THE HANDMAID’S TALE – BY Margaret Atwood

– P.Jyothi

THE HANDMAID S TALE is a Dystopian Novel written by Margaret Atwood in the year 1985. One of the most talked about novel on Women issues it’s a rare presentation on the plight of woman in a society where dictatorship overrules democracy and where women have been lowered to the status of production machines. Their products are children and it’s the government which chooses which woman has to bed with which man to produce children, and finally these infants are given into the hands of the chosen couple while the woman who gives birth to children is discharged of her duty and is appointed to the same task at another place.  These women who are used to produce children are called the Handmaids. This novel is the tale of a Handmaid who speaks about her life in a society called the Gilead which is formed in the future when the president of the United States is killed and the government is overthrown by a group called Sons of Jacob. They suspend the constitution and take over the power.

In a Gilead society woman has no right to read, write, own property or handle money. Offred is the main character of this novel. It is not her real name but a name given by the authorities before she is trained as a Handmaid. She was living with her husband Luke and a young daughter before the formation of Gilead. One day she goes to work and finds out that all her bank accounts are ceased and she is left with no money. Women are removed from their jobs silently and this explains the situation. Offred makes an attempt to escape the country with her husband and daughter with fake passports but is caught at the border. The family is separated. Her daughter is given into adoption to someone else. Her husband is captured and she has no news about his safety and remains doubtful about his life. She is then sent to a training centre where women captured thus are trained to be handmaids. The women who maintain this centre are called Aunts. They believe in the Gilead and they force these woman trainees to mould themselves as subordinates to men and believe that their only salvation is to produce children to childless couples or men who are old and have wives who cannot become pregnant due to their age factors. 

Gilead is sent to a commander. His wife is Serena Joy who was once a religious preacher and who wanted a society where woman are subjected to strict rules. But when a society of her choice is formed she finds out the harsh reality in such society when she also is subjected to discrimination and is left with no rights as a wife. In Gilead woman are given special uniforms depending on their relationship with men. Handmaids wear Red gowns with long white veils. The wives of commanders wear blue. The aunts who manage the training centers and control women wear brown. The Marthas  are sterile woman who cannot reproduce. They are used for domestic work and are dressed in green. Wives of lower rank men wear dresses with blue, red and green stripes. The young and unmarried girls are dressed in white while widows are dressed in black. In Gilead there are prostitutes also who known as Jezebels and are given  funny costumes. Thus it’s the profession they are put into which decides their attire and they are recognized by the clothes they wear. Women have no choice in clothing, the profession they choose or the life they choose. They are prohibited from using Makeup and things like body lotion too. Woman magazines and fashion articles are totally banned. 

Margaret Atwood, takes the word Handmaid from the Bible story of Rachel where there is a mention of her handmaid Bilhah. Offred therefore serves as a Handmaid to the commander. While she is having sex with him it is also a custom that the commander’s wife is present in the room. The commander and the handmaid have to remain emotionless throughout. The job they are involved in has to look just as an act of procreation and their personal feelings have to be checked and restricted. This is an act which all three of them hate doing but are forced to perform as a duty towards the state. The commander does not enjoy this and yearns for personal touch and communication with Offred. Serena Joy hates sharing Offred  with her husband and has not say on it. Offred  hates herself for being an object of procreation and misses the humane touch in the act.

Offred is allowed to go for shopping for the house. At this time she has to have a companion who is another handmaid from another house. They are not supposed to talk to each other or question each other. During her shopping business she is paired up with another maid called Ofglen. Initially both check each other. As they get used to one another, Offred understands that Ofglen is working for a May day resistance group who are planning to revolt against the government. During their shopping they make it a habit to regularly check the main public ground and  the public wall where people who are caught as revolutionaries are hanged. Both have different reasons for this. Ofglen checks for her revolutionary friends who are caught and hanged while Offred wants to check for her husband Luke. She feels if Luke is not found hanging on the wall of assassination then he should be alive somewhere around. She finds solace each time not finding Luke there and assuming that he is alive somewhere.  It is here they both witness mass hangings. People are allowed to participate in these hangings and are also encouraged to punish the victims in their own way. One day while everyone is punishing a man, who has been caught as a rebel, Ofglen moves into the crowd and smashes his head releasing him from the torture. When Offred questions her about the brutality she says that she knows the man and she killed him to stop him being hurt by everyone and die brutally in public hands. It is then that Offred understands that Ofglen is part of the revolution. But when the spies find it out and they try to arrest her Ofglen commits suicide to escape torture and the next day, Ofglen is replaced by another handmaid silently. Though Offred comes to know what has happened to Ofglen she is left with no other option but to remain silent. 

Offred also has a friend Moira at the hand maid training centre, who is gay and a rebel by nature. She tries to escape from the training centre by hurting an Aunt and wearing her clothes and running away. But though she tries hard to escape and almost succeeds, she is caught and is sent to Jezebel a prostitute home. Offred finds here at this home when she visits the place secretly with her commander. She is saddened to know how things have turn hard in the life of her only friend. What happened to Moira later remains unknown.

