I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in high school. The imagery in the book is one that has never left me. When I heard Hulu was producing a series based on the book, I was interested in reading it again. What also intrigued me was the comments I found on online about the book’s themes which some of the purposed themes I did not see when I read it the first time and I was curious if I would pick on the themes as I read it again. I also read the author’s introduction about her thoughts on the proposed themes readers have seen in the story. The themes are essentially feminism, anti-religion, and a prediction of our coming future.
The story is told from the point of view of Offred, a Handmaid, in the Republic of Gilead. She lives in the home of the Commander and his wife. Her job is simple. She is to become pregnant by the Commander in order to produce children due to the declining birth rates. Offred and the other Handmaids are highly restricted. Women are no longer allowed to hold jobs, have their money, or even allowed to read and write. She is safe in a world which is becoming more and more unstable as long as she produces children. The Handmaids are look down upon by the other women known as Marthas due to the nature of their presence in the households. While she goes about her daily life, she remembers her life before with her husband, Luke, and their daughter. She wonders if they are even alive. She remembers the other Handmaids real names without revealing her own. It’s a secret she heavily guards. Slowly she is able to learn about the truth behind everything and as she learns the truth, she becomes more and more in danger. Can she escape with her life? Or will she be another victim to the growing restrictions of the regime?
The first theme that is often discussed with The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist. In the author’s own words: “If you mean an ideological tract in which all woman are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no” (page XVI). In the author’s mind and I agree, the novel is feminist in the sense that women are human beings and what happens to them in the book is crucial to the story. The female characters are the focus on this story. Not just the handmaids, but the Wives, the woman who can no longer have children. The Marthas who are the servants in wealthy and powerful households. The Econowives who are viewed lower than the handmaids because they are married to men of little money or power. Wives, Marthas, Econowives, and Handmaids all interact in a way which is dictated by societal rules. By the end of the book, the reader gets a sense that every woman, regardless of her rank, is at the mercy of the men in power and they lash out on those they can: the other women. In a way, the reader ends up feeling sorry for the women who may or may not have chosen their rank and now must live a life accordingly.
The second theme is anti-religion. Ms. Atwood’s inspiration for the tale comes from the story of Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah, and their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah (Genesis 29:15-30:24). In the story, a dominant group of authoritarian men seize control and set up a society of extreme patriarchy. The regime uses biblical symbols to do so. The clothing worn by the women in the story are derived from Western religious iconography. The Wives wear blue which invokes the image of the Virgin Mary and of purity. The Handmaids wear red symbolizing the blood of childbirth. The highly enforced clothing helps regimes control and target the masses just as the Nazis did with the yellow stars and the Jews. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the dominant “religion” (we are not told what religion) takes control of every intellectual and doctrinal ideal in order to eliminate the other religions. Catholics and Baptists are targeted as the enemy in “the war” and Quakers go underground and escape the country. In the book, Offred refuses to believe that the regime has been sent by a just and merciful God. No, the book is not anti-religion. According to Ms. Atwood, “it is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny” (page XVIII) which is very different than being anti-religion.
Third, many readers see The Handmaid’s Tale as a prediction for the future, just like many people quote the book 1984 by George Orwell as a prediction to a very scary future. Ms. Atwood calls her book an anti-prediction. She holds that a future described in detail and people are aware of it can be a force to make sure it doesn’t happen. With the 2016 election, I can see how many people could see a regime like the one in The Handmaid’s Tale could happen. I can see how anything is possible. Anyone who has studied history can tell you that many horrible things have been done to others in the name of religion, government, or any reason they chose to give. The United States is a country of rebels. We were founded on a principle that we can change what doesn’t work. We can change a government which has become oppressive and even tyrannical. In a 1965 radio broadcast, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, said “Eternal vigilance is not the only price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.” We cannot sit by and let those in power take away our civil liberties and our God given rights. We are a country of the people, by the people and for the people. We need to stand up and not let futures like the one portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale happen.
In conclusion, I see The Handmaid’s Tale as a warning. A warning to those are becoming complacent about the world events around us. We can be a part of the change or we become a part of the regime which holds everyone down. I see how the book can be feminist as it portrays women as a vital and important part of society. Women are not people who need to be protected from themselves or others. I do not see the book as anti-religion. It is a book against the use of God’s name to oppress others or enact their own agenda which is something we have seen in history. I also see it as an idea of what our world could be like if we are not vigilant. I look forward to seeing the Hulu series. I recommend this book as it is belong among the classic stories which we all need to read.