EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE HANDMAID’S TALE BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, comic book creator, and all around awesome gal, published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. That date is significant, because she was inspired by George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984. Atwood has famously said that everything that happens in the novel has happened somewhere in human history. The Bible, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, the backlash against feminism in the 80's, and the Puritans are all wellsprings for her material here.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in what once was Cambridge, MA, but is now a hub for the Republic of Gilead. Environmental devastation and a fertility crisis with low birthrates in North America have led to a takeover of the United States by the Republic. Gilead is a Christian conservative nightmare where women are forbidden to read, forced into reproductive slavery, and divided into color coded classes:
Wives: wear blue and are the wives of prominent men in the regime. They enjoy some privileges, but their position comes with some PRETTY BIG DOWNSIDES.
Daughters: wear white until marriage. They are the daughters of powerful men. I suppose their lives are okay, until they get married and the whole Handmaid thing starts up. We don’t see much of the Daughters in the novel.
Marthas: wear green housedresses and are the domestic servants. Marthas are infertile, older women. I find it amusing that they are called Marthas, and in my head it’s an homage to Martha Stewart but I’m sure it actually comes from the Bible.
Aunts: wear brown and yay! They are the only women who are allowed to read, but they are responsible for indoctrinating/punishing Handmaids. Aunts tend to be infertile, sadistic bitches. Basically, evil nuns with a predilection for torture.
Econowives: wear multicolored dresses to represent their many roles. (THEY’RE EVERY WOMAN, IT’S ALL IN THEM). They are the possibly fertile wives of lower ranking men. I imagine their lives are shitty, but we don’t see much from them.
Handmaids: wear red, red, red, with huge white bonnets that serve as blinders. Handmaids are fertile women who are pressed into reproductive slavery by the regime. Their fertility is closely monitored and they have sex with the powerful men in monthly ceremonies. This ritualized rape, “The Ceremony,” is a family affair: the Handmaid lays between the Wife’s legs and the Wife holds her hands while the man plows her. This ritual is seen as sacred (at least on paper) and biblical. In a society that is highly hierarchical, Handmaids have the hardest row to hoe as far as the “legitimate” women are concerned. They are seen as sluts by the other castes of women, treated 100% as objects, poked and prodded and considered walking wombs. They’ve been ripped away from their “normal” lives and placed into a religious, ritualized rape culture. AND, if they do have a baby (and it’s not a “shredder”...I’ll wait for that horror to sink in), that baby is taken away from them and given to the Wife. Oh, and to spare you the confusion my teenage self had when reading the book the first time, Handmaids lose their names and are called “Of-” man’s name. Ofglen (Of-Glen), Offred (Of-Fred), and so forth. They can also be placed with a different Commander and are then renamed with the new guy’s name. GREAT, RIGHT?
Outside of the “legitimate” women, there are the “illegitimate” women.
Unwomen are women who fought against the regime, are unruly and infertile. Older lesbians, activists, and defiant Handmaids are put in this class. Unwomen are sent to clean up toxic waste sites, called the “Colonies.” Their lives are terrible and brief.
Jezebels are attractive women who refuse the regime and end up as prostitutes for the upper echelon men. Their existence is a closely guarded secret because they go against everything the Republic of Gilead stands for, which is good, old fashioned, procreative sex ONLY.
Men, too, are ranked in a hierarchy, with the Commanders of the Faith on top. Eyes are the secret police (Gilead is a mad surveillance state, sister), Angels are soldiers, and Guardians are dumb-dumbs who do the daily boring work.
Here are people who are not allowed in the Republic of Gilead: gay men and lesbians, abortion doctors, feminists, Jewish people, Catholics, probably atheists, people of color. Basically, all the fun people are hung, sent to the Colonies, ripped apart in cathartic, state sponsored murderfests, or in the case of African Americans, forcibly removed to some undefined apartheid state.
Our heroine, Offred, is placed in the home of a powerful Commander. His Wife, Serena Joy, was a famous televangelist in the time before. Think Tammy Faye before she became best friends with RuPaul. Offred had a lover/baby daddy and a daughter, and the Commander uses her daughter, who has been placed with a high ranking family, for blackmail. She’s raped and denied all human dignity and not allowed to read. (Reading is basically the most important thing in my life so that terrifies me the most. NO READING? WHAT? I COULDN’T.) She considers suicide constantly. But she also manages to survive in these terrible conditions.
The Handmaid’s Tale is about to be adapted by Hulu. But it has been adapted before. It was made into a film in 1990, directed by Volker Schlondorff, written by Harold Pinter (!), and starring Natasha Richardson. The pre-production and production was troubled. Sigourney Weaver was offered the role first, but had to drop out. The script by Pinter featured a lot of voiceover, in an attempt to capture the first person narration in the novel. After the film was finished, they decided to get rid of the voiceover entirely, which means there is a lot of empty space in the film. The film looks beautiful but is cold. Robert Duvall, always excellent, plays the Commander, Faye Dunaway plays Serena Joy and is fucking Mommie Dearest levels of batshit awesome, Aidan Quinn plays Nick. The movie didn’t do well, box office wise. I’ve seen it a few times, and while I don’t think it’s the best, it’s also not bad. The cover is horrible, though.
The novel was also adapted into an opera, a ballet, a play, and a radio drama. Atwood just released the audiobook with new material. The Hulu series starts Wednesday, April 26 and stars Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley. Stay tuned to this station for upcoming recap/reviews!