Dystopian fiction has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, what with series like The Hunger Games and Divergent becoming increasingly well-known in young adult fiction. Those are loyal to the classics might point to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s scarily accurate Brave New World as novels that discuss the repercussions of dystopia in more depth and seriousness. Nevertheless, there has, and probably will always be, some kind of morbid fascination with the concept of a dystopian world.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of dystopian fiction with a twist. Set in future post-apocalyptic version of America called the Republic of Gilead, men are the only ones allowed any semblance of power – with women being relegated to secondary statuses. They are divided into different categories, ranging from wives to marthas, who are essentially housemaids, and also to handmaids, women whose job it is to provide children on behalf of the wives in a bizarre and stomach churning ritual.
The novel is told from Offred’s perspective. She is a handmaid to one of the most powerful and wealthy commanders, Fred, hence her name – ‘of Fred’. The handmaids’ names are never explicitly revealed in the novel, as it is presumed that giving them names is a link to empowerment. It explores her life in this strange family construct, as well as providing flashbacks to her old life and her ‘training’ to become a handmaid. It also ends up exploring the underworld of this seemingly perfect society, with the commander himself allowing Offred to read books out of his own collection and even taking her to a strip club, both of which are strictly forbidden. The novel ends with a cliffhanger, Offred being dragged into a van and not knowing if she is headed towards freedom or death.
Atwod’s rich use of imagery adds to both the horror and the realism of the events in the novel. It picks its punches quietly, carefully, and oh so very correctly. Colour is also used to distinguish rank, and red, in particular, becomes quite important throughout the course of the novel. The dialogue is pointed and also poignant, and we are positioned to sympathise with all different characters in the novel, even if they are objectively treated better than Offred. Atwood brings together the plight of all under this ridiculously strict regime, and like Huxley, paints a horrifying picture of what could be, if the wrong people were allowed in power.
In a world where dystopia seems to be the new ‘it’ genre, Atwood’s novel is still extremely relevant. This novel does not just discuss power hungry leaders – it also explores the possibility of people being led by religious faith and doing what they perceive to be correct, even if it seems incredibly wrong to the rest of the population. There is no sense of revenge, like there is in the Capitol of the Hunger Games, or construct set up to test the genetic makeup of humans, a la Divergent. These people truly believe in their mission and ‘the word of God’, and this is what will leave you just that little bit terrified after you put it down.