The Handmaid’s Tale

Today we’re kicking it old school with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  How I lived all these years without finding this book is beyond me, but it is pure magic.  As an English teacher, I have an annoying habit of asking everyone I know what their all-time favorite book is.  Usually I get answers that I’m familiar with, but when my friend responded The Handmaid’s Tale, I had never heard of it.  I immediately bought it and dove right in because I am a sucker for Dystopian novels, especially if they draw comparisons to Brave New World, 1984 and The Hunger Games.

The book was published in 1985 (the year I was born!) and centers around a woman named Offred in what used to be known as the United States, but is now The Republic of Gilead.  The society has been taken over by religious fanatics who interpret a small portion of the Old Testament as the be-all, end-all of the country’s rules.  Democracy has collapsed due to the assassination of the president and all members of the House, and is replaced by a scary, Totalitarian Theocracy.

Something unknown has caused widespread infertility, so all women capable of having children are forced to live with a man known as a Commander, who attempts to impregnate his handmaid in the most impersonal way possible- while all are fully clothed and she is lying in between his wife’s legs.  Oh- and the handmaid also holds hands with the wife in the process.  Creepy.

One leader comments that “‘Our big mistake was teaching them to read.  We won’t do that again.’”  This quote sums up the restrictions of the women in the society.  No reading, no friends, no learning unless you are in the Red Center and becoming a handmaid.  If the latter is the case, you aren’t learning as much as being brainwashed to agree with the system and its rules.

The narrative hinges on the idea that Offred made cassette tapes documenting her experiences, and historians in the future transcribe these tapes for research purposes. Offred has lost her husband and daughter, but considers herself somewhat lucky because her fertility allows her regular meals and a bed.  The “Unwomen,” or women incapable of producing children, are not as lucky.

As a reader, we have to trust Offred’s perception of the world around her because it is only her words that survive time.  Sometimes she still seems guarded- like she’s saying the wrong thing- because of the nature of the Gilead society.  While it’s frustrating to only know what is going through Offred’s head, and not necessarily know what the other characters are thinking, I feel she is portraying what she sees, and that is more than others in Gilead.

My favorite part of the story was Atwood’s ability to utilize symbolism in the best possible way.  From the repetition of eyes emphasize the feeling of being watched, to the flower imagery used to create a world of beauty despite the horror around the women, Atwood incorporates these concepts skillfully. English teacher moment: the flowers could also symbolize fertility.  It is just there for you if you look.

I also enjoyed Atwood’s use of language. The writing was mesmerizing and beautiful.  Atwood is obviously skilled at her craft.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “This is what I feel like:  this sound of glass.  I feel like the word shatter.”
  • “The lack of fear is dangerous.”
  • “I want to go to bed, make love, right now.  I think of the word relish.  I could eat a horse.” – random, but beautiful in its own right.
  • “Yet it isn’t waiting, exactly.  It’s more like a form of suspension.  Without suspense.”

Despite the fact that critics complain that the story could never actually happen, many portions of the book were terrifying.  Do I see this happening in the immanent future?  No.  In my lifetime?  I’m not going to rule out the possibility.

While this post is pretty thorough, I have not ruined the book for you at all.  There is so much more to it than I would be able to communicate here.  I’m going to leave you with one last thought: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.  You’ll just have to read to find out what I mean!

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3 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Pingback: Cat’s Eye | Mer's Magic

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