The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1985, when the United States began debating on the inclusion of Christian creationism in educational programs, which was legally banned in 2005.
Margaret Atwood created a "contemporary" fiction that takes place on the border between Canada and the United States, countries included in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian nation ruled by an elite whose ideology is a mixture of the worst religious and political aberrations. In the imaginary world of Gilead, critical thought is suppressed in favor of a fanatical religiousness that permeates, corrupts, explains and justifies everything. With this literary exercise, the author is answering the question "What would happen if ...?"
Through the testimony of her female character Offred, the author reveals to the reader the inner thoughts and reflections of a woman subjected to the rule of Gilead, dominated by a male militia, —although socially it claims itself matriarcal—, where in prevails a twisted Christian religiosity.
At permanent war against an elusive enemy, —perhaps a mere instrument of propaganda and nationalist cohesion through fear—, the people of Gilead also face reproductive problems as a result of chemical and environmental abuses in the past, which almost led to the extinction of human race.
The regime has taken charge through an oppressive and hypocritical speech, and uses biblical passages to justify the abuses to which women are subjected —in the case of Offred, she is considered only as a surrogate belly—, as they are selected, used and discarded in exchange for some basic privileges and rights, including the right to life.
In a tangential and elliptical way, with successive approximations from the story of the vicissitudes of her condition —little by little we are finding out how she came to this point—, Offred describes the uses and customs of such an aggressive world not far from possible existence, since it is an excruciating reality, for example, in regions currently controlled by fundamentalist Muslim militias.
This stifling fantasy includes premonitions such as the replacement of money by electronic money (our current "bitcoin"), the 2008 global financial crisis, and the international rise of religious militias searching for their own geographical territory, claiming without blushing the regression of humankind to medieval stadiums.
Perhaps because of the latter, Margaret Atwood locates the residence of Commander Frederick —to whom Offred is assigned (“Of Fred", owned by Fred)—, in a former university campus stripped of its essence, that is, without the meaningful knowledge of its books. The books have been banned and burned. The new generations of women are not taught to read and even the shop signs are replaced by elementary graphics to avoid the use of written language. We have seen this before.
The language of the novel is introspective and poetic, full of metaphors and literary games:
"The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others (...) We lived in the gaps between the stories", or:
"I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed the air, still on fire, parts of women's bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes. "
There is an intention of literature into literature that transpires in many places along the novel, such as when the time of the narration moves backward or forward at the protagonist’s discretion, or when suddenly she interrupts and decides that "I'm not going to keep talking about this ". Or when, at the middle of some episode, in an apparent change of decision both from the author and her character, she turns back from what is saying and tells us: “I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.” And begins to tell the “true” story.
These resources complement the ironic character of the novel, since in our orderly Western civilization we are apparently far from what is described herein; but it could happen by simply changing the order of the elements we have at hand in our democracies, or by taking wrong decisions that will make us glide toward a collective disaster where our values and our most lucid "liberal" convictions are going to be suddenly challenged and removed.
There are some inconsistencies of time in the novel, which have something to do with the age of the protagonist: the time she spent confined in training, the duration of the regime, the absurdly distant memories for a thirty-something —we assume that she is in full reproductive age—. But still this lack of clarity contributes to the grayness of the atmosphere of domination in which the main character moves.
More than a feminist claim, The Handmaid's Tale is a reflection about the risks of ideological and human degradation that face our current developed nations, and is also an essay which demonstrates the closeness and interchangeability between political and religious beliefs, as happened in the first half of the twentieth century in the countries under fascist and communist regimes: the author highlights the existence among us of the seeds of evil that at any time can become carnivorous plants.
In the end, in a "universitary" disquisition, Atwood gives homage to their favorite authors while mocking academic solemnities, and provides an overview of the "historical" context of the novel through an alleged archaeological and hemerographic search held 200 years later, which gives answers to most of the questions that readers have at the end of what they learn is not a diary or a manuscript, but the transcription of a series of cassette recordings found in an excavation.
As in a game, Atwood leaves for the diligent reader a last enigma to solve or discuss —perhaps the necessary clues are in the book—, in trying to find the true name of Offred.
Roberto Mendoza Ayala
New York City
August 5th, 2015