For starters , I thought this was a fairly new book. Now I do realize that the tale was published in 1985. This adds more chills to the reading experience.
This is an uncomfortable book to read. It’s not the case of a boring plot, under developed characters and a story plagued by near dead pacing. On the contrary, it’s the realism to the book that makes the reading experience a little heavy on the mind. On that grounds, this book is a bit hard to digest. As I started, I thought this was written in this decade, which could explain the way the plot was pictured. The fact that this book now stands the test of time and the context , more real today than it was decades ago, is a testament to the gloomy world this book introduces us to.
This is a simple tale of a dystopian , not so far away, future. The world has survived a few jolts. Societies have transformed and the new norm is an accepted way of life. It is a world where women , usually, don’t have a name. There are Aunts, Marthas, Wives, Handmaids and econowives. The plot doesn’t really spend a lot of time classifying the strata of men. There wasn’t much need anyways. And then there were also men.
On the onset of near annihilation, the society tries to reconstruct itself from the ashes. The fallout from the radiation, the chemicals and the toxic world itself, renders most men sterile. The society emulates a dictatorship of sorts. Senior government officials are ENTITLED to handmaids. I think you can guess where the tale is heading and what is the role of such handmaids in their dystopian society.
So the primary role of a handmaid is to facilitate progeny. In fact , the entire society is built around repopulation. Women who can’t are shipped off to the colonies. The ones who can, are Handmaids are deployed across families. Their sole purpose is to birth the next generation. The successful handmaids eventually retire when their clocks run their due course. The unsuccessful ones are shipped off to the colony. In a nutshell, the role of a woman in the society is valued through the filter of procreation.
Aunts are a sect of women who train , groom and condition the handmaids. Marthas are housekeepers and carry out their role in running the chores around the household. Econowives are the wives allotted to men who have insignificant roles in the machinery of the society. The society is policed through the army. Angels to be precise. These are the foot soldiers. Then there are eyes, who spy on the society and report on the miscreants who don’t comply to the religious cause of the society. There you go. That’s their world.
Feeling disgusted at it so far? Good. So was I. you don’t have to be a feminist to feel offended by the course that this society took. The fact that this society accepts this ridiculousness as a norm is disgusting. The fact that this society was let to be, is offensive. The fact that this society is a reality, now that’s a gentle revelation of sorts.
The reminder of the tale hinges around the fate of the titular Handmaid. What happens to her? Does she ever deliver a child into that world of hers? Does she eventually retire or does she get shipped to the colony? The book keeps you guessing and curious. It’s a page turner alright.
There are bucket loads of themes in this book. Ever noticed that in this write up, I had not bothered with names? The first theme is that of an Identity. A name is more than just a name. It is an identity. It is an announcement of self, it protects and preserves the self. What if you re robbed of a name. what if your name didn’t even matter?
This book is also an alarming reminder that you don’t have to be political, but politics will govern, impact and affect your life. Deny it with all your might, but it’s not going to go away. This book talks about the nature of politics.
Back to why 1985 was such a shocker. Patriot Act. The whole Demonetisation in India, The big politics of sentiments and fear. Fear leads to suspension of constitution and the very rights that protect the citizens of a nation. I’m not political. I’m an observer. I’ve observed ample instances of how sentiments affect the policies and how policies affect life. It’s almost a near inevitability. One fine day, there will be a disaster, people will be frightened and defenceless. The law of the land will do it’s best to protect us. The caring hand could easily turn our to be a talon gripping it’s prey. This book , very comfortably, predicted the way we would behave in the future. The whole big bang around WW2 , it’s not that hard to realize that history is meant to repeat itself and we as a species do tend to forget the lessons of the past.
Religion plays a central role in this book. A society that follows any religion and religious practices blindly, without understanding the whys of the things it does, will eventually follow things as a rote. It would police itself in that fashion. It will grow intolerant towards those who choose to not follow. This society is not very different. There are those who follow it with all their heart and disciplined conviction. A closer look at their motives does reveal self preservation and other conflicting interests.
This book is a wonderful example of a loveless, emotionless state of existence. Life as a protocol to be carried, compliance to comply to, life defined around purpose. While it does feel like the right thing to aspire to be, it also exposes the limitations of such fulfilling existence.
This book is a mirror to self, it is a mirror to the society.
I enjoyed reading it. If serious stuff holds your attention, go for it. It is after all a story of a handmaid. Her life’s story is worth the read.