

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The handmaid whom we learn about lives with a Commander. She leads a very restricted life and is not even allowed to walk into town without another handmaid as a chaperone. She is desperate to rebel yet initially too frightened. Another handmaid introduces her to a handmaid secret society and she realises that there are others like her who also want to escape and live as normal people again. Finally the handmaid starts to become more courageous when the Commander begins to see her privately, as such meetings were forbidden. He gives her presents, which she would not normally be allowed and talks to her about their society. Eventually, he smuggles her out of the town and takes her to a brothel, where the women are allowed to drink, smoke, and wear whatever they want. In order to do this, the handmaid has to borrow one of his wifes, (Serena Joys) dresses. Unfortunately, when they return they do not leave the dress as it was found and Serena discovers their affair. This is where the story is left for the handmaid is taken away, presumably to be killed.

In order for a household to have a decent life, the handmaid has to get pregnant. This provides the subplot for this story. Whilst the Commander and the handmaid are having an affair, Serena Joy encourages the handmaid to sleep with Nick, a low ranking Guardian. Once this has been done the handmaid becomes even more adventurous and tries to spend all her free time with him, which is very dangerous. At the end of the novel, we realise that the handmaid was wrong to trust Nick as although he promises her she will be fine, this in itself is not guarantee. We then realise that there is a possibility that Nick is an eye, (a spy) who may have just condemned her to death.

The handmaids wear red robes, the colour of blood. This appears to be symbolic of their fertility. Their robes are long , non-revealing, and have blinkered head dresses to portray to the reader that they are used merely as a way of having babies, and that they are not supposed to be objects of lust or romance.

We realise that the handmaids are merely possessions from their names, i.e. Ofglen, Offred etc. The handmaids never keep the same identity long for as soon as they change families their name changes with them.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although I did find it quite disturbing. Their society changed suddenly from one just like our own to one that suppressed women and used them as slaves, from this I realised that this could easily happen to us and like these women there would be nothing we could do to stop it. The women were treated as animals, this became obvious in the novel when the Japanese tourists thought the women were very curious and wanted to take photographs of them. There were women in the book who had refused to submit to this society and therefore were either banished to a convent of some sort or to a brothel. In many ways this was no better than the lives led by the conventional women as they were still suppressed and trapped. In this novel there were no heroes, and no happy endings.

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