This dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood tells the story of a woman who is renamed Offred and forced to become a ‘handmaid’ in the totalitarian regime of Gilead. Kept in isolation and banned from reading or writing, Offred tries to hold on to her sanity but is haunted by despair and memories of her husband and young daughter.
The story is set in a fictional version of New England, a northeastern region of the United States, sometime in the near future. When the number of violent events begins to increase, at first people pretend that nothing is wrong.
“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated […] The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.”
“Vivíamos, como era normal, haciendo caso omiso de todo. Hacer caso omiso no es lo mismo que ignorar, hay que trabajar para ello.
Nada cambia instantáneamente: en una bañera en la que el agua se calienta poco a poco, uno podría morir hervido antes de darse cuenta. Por supuesto, en los periódicos aparecían noticias: cadáveres en las zanjas o en el bosque, mujeres asesinadas a palos o mutiladas, mancilladas […] Las noticias de los periódicos nos parecían sueños, pesadillas soñadas por otros. Qué horrible, decíamos, y lo era, pero era horrible sin ser verosímil”.
But then comes the catastrophe. The President is shot, newspapers are censored, women are fired from their jobs and have their bank accounts frozen. The Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime based on extremist Puritan principles, is born.
A strict hierarchy is imposed in Gilead with ‘commanders’ and their ‘wives’ at the top. Order is enforced through spying and the regular public hangings of dissenters. Different social groups are identified by the colour of the uniforms they wear. ‘Marthas’, who work as domestic servants, wear green. The most unfortunate, called ‘unwomen,’ who are sent to the colonies to clean up toxic waste, wear grey. ‘Handmaids’, who are forced to act as surrogate mothers, wear red with white bonnets that partly cover their faces and limit their view.
“Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.”
“Salvo la toca que rodea mi cara, todo es rojo, del color de la sangre, que es lo que nos define. La falda es larga hasta los tobillos y amplia, recogida en un canesú liso que cubre el pecho, y las mangas son anchas. La toca blanca es de uso obligado; su misión es impedir que veamos, y también que nos vean. El rojo nunca me sentó bien, no es mi color”.
Fertility in Gilead has become dangerously low because of disease and pollution. If a Commander and his Wife cannot conceive a baby, as most can’t, they will be assigned a Handmaid. The Commander has sex with his Handmaid in a formal “Ceremony” while the Wife sits behind her. Offred explains:
“My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.”
“Tengo los brazos levantados; ella me sujeta las dos manos con las suyas. Se supone que esto significa que somos una misma carne y un mismo ser. Pero el verdadero sentido es que ella controla el proceso y el producto de éste, si es que existe alguno. Los anillos de su mano izquierda se clavan en mis dedos, cosa que podría ser una venganza. O no”.
If the Handmaid becomes pregnant, the Wife will again sit behind her during the birth and then take the baby as her own. The regime justifies the ritualised rape that occurs during the “Ceremony” by the passage in the Bible in which Jacob has sex with the handmaids of his infertile wives.
Leaving a record
The last section of the book explains that the story we have just read is the transcript of a historical voice recording. The year is now 2195 and academics at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies are discussing the story of Offred, which was found recorded onto cassette tapes and hiddensome two hundred years previously. Offred says in her recording that it hurts to tell her sad story but that she feels she has to because at least that way she can imagine someone out there is listening to her:
“By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
“Al contarte algo, cualquier cosa, al menos estoy creyendo en ti, creyendo que estás allí, creo en tu existencia. Porque contándote esta historia, logro que existas. Yo cuento, luego tú existes”.
The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 but then re-published in 2017 with an introduction by the author to coincide with the release of a popular Netflix adaptation. Margaret Atwood’s highly-anticipated sequel to the book is due to be released this month. The Testaments is narrated by three female characters and picks up the story of Gilead fifteen years after the point where Offred’s record finishes.