The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Fiction | Dystopia
“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…”
pooled ink Review:
I’ve had this book on my radar for a long while but have simply never gotten around to reading it. When Hulu announced that they would be adapting the story into a TV series it finally kicked me into gear because the trailer looked good and I wanted to read it before I saw it (I’ve included the trailer at the bottom of this post). I’ve watched part of the movie but from what I saw it takes some liberties, both with plot and timeline. I didn’t feel particularly motivated to finish watching it at the time but perhaps I will.
This book…it is not a very uplifting story. Not that I expected it to be really. But if there was any undertone of hope then it was very subtle for a good majority of the book. Take a YA dystopian novel and then make it more depressing and you’ve gotten a sense of this book. Because although many YA books take on darker themes and realities than most adult fiction, they always always have that strong undercurrent of hope burning within them. Alas, it turns out adult books are just depressing and…adult. Actually it’s similar to the tone of George Orwell’s 1984. Clever, creative, but dead depressing.
Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
Of course this comment is ironically anti-feminist as by Gilead forming a “women’s culture” through the rules of men it really isn’t a women’s culture at all.
Dystopian novels are always a social commentary. Whether intentional or unintentional they always poke and prod some aspect of our society or another. This one is no different although it goes about it in a much less blunt way despite its bold themes laid bare and businesslike. It draws heavily on themes of feminism and the woman’s role in the world. There are numerous mentions of Offred’s mother who was an activist for women’s rights and participated in several protests and marches when younger.
There are several comparisons and ponderings made by the narrator, Offred, about things taken for granted. She often felt embarrassed by her mother’s activism, she took the rights her mother fought so hard to win for granted. And now she’s living in a world, reduced to the holy station of a Handmaid, because they did not fight, they did not believe such things could ever truly happen. When she sees the no longer rebellious Moira resigned to a flavor for the man’s world she imagines her mother, probably living in the Colonies with her once fierce spirit crumpled and broken.
Gilead is a country that uses religious texts and philosophies to its convenience so as to support their own desires. It draws heavily from select passages found in the Bible’s Old Testament that are twisted around and perverted to serve their purposes. A main pillar of Gilead is the sanctity of women, but this also is twisted.
Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack of connections.
While before Gilead was formed women were cat-called, debased, objectified, and raped, now Gilead claims to honor and protect them above all, but in protecting them they have enslaved them.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
True, people had the freedom to abuse and belittle women and Gilead’s laws have provided women a freedom from this, but by protecting women so severely they’ve reduced her to a faceless slave with no freedom, no rights, no desire, only duty. Just because women are valuable does not make them valued, in fact by the trends of human greed it makes them less so. Precious objects to be locked away, coveted, hoarded and hidden.
Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.
Society has been plagued with sterility and so the ability to give birth has become far more precious, hence the role of a Handmaid – women spared and imprisoned for their fertility (because of course they’d never bother to test the men for sterility). The birth of life is no longer a choice, not even a cooing miracle, it’s a desperate necessity. Something once praised, bemoaned, awed, or despised is now something rare and snatched at by dying bloodlines. Offred is little more than a machine procured to conceive babies, and the wife, Serena Joy, is but a face for a picture, forced to endure sharing her husband…for the good of Gilead. Offred makes a good point when she wonders if it is worse for the Handmaid or the Wife.
It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you. It is only natural.
Serena Joy can be cruel, all the women are oddly cruel to each other considering they all suffer in this new world. It’s interesting to ponder… Especially when the pressures of duty and failure are being cast upon women. Gilead embraces women as jewels, and yet any flaw found in the stone is cause for banishment, torture, execution. You’d think they’d ban together, rise up as one, …and yet they don’t. A Handmaid is a Handmaid, a Wife is a Wife, a Martha is a Martha, a traitor is a traitor. Perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are more realistic than YA novels when it comes to the harsh likelihood of people daring to overturn such oppressive societies. Well, like I said earlier, it’s depressing.
As to the writing style of this book, rather than an aggressive or simply exciting driving plot, this book unfolds more as if the author, through Offred, is simply exploring an idea. Personally my mind wandered occasionally, or I’d get bored and put it down to take a nap or watch Netflix. It’s not that the ideas weren’t interesting but, well, like 1984 its fascinating concepts weren’t quite enough to win the match against the depressing prose that kept pushing me away.
This is a good book but I’ve an inkling that the Hulu adaptation will do a better job of chilling my blood. Even the 1990 movie did a decent job of capturing the darkness and desperation that defines this story.
There’s an epilogue of sorts that concludes this book entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” and is described as a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” which reveals that Offred’s story was recorded on old audio cassette tapes and were discovered some time later. They do not know who Offred is or who any of the people she mentions are presuming that she changed their names in case her tapes were discovered by the wrong people. But they discuss and speculate on her story.
It’s an interesting way of concluding the book especially as the final chapter ends on a note of chilling uncertainty. We are left to wonder if Offred is captured by enemies or allies. People come for her, she goes with them, but we do not know who they are for certain or what becomes of her. Well, until you read this epilogue because the mere existence of her audio tapes suggest that she survives at least long enough to record them.
I really love the final line of this book as well. It’s the nail in the coffin, isn’t it? Offred’s story, a story she endured, a story she suffered through, a story she managed to preserve and protect for the future. Offred’s story, in this one line, is reduced to little more than a class discussion topic. And that is utterly chilling. It shook me because it’s what becomes of all history. Oh man, it really shook me.
Are there any questions?
Purchase here: The Handmaid’s Tale
Meet Margaret Atwood!
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master’s degree from Radcliffe College.
Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid’s Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.
Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
Trailer for the new Hulu series: