Kristina Fontes


There are books you can’t put down, and then there are books that you have to make yourself put down. Because some of it is a little too real.

Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was one book that was both for me. I didn’t want to stop reading, and yet sometimes I made myself stop and take a break, because the very idea of the book was anathema to everything I believe as a progressive feminist. Some of it was truly painful to contemplate. Still, this book was beyond excellent.

This was the first book I’ve managed to read this year, and I am already almost done with my second one.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the story of Offred. That’s not her true name (some think it might be June, and I am inclined to agree with them). “Offred” means “Of Fred,” meaning she belongs to some guy named Fred.

Yes, I said “belongs.” Because in the horrible new world order of this novel, women are property, and used as vessels for breeding.

It’s about as bleak as it sounds.

We don’t get June’s (I’m going to use her real name here. “Offred” deeply bothers me) full story, as “The Handmaid’s Tale” is largely an inner monologue that June engages in so that she can keep herself sane. So she can remember who she really is. Before the cataclysm that saw an extreme, authoritarian theocracy take hold, June was a young wife and mother living in Boston or possibly Cambridge. The book places her as being not all that far from Harvard University. She had a job in a library, and, from her recollections at least, a fairly nice life.

Now, the city has become part of The Republic of Gilead. It was unclear to me whether the Republic was restricted to Boston, New England, or if it in fact took over all of America. The new regime takes power by assassinating the President of the United States and every member of Congress, so at first I thought the entire country was part of Gilead. However, throughout the book, a hellish landscape known as The Colonies is mentioned, which at various points appears to be the rest of the USA. So who knows? And that’s all in keeping with the narrative: the news is controlled by the new government, so it becomes hard for June and everyone in Gilead to know what is true.

We meet June when she becomes the new Handmaid for the Commander (he is one of many, though his rank is in this new society is revealed to be quite high). It is her job to provide him with a child. I won’t get into the specifics here, but it’s awful and the entire arrangement made my skin crawl. June is one of many Handmaids, each consigned to sexual servitude, with the sole purpose of boosting the population. Other roles for women include being a wife or working as a prostitute, working as a cook, or something called a Martha, which seems to be some sort of housekeeper. Some women are also Aunts. They are the ones who train the Handmaids, and perhaps the characters that I hated the most.

The truly sad thing here is that being a Handmaid is a choice, such as it is. With such narrow roles for women in this new society, you don’t really have many options. Women are also no longer allowed to read or have money of their own. They cannot get a job either, so retaining some semblance of identity and independence is nearly impossible.

But what made me love this book was that the women find ways to do that anyway. Despite everything, they take what small pieces of freedom they can for themselves. June, for example, holds tight to her memories and carves out something like a life for herself. I don’t want to give too much away here, but she also does a few radical things that put her in a great deal of danger. Some women seize what power they can in their new roles, by manipulating the men that have so cruelly subjugated them and sentenced them to a life of drudgery and desperately reduced circumstances. Still others form a sort of underground resistance, at great peril to themselves.

This is all framed with Atwood’s beautiful prose. I had never read one of her novels before this one, but I was familiar with her poetry, which I enjoy very much. Her prose is also poetic. She takes a story whose premise is abhorrent and yet tells it with such elegant precision that I found myself continually marveling at her skill. As a writer, I am both quite jealous and deeply in awe of her great gift.

In the end, I feel that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a story of hope. The ending lets the reader decide how things turn out, so I am deciding to be optimistic. After all, the mantra that June holds on to throughout the story is one of determination: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” It’s a Latinesque hodge podge that roughly translates to: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”