The Handmaid's Tale is the reason they tell you not to judge a book by its cover. Nothing, not the cover art, not the blurb, not the recommendations of friends, set me up for what the story I read, even though all were in some way or another accurate. This story is one all its own, so I decided to look at it through the three themes you will surely hear mentioned in relation to The Handmaid's Tale.
Offred lives in a new society where the roles of women are highly regulated and enforceable by law. They wear a uniform dictated by their roles and are permitted only very specific tasks. Marthas take care of the housework, upper class wives bear children and oversee their house, handmaids bear children for wives who are past the age of conceiving and have not had children (there is an environmental undertow here that many are infertile and only one out of four pregnancies delivers a viable child due to nuclear meltdowns, chemical spills and superviruses). The city is lousy with spies and higly patrolled. There are dire consequences for any who refuse or fail at the role they are assigned.
This is all in a near future, however. Unlike Bradbury or Huxley, Atwood is little interested in new technologies. There are no jet cars or baby farms. If anything, at this point it is an alternate history since it was written in the 1980s and does not venture much beyond the technologies of the time. I found it a relief since technology tends to be a distraction for writers from the human story of the novel or even the description of structures that keep them down.
The new government, the new society we see in The Handmaid's Tale is a Christian fanatic sect. The authority of men, the strict observance of chastity until marriage, and the role of the handmaiden are derived from Bible passages and reinforced through "Pray-vaganzas" home bible readings even the language of greetings.
It had to be biblical, how can you talk about sex and gender in America without talking about the bible? Again, this was the 1980s, much closer to the battle over the equal rights amendment and the evangelical congregations leading the charge to keep women in the home. Of course it is a bastardization, the bible is rubik's cube that each church and sect arranges to fit their pleasure. This is why the husband, conveniently "the Commander" by military title in this story, is the only person in the family allowed to read or write and the bible is kept locked away from curious eyes. Which brings us to the main point.
The chorus of internet commentators awakens when I hear this word and I want to explain how this isn't a story of activism, except it is. Of course it is. Because its the woman's voice and a woman's story it is necessarily feminist. Because you can't read a woman's story without thinking about the forces, legal and social, that bear down on them in a society when women still aren't fully represented and their presence in professional setting is still somehow debated.
That said, what makes this story so powerful is not the force with which Atwood makes her points, but fact that she doesn't, that she lets the story tell you what you need to know. It's the story that carries the day, that illustrates what it means to be a woman without freedom, without a society, without ownership of even her own body or identity.
Offred is an imperfect victim/hero, she can be careless and selfish. She does stop fighting at times, she falls in with the crowd sometimes, the belief that you just have to make the best for yourself, and for a while things can seem okay, but there are no happy endings in this world. There is no escape route and that is what brings the story home. We love the heroic escape story, we had presidential candidates talk in a cavalier way about how they would take down a mass shooter if they were ever in that position. But there is no way out. There is no route to success that doesn't cross with sexism, harassment and misogyny and it is not on individual women to have to find their way out, it's on our society to stop enforcing rules meant to keep women out of power.
I was worried this would be just a conceit to tell us how Offred/June lived happily ever after, and I wonder if that is how it started, but instead we got a brilliant satire that deserves it's own post, really. Atwood takes a shot at academia in the form of a lecture nearly 200 years in the future, one in which June's story is completely submerged in the man's game of history. Where she is mentioned it is only as a question of if she existed at all, and how we can determine that. The lecturer jokes about the treatment of women by the Gilead Regime and, naturally, refuses to pass judgement on another culture's behavior or norms, something that turns your stomach after 300 pages of subjugation and horror. The two commanders the lecturer believes could be the "commander" of the story are noted for their brilliance in respectively designing and selling the new order that made women into slaves and pitted them against one another.
Like the rest of the story, it's cold and absurd and cruel and very definitely the way things would go in our world, which is exactly why it is so tragic.