The Handmaid’s Tale: Introduction

‘In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…’

That’s right, we’ve chosen the first book for our Feminist Book Club, and what else could it be but The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? When we asked Twitter for suggestions, this title came up over and over, and with good reason. Published in 1985, it has become a go-to reference for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women’s bodies and reproductive functions. Nearly all dystopian novels that even hint at a bleak future for women are compared to it, and ‘like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a familiar shorthand for ‘this is bad news for women’. We want to find out why this book has become such a seminal text.

Both Alice and Stilli have read this before, but I (Poppy) haven’t, and I find myself quite nervous to do so. It’s been described as funny, unexpected, even horrifying, and the comments from our Twitter community have left me very curious as to what I’m going to find.

Giving a fuller summary than the blurb would spoil some of the impact that a first read of this novel brings, but the high-level summary – a dystopian world in which women have had all semblance of choice stripped away – is by now well-known. Interestingly, Margaret Atwood herself is very resistant to this being labelled as a science fiction novel (which is how it’s usually classified in shops). She has said that everything in the novel has happened to women at some point in human history – a truly chilling statement.

It’s not exactly the most lighthearted read, but it’s an important text (Stilli actually said she thinks it should be required reading for everyone, make of that what you will!) and we think it’s going to provoke some interesting discussions.

We hope you’ll be joining us as we read this, and we look forward to opening the discussion on Tuesday 26th February at 7.30pm (GMT).