Last Updated on September 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
This feminist dystopian novel has both won literary awards and been labeled (or dismissed) as The Handmaid's Tale for millennials. It has also been contrasted to the matriarchy in the imagined Herland. Naomi Alderman conjures a society in which women are neither oppressed so that men control them and their reproduction, nor collectively nurturing madonnas. Instead, females gain a power—electrical in nature—which in turn gives them the power: dominance in all areas of life.
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Alderman spreads the action among different global locations, as the advent of this current-generating feature occurs in all females post-puberty. The trickiest part of her satire is creating scenarios that seem plausible but do not slip into reinforcing stereotypes of existing gender and race relations. In this she largely succeeds by making the characters in the overdeveloped world as appallingly power mad as those in less industrialized nations.
The fundamental premise that power is power, and is thus a corrupting influence regardless of which gender wields it, gives the book a dark tone to which some readers and critics have objected. The author succeeds in making us rethink our cherished beliefs about morality and biology, as the scenarios she envisions reject any safe retreat into assumptions of female virtue. While some characters take active roles at reining in the power, the dangers of overregulation of any natural attribute are also considered: as women become dominant and control social institutions, they must police each other. The author does not shy away from the hardest questions but confronts the abuses, including sexual violence, that would accompany a power shift. The full integration of the central conceit gives the novel thematic and structural integrity needed to sustain the episodic aspect of moving among several main characters' stories.