Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Release date: June 1988
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5
When she was out in the world, the world as it had been Before, she hadn’t known how free she was. She was free to marry her lover, Luke, and they were free to have a daughter together. She was free to hold down a job, to have money of her own, to wear whatever she liked and go wherever she wanted whenever she pleased.
Now, all of that is gone. Offred, as she’s now known, is a prisoner in the house of a powerful Commander in the new Republic of Gilead. A Handmaid, Offred must bear a child for the Commander in the place of his aged and jealous wife. As a woman, she controls nothing—not what she does, or with whom she consorts, or even when the Commander attempts to impregnate her. She’s not even allowed to read anymore.
But Offred, despite her mounting desperations, hasn’t given up hope yet. Even in these times, there are ways of escaping—if she has the nerve.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been on my to-read list for a long time. I thought I would like it, so I was saving it for a rainy day when I needed a good book. Over the holidays, I finally opened it. To my surprise, I didn’t like it—I loved it. I devoured the story, even dreaming about it.
Atwood provides just enough detail of how the world as we know it shifted to construct a convincing dystopia. In addition to telling a compelling story, Atwood is clearly trying to convey what the world would be like if second-wave feminism and religious conservatism combined to control women’s sexuality. It’s a very real scenario (particularly in the eighties, when the book was written). Yet Atwood’s gorgeous prose is laced with insight that is never heavy-handed:
I don’t want to be telling this story. I don’t have to tell anything, to myself or to anyone else. I could just sit here, peacefully. I could withdraw. It’s possible to go so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out.
Atwood dives deeply into Offred’s thoughts and fears as she oscillates between determination to survive and a helplessness that drags her down:
I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever. Others have thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.
The structure of the books is terse, short, broken up—like the narrator is rushed or interrupted in telling her story:
All I can hear now is the sound of my own heart, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening
And so the chapter ends. It adds tension to the narrative and leaves the reader wondering what happens next. It’s inventive not simply for the sake of experimentation, but to move the story forward in an original and compelling way.
The last section, an appendix of sorts, hit an odd note. I didn’t think it added much to the story. Perhaps it was to clarify for readers who wanted more context of the handmaid’s world? But some of the readers I polled informally hadn’t read that section, and I think the story is stronger without it.
Otherwise, I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was pitch-perfect. It creates a believable, fascinating society and explores important ideas. I highly recommend it!
Quote of note:
The things I believe can’t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it. This is also a belief of mine. This may also be untrue.