The popular dystopic subgenre crossed with modernist feminism.
In the near future a totalitarian patriarchy has replaced the United States democracy and forced women into a devil’s choice of specialized slave-roles: wives for the conservative and cooperative (dressed in blue), cooks and maids (garbed in green) and child-bearers known as handmaids (robed in red). Most men serve as soldiers, spies or administrators and hope to earn the right to keep their own stable of subservient women. The women are not allowed to read, travel or fall in love and even independent speech and thought will quickly lead to harsh punishment or death.
Though much of this premise seems abstract and political, ripe for epic rebellions and courageous revolutions, Atwood restricts our point-of-view to Offred, a lone handmaid who has little idea about what goes on in the world outside her prison/estate. We soon discover that she is both intelligent and articulate and her observant inner monologue provides the bulk of our reading experience.
Margaret Atwood follows in the tradition of such great dystopic nightmares as “We,” “Brave New World,” “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” but with her distinct prose and psychologically realism she supercedes all but perhaps the celebrated “1984.” Her undeniably compelling feminist angle remains several notches above the only other female-authored dystopia which comes to mind, Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” (which, to be fair, is more in the dated tradition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and takes as its enemy communism rather than patriarchy).
The novel takes an acutely limited first-person perspective that flows with a stream-of-conscience ease between memory, rumination and the everyday activities of the protagonist. The resulting delicate balance manages to generate vivid realism and thematic punch without being “preachy” or “man-hating.” The possible downside for some is that the book is paced leisurely and gradually with no artificial action. Rising tension tends to replace rising action, which makes sense in an environment where passivity and inaction are enforced on women implicitly (as today) and explicitly.
It helps that Atwood is such an excellent author. There are almost no negatives to point out and no plot holes to cite. While the premise seems simple, new ideas and wider implications are always being explored and rarely does a chapter go by without a valuable insight. The positive and negative potential of the individual and the society are of equal interest to Atwood’s piercing mind. A final epilogue even brings into question academia and historical attitudes. I suspect “A Handmaid’s Tale” will remain relevant for many decades to come.