My first introduction to dystopia was 1984 by George Orwell, which I read a long time ago. The concept of the book haunted me for a long time. Later I read Brave New World and more recently We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who I learned was a major influence on Orwell.
Having read those classic dystopian novels at a very impressionable age, I couldn’t help but focus on some of the differences between them and Atwood’s novel.
Honestly, I read the the The Handmaid’s Tale for two reasons:
- It came highly recommended
- I needed something to fill the the space while I waited for the final instalment for the MaddAddam trilogy.
The first major difference between this novel and the ones I already mentioned is that the protagonist is a woman. Offred, not so much a name but a stamp showing who she temporarily belongs to, is to be nothing more than a Handmaid, a surrogate mother, in a world where fertility rates have taken a steep decline.
I also noticed that while Zamyatin’s and Orwell’s novels attempt to illustrate the ugly side a collectivist state, the state in this story is not so much a collectivist one, but a deeply misogynistic theocratic nightmare. It was not so much a look into the future, though it could be seen that way, but synthesis of the ugliest sides of societies that actually exist.
Then there is a question about the reliability of the narrator. Offred is always being watched; by the Commander for whom she supposed be getting pregnant, the Commanders wife, the Marthas (the help) and the Eyes (basically secret police). She is under such close scrutiny, that her meandering narrative relies solely on memory, rumor and reconstruction of events.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A definite divergence from the dead old white guys I mentioned earlier.
I recommend this read to all SF and/or Atwood fans.