Trigger Warning: The book is highly extreme and includes so many triggering concepts such as suicide, rape, violence, torture, and much more.
The handmaid’s tale is the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. This classic novel is quite famous and has sparked so many discussions on all platforms. There are a lot of video essays on YouTube. There is a Hulu television show based on the book, which has won 15 Emmys.
I came to know about the book, after watching the first season of the show. I watched the show out of nowhere. I still can’t remember how I came across it, but I am so thankful I did. It messed me up big time. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept suggesting the show to so many people. The setting and the extremities of the story made me delve deeper only to find out it was based on a book written in the 80s.
Let’s just say I was surprised again. A friend of mine bought me the book 2019, only for it to sit on the shelves for the next two years. But now I have finally finished and I am speechless. That’s why I opted to write my thoughts down. This is not a regular review of the book. The handmaid’s tale as a story is quite strong. The narrator is not your regular protagonist. She is a little different compared to the one on the TV show. At least in this book. I haven’t yet read the sequel – ‘The Atonement’, so who am I to say?
June is mostly passive throughout the story. She has that inner fight, and also so many questions but just a little courage. So that itself makes this book different from other books where the protagonist is a great hero. The setting of the story where there is a fictionalized country Gilead, which is a totalitarian regime that treats its woman as property. The country has extreme rules with little freedom.
One ought to expect a powerful hero who would break this regime and bring peace to everyone. But that is not what the story is about. This is an emotional and philosophical story. It makes you feel things. It makes you question things. It makes you rethink everything.
So here are some words from the book that me sleepless:
It is better if you have read the book or at least know the setting of the book.
In this book, the handmaids are addressed as ” Girls” by the aunts who are in charge of them. So when there is a gathering of all the women of the Gilead, the aunt addresses the gathering as “Ladies” instead of the usual “Girls”.
So the idea of addressing these handmaids as ” Girls ” tells us one thing. They are seen as subordinates by the aunts. Someone they can control, command, and discipline. That’s the whole concept. They address the women who are sent to different houses to bear their children as ” Girls “. To be more precise, these women are expected to oblige sexually and are still addressed as ” Girls “. The irony here!
When I read that, I remembered something. In India, the parents say that you are ‘just a girl’ whenever you want to go out, have a relationship, or enjoy life even though you are an adult. But suddenly when they want to marry you off, they say you are old enough, you are a woman. You are expected to agree to their terms on arranged marriage. And even if they know that the guy is practically a stranger, you are still expected to consummate the marriage as soon as possible.
The typical patriarchal society says you are just a girl or you are a woman based on their needs.
This sentence comes when June is contemplating her options. The commander wants to see her separately in his room which is illegal. So she is scared of getting caught. She knows Serena, the commander’s wife, holds the power of the household. So her end is in the hands of Serena Joy’s mercy. The household discipline is a woman’s business. But then she says, she still can’t say no to the commander because that might upset him. After which comes this sentence.
So in Gilead, women are given some privileges and power, but the real power always lies with the men.
How connected it is to the real world? On so many levels! I am neither saying women never reach powerful positions nor that they don’t have real powers. But in most societal structures, women are promised a small power to make them feel good so the men could remain at the top.
The real question is – What made men think, they are the ones who can define who can do what and what not?
The handmaids are given the duty of bearing the children of the Gilead citizens. These words by June describing Handmaids like herself are not just for Gilead. Just think about how motherhood is glorified, and bearing a child is seen as the unquestionable duty of all women. Society perceives a woman as child-bearers first, which just makes us feel reduced. That’s not the only reason why a woman exists, just like how men don’t just exist to impregnate women and become a father.
The commander says that a woman is saved by her childbearing. So June thinks to herself what the women before the time of Gilead thought saved them. This again goes with the previous point. The notion that childbearing is the point of a woman’s existence forever when men had a choice of celibacy from ancient times is a mystery. So there was never a choice for women, but men always seemed to find different choices to live by.
While addressing the handmaids, aunt Lydia says that it will be easier for the ones that will come after them. June says that she is not saying things will be easier because they will have no memories of the other way. They would be used to their reality in Gilead and they would have never experienced any other way of life. This would be the reason why the future handmaids would not have any reason to protest. This is the truth about the subjugation of women, who are expected to follow strong patriarchal rules in most societies.
Whenever you see blatant patriarchy being practiced in the name of tradition- you might question. Why?
There is almost never a good logical explanation.
Though there are so many other wonderful parts of the book, I am going to end this article now. Let’s just say The Handmaid’s tale is a wonderfully written thought-provoking book. Don’t miss it out.