I've read this book so many times now, it was part of my English Literature A2 course, so as you can imagine I know it pretty well. So I thought I would just post about it and some of the things that I think when I read it.
CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS
So anyway, the scariest thing about The Handmaid's Tale is that you can actually see the situation actually coming into being. If a religion did take over part of the world then it definately would be Christianity.
When I did my English coursework I was comparing it to George Orwell's 1984 so there will be times when I compare it to that (which I am just about finished re-reading, avoiding the scribble of course). So be prepared for spoilers on 1984 as well as on The Handmaid's Tale.
First off a major part of The Handmaid's Tale is religion, the only accepted Religion being Christianity, though at the start of the regime it was insinuated that if you were a Christian in general then you were ok it became clear as the novel progressed that Catholics, Baptists and Quakers were just three of the Christian denominations that were prosecuted in Gilead. In many ways you could say that Atwood's creation of Gilead resembles Nazi Germany in many ways, such as the prosecution of minorities. There is also a major suppression of the press and news, what the Government wants it's subjects to see rather than what's actually happening, this is simular to the use of the Telescreen in 1984 and how Big Brother is always watching. The best way to describe the people in power would be to say Evangelists, as in they believe that, at least some, of the Bible should be interpretted literally, i.e. the story of Rachel and Leah which is certainly central to the story of the protagonist Offred. Though religion doesn't play a large part in 1984, in fact it appears to have been abolished, the rigour shown by devouts in the Handmaid's Tale could be likened to the almost worship given to Big Brother.
What I did my coursework on, and so what you're going to have to endure a complete rant on, is the representation of women in the two novels, something that is extremely different. Atwood presents her women as property almost. The Commander (presumably called Fred due to the possesive name Of-Fred) seems to not only own his wife (Serena Joy) but his Handmaid (Offred) and to some extent the Marthas (Rita and Cora), they all live in his household with only one other male, the chauffer (Nick) and this is true for most of the elite of Gilead. Even though women are more or less possesions in Gilead even sex itself has been changed beyond recogntion (to people today), the same can be said about sex in 1984. Sex in the Handmaid's Tale is all about procreation, and that it is it really. The way Offred first describes the ceremony that happens once a month to try and concieve a baby, was that the Commander was 'f***ing the lower half of her body' she was completely disengaged from the sexual activity, in that part she points out that though there is no feeling and no emotion, even no desire it is still not rape. This is possibly the scariest part of this book. A woman was taken from her home, husband and child and is made to have sex with an ageing married man (with his wife also present) and it isn't counted as rape. The thing is if you (as a fertile young woman we're going to assume) were given the choice of certain death or a chance to live by having a baby that would be taken away from you which would you choose. I know that I wouldn't be brave enough to choose certain death. I don't think anyone would.
Sex in 1984 is simularly de-emotionised (not even a word I know) and is simply for pro creation, this is in a different way though, this is just to stop bonds of love and affection between a husband and wife, who are in fact equals in the society of Oceania. This is the major difference between the two novels, in 1984 women are exactly equal to men, and can be seen as the same, the female members of the party are seen to wear exactly the same as the male members of the party in the form of their overalls.
The major simularity in the two novels in the way of sex is that both of the protagonists, Offred and Winston, rebel through it. In Offred's case it is her explicit relationship with Nick, that we, as readers, never discover the true nature of, though at points it would appear that there is something more than just sex between them, this is suggested ultimately by the fact that Nick helps Offred to escape, by the fact that we know that Nick know's Offred's real name (the evidence points to this being June, though as she never confirms or denies this there is no way of knowing) and the fact that they both believe she is pregnant. On the other hand Winston's relationship with Julia seems to be more about the act of rebellion than anything else, even the first time they have sex it is more about the act of rebellion than the desire to have sex itself. Simulaly when they are caught they 'betray each other' which it is clear means they stopped loving each other, though I suspect that they didn't love each other in the first place.
The major major difference between the two novels is the way that they end.
With the Handmaid's Tale there is a definate sense of hope, though you never find out what happened to Offred after her presumed 'escape' the fact that the epilogue is a lecture about the Gileadian period suggests that there was an end to the oppression faced by Offred and her peers. This would suggest that there can be an end to a dystopia. I suspect that the reason that Gilead fell was simular to the reason why Communist Russia fell, and why Nazi Germany fell, because the rest of the world could still be constituted as 'normal' as in there wasn't dictatorship throughout the whole of the rest of the world, presumably (with the exception of the USA/Gilead) the same amount of dictators in the novel as there already were in the late 20th Century. In a way this does give hope in case some religious order does take over a provinence of the world.
On the other hand Orwell's world in 1984 is a far more dismal and depressing place. In the end, both Winston and Julia (as well as many other characters that we meet during the course of the novel are broken by the party and become devoid of all human emotion, and so party zealots. They give up all of their own ideals and feelings. Like in The Handmaid's Tale I reckon the reason that the dystopia fell was because the rest of the world was 'normal' I believe that 1984 and the state of Oceania is much more perminant simply due to the fact that the world is split up into three major super states who are all in equilibrium with each other and so there is no way of the rest of the world could help them out.
I would suggest to anyone that likes things of a political/religious nature to read both of these books, to everyone else, read the Handmaid's Tale first, it's a bit more easy going than 1984, though both are definate reads! Also please don't be put off by the fact that Big Brother (as in the TV show) was inspired by Orwell, the book is so much deeper and better than the developped TV show, which I personally think completely degrades what Orwell was trying to say.
Another dystopian novel is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley if you want more, another good book, though I have only red this once and so don't remember it as well as the above books!
Also if you have any questions about what I've said in this post (I know I can get a little ranty and use some weird words when I go into English Lit mode) then just let me know and I'll answer them. Also if I can find a copy of my coursework then I'll post that up too for you!
Til Next Time,