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  • Leah Quinn

The harrowing reality of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

TW: rape



I remember reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I was sixteen. That was only four years ago but I remember thinking it was the weirdest, most confusing and fragmented book I’d ever come across. Then I went to sixth form: I discovered politics, feminism and literature that didn’t involve vampires and forbidden love and oh-so-awkward teenage insecurities. The Handmaid’s Tale is only the second book that I’ve ever really loved and now at twenty, with the rejuvenation of interest in the 1985 novel in the wake of the Trump presidency, the new adaptation directed by Bruce Miller and the Repeal the Eighth vote in Ireland, I see Atwood’s dystopian novel in a whole new, glorious and terrifying light.


“We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.”


During the 2017 presidential election, Hillary Clinton drew parallels between The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s America. Suggesting that the gradual and subtle decaying of women’s rights in The Handmaid’s Tale resembles the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the scrapping of Michelle Obama’s ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative in modern America, she showed us that the attitude it’ll never happen to us isn’t all that true. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see the disintegration of American government and the establishment of a theocracy in which a plague of infertility has taken over much of the Western world. In some corrupt, religious notion of morality, the few remaining fertile women (or ‘handmaids’) are forcefully impregnated by the male ruling elite, known as the Commanders, so their children may be born and stolen from them by the Commanders’ infertile wives. The tale is told from the point of one such handmaid, Offred a patronym of her Commander’s name Fred. In Atwood’s novel, Offred’s real name is never properly given to us although it is implied at one point that it may be June. In the new adaptation on Hulu and Channel 4, Offred is unflinchingly and determinedly June Osbourne.



The novel plays with so many potentials that once seemed far-fetched but now ring too close to home for many readers and viewers alike. It is implied that this plague of infertility is the result of some kind of nuclear or chemical disaster (some undesirable women are sent off to The Colonies where they are forced to clean up chemical waste until their skin falls off) and the rising normalisation of birth control and second-wave feminism. With more and more women in the pre-Gilead world eager to have careers and choose birth control over pregnancy, the fear surrounding the consequences of certain reproductive rights rings close to home in reference to the Repeal the Eighth argument. Many pro-life campaigners in the months leading up to the May 2018 referendum in Ireland compared women’s reproductive rights over abortion with the murder of innocent children. This rhetoric of innocence and purity leaks through aspects of Atwood’s novel. Serena-Joy and the Commanders’ wives aren’t needed for reproduction so they are effectively driven into chastity as a result of their inability to conceive, despite the fact many of the Commanders are similarly unable. June in her life pre-Gilead started a relationship with the already-married Luke and in both the novel and the new television adaptation, she deals with the moral complexity of having an affair and breaking up a marriage. Mid-Gilead, June’s history with Luke is exploited by the Aunts (older women who act as prison-guards with cattle-prods while arguing they do all of this in the name of God) who criticise the handmaids for their previous sexual history, deciding for them what they consider to be ‘dirty’ and ‘pure’. One harrowing moment involves the ‘training’ the handmaids must endure in the Red Center. One handmaid, Janine, recounts her traumatic gang rape to which the other handmaids must (or they’ll be beaten) chant, “Your fault.”



Atwood has previously said that the novel deals with the question: what would happen in modern America if most of the population became infertile? She answers this by saying that the powers that be would take back control of all reproduction, most likely in the name of a corrupt God. I can’t help but love this novel for its brutality, its truth and its harrowing, harrowing reality. We see women becoming soldiers in The Handmaid’s Tale with one glorious quote: “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” The red dresses that had trapped and categorised these women as nothing but wombs with legs have now become their armour. At Women’s Marches and protests around the world, women are now donning the red dresses in solidarity against any policy that flies too close to the handmaids' plight. June acknowledges that she didn’t notice when her credit card was shut off and only her husband could access it, and she didn’t notice when only her husband could sign for her contraceptive pill. She didn’t notice when they suspended the constitution and blamed the assassination of congress on Islamic terrorism (can we note this was written in 1985? That prediction is quite horribly relevant!). Having read this book, now real-life women are noticing. Men are noticing. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is my bible in the fight for equality. I am so very glad my sixteen-year-old mind didn’t understand because now I can say I’ve learnt.

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