Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

When I was seventeen, I read Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. It was one of the first texts which awakened me to the idea of feminism and it remains on my bookshelf to this day.
From a flurry of recommendations, I read Louise O’Neill‘s ‘Only Ever Yours‘ over the festive season. On her website it’s dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls“. I was so engrossed in this I frequently missed my stop, and startled commuters with very un-British exclamations. This review does contain spoilers and discusses rape and eating disorders.
Both Atwood and O’Neill use the backdrop of a dystopian society as a platform to discuss gender issues. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ envisages a future world called Gilead run by a totalitarian theocracy which affirms ‘traditional values‘, which include return to patriarchal gender roles and conservative dress. An unnamed virus outbreak causes low fertility rate and birth rates are a priority and obsession for the government. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, O’Neill shows us an ultimate patriarchy where women, referred to as eves, are genetically engineered commodities for male consumption, and vessels by which the next generation of men are born.
In both Atwood’s Gilead and O’Neill’s future, infertility is considered the fault of the woman. In Gilead, any children born with deformities or disabilities are termed unbabies or shredders and are exterminated. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, Companions unable to produce a satisfactory amount of healthy sons or are exiled Underground and there are mass girl-graves of unwanted daughters prior to science eradicated natural female birth. Anyone who does not prescribe to the heteronormative values is considered a dissident. Women are taught fear and obedience, while men are taught competition and disciplineBoth societies have rigid hierarchies for both men and women, with women in the lower echelon of the society. Men are taught to aspire for influential positions in ambitious careers in the realms of politics and law, whereas the glass ceiling for women is being a Wife (Atwood) or Companion (O’Neill) to these powerful men.
ThugNotes on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
In Atwood’s novel, female roles are divided still further into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and Offred, the protagonist, is a Handmaid to Commander Fred, hence Offred or literally ‘Of Fred’; she is his property and has been renamed after she was “re-educated“. The social function of a Handmaid is to bear children for their assigned Commander, and one of the most harrowing passages in the novel portrays the ceremonial rape of Offred by Commander Fred, with his Wife‘s assistance. O’Neill’s protagonist is freida, a sixteen year old eve in her finally year of school before the Ceremony where she will be assigned her lifelong role in society as either the ideal companion (wife and mother), concubine (prostitute) or chastity (teacher to the next gen of eves). freida has been trained from her creation to scrutinise herself and others on their appearance, to learn obsolete ‘decorative’ skills like baking and indoctrinate to value herself only based on the opinions and desires of society’s men.

While Offred has been indoctrinated, she still retains echoes of her former individuality. In the past society, she had her own name, a career and a family. In her new situation she is detested by the Commander’s Wife while also under pressure to bear the Commander and his Wife a child. She tries to negotiate her bizarre situation while Commander Fred attempts to engage with her on a human level, and she becomes emotionally entangled with one of the Commander’s workers. freida is a product of complete indoctrination, as are the other girls in the school. Whilst there is the usual adolescent interplay, there is also an insidious atmosphere of female rivalry exacerbated by ranking, insecurity reinforced by body dysmorphia and a total absence of accurate and useful information, open discussion and mutual support. The girls are isolated from the world and each other, seldom intellectually stimulated and their confidence constantly undermined.


Two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill

Both novels present harrowing dystopias of intolerance and inequality, with a focus on gender and sexuality. While we’re constantly progressing towards a more equal society, there is still so much to be done. There are places where aspects of these novels are closer to reality than a dystopia. I’m so glad more people are having open discussions about feminism and there is a greater understanding of why patriarchal societies are detrimental to people of all gender identifications.

Louise O’Neill discusses ‘Only Ever Yours’

The protagonists of both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ and ‘Only Ever Yours‘ are inherently products of their society, but they reveal an awareness of something lost from former times. For freida this is the nature channel, which represents a sense of scope and history; for Offred this is the remnants of her self-hood and individuality represented by her former life, half-remembered. In these fictional worlds, gender is a hard binary, gender roles are prescribed, and society is divided and hierarchical. Femininity is a performance and the idea of woman is stripped down and separated to the point of fragmentation. A woman cannot simply be, she must belong to someone else.





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