Following a Christian fundamentalist coup d'état in New England at some point towards the end of the twentieth century, a Handmaid is one of a tiny minority of fertile women in a society which has been devastated by unspecified environmental catastrophes. Her function is to provide offspring for the ruling elite, and to be sent to her death if she fails. She lives in a nightmare world of public executions, lynchings, propaganda, impregnation ceremonies... "The Handmaid's Tale" is the story of her inner rebellion, and her struggle to retain her sanity and her memories of "the time before".
Margaret Atwood has been at pains to stress that her novel is not "science-fiction", but "speculative fiction". In other words, it is not about little green men arriving from other planets, but about what happens if men from the planet Earth decide to take some of their more extreme ideas to their logical conclusions. The novel was published in the mid 1980s, against the background of the rise to prominence of the religious right during the Reagan years. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, it has lost none of its relevance. Au contraire...
"Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently." The novel constantly testifies to the vitality of the human spirit and its ability to survive in extreme adversity. "The Handmaid's Tale" has repeatedly been compared to "1984", but in fact is a much richer and deeper novel. Orwell's story is an important landmark in the novel of ideas, but Atwood, in addition to her ideas, has written a highly wrought poetic story, incorporating intensely moving meditations on love, loss and memory.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is without question one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It demands to be read again and again and, in reading it, we must hope and hope that it never comes true.