An embarrassingly long time ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Handmaid's Tale, with a lovely note and encouraged me to read it. And I planned to do so, and then it fell to the bottom of the "to-read" pile, and languished for quite a long time.
I was not entirely unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood, her poem Variations on the Word Sleep is one of my all-time favorites. And lately I've run into essays and short works that reminded me "really, you ought to just start the effing book."
There should be a word for "things which have been put off for years for a variety of reasons but turn out to be quite speedy and rewarding once you've begun." This is to say, once I started the book I was eager to read the next page, and the next, and so on.
If I had to sum up The Handmaid's Tale, I'd probably say that it's much like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but living in a dystopia that would be all-too-popular with the Focus on the Family set. The government is (to quote Wikipedia) "a racist, homophobic, Christian nativist-derived, theocratic-organized cult." Clearly, this is far-fetched, but stick with me…
There's a rigid caste system in place where men's jobs determine what "quality" of wives and other servants they're entitled to (or not) and women are second-class citizens (or worse), forbidden to read and essentially powerless to make decisions on their own about much of anything. Some women are Wives to powerful men, and enjoy a great deal of status – but still far less than men at the top of the hierarchy. Aunts are sort of like nuns, who train the Handmaids for their role to bear children for Commanders whose wives are infertile. (For reasons not greatly explored in the book, infertility is rampant in Gilead, and so being able to bear children is not a given for most women.)
There are "Econowives" (yes, really – probably my only nitpick with the book, as this seems a little too on-the-nose for even a dystopian future) who are for the lower-caste men, and are expected to do all the duties that men require.
Aside from the Commanders, men may be soldiers (Angels), Eyes (secret police), and a lower caste of soldiers called Guardians. Clearly there are other men, but they're not discussed at length.
Where I see Handmaid's Tale differing substantially from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Atwood's dystopia is only partially a warning about a nightmare future. Gilead is a framework for discussing the relationships between men and women, most specifically the ways in which women are second-class citizens even today. (Or, "even in 1985," which is when the book was first published. But I doubt Atwood would feel society has improved dramatically since Handmaid's Tale was first published.)
When Atwood writes about the imbalance created between the narrator ("Offred" as her post-coup name, and possibly "June," though it's never clearly stated in the novel) and her husband when the military coup begins, and all of the women are forced out of jobs, it's not hard to imagine that many women feel as the narrator feels: "He doesn't mind this, I thought. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."
Then, of course, there's the relationship between Offred and The Commander. Clearly, The Commander sees himself as a kindly figure who offers Offred diversions and perks that she's not supposed to enjoy, while his Wife ("Serena Joy") is oblivious. Imagine The Commander as a Don Draper type, lacking impulse control and taking risks with women that are socially damaging for the mistresses and emotionally damaging for his wife. (Not that Offred or Serena Joy are portrayed as entirely sympathetic, either.)
The book also serves as a critique of anti-feminist backlash from women themselves. Serena Joy seems to be a stand-in for the women on the religious right who have opposed women's issues since the mid-70s. (Or before, but I dimly recall the movement gathering steam in the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s. Maybe that's just because I was gathering steam in the mid-to-late 70s myself…)
The book begins In Media Res and it takes some time to become oriented in the setting. While I enjoy Atwood's theme, plot, and ideas, her raw skill at writing should not be overlooked either. I expect Atwood could write a book on the exciting world of income tax preparation and make it interesting. (All the same, I'm perfectly content that she doesn't.)
I strongly suspect that I'll be reading The Handmaid's Tale more than once, and will be picking up much more of Atwood's work soon. My only regret here is that I waited so long to actually pick this one up…