Michael McCooe – Common Era: The Handmaid’s Tale
Published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale has become a seminal text in the feminist literary tradition. Set in The Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian, theocratic United States, it follows one woman’s life of subjugation and her fight for freedom from an oppressive patriarchy.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s protagonist and narrator is Offred, although this is not her real name. Offred is a Handmaid for the Commander, a powerful figure in the Republic of Gilead and his wife Serena Joy, a former gospel singer and advocate for “traditional values.” She gets her name from the Commander, Fred, so she is literally ‘of Fred.’ In this new world, handmaids like her are forced to have impersonal, wordless sex with powerful men once a month to conceive a child, as most women are now barren.
Offred is forced to live a very restricted life. She is only allowed to leave the Commander’s house on shopping trips and even then, she’s accompanied by another Handmaid. Offred is never allowed to close the door to her bedroom and her every public move is followed by the ‘Eyes,’ the Republic of Gilead’s secret police. Across the book, Offred chronicles her daily life but Atwood frequently uses flashbacks to acquaint us with the protagonist’s backstory, telling us how Offred became a Handmaid.
Becoming a Handmaid
Before the rise of Gilead, Offred engaged in an affair with Luke, a married man. Luke divorced his wife, married Offred and they had a child. We eventually learn how the architects of Gilead came to power. After assassinating Congress, they took power ‘temporarily,’ slowly clamping down on women’s rights in line with their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Luke and Offred eventually tried to flee to Canada but they were captured and separated, cutting Offred off from her husband and child indefinitely.
As Luke had been divorced, Offred’s marriage was annulled and she was sent to a ‘re-education’ centre. Supervised by ‘Aunt’ Lydia, here Offred was indoctrinated into Gilead’s theology and prepared to be a Handmaid. Eventually, Offred’s independent best friend Moira was also brought to the centre, but our protagonist doesn’t know what becomes of her after. Offred was posted to the Commander’s house and her life settles into the restrictive routine we see in the first pages of The Handmaid’s Tale.
As the book starts, we follow Offred on one of her shopping trips with fellow Handmaid Ofglen. They often pass by ‘the Wall,’ outside the former Harvard University, where rebels’ dead bodies are displayed as a warning. We begin to learn about Offred’s role as a Handmaid at this point, with Atwood detailing the monthly ‘Ceremony’ where she has sex with the Commander, while Serena sits behind Offred holding her hands. We also find out that Offred has her regular checks with a doctor, to ensure she has no sexual diseases.
One time when Offed visits her doctor, he offers to impregnate her and she is tempted. The Commander is likely infertile and Handmaids can be disposed of after not becoming pregnant. She says no, as if she is caught then she will be sent away. After one Ceremony, the Commander asks Offred to see him. In his study they play Scrabble, which women can’t do in Gilead, as they’re forbidden to read and they start playing regularly. After one of game, the Commander kisses Offred and they slowly begin to engage in an affair, behind Serena’s back.
Meanwhile, Ofglen tells Offred that she’s a part of ‘May Day,’ an underground, anti-Gilead resistance movement. Concurrently, Offred’s feelings towards the Ceremony change, as she becomes closer to the Commander. As Offred keeps failing to get pregnant, Serena ask her to have sex with the Commander’s chauffeur Nick, promising to give Offred a picture of her daughter in exchange. This angers Offred, as she realises that Serena always knew where her daughter was, despite the latter’s prior claims of denial, but she ultimately agrees to sleep with the chauffeur.
That same night, the Commander takes Offred to a secret club called Jezebels, where powerful men can fraternise with prostitutes. Here she encounters Moira, learning that her friend was caught by the Eyes as she was crossing the Canadian border. We learn that Moira chose to work at Jezebel’s, so that she could avoid spending her life in Gilead’s dangerous colonies. After this night, Offred tells us, she never sees her best friend again. Leaving Moira, Offred has sex after the Commander at Jezebels and soon after returning home, Serena sends her up to Nick’s room to sleep with him too.
Offred has sex with Nick and they soon start a secret affair. Offred becomes preoccupied with this affair and starts ignoring Ofglen’s requests that she gather intelligence from the Commander, for May Day. Then Offred and Ofglen attend a public execution, where the Handmaids are required to stone an alleged rapist to death. He is really a May Day operative and Ofglen strikes the first blow, to end his misery quickly, after which she disappears and Offred is then accompanied on her shopping trips by a new Handmaid. We learn that Ofglen hung herself, to avoid falling into the hands of the Eyes.
Serena then finds out about the Commander and Offred’s trip to Jezebels. Serena sends Offred to her room, pledging to punish the Handmaid and while waiting, Offred spies the Eyes arriving to take her away. However, Nick comes to Offred’s room and tells her that they are in fact May Day members, coming to bring Offred to freedom so despite the Commanders objections, she chooses to leave with them. This is where Offred stops telling her story, but The Handmaid’s Tale closes with an epilogue.
Set in 2195, after the demise of Gilead, the epilogue comes in the form of a lecture delivered by Professor Pieixoto. Using analytical language, he explains the rise, as well the societal norms, of the Republic of Gilead. We found out that Offred recorded her story on tapes while on the run and he uses these to shed light on Gilead. As The Handmaid’s Tale ends, we find out Offred’s fate is still unknown – she could have made it to Canada or even England, or been retaken by the Eyes.
With The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood delivered a stark warning. The hard fought freedoms that many sections of society have only recently attained can be lost so easily. Its protagonist was once an independent woman, but the Republic of Gilead robbed her of her whole identity, turning her into Offred – a tool for the state to use and discard at its leisure. With this message, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to inspire the feminist movement, as well as freedom advocates everywhere, to this day.
You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.