The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart, 1985, 311 pages
As a handmaid, Offred’s life is monotonous. She spends most of her days in the home of those who own her or around town with Ofglen, shopping for the needs of her household. With flashbacks to how the oppressive world of Gilead (modern-day Maine-area) came to be, Offred is only safe in her imagination until she begins to put small amounts of trust in those around her, including the Commander; his wife, Serena Joy; Nick; and Ofglen. Perhaps even those upholding the military dictatorship under which the characters live want something more. But Offred must first decide if she’s willing to find out at the cost of her life.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic, and there’s no denying that. As it happens, the book is resurging as an important piece of literature as many readers see similarities between the book and our current and future state as a country and as a government. Literature is powerful.
It’s fortunate, as it turns out, that so many are reading it at once. There are plenty of discussions going on about the book and, while I haven’t yet sought any out myself, it’s to the book’s benefit. I was certain as I read the novel that I would have gotten a much better sense of a variety of angles Atwood approaches had I had the opportunity to discuss the book in a classroom or even book club setting. Atwood is no stranger to literary allusions, and I know I missed more than a few in this novel. While many biblical nods are easy to pull out, Atwood no doubt includes many others to works with which I both am and am not familiar. This is not, of course, a shortcoming of the book — in fact, I admire books which handle allusions with skill and subtlety. Instead, it’s a shortcoming of myself and my reading environment.
Atwood writes the book with a first person narrator in the present tense, which requires the reader to continue guessing Offred’s (the narrator) end. With so many authors choosing first-person narration to aid in the surprise of the death of a character, readers might wonder if Offred is approaching her earthly end. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t yet read the book, but this first-person present narration is an interesting choice beyond just the fate of the narrator due to a final chapter in the novel.
Juggling a military dictatorship, a past, a present, and the philosophical feminist ideology throughout the text, Atwood does run into an issue of ambition — maybe. Offred’s descriptions of characters and their personalities beyond the Commander and the caricature of Serena Joy are limited. I never fully felt I got a grasp on any of the characters’ true personalities. I’m caught, however, between believing this was a point for improvement in the novel or if it was deliberate, showing how not only Offred attempts to protect identities from her apparent disobedience at recording her story at all, but also how the regime has forced people into limited displays of their true selves. This isn’t to say that each character is entirely flat — for the most part, they differ from each other and are individuals, just not to the extent I would expect given the skill in craft in other areas.
The same issue occurs with the worldbuilding. While readers do not get a full tour of Gilead and the world beyond Offred’s immediate space in any sense, perhaps this was deliberate. Offred, in her reality, may believe anyone accessing the material she creates is already familiar with Gilead, and so there is no motivation to describe the nuances of the world and make it real (I think of Harry Potter, of course, and the relatively inconsequential Diagon Alley, of which I know far more than even I know about the whole of Gilead). So, unintentional, or deliberate? I can’t say.
Atwood does accomplish a great deal with tension. With strength in syntax and, yes, withholding information, the prose creates an atmosphere that urges the reader onward with a great deal of discomfort, not unlike a great horror movie. Although few moments in the book are truly exciting, the almost-there is what does it for most scenes, the what-ifs and if-only Offred did this or that and oh, she is so close to doing it. The psychology within the novel is projected into the reader’s mind and veins, amping up with every page and bringing it to a crescendo toward the end.
And by the end, we are left with only ourselves to look at.
I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #16, “Read a book that banned or frequently challenged in your country,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