A woman is relegated to the role of breeder in a dystopian pseudo-biblical society.
Margaret Atwood's well-known story explores a nation in which a woman's exclusive purpose is to bear children; not to raise them or care for them, just bear them. She creates a world where women have lost their hard-won rights and are confined to color-coded roles. The narrator of the story has the role of a handmaid who, like Abraham's Hagar, is forced to serve as a surrogate mother for a powerful couple. She is enslaved by her biological capabilities and must struggle against the society's insistence that the only valuable aspect of her womanhood is her body.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that the narrator can remember what life was like before the dystopian society arose. She had a life full of freedoms and loved ones and education, so she knows exactly what she is missing under the new order. Future generations of women would have an easier time in their restricted roles because they would not know just how different their lives could be. The author emphasizes that women should not forget the fragility of their positions and suggests that it is all too easy to accept a reduced place in the world.
The novel is framed as a fragmented retelling of the woman's experiences. Atwood revels in the art of storytelling, and reminds the reader than any story is necessarily a reconstruction of the truth. The narrator sometimes offers several different versions of the same event and some of the scenes are out of sequence. This form highlights the subjective nature of storytelling and of history itself. It is not a pleasant novel to read, but it is a thought-provoking and intelligent work.
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This book was published in the mid 1980's. Do you think that any of Atwood's fears about the future of women's rights have been realized in that last 25 years?