The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Published by Vintage Publishing

THERE are certain books, those considered classics, that are taught for the sake of analysis but in many of these stories there is so much more to see than quotes memorised to write an essay.

For the next couple weeks I want to shine a light on these books and how, even though some time may have passed since their original publication, they remain important for young people today.

Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the more recent classics, originally published in 1985, and is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the popular TV adaptation which has a fifth season about to come out.

While it addresses a lot of sensitive subjects especially regarding sexual trauma and intense misogyny and is therefore more suited for slightly older readers of around 15, it is due to its astute and impactful exploration of these topics that I believe it’s so important.

Set in a haunting future, Gilead, once much of North America, has been turned into strict religious territory that attempts to solve dropping brith rates by harsh control of women. Those who are still fertile are put into the category of Handmaids and are sent to the homes of the rich and childless to be impregnated by the men of these houses for the monied couple to keep and raise as their own.

We are told the story of one of these women, Offred, as she carries out her duties in this new and oppressive world, still haunted by the memories of a life full of freedom. As women are forbidden from reading, writing and most of that which brings any pleasure and comfort in the world, all Offred has left are her thoughts and that is what we read in this excruciating yet gripping examination of extreme patriarchy.

While we only see the full experience of one kind, women in this world are split into categories, The Handmaids are those few women who are still capable of having children for the slightly more privileged Wives who stand at the side of Gilead’s most powerful men, and Marthas, used to complete cooking and cleaning duties.

While these three types of women live in one home they are divided by these strict roles, unable to even find comfort in one another.

It is from this position of complete isolation that Offred chronicles her experience with this new world and her feelings around it, interspersed with recollections of once having a husband and child of her own.

The Handmaid’s Tale creates a detailed and immersive dystopia. The dynamics within Offred’s placement are complex and laced with hole and devastation, a picture that is replicated across Gilead. It is filled with truths, both regulations that have in reality been placed upon women at some time, and a chilling portrayal of how extreme views can gain significance and real power. This work is relevant to teenagers today as a foundational feminist text that manages to be both witty and heart wrenching.