“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. […] They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.” – The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood weaves an eerie dystopian tale of an Evangelical takeover of North America, where an extreme religious and military state forms after the assassination of the President and the destruction of Congress. The totalitarian government rules it illegal for women to own property, read, earn money, and essentially do anything besides reproduce and run a household. Women are divided into Wives, Marthas, and Handmaids, where Wives are the figureheads of the household and the top tier of what remains of female power, Marthas are the servants who cook and clean, and Handmaids are solely responsible for procreation. The Wives are outfitted only in modest blue dresses, the Marthas in drab green smocks, and the Handmaids are marked in lustful red. The women perpetuate their limited roles of domesticity through the daily repetition of these simple tasks: wearing their monochromatic wardrobe, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and performing desensitized sex.
The narrator is part of the first generation of Handmaids in the new regime, and her monotonous imprisonment in the Commmander’s household is constantly ruptured by flashbacks to her life before. She remembers her loving husband Luke (now dead or tortured), her job at a library (an especially blasphemous occupation since the written word has been outlawed), her time as a student at a university (unthinkable), casually smoking and drinking (now black market items), and tanning on a beach (beyond unthinkable). Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale the reader is constantly aware of how we take for granted our basic human rights, and how we would operate if they were suddenly taken away.
The plot develops as the Handmaid’s painful monotony is quietly broken, as the slightest changes in routine ultimately lead towards a dangerous path she cannot escape.
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