The Handmaid’s Tale

Mayday has a very specific meaning in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985): it is the name given to the underground resistance movement opposing the totalitarian regime  in the Republic of Gilead. Essentially, Mayday is a cry for help : the ‘republic’ is a powerful theocracy that violently oppresses its people, especially its women. Whereas the citizens of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984 are suppressed for political reasons, the people of Gilead are subjugated by a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. 

And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

Genesis, 30:1

The Biblical story of  the childless Rachel involes a compromise:  she instructs Jacob to ‘Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her: and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’ This is the premise that Atwood follows through to its (il)logical extreme : in the futuristic, sterile world of Gilead, infertility is rife.  The ‘handmaids’ of the title are the rare women who have borne children, and so they are  sold as sexual slaves to the Wives and Commanders, the wealthy infertile couples who hold power in this strange society.

The narrator of the story is Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaidens. The other roles available to women in her society are equally unfulfilling: Atwood’s dystopia is a feminist dystopia. The Wives have limited power but no freedom; the Prostitutes service the Commanders’ ‘special needs’; the Marthas cook and clean. All of the women in the novel are treated as nothing more than the chattels of the men who own them.

The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliantly written – and one of the most frightening novels a 21st century woman can read …


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