Today the world faces a serious threat from environmental pollution. One of the consequences of pollution is decreased fertility – fewer babies being born. Imagine if a new, strict world order was created just to ensure the births of future generations. What would that be like?
Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) is one of the greatest Canadian writers living today, having received numerous honours for her novels as well as short stories and poetry.
Written in 1985 but set in the future, The Handmaid’s Tale can be called a science fiction novel. It deals with a totalitarian society, the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States of America), which was founded in response to social threats like increasing pollution and rising infertility rates. In Gilead, state and religion are one, and women are severely oppressed, having lost most of their rights – they are not allowed to work, vote, or even read or write. Even their fertility is regulated by the state. In this way the book can also be called a work of feminist fiction.
In this excerpt, from the beginning of the novel, we are thrust into an unusual setting which is difficult to make sense of. The narrator, Offred, is a handmaid (servant) for an infertile couple. Her job is to become pregnant with her “Commander”, Fred (her name means “of Fred”) and bear a child for him and his wife. In chapter one, Offred offers us a glimpse of her past, when she slept on a cot in an old school gymnasium, under the surveillance of strict "aunts" or matrons. Chapter two brings us to Offred’s present situation, living in the Commander’s house.
Before you read the excerpt below you should see the trailer from the film (The Handmaid's Tale, 1990) based on Atwood's novel. What has happened? Why are a lot of people sterile? Who are the women dressed up in blue? Who are the ones in red garments? What are they called, and why? Describe the mood in the trailer.