I have a confession; despite its fame and ever popular reviews, I had never before read the modern classic that is The Handmaid’s Tale. Whilst I’d read other things by Margaret Atwood and knew that she was an excellent writer, I had never really felt a burning desire to pick up what is arguably her most famous piece of fiction. With the rise in dystopian novels, many of them seemingly influenced by the iconic Atwood, as well as the success which seems to have followed the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I decided it was about I ticked this one off my list.
As already mentioned, this book is a dystopian novel set in a time period which is assumed to be in the somewhat near future. We follow Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, in a version of America where the government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Essentially, what this means for Offred is that she has one sole purpose in her life, and that is to breed. Stripped of all of the former rights of her gender, Offred must obey the rules or face the same brutal fate of those who have already been punished or hanged in the name of God. Through Offred, we come to understand the true horrors of this world.
The novel itself uses a first person narrative through Offred. What I especially liked about this approach was the way in which the author combined this narrative with time periods set both in the present as well as before the politics of this world were changed. Unlike many dystopian novels, our main character here actually knows that the environment she is subjected to is not how things have always been. Before the Republic of Gilead was formed, Offred was a normal woman with her own name, living her life through her own choosing. She knows the value of what has been taken from her and what she is truly being subjected to. Yet this direct insight is not overwhelming or overly confusing as we learn the true extend of Offred’s new life piece by piece. The novel takes a very zoomed in approach initially, with the lens then focusing and growing wider as we come to learn more about the intricacies of this world and its social ideologies. In doing this, we are cleverly kept engaged and wanting to know more.
What I also liked about the contrast between the present time in Gilead and Offred’s thoughts back to her life beforehand, was that they never felt disjointed. Quite often these moments of reflection are linked to instances in the present which have inspired them, and so a connection to the past is established at the very same time the memory or thought occurs to Offred. The fluidity of her thoughts kept the novel fresh, whilst also being reminiscent of the modernist technique of stream of consciousness, albeit without the randomness of such ways of writing. The scenes themselves are also quite short and snappy, which carries the momentum of the novel well. I think this is a testament to the way in which Atwood writes, as is the novel as a whole. A passage which I think illuminated the authors skill runs as thus:
‘I sit in my chair, the wreath on the ceiling floating above my head, like a frozen halo, a zero. A hole in space where a star exploded. A ring, on water, where a stone’s been thrown.’ (p. 210).7
Not only is her writing sophisticated, it is quite often beautiful in its imagery.
Something which is very evident within this dystopian is the very regimented society which Offred is a part of. This is very fitting as it is quite a military based regime, with soldiers and various armed forces fighting the wars which are raging outside Gilead. The novel goes further than this though, breaking the society into further sections which include the Handmaid’s (such as Offred), the Commanders, the Wives, the Martha’s, the Guardians, The Eyes, and so forth. Through this, we gather a clear sense of just how structured things are, and the rigidness which women like Offred are surrounded and contained by. Even so, the novel never feels overwhelmed by such groups, with the focus clearly sustained on Offred herself. The comparisons between the Handmaid’s and that of animals is also extremely evident throughout, with ‘electric cattle prods’ in use to control the women, and ‘walks, twice daily’ (p. 14), reflecting their contained and controlled environment. At one point in the novel Offred and several other Handmaid’s are subjected to the eyes of a group of tourists who are eager to be photographed with them. The Handmaid’s are victims of their gaze, just as animals in a zoo. This scene in particular is unsettling in the way that the lives of these women have been so easily accepted by outside societies, as well as becoming somewhat of a novelty, a cultural difference to be documented.
Obviously, as you can imagine from the premise, this novel is very much focused upon gender studies, and takes an especially close look at ideologies surrounding women. However, there is so much more than this within the novel just crying out to be examined and analysed. Her quotes on the way the world was before, and in particular how people’s states of minds have changed or been forced to change, was really very interesting. A particular quote which I found extremely poignant was in a scene which ran as thus:
‘I’ll take care of it, Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real. So that’s how they do it, I thought. I seemed never to have known that before’ (p. 202).
As you can see from this short extract, the way in which the characters think has changed massively from what it once was. They have been forced to adapt new thought processes, have learnt to disconnect from the world and those around them in order to survive. A second quote, and perhaps my favourite of the book, was the fact that better ‘always means worse, for some’ (p. 222). In a modern world experiencing such dramatic changes, this is a startling assertion, and one which is frightening in its accuracy.
With the nature of this totalitarian Christian theonomy, it’s to be expected that religion would be a key figure. Whilst it is not really discussed heavily in terms of faith, it does explore the bible as a text itself, and provide examples for how extreme literal interpretations can be made. I find this idea completely fasincating and love exploring how some people can take things so drastically out of context, or follows something so manically to the very letter, that things become so distorted. Perhaps my only issue here was that I would have liked more of this, especially the psychology of what might make someone believe in this. For instance, there are many women who fervently endorse this new society, despite what it has cost their own gender. I would have really enjoyed exploring this idea further.
I am really glad I finally got around to reading this novel. It was definitely worth the read and is a book which I would recommend to most. I was slightly worried that it might have been over-hyped, and whilst I did not give it a five star rating, and it did not necessarily blow me away, I still thought it was completely enjoyable. Having read it, I can definitely see how it has set the modern precedent for many other dystopian works, and now understand more fully the influences it has had upon other authors.