Why The Handmaid's Tale has an Important Lesson for Our Time
Updated: Jul 14
Sometimes it’s odd just how close fictional books, with their plots and characters, resemble real-life situations. For the first installment of our online Book Club, we read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This novel was published in the late ‘80s but might as well have been released yesterday. Its themes of power, oppression and what our group identified as survival through acceptance still resonate with what’s happening all around our world today.
Summary of The Handmaid’s Tale
Let me give you a brief rundown of what The Handmaid’s Tale is all about. There’s this new state that’s referred to as Gilead. In this state, which violently overthrows the previous government, women play different roles, all of which make them subservient to men. The most blatant of these roles are the Handmaids. They all wear the same garments, follow the same rules enforced by another group of women called the Aunts, but their most significant and oppressive role is that they must bear children for the Commanders. Once they give birth, they hand over the child to the Commander’s wife, who is tasked with raising that child.
The actual plot of The Handmaid’s Tale is told through the narrative voice of Offred, who is recounting her time as a Handmaid. She tells stories of how the Handmaids are treated, how the estate she’s in functions, and of the patriarchy that determines her existence. Offred is the name she’s given after being uprooted from her former life and forced into Gilead. Her daughter is taken away from her, and she is unsure whether her husband is dead or alive. Survival is the name of the game in Gilead, and what the Handmaids unwillingly accept to survive is the foundation for tension in the story.
What can we learn from The Handmaid’s Tale?
So much! The most obvious lesson is the power dynamic between men and women. As far fetched as this storyline seems, it’s actually not at all far from what’s still happening in parts of our world today. There are still regions where women are forced into marriage, not allowed to be educated and are legally not afforded the same rights as men. Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, states came into power violently and will fight to keep their power. I’d even say that The Handmaid’s Tale is more of a reflection of parts of our society rather than a fictional recreation.
As far as the theme of oppression, well, we don’t really need to dig far to see how that is still present in today’s world. There are marginalized groups who are fighting to be recognized, to be protected and to be included as equal rather than as an “other”. And we don’t have to leave North America for this to be a reality.
The theme of acceptance as a means of survival may be a bit more complex. In the story, the Handmaids despise their roles, but they aren’t rebelling. They understand that the consequences could be fatal and so in order to survive, they reach a level of acceptance that allows them to function. I think we can look at our own lives for this lesson. How many of us settle for jobs we don’t like, or how many of us speak up against atrocities that are happening right under our noses. And our repercussion isn’t even fatal, but we accept our lives as is in order to continue to function “normally.” The connection is more subtle, but it exists.
Looking for more book recommendations? Check out our March 2020 Reading List
We’re continuing the Boomerang Book Club
We had way too much fun reading The Handmaid’s Tale. The discussions lead us down so many different paths. The book club has been part of a series of online workshops which include guided meditations and coaching. We’ll be continuing the Boomerang Book Club with Such a Fun Age starting this week.
Learn more about our online Boomerang at Home experiences
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