For anyone who sat their A-level English Literature exams in the last few years -me included-, you might have already come across this compelling book on your study syllabus. Why did this book make it into sixth form classrooms across the country? To my mind, this novel has endless potential for discussion.
This is not an easy book to read: it makes you feel uncomfortable. However, that is the point. The protagonist, Offred, often feels uncomfortable and as such so should we. Welcome to the dystopian world of Gilead.
In Gilead, I wouldn’t be writing this book column, because almost all women are forbidden to read and are subservient to men. Even Offred’s name expresses her subjugation – it is formed from ‘of Fred’. She does not matter in herself, only in relation to the man for whom she is useful. This is because Offred is a handmaid (or concubine) used only for her reproductive purposes. She is one of many handmaids being used in this way, in an attempt to counteract the falling birth-rate.
The lives of the women and men in this parallel universe are fictional, but disturbingly, there are people in our world for whom the themes of this book are very real. For women in some countries, education and the chance to read and learn are hotly-fought-for privileges, not rights.
One of the most prevalent themes in this book is the objectification of people. Of course, the handmaids are objectified, but so are the men. They are forced into positions of responsibility in which they are judged on their ability to maintain control over women and on their ability to impregnate women. Both the women and men of Gilead are treated like machines on a production line: they do not matter as individuals, only for their contribution to this power-mad, controlling state.
The philosopher La Boétie, writing in The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, claimed that we must say ‘no to the name’ of the person at the head of the structure which controls us. Offred arguably does this to some extent by playing forbidden games of Scrabble with The Commander, Fred, but the words she makes are confined to a Scrabble board, as she is confined to a life of servitude. Languages can liberate, but only when one has access to it in the first place. Royal Holloway has always been a beacon of education for women, but even today, not all women and people have access to education. This is only one of the many reasons this book is still so resonant today.
Without giving away the ending of the book, the resolution of Offred’s story is irresolution. This throws out many questions to the readers. Personally, I’m still trying to answer them.