I read The Handmaid’s Tale soon after reading Children of Men. The authors both begin with the premise that humans become unable to procreate, and they explore the possible effects of such a situation on civilization. I found the former much more disturbing.
The Handmaid’s Tale follows one woman as she tells her story. Offred is 33-years-old and part of the last generation to remember what life was like before the government was overthrown and replaced with the Republic of Gilead. Offred is able to interweave her past and present to show what she has lost in a relatively short time.
Gilead is a patriarchal society. After the revolution, women’s rights were immediately ended. Workplaces were required to fire all women. Women were no longer allowed to be educated. Their only worth was in the ability to reproduce.
Handmaids are fertile women given to high-ranking men to bear children in the event their wives are unable to do so. They have no name except a generic one to signify their owner. Handmaids only have 3 2-year contracts with men to bear a child. This new society didn’t even consider the possibility of the man to be sterile. Reproduction was completely the responsibility of the woman. If a handmaid failed to produce a child, she became an unwoman. Unwomen were those who were sterile or were unwilling or unable to conform to the new social order. They are sent to labor camps and worked until their early deaths due to dangerous toxins in those colonies.
Offred (of Fred) is the handmaid to the Commander and Serena Joy. Her only duty is to bear a child. She has to perform a monthly ceremony that consists of the Commander having sex with her while she lies between Serena Joy’s legs as if they are one person.
“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.”
There isn’t much choice here for a fertile woman: handmaid or certain painful death as an unwoman.
If a handmaid does conceive, the baby stays with the couple and the handmaid is reassigned. She is supposedly guaranteed to never become an unwoman, though I don’t know how they can be sure. Offred never says where she would end up if she had a baby. I imagine she would become a Martha (basically a housekeeper) when she was infertile through age. Once she was too old for that work, I’d be certain that such a society would then send her to the colonies.
Being a wife is no better. She has a social distinction that is essentially useless, though this doesn’t stop her from gripping tightly the little power she has over a handmaid and her Marthas. She has no rights. She has to endure a monthly humiliating event. She also lives a hopeless life.
I didn’t exactly enjoy reading this book. It is depressing, and it is hard to see how there can be any positive outcome for Offred. I think this book bothered me more than Children of Men because it was so outrageously restrictive of women while COM was more of an equal opportunity civil rights offender.