What is it with dystopias? They are, in essence, unpleasant, spooky, oftentimes want to make me run to the bathroom and throw up - yet, I cannot turn away and not look.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a particularly creepy version of that type of a warning-story written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published back in 1985.
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
That particular future is not too kind to women (nor men, as a matter of fact). They are mixed up in a weird kind of hierarchy, in the world where babies have become a luxury. We never learn the real name of the main character/narrator; instead she calls herself "Offred" - names that were given to women that were used as breeding machines; "Of Fred" - the woman that belonged to a man named Fred. Spooky much?
We are for breeding purposes: we aren't concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. (...) We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices. /p. 146/
Atwood allows her character to ponder about the past and the present; as she says herself, she "needs perspective" and that "all is reconstruction" (I assume for remaining sane in the conditions where one has zero free will). She does not give out the impression that the past was all good; there are plenty of times when Offred rambles on the imperfections of the life before the revolution.
Though at that time, men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit. /p. 60-61/
That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. (...) You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. /p. 221/
And something especially spookily accurate if we think of the modern day:
We've given them more than we've taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don't you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. (...) Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery. /p. 231/
Spot on, Mrs Atwood.
But what good are all the justifications if people have beed separated from free will and prohibited to feel? I guess this is the criticism thrown on all the dystopias out there. People do right and people do wrong, as right and wrong are something that cannot be measured, but they do it based on their own decisions, and decisions are only possible if you are given the choice. Take away the choice, and there will be no humanity left anymore.
The ending of the book is left open. We never know what happened to Offred; did she escape, did she not. I personally like open endings and filling the holes with my own thoughts and ideas.
For me, Atwood is one of those writers who do not just tell a story but are also crafty with words. Although creepy and uncomfortable, this book is beautifully written.
A man is just a woman's strategy for making other women. /p. 130-131/
And a good-book-meter in the left: the amount of paper-rubbish left between the pages after I finished :)