Eyes. Fear. Oppression. In Gilead, where Margaret Atwood’s most celebrated dystopian novel takes place, the lives of its inhabitants- specifically that of women- are controlled by a clerical-totalitarian state apparatus. After a natural disaster, most people in Gilead are infertile. Women are held accountable for this situation.
Role of Women in Gilead
The plot of the novel is set in the Republic of Gilead which has overthrown the former U.S. government. With the overthrow of the government, women’s rights such as reproductive rights and their equal participation in society are taken away. The plot is focused on the protagonist Offred whose role is a handmaid. Offred often remembers moments of the past in which she had a husband and a daughter. In Gilead, the model of a totalitarian theocracy limits the lives of women and assigns them a specific position based on a caste-like system. For instance, there are wives of commanders, marthas and handmaids, in descending position within society. Handmaids are forced to give birth by proxy for infertile women of higher social status- the wives of the Commanders. In the supermarket, women can only see pictures of the things they want to buy because they are no longer allowed to read. Women who read books are considered evil and sinful, as opposed to men who still have access to a chosen variety of literature.
Everyday Life in Gilead
Once assigned to a Commander’s household, Offred’s daily life consists of a restrictive set of routines such as shopping, going to the doctor and the so- called ceremony. She may leave the house once a day in company of another handmaid in order to buy food for the household. The conversations between her and the other handmaids consist of utterances that do not make sense to the reader at first. After getting to know the structures in Gilead, however, we understand why even in moments of assumed privacy, the handmaids use biblical phrases such as „Blessed be the fruit“ or „May the Lord open“:
- there is no privacy in Gilead.
- everything is controlled and regulated by the state.
- anyone can be an Eye.
Language of Power and Oppression
What is notable in the novel is the writing style and diction. Offred often writes in stream of consciousness and the events she describes seem disconnected from each other. As we get to know Offred better throughout the narrative, we understand why she tells her story in this manner. Her writing style is a reflection of her inner disruption, a life into which she has been thrown against her own will and in which she is trying to survive. The moments of flashbacks help her to remind herself that she once lived in a different society, that another world is possible.
Further, Margaret Atwood employs certain terms for each role that people are assigned with in Gilead and plays with expressions in order to show that language is also a dimension of power. Like all other handmaids, Offred has the prefix „of“ to her new identity, signifying that she is an object of her commander whose name is Fred. The reader never gets to know her real name in the novel which is why Offred states: „My name is Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden“. Thus, the handmaids in Gilead have no longer agency over their own identity. They are regarded as property of the powerful commanders. Women who have fought for their rights before the overthrow of the government are now referred to as „unwomen“ while babies with disabilities are called „unbabies“.
The Series Adaptation
“I know this must feel so strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not be ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” (Aunt Lydia)
This statement by Aunt Lydia reflects my personal experience of watching the Handmaid’s Tale on screen. I remember the first few episodes where oppression of women, mass state surveillance and violence in the name of Christianity haunted me for hours afterward. I would think and reflect about the actions and talk about them with my friends. Also, I was so frightened by this systematic oppression shown in the TV adaptation that I could not watch any episode on my own. What was more frightening to me, however, was the moment when I realised that I could actually watch all of the episodes without being scared anymore. From one moment to another, I got used to the violence. What I witnessed seemed to me, as Aunt Lydia put it, ordinary.
I do not want to spoil the novel nor the TV series any further. What I would like to add though, is that Margaret Atwood insists to classify the Handmaid’s Tale as speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. She explains science fiction „has monsters and spaceships“ while speculative fiction „could really happen“. The latter is also one of the striking features of both the novel and the TV Series. There is no single event described in the narrative which has not yet happened in human history, which does not happen in our present time or which might not happen again in the future. Looking around at the recent developments in the world in terms of reproductive rights, rise of the right-wing and the climate crisis, one realises that the incidents of the Handmaid’s Tale are (sadly) not far from our own reality at all.
Watching and reading the Handmaid’s Tale made me think of my own reality in the world. What else is out there that seems normal to us because it has been systematically normalised in our society but what should not be considered normal at all if observed from a distance and critically reflected upon? Can you think of examples?
If you want to get a more general overview on the TV series, have a look at its trailer. Also, once you have read the Handmaid’s Tale, the sequel to the novel is also highly recommended and is called The Testaments!