"Are there any questions?" This sentence ends the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale and, for readers, of course there are many questions left unanswered because Margaret Atwood's classic of feminist fiction is a complex story told by an elusive narrator.
In a future not too distant from 1985 when the book was published, the US has become Gilead - a patriarchal dictatorship. The story opens five weeks into the narrator's first posting as handmaid to the Commander and his barren wife, Serena Joy.
The narrator will be known as Offred (the handmaiden of Fred) for as long as she remains the property of this Commander. There is a crisis in fertility and Offred is forced to endure the ceremony every month. In a ghastly parody of normal intercourse Offred lies on top of Serena on the marital bed as the Commander attempts to impregnate her. Any child she bears will be raised by the Commander's wife.
We learn in a hotchpotch of flashbacks and memories that Offred was once married and had a young daughter. Like all women she was deprived of any rights when the regime took control. At first life seems to carry on much as before, but the narrator is now totally dependent on her husband and she senses that he doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. But this is a second marriage, something that is now forbidden and when the family attempt to escape across the border they are separated.
Indoctrinated by the brutal Aunts to accept their role as handmaids, fertile women are vital to this society, but are treated as pariahs. Offred is unable to give readers a full picture of life in Gilead because her existence is totally restricted. She has her own room in the Commander's house, but the door cannot be locked. She is forbidden to own anything, is not allowed to read and can go out only once a day accompanied by another handmaid. She is now merely a womb on two legs.
But life is little better for other women. Even the relatively privileged Wives are far from free. They have no choice, but to accept the presence of the handmaids in their homes and to take part in the humiliating ceremony. They can only go out to visit other wives.
Unmarried and infertile women must work as servants, Aunts or prostitutes. If they are too old, or refuse to conform, they risk becoming unwomen shipped out to labour in the colonies. This fate seems to have befallen Offred's mother, once a militant feminist.
The regime ensures that women see each other as enemies rather than companions. Serena calls Offred a slut and even the servant Rita says that she wouldn't debase herself like that.
While the novel focuses on the situation of woman in this society, there is also an implicit understanding that the lives of men too are poisoned by a regime like this.
Along with Angela Carter's reimaginings of fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber and Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid's Tale is a story arising from the women's liberation movement that has stood the test of time because it is such an enriching read.