The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an unspecified future in which the United States no longer exists. A wave of successful assassinations and extreme religious reform has washed away modern society. In its place stands the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that values fertility in a time of reproductive drought. The novel’s protagonist, Offred, is among the few fertile women left in the country. Because of this, she is forced to become a Handmaiden, a walking incubator for the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. As she struggles to keep her sanity in this new world, Offred also tries to weave her way through the cracks in the system and find a way out.
I’d been curious about this book for a while, but I never had the time to stop by Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy. Busy with school, you know? Though a few weeks ago I saw it sitting on the shelf at Wal-Mart, so I decided to take the opportunity, bought it, and began reading that night. When I finished, I wasn’t sure how to feel. At first it was disappointment. I thought it was good, certainly well-written, but sometimes I was bored by it. I think reason for this was: A) I began reading it when I was six episodes in the Hulu television series, so in a way, I kind of spoiled myself; and B) My expectations were too high.
I was prepared to sink my teeth into a sweeping sci-fi drama with an epic, climactic finale. I was waiting for the moment when Offred finds a way out, joins the underground resistance movement, and initiated the collapse of the Gilead empire. (Clichéd, I know. I’ve got the plots of Hunger Games and Divergent ingrained in my brain.) Instead, the book is more of a slice-of-life, a quick glimpse into how the character functions in this world.
The physical and emotional hardships Offred is forced to endure are disturbing to say the least. She, like all the Handmaids, is treated as property, a thing to be used for breeding then traded off like cattle. You would think that since the growth of Gilead depended on these fertile women, the Handmaids would at least be treated with dignity and respect. Though that luxury is reserved for the Wives, the upper-class women closest to power. Even then, the Wives seem to have limited freedom. Serena Joy barely leaves the house, and when she does, it’s only to spend time at another Wife’s house. I’m not arguing characters like Serena Joy are deserving of sympathy, but it’s interesting how hollow the lives of even the privileged women can be.
Albeit Offred isn’t the most fascinating character I’ve read about, she is smart and at times humorous. These traits alone were enough to make me care about her well-being. The power-struggle relationship between her and the Commander is very telling of what I saw as a major theme of the novel: hypocrisy.
I could go on and on about gender-based caste system of Gilead, and how horribly the women are treated. I won’t because I’m sure its been pointed out hundreds of times since 1985. But here’s what really got under my skin. Its mentioned in the novel that marriages in Gilead are pre-arranged, and I believe it was the Commander himself who said that love wasn’t an important factor anymore. Though he constantly invited Offred to his chambers, hoping to establish a connection through rounds of scrabble and giving illegal gifts. People are expected to adhere to a religious, fundamentalist lifestyle, and yet the men are allowed to travel to government-run brothels in the city whenever they please. Even the Wives sometimes partake in illegal behavior.
For a society so adamant about following an oppressive set of rules for “the good of people’, there sure is a lot of falling back on old ways. It’s also shocking to see how Gilead will punish certain aspects of the old society (an openness to homosexuality, alternate ideologies, etc) but are accepting of others (prostitution, men participating in sex outside of marriage). The hypocrisy can also be applied to the role of women in this world.
Overall, this was an good read. The pacing is good, the tone is even, and the writing is really good. It did get slow a few times, but not enough to make me give up. It’s one of those books that gets better the longer you let the words sink in. It paints a truly haunting portrait of a woman trying to maintain her sanity and identity.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bookmarks