The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic dystopian novel about The Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime comprised of what was once part of The United States. In a polluted world in which many men and women have become sterile, those few women whose ovaries are still viable are too precious a national resource to waste. As a consequence, they become “handmaids,” available only to the most highly placed male officials, who are generally older and therefore unlikely to father a child. However, the handmaids’ survival depends on being able to produce offspring, tempting many of them to seek out one of the younger men who serve the elderly “Commanders.” This action is punishable by death, so that often handmaids die either by execution for not producing or by execution for producing the only way they can.
The book follows the fortunes of Offred, the handmaid “of Fred” (hence her name), a young woman struggling to find meaning in her life. She has been robbed of everything that made her an individual—her child, her husband, her job, all of her former life. Now she no longer has a name, but belongs to a man she barely knows. The only thing that makes life bearable for her is the occasional glimpse she gets into the mind of another of the tightly controlled, but still unique, people around her. She wonders who she can trust, but it is unbearable not to trust, not to try to touch the hearts of other human beings. Her tentative efforts in this direction, fraught with danger, provide the conflict and the suspense in this novel.
It is ironic that in a world so controlled by men there is a strong subculture of women, the “aunts,” who control the handmaids partly by force and partly by propaganda. You are protected, they tell the handmaids. You are cherished. You never have to starve yourself or paint yourself to get a man. You are valued for yourself. As Aunt Lydia tells them, “There is freedom to and freedom from.” They no longer have the freedom to do what they want, but they do have freedom from many of the things that tormented them in the days of “too many choices.”
What is missing in this highly regimented and ordered world is love. A regime that leaves out the possibility of choice also leaves out the possibility of love—and with it, all reason for living.