“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
All over the world, feminist movements have begun. Some started it, some joined in later, but nevertheless, people now know that the time for gender equality has finally arrived, not just in sayings, in actuality. This, along with being under curfew for the Covid-19, what better than to read novels which will put us into thinking mode and pass some of our time. LOL.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood is a dystopian novel set in the near-future US governed under a totalitarian government, a Gilead regime, which goes by the name of Sons of Jacob. Offred, the narrator, is a handmaid to a high ranking commander, tells us her story, as a handmaid, and as a person, she was before all this.
Offred, or of Fred. That is her name. She belongs to Fred Waterford, her commander. Do you belong to someone else? I don’t and don’t want to. She has lost her name from before, it’s against the law to tell anyone her name from before. She is Offred now. She is a handmaid. A handmaid is one who will act as a vessel, a carrier, a chalice to an infertile couple and carry the man’s baby, give birth and then, tata to the couple and “their” baby. It was a choice she had to make. Between this and going to the colony. You know the colonies where one has to clean up toxic waste, don’t you? Those that spilled out of nuclear plants and such, someone has to clean them, right? And someone has to give birth. So why not choose the less killing of the two. It wasn’t easy for her to choose from. Losing her child and husband in the process didn’t help either. But what other options did she have before those machine gun-carrying guardians. Nothing. They, who shot the President and gunned down the entire Congress. Nothing. They, who do unspeakable things if they find out about your unfaithfulness? Nothing.
The wives are always jealous. With their husbands impregnating the handmaids in their presence, who wouldn’t be? Can you see your partner doing the “ceremony” with someone else? I can’t. But the commander’s wife isn’t all jealous. She is worried. The second Offred isn’t pregnant yet. This puts all of their lives in jeopardy. She must find another way to get Offred pregnant. All the wives and handmaids do it. The situation is dire.
The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my reading list for more than 2 years now, from the time when the series released and I watched its first episode. Although I neither watched any more episodes nor read the book before this lockdown due to Covid-19. You see, plenty of time even with a toddler. Lol. So, back to the book. The writing was initially difficult for me to fathom, the way the author writes in a deeply singular tone, in the narrator’s head without the spoken word punctuation simply baffled me. I had to re-read several lines to understand what was happening. The extensive explanation of the scene/background didn’t help either. It got easier as I progressed, sometimes getting boring with too many tedious descriptions but otherwise enthralling, in a sad way. What will happen next, will Offred survive? Will the Gilead be overthrown? Questions like that kept popping into my head after I was done with half the book. However much I say that too much of background details get boring after a point, what doesn’t get boring even with too much detail is something that Atwood built, The Gilead. With each chapter, there was some new fact about the dystopian country that she had created. How were they formed, why didn’t the people take notice, how did they finally take over, how do they work and rule, all the information is divulged throughout the pages leading up to the end. It’s a humongous task, trust me, to create an entirely different future society and then link it to the current one. She says she built her plot on everything that has already happened/happens in the world. Nothing is completely fictional. The religiously intolerant government, strict punishments on being unfaithful towards it, rising rates of infertility, radiation, and pollution, no women’s rights, forcing women out of public spaces and into their homes and death of feminism as we know it, all does happen in the world today. The way the women are forced to believe in the reality that it’s for their protection and betterment, over a period of time and mental torture, is absolutely relatable. They are all as relevant today as they were decades ago when Atwood wrote this story. What also struck me despite the story being narrated by a single person, the characters were aplenty. They weren’t, however, deep. It was only through the eyes of Offred that I could see them. Herself as a pitiful handmaid, the commander as a closet sexual kink, and the wife as a desperate woman. Then there are others, the I-can-do-whatever Moira, the oh-so-uptight Aunts, the mysterious Nick, the lost Janine, all through Offred’s eyes.
There were a few things that I wasn’t able to digest in this book. How it shows nothing about the outside world. Even when the handmaids are stopped and gawked at by the tourists, it just shows human indifference to anyone under torment and it unsettles me. How the appearance of armed men on the streets in the before time had no response from the citizens, strange. How a country goes from a progressive one to become a highly regressive one in a single night, baffling! I can’t also say that this book is a feminist. It shows nothing of that sort except for a couple of characters, of Moira and Ofglen, with nerves of steel giving some hope. Otherwise, it’s so sad to see women who once owned their fates now giving up to the fate written for them by others and finally giving in to the brainwash.
One thing I’d suggest with this book is that don’t read the book and watch the series together. You’ll end up mixing both. Yes, they are both based on the plot line the author has provided, but they are very different in their presentation. You can read first, and watch it later. This will help to get a better understanding of what you are watching. Doing the other way round wouldn’t be of much help, it’ll just add to the confusion with the characters skewed and only the basic plot hanging in there. The series, however, gives much more scope to experiment than a book, bringing out the unjustified characters in their full glory, their past, present, and future unleashed for the viewer to enjoy and finally give way to their speculations. What is lacking in the book, is fulfilled by the series.