What did you do this morning? Hit the snooze button for just five more minutes? Shower? Shave? Make-up? Did you fit breakfast in or did you just poor a cup of strong coffee in your thermal travel mug and hit the road? When you read Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, all the little drudgeries of life suddenly become pleasures.
That’s when you know you’ve got a powerful story in your hands – when it impacts your daily life.
When I skipped breakfast I actually felt privileged, because Offred couldn’t do that. In her world, the world of Gilead so delicately drawn by Attwood, everyone has their set role with its own clearly defined freedoms and restrictions. Offred is a Handmaid and as such cannot decide to skip a meal, she must stay healthy in order to bare children in a world of extreme negative population growth.
Offred does not say ‘mine’ anymore. She has a room, clothes, plenty of food but no life beyond her assigned task of pregnancy. This she has been schooled to accept, as the ‘possession’ of Fred and his wife. She does not have her own name she is simply Of Fred. She cannot choose what she will wear her red summer dress will be replaced by her red winter dress on a certain date and not before. This task will be undertaken by the Marthas – the group of women designated ‘help’. As a handmaid Offred does have certain freedoms; she can walk in the open air to do the household shopping, albeit with the company of another handmaid, they can choose which route to take. She has the freedom of her thoughts and this gives her some control.
‘If this is a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending.’ P49
This self-reflexive extremely close first person point of view colours and constructs the unsettling nature of The Handmaid’s Tale.
From the safety of inside her own head we have her story. We follow her thoughts, although not strictly speaking stream-of-consciousness, as she tells us what she sees, feels and remembers. We jump from distant past, recent past and present with no warning, dropped as we are unprepared into Gilead. It’s disconcerting but purposeful. Our confusion mirrors Offred’s own.
Piece by artful piece we hoard clues in an effort to make sense of this anarchic place and post nuclear devastation time. It is a place of no relationships/friendships/trust. A place tightly controlled where fear and lack of information is used to create and maintain that control. I’ve just watched a doco on North Korea and there were some really scary similarities.
It is broken into 15 sections, the titles of which are a wonderfully clever clue to Offred’s world.
4. Waiting Room
These clipped concise words reflect the abruptness of a world reduced to the bare necessities.
World building is an essential part of Speculative Fiction – for this is most certainly the genre. Attwood’s world building is subtle and ingenious. Using form to reflect meaning she at once unsettles and entices the reader. I could not wait to find out how the world got this way, but I had to wait to chapter 28/46, almost half way through the book. With its Anthropological appendix it is an innovative and compulsive read.
The Handmaid’s Tale, like it’s forerunners; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, Wells’ The Shape of things To Come, presents a dystopian future for our race, one that is eerily plausible. As we watch our civil liberties disappear in a myopia of protectionism, as THEY become ever present in our news-casts, as we become more entangled in the ‘grid’ of surveillance, places like Gilead seem not at all farfetched – which is not good because, as knowledge is power, books are banned there.
my rating: DDG (Drop dead Gorgeous! Go out and get it, put some time aside, you won't be disappointed)