The Handmaid's Tale is fashioned as a dystopia, with an emphasis on feminism. The novel takes place in the late twentieth-century Republic of Gilead after an extremist right-wing group takes contol of what was formerly known as the United States. The main character is Offred, a Handmaid whose sole task in society is based on her biological function to produce children. Due to environmental pollution, a scourge of declining birthrates has befallen the nation. The Gileadean solution, essentially what critic Karen Stein calls "state-sanctioned rape," is a monthly fertilization ritual of the handmaids by the Commander of the Faith appropriated to them by the government. Thus originates Offred's name, literally denoting her status as a possession of Fred.
Under the guise of religious salvation, the Gileadean regime builds a social structure that is rigid, oppressive, and above all, misogynistic. Women in Gilead, "two-legged wombs [...] sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices," are valued solely for their fertility. As complacency replaces the strong wills of the independent woman around Offred, her hope diminishes as well. In her horrifying tale, Margaret Atwood emphasizes the idea that the oppression on women in a totalitarian state is powerful enough to destroy the human will.
By exaggerating some existing misogynistic attitudes and intertwining them with an affecting plot and characters, Atwood finds similar success in her endeavors to shed light upon and caution against a horrific societal treatment of women. Although it's just as depressing as fellow dystopias 1984 and Brave New World, it's more beautifully written. Like the two other novels, however, it's frighteningly plausible and in some places feels all too familiar. I highly recommend this book to men and women. Read it even if you don't think it's "your type." This fascinating story is creative and in depth- it is not to be missed.