The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is well-known for being a banned book in schools because of the subject matter. I’ve always been interested in reading it, though it never showed up on any of my syllabi. So this year I read it for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. Atwood’s tale relates a not-too-distant future dystopia where a fundamentalist cult has taken over America’s government and set up the Republic of Gilead. Women have been stripped of all rights, including the right to have money, work, read, and write, based on manipulative and erroneous interpretations of the Bible. Instead, women are assigned roles in this new society, such as servant or handmaid, and then given to a man’s household. This story follows Offred, a handmaid, who is required to let her Commander attempt to impregnate her each month to combat the declining birthrate. In order just to survive this new world, Offred must maneuver Gilead’s strict restrictions of women as well as the uncomfortable relationships within her household among the servants, Commander, and Commander’s wife. But Offred also remembers what the old world was like – when she had her own name, was part of a family, held a job. As she clings to these memories while living within her new bizarre reality the story grows surreal at times, as if these two concurrent truths will exceed what her brain can comprehend.
Atwood explores the fine line between laws that protect people and laws that prohibit freedoms, as well as how man-made institutions can be used to oppress and dehumanize others. Gilead is a frightening and riveting world and a glimpse of the dangers that lie around and within us, such as racism and sexism, and how they can grow if we are not aware and intentional to combat them. This book does have some disturbing scenes but Atwood writes them with extreme intention and skill; they serve a purpose and are not gratuitous. What I found to be the most intriguing aspect of the book is that it shows the fallibility of man-made morality. I am so grateful that Christianity is not a set of rules that have men vying for dominion over each other and that restrict the liberties of some in order to give them to others. The guide of life set out in the Bible is from a holy and gracious God, not flawed and selfish man, and it is dangerous to try to turn His Word into laws of morality while discounting God Himself. His limits and restrictions are not in order to oppress and manipulate but to show us how to live life the way He intended us to, while valuing all mankind, who are made in His image. I am so thankful that the Gospel is true and that my faith is not devised by corrupt man but by a perfect God.