The commanders are all old. And therefore  many times they cannot succeed in impregnating a handmaid. But always it’s the woman who is termed sterile and punished. To escape punishment the Handmaids seek the help of doctors who are allowed to meet the handmaids personally for medical checkups. During such routine a doctor who comes for medical assistance proposes to Offred that he can save her from punishment by impregnating her. Offred who is aware of the system wants to be extra cautious and therefore suspects it to be a test and therefore refuses the offer. But when Serena Joy volunteers to help her speaking about her husband’s disability she agrees to the arrangement. Serena chooses her driver Nick for the job and Nick and Offred are allowed to meet in private. Offred is thirsty for love and chooses this as an opportunity to be a little human. She continues her affair with Nick though she knows that she will be killed if the authorities find out about the affair. She is also not sure if Nick is on her side or is a government spy but takes the risk to be a little human and have sex as a woman with a man. She suspects she is pregnant and waits for the medical tests.

Another woman who works as a handmaid in another house becomes pregnant and feels proud and saved. She delivers a baby girl. All the other handmaids witness this delivery and some feel jealous about the Handmaid who finally succeeding in giving birth and proved her worth. The girl is immediately named and separated from the mother. A few days later this Handmaid goes mad when the safety of her girl becomes unknown and after a few such episodes of being separated from children at birth she is not able to take the things naturally and loses her mind. She is regarded useless and is left alone and helpless. What happened to her later also remains a mystery. 

The commander who also wants to have a few human moments with Offred chooses to meet her in secret. Offred agrees to it but is surprised when the commander does not show any interest in sex and chooses to play scrabble and just communicates to her. He likes to talk to her as a companion and also gives her little gifts like a woman’s magazine and hand lotion and enjoys the pleasures she displays by receiving these banned goods. He also thrives for human company and though he is sexually satisfied with his wife, handmaids and jezebels he visits outside, it is for human touch in  a relation he longs for and he cherishes these quiet talks with his Handmaid. It is here that Offred finds out that the handmaid who previously worked for the commander committed suicide in her room unable to cope up with this life. Serena Joy finds out about these brief encounters and blames Offred and immediately Offred is arrested. Though Serena is not behind the arrest, Offred understands that some of her secrets were revealed to the authorities by spies unknown. Nick comes to her with government soldiers and encourages her to go with them and thus save herself. She is still not sure if Nick is on her side or theirs but has no other option than to get arrested. 

The story ends here. The last chapter happens in the year 2095. A few scientists gather together during a conference. Here a professor who has got hold of a few audio tapes which contains Offred s story in her own voice, talks about them, and the Gilead. It appears that the days of Gilead are over and the historians are trying to record the events. The records explain the lives of Handmaids and how the women were treated in Gilead. What happened to Offred remains un known.

Though it’s a Dystopian Novel, the events mentioned in this novel are taking place all over the globe today. Government controlling the wombs of woman and births of children is not a new thing. In 1970 China has declared a nationwide rule where the couples were supposed to have only one child and incentives were given to people who chose to remain childless. People who went against the rule were punished severely. In Old India after the Kalinga war when the population of Men was drastically reduced polygamy was encouraged and women were encouraged to have multiple partners. The pictorial depiction of one woman having sex with many men can be find on the walls of Konark temple and a few others in that area even today.

In 1976 when Left groups in Argentina were overthrown by right groups and military took over the country several thousands of children were kidnapped and given to adoption to many officials of rightist families. Later several children were identified and sent back to their biological parents as adults. And a lot more were still missing. A movie on the same “La  Hstoria Oficial “ made in the year 1985 from Argentina speaks about those days. So the children of families abducted and adopted as it happens to Offred and her child is not fictional but did happen in a country under similar circumstances. Woman used for sexual pleasure forcefully is a common factor in all patriarchal societies. Today’s prostitutes, sex workers, Devadasi’s Jogini’s, in India the Dasi’s of Telangana all were chosen to be sex toys by their feudal bosses. During World War II it is proved that 200,000 women from China, Philippines, Korea were kidnapped and officially used as sex toys for the Japanese soldiers. Japanese government provided this facility to its soldiers to boost up their morale and it was all done secretly. A few of these women after the war left to their countries broken and shattered. A documentary called THE  APOLOGY was made in the year 2016 where three grandmothers who survived the war and were sexually abused by Japanese soldiers told their stories and the matter was taken to the UN and Women from different parts of the world demanded an apology from the Japanese government. The Japanese government remains silent on this issue till today. “I Can Speak” is another Korean movie made in the year 2017 which brings up this issue.

The surrogate mothers of today, and the way Surrogacy is treated and used today on the name of medical invention speaks about the plight of women and their role being restricted to procreation. Many Gay couples have become fathers using this surrogacy and what happens to the woman who accepts to be a surrogate mother and how motherhood is bought and sold also is a point we need to discuss regarding how women are being subjected to accept the role of procreation. The stoning of prisoners, mass killings on the name of honor are not new to us. Women in Afghanistan are not allowed to read or write and girls like Malala are fighting for their rights and all this is happening around us. The Hand maid’s tale is written to be a Dyspotian novel but very much speaks about the plight of women globally around us and discusses various issues regarding women being subjected to be objects of procreation and where their emotions and human instincts are constantly controlled by the ruling parties. This is a novel about the global scenario of woman in today’s world and therefore has to be seriously read and analyzed. The need to understand this novel and the points it brings forward is very much essential in today’s context. It is therefore a must read for every woman who can read and write and a it is an important need to analyze the novel with the current situation. In India with surrogacy being the most sorted market by poor women, there is an urgent need to study and understand this novel today. 


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