In Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian classic, nothing happens ‘that hasn’t already happened at some time or another’.
Offred is a national resource. In the Republic of Gilead her viable ovaries make her a precious commodity, and the state allows her only one function: to breed. As a Handmaid she carries no name except her Master’s, for whose barren wife she must act as a surrogate. Dissenters are supposed to end up either at the Wall, where they are hanged, or in the Colonies, to die a lingering death from radiation sickness. But the irrepressible Moira shows Offred that it is possible to cheat the system.
Miss Atwood has succeeded with her anti-Utopian novel where most practitioners of this Orwellian genre have tended to fail
In 2016, Atwood’s handmaidens became a symbol of resistance around the world. Although the distinctive red cape and white bonnet is a sign of oppression in the novel, the outfit has become a sign of feminist protest, worn by women protesting for abortion rights in Ireland, against the state visit of Donald Trump in London and at the Women’s March on Washington, DC upon Trump’s inauguration.
Atwood told the Guardian in 2018: “The handmaid’s costume has been adopted by women in many countries as a symbol of protest about various issues having to do with the requisitioning of women’s bodies by the state.
“It has even been used on posters in the context of the Trump-Putin relationship, with Trump as the handmaid. Because it’s a visual symbol, women can use it without fear of being arrested for causing a disturbance, as they would be for shouting in places like legislatures.
“No one can accuse them of being immodest: they are well covered up. But everyone seeing these groups of women know what they mean in the context of the individual protest, whether it be Ireland, Argentina, or Arizona.”
In 2017 The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for television, with Elisabeth Moss in the role of Offred. The show was praised by critics, with Sam Wollaston of the Guardian saying: “It is a brilliant adaptation – some changes, but loyal in what it says and what it asks.”
The show has won awards including an Emmys in 2017 for Outstanding Drama Series and for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Elisabeth Moss, and the Best International Programme award at the 2018 BAFTA Television Awards.
Watch the full series on Channel 4 here.