As a teenager, I was obsessed with young adult fiction that was set in dystopian worlds (an imagined society that is undesirable). For example, Divergent, Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series. The Handmaid’s Tale took me back to that time and reminded me why I enjoyed reading dystopian novels. Now I know that I am very late to the Handmaid’s Tale hype (especially since there is a TV show based on it). However, I think this was the perfect time for me to read this book as I previously would not have been able to appreciate it as much.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian world but the author, Margaret Atwood, states that the themes within the book are all based on various events that have occurred around the world. Due to this, reading this book was even more frightening. Various themes are explored within this dystopian world such as hierarchy of power, religion and the societal impact of infertility. Since the book explores themes in relation to sexism and oppression experienced mainly by women, I will focus on women’s experiences of sexual harassment or abuse and the issues surrounding it (TW). However, I am fully aware that anyone can be affected by sexual harassment and abuse.
I will not include major spoilers in this review, but I will include important details about the society that will aid you in imagining this world (so proceed with caution).
Premise of The Book
In the Republic of Gilead, fertility rates have declined due to pollution, and religion is mainly used to control people in order to increase the population. The limited women who are fertile are trained to be Handmaids, and assigned to upper class families consisting of the Commander and the Commander’s wife who struggle to reproduce. Handmaids are basically “two-legged wombs for increasing Gileads decreasing population”. They are forced to partake in a monthly ceremony with the Commander in hopes to impregnate the Handmaid. Handmaids that show any rebellion to this order are severely punished for all to see.
During the creation of this world, women are stripped off their rights overnight, for example, their jobs, money, reading or even speaking their minds. Every woman is assigned a colour to wear based on their role in society. Women that seem more powerful than others (such as a commander’s wife) have an illusion of power- they still wear colour-coded dresses to symbolise their place in society, and are under the control of commanders. See the picture below for a breakdown of the roles within this society.
The sole purpose of the Handmaids is to conceive, so freedom or pleasurable activities are a no-no. Even the use of their name is forbidden, and they are called by the first name of their Commander for example, Offred is ‘Of Fred’, Ofcharles is ‘Of Charles’. They are only allowed to wear long, red dresses and wear ‘wings’ over their head and face (white bonnets that limit the view of their surroundings). We follow the story of Offred (a Handmaid) who informs the reader about the details of the society by exploring her past and the present.
Despite the interesting storyline, the first half of the book was very slow for me and I did wonder whether I could carry on reading and enjoying this book. It was difficult to follow initially due to the abrupt switches between the past and the present. After 60% of the way through, the story did pick up momentum. Whilst reading, I found this odd and could not believe that it took over half of the book for the action to set in! However, once I finished the book, I realised that the abrupt switches were an indication of her thought patterns. The slow, delayed and fluctuating start of the book for me is a symbolism of her current monotonous life where she is forced to be silent and alone. Little stimulation, painful and uncomfortable, leading to her jumping back and forth from the present to her life before she was forced to be a Handmaid. Near the end of the book, Offred apologises for the fragmented approach to the diary-like story which solidified this idea in my mind.
Any concerns I had about this book disappeared by the end of my read. I appreciate why the author chose this method to convey the struggles of being a Handmaid.
Psychological Relevance to Society
This whole book is very relevant to Psychology and our society. Although it was written in 1985, there are so many elements in it that are still applicable today. As I stated above, Atwood has reiterated time and time again that the book is based on real events that have already happened all over the world. I want to touch upon two areas that relate this book to our current world: the role of women in society and how sexism impacts every aspect of life.
Atwood poses the question: “If you wanted to shove women back into the home and deprive them of their freedom, how would you do that? Simply by reversing the progress they have made over the years, revoking their rights to jobs, property, finances, autonomy and knowledge.” In our digital world where we can buy and do so many things using a few credit card details, establishing the corrupt society described by Atwood appears easier than ever. Imagine. Credit card access is suddenly halted for women. They cannot access a mobile network. Nor can they access any pleasurable activities. This would most likely impact the levels of authority and autonomy women feel in life, even to make the simplest decisions such as buying a morning coffee.
There only needs to be a small number of people in authority who want to revert society back to its oppressed state for the public to conform and obey! Although people may know that this oppressed state is wrong, they are unlikely to be the first person to speak up with the fear of being reprimanded (physically or socially). This reminded me of Milgram’s Obedience Study. You can watch the video below to get an overview of the study conducted in the 1960s.
Milgram found that the majority of the participants administered dangerous electric shocks to another individual when pressured to by authority. Many justified their administration of the shocks by stating that they were following orders from authority. This study conveys that authority is a very powerful tool in changing the behaviours of everyday people! Those who obeyed authority within Gilead were able to justify their extreme actions of having Handmaids as their goal was to increase the population.
Additionally, in order to ensure that rebellion is prevented, the authority established must be maintained even in the absence of those in power. This can be seen in the power dynamics between the Handmaid and the Commander’s wife. As women, they both have almost no power in Gilead. However, the Commander’s wife is given a false sense of ‘authority’ over the Handmaid as her husband is powerful. This ensures that the Commander’s wife feels satisfied (not happy) with the order of the society despite her own experiences of oppression. Although the Commander’s wife knows that the Handmaids are mistreated, it is easy for them to partake in this mistreatment as they do not want to lose the little power that they have. Therefore, the authoritative control is maintained even without the presence of the Commander. This suggests that in a world of heightened anxiety and fear, the smallest glimmer of hope or power makes extreme change bearable and acceptable.
“Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.
This book presents various ways in which obedience to authority and thirst for power can be used to restrict people. It offers a prime example of sexism and stereotypical responsibilities assigned to women. For example, a striking scene for me was one where the Handmaids were walking past a few guards that looked at them for a little too long. Offred said that during her training, she was told that men may be tempted by her but she should know better and not give into these temptations. In other words, although Handmaids in Gilead are forced to follow rules that are typically viewed as deterring harassment (fully covered dresses, ‘wings’, unable to go out, enjoy themselves or drink alcohol), the responsibility of the actions of men is still placed on the women. I thought this was a parallel to our current world since many people try to find any reason to blame women affected by harassment and abuse. Unless we address victim blaming head on, women will still be targeted and held responsible for the harassment they experience.
I recently saw that there was a movement called ‘Reframe the Night’ being advertised in Hackney (for more information please refer to https://www.businesshealthy.org/reframethenight/). This is a great initiative to help tackle victim blaming and ‘reframe’ the beliefs leading to it. Some would argue that it is well overdue, but regardless of this, I believe it is a step in the right direction and change must start somewhere.
Take home message:
Women and girls are still experiencing varying acts of sexism every day and you can read about some of these at www.everydaysexism.com. It is important to shed light into these experiences. In The Handmaid’s Tale there is a clear focus on highlighting how a woman’s value can suddenly diminish in society; from being an independent contributor to being valued only based on the ability to reproduce.
I highly recommend this book for those who want something different to read but also for those who enjoy a book that is open to various interpretations. This is the beauty in such books as everyone will take something slightly different from each scene.
In my opinion, despite the struggles, pain and oppression conveyed in this book, it is an expression of the power and rebels within us. Offred was able to rebel and maintain personal power over the monotonous and totalitarian society by continuing to think and explore her inner world!
If you have read the book (or watched the TV show), what are your thoughts and interpretations of it? Let me know!