First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells the story of Offred, a woman living in a dystopian society that has reverted to a biblical treatment of the female sex. As a handmaid, Offred’s only purpose and duty in life is to become pregnant and preserve the human race. The story has recently seen an upsurge in popularity, given the political situation in the United States and the well-timed television series adaptation.
I primarily wanted to read this book because I’m a fan of Atwood. She usually has a sharp and compelling narrative, painting a beautiful portrait of both ordinary and extraordinary lives and circumstances. Plus she’s an honest writer, and so her female characters have always intrigued me more so than the superficial, low-density chick lit fem-heroes. Despite being, growing up as, and experiencing the world as a male, The Blind Assassin proved to me that literature is capable of conveying uniquely feminine experiences in an engaging and potent manner. The Handmaid’s Tale continues this trend.
This review will consider the three major components of every novel: plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers.
After the murder of the President of the United States and a significant number of congressman in a suicidal attack by Islamic extremists, America becomes a backward society where women’s rights and freedoms have been taken away, the primary reason being that something has affected women’s ability to reproduce, and so different categories of women have been assigned to different tasks within the new totalitarian patriarchy. Young, fertile women are “handmaids”, property of the commanders (important political figures), whose sole purpose is to be fucked once a week in order to produce offspring. There are also regular maids, nannies, priestesses, nuns (trainers), and the wives of commanders (who are typically older, was a “somebody” in the past, unable to reproduce, and hate the handmaids).
The initial first chunk of the novel was underwhelming and slow. Much of it is setup and descriptions of what the world has devolved into, and while some may find dystopian worlds intrinsically fascinating, descriptions of things can never fully engage me.
The plot, however, gets very interesting when the commander initiates a midnight rendezvous with Offred, something he is not supposed to do, both morally and legally. This scene shows a dramatic power shift, demonstrating that Offred does indeed have some influence over the commander, and it isn’t even about sex. He asks her to play Scrabble. This moment of yearning for a human connection for both the commander and Offred is the theme, the heartbeat, of this novel.
I hesitate to call this book a “feminist” book. The 2010s have dragged that label through the mud. This book is about the human experience, how we all desire respect, dignity, love, autonomy, and freedom. It just so happens that women and men must earn these things in different ways (or do they? But that’s a whole other blog post). The novel does not promote hatred against men, nor does it blame women. It achieves the goal of feminism by effectively telling a story about women’s experiences, the good and the bad, and that’s all.
Being a dystopian novel, there is, of course, a tragedy inherent in Offred’s story. Even after gaining this power over the commander, she cannot escape the fact that she is still merely a babymaker. The fact that Offred deals with this and passively accepts her lot (except until the very end) was a somber yet somewhat uplifting moment. It is sad, of course, when a character submits to unfairness and injustice, and yet Offred finds her own little bits of happiness in her life (Nick, companionship with Ofglen, the indulgences provided to her at the midnight meetings, and how the commander treats her as a human during those meetings). Thinking about it now, I’m not even sure if I can call it bittersweet. It’s strange and perplexing, so kudos to Atwood for creating these confused feelings.
Thus, while the plot does start slow, it eventually gets interesting when character motivations begin to take over, and there are quite a few interesting personalities.
Offred is a passive character. She isn’t a driver of the story, but that doesn’t make her boring. It is through her perspective that we get the story, and her reactions and point of view help to keep the story interesting because she is intelligent and highly perceptive. There is a difference between whining and protesting, the former being an expression of discontent without offering any solutions, while the latter is an expression of discontent with a solution. Yes, the sad solution here is tired acceptance and compromise, but this is what makes Offred believable. She is even aware that in a fantasy, Moira would’ve burned down the whorehouse full of commanders, but reality is grimmer and less romantic. While Offred never puts an end to the humiliation and inhumanity of her situation, she endures it while staying true to her own personality, and in that way she is truly the hero of the story.
The second most interesting character, for me, was the commander. In the beginning he appears to be indifferent to Offred and the rest of the household, but when he begins initiating the midnight meetings with her, he doesn’t want sex. He wants to give her a taste of the old life; and sometimes he wants a “real” moment with her, one where she doesn’t have to play handmaid and he doesn’t have to be commander. This desire for a genuine human interaction stood out for me as probably the most dystopian feature of the novel. In a dystopia societies have usually lost something very valuable, whether its everyday security, freedom of expression, or the sun itself. In this story, even though certain men have gained absolute control over society, they still have a desire to be “liked” by women. Perhaps an interesting comment can be said here about the dynamic of power and gender relations, but I read books for fun, and this strikes me as a particularly effective way of making the commander more human, while at the same time giving us the briefest hope that Offred might have a happy ending.
The rest of the supporting characters are varied in their roles and personalities. We have Serena Joy, the cynical wife who is just as trapped as Offred; Moira, the bra-burning lesbian who is both Offred’s hope and disappointment; and there are the other housemaids and Aunts, all of whom represent how other females may have coped in this oppressive culture. Though the cast may not be as big as, let’s say, Game of Thrones, the principal characters are interesting enough to carry the story along.
Deceptively simple and minimalist, Atwood’s prose is poignant and to-the-point without being coarse or blunt, except when Moira’s in the room of course.
But by being able to switch between serious, witty, observant, active, and funny, Atwood’s narrative guides readers along a twilight-zone tour of what happens when society takes a huge leap backwards. And by keeping it simple it doesn’t come off as pretentious or pulpity (new word alert!).
Since the book is first person past tense, it is filled with introspective passages that engages the reader directly. Offred makes plenty of observations about her life and life in general, and it will definitely give readers pause about their own lives and reality. What should we think about a woman whose only duty is to give birth? Is Offred correct when she makes assumptions about the commnader is thinking? Is the life Offred has really worth living? Atwood isn’t trying to be philosophical, but the story does present interesting questions whose answers would have implications in our daily lives.
The narrative serves as a conduit to an excellent story, and as such, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels like a complete package.
Read if you like dystopias, female perspectives, and Atwood. Do not read if you dislike slow narrative, inner monologues, or female perspectives. The book isn’t crazily ambitious, but it is a reminder of the differences and sameness between men and women, which is an important lesson to absorb and remember. Definitely not Atwood’s best, but worth a read if you still like her other work.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.