Dire explorations of future societies, dystopias, have usually been written by and about men. What future hell awaits women? Margaret Atwood asked, after surveying major news stories of the early 1980’s: industrial pollution, surrogate parenthood, AIDS, conservative backlash, televangelism, and oppressive regimes in Argentina and Iran. The Handmaid’s Tale is her imaginative answer. In this bleak narrative, the government of the United States has been overthrown by the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy based on total conformity and reactionary Christianity. With human fertility reduced, by toxic pollution, to crisis point, the fecund womb is now Gilead’s most valuable resource. Consequently, it has been nationalized. A Puritan polygamy, inspired by the Old Testament and by Mormon pioneers in Utah, has been imposed as the norm.
Offred, who tells her story, is an official womb, a red-clad handmaid. Once she had a family identity, but now even her personal name is unknown. She is simply “of-Fred,” bearing the name of the Commander to whom she is assigned. Her chief duty is regular participation in the “Ceremony,” during which Fred, in the presence of his wife and servants, must attempt to impregnate Offred. If he should succeed, her offspring, like those of handmaids of old, will become the possession of his wife, Serena Joy, once a televangelist known for her tears and songs.
Daily life in the Republic of Gilead is detailed....
(The entire section is 436 words.)