The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date Read: 6th June 2017
“The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.”
The Handmaid’s Tale had been sitting on by bookshelf for over a year remaining unread, well that was until I heard that the book was being made into a TV show – and this was the push that encouraged me to read the book before I had any chance to watch the TV adaptation. After finishing it, it can be said that it is definitely an emotionally manipulating book – in a good way – and so has made it onto my list of favourite books. I found that the way the book dealt with ideas surrounding self-awareness and consciousness, especially within a repressive society, was very similar to that of 1984 by George Orwell. However, even though both of these books represent a repressive, totalitarian state they focalize on entirely different aspects of life within each society. The Handmaid’s Tale was heavily focused on how sexuality and gender in society was being controlled and how life is being led as a result of this change, which helps to creates the dystopian setting that Margaret Atwood must have desperately wanted to present. However in 1984 the focus remains on where the power exists within society, how everyone is being controlled and the regime they are under rather than the logistics of it all.
The book is written by the narrator who remain’s distinct from the character of Offred, the Handmaid who the novel revolves around. This kind of double narration emphasises the confusion at which the narrator is also subjected to due to the controlling regime that Offred exists under. So where the narrator questions the morality of what is happening so does the reader. Reading the book it was very difficult for me to get my head round the regime that was being enforced in the city of Gilead, the women were segregated into smaller sub-categories, as a result of a role and function they will perform in society. There exists Wives, Handmaids, Aunts, Marthas and Econowives and together their roles aim to increase the population rate but by doing so they must adhere to the rules that have been created and so they remain entirely oppressed by this male-dominated society. The men in this setting are placed in positions of power and control such as: Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians. The rules that exist in Gilead are enforced by the ominous presence of the Eyes who won’t deter from punishing those who stray. In this futuristic setting of America the divisions between gender have been completely emphasised and returned to an incredibly archaic hierarchy which was shocking enough. It’s worrying how easy it could be for our society to regress to a situation like this where power and control has fallen into the hands of a dangerous group and is being enforced because it’s thought that it’s being done for the greater good.
Despite all the characters adhering to the rules that they live under, there exists a side to them where the reader gets to see how they actually are, separate from their society. I found this quite emotional in some respects because you see how restricted all of these characters are and how they actually feel about their way of living. Moira who is friends with Offred, is the brave and independent woman who tries to break free of the system and hides away where she manages to lead a life less oppressive than the one she was leading as a Handmaid in Gilead. However her journey to get to this place in society was not easy and riddled with obstacles, danger and fear of punishment from the Eyes. The Commander, who Offred is Handmaid too, is at first a placid man who is merely following the orders set down in society. The Commanders role is to impregnate Offred, so he and his wife, Serena Joy can have a child. However once Offred spends time with the Commander it can be clearly seen that he actually craves an emotional relationship which he is being deprived of entirely. There is also Nick who engages in a sexual relationship with Offred, which is completely illegal as it involves an emotional attachment of some kind. However Offred, encouraged by Serena, embarks on this relationship to increase her chances of becoming pregnant and reduce her chance of becoming an Unwoman, which she will become if she gets to a certain age and never bores a child. Just this point alone, seems like such a limiting way of looking at women in society as it makes them seem important for the idea of reproduction, which the feminist in me does not like at all.
Even at the end of the novel, there are fears that Offred has been reported to the Eyes because of the close relationship she has developed with the Commander and her friendship with Ofglen where she gained knowledge of Mayday, the resistance to the government. However this ambiguity at the end of the novel is very dramatic and lends a sense of anticipation that will never be fulfilled which is what I appreciate about the ending itself – nothing is tied together. Questions regarding Offred’s survival are raised and how her tale even managed to come to the eyes of outsiders. These points are alluded to in the Historical Notes at the end of the novel but it is all hypothetical, all the judgements made are subjective and the truth will never actually be known. It’s a frustrating yet captivating way of ending a novel and I really enjoyed reading it and was satisfied with the ending despite not being given a final resolution to the system carried out in Gilead.
Although now this just leaves me with a very strong desire to watch the TV series and hope that it lives up to my expectations that the book has so readily laid out for me. So if you’re wondering whether to pick up this book at all, I’d suggest to do so if you’ve read 1984 and like the idea of contemplating about a dystopian future. Even if you haven’t read 1984 either, if you want something a bit shocking to read this book will definitely suffice.
By Beth Morley