The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This review contains spoilers.

I very recently bought my first tablet, mostly for reading on (accumulating books gets heavy when you are in the habit of moving countries every few years). I’d held out for a while; I love the feel of books, the smell of books, highlighting sentences and marking pages. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the last books I’ve bought second-hand, and on the inside cover is the inscription – in large, lovely, loopy handwriting – “Happy Birthday Claire loads of love Steve Carra Jay & Megan”. I realised that this is something else that is lost in the digital age – the personal traces left behind, the shadows of readers gone before. I’m still very happy with my tablet, but perhaps a touch sadder about my waning connection with ‘real’ books.

All of which really has little to do with The Handmaid’s Tale, the first Margaret Atwood book I’ve read. Atwood is one of those authors who is often talked about, and deservedly so. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautifully written, the story is compelling, and the structure is interesting. Not five minutes after I purchased this book, however, a friend of mine commented that he had hated having to read it in high school. Perhaps his complaints wormed their way into my brain somehow, but something about The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t sit quite right with me.

First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead – a dystopian future society in which a Christian dictatorship has overthrown the American government. The country has reverted to Old Testament practices, resulting in a society where women are repressed – by both men and other women (a strict hierarchy of female roles encourages distrust and forces women to turn against each other). The story comes in first person present tense from thirty-three year old Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’, the man she is enslaved to). Offred is a ‘handmaiden’ (read concubine), and her sole purpose is to provide her Commander and his wife with children.

In numerous interviews about The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood makes it clear that she doesn’t regard her novel as science fiction, but rather speculative fiction. According to Atwood (in this article by Joyce Carol Oates) the idea for the novel came from hearing people in America comment on the repressive regimes in Iran and Afghanistan. “It can’t happen here,” people would say, which to Atwood was a cause for concern. For Atwood, America’s strong Puritan Christian roots made her feel that such a society could eventuate in the US and Canada, if the conditions were right. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood wanted to show that the Republic of Gilead belonged in the realm of possibility (hence the term speculative, not science, fiction). “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done”, she notes in this article in The Guardian, “…or for which the technology did not already exist.”

I think it is this idea of real possibility – a fundamental part of the novel – that felt slightly unbelievable to me, and kept me from becoming fully involved (emotionally and intellectually) in the reading experience. Part of me was always sceptical. Perhaps I’m being naive; I certainly agree that these sorts of awful things can and do happen in some countries, and (coming from Australia) my understanding of American culture and history is nowhere near comprehensive. But I still can’t bring myself to believe that something like the Republic of Gilead could occur in today’s America. Angela Carter – a great friend of Atwood’s – called The Handmaid’s Tale “a superlative exercise in science fiction”, and in this sense the novel works well. Thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale as some sort of prophecy or warning, however, feels like taking things a little too seriously.

I did find some of the language in the novel to be overly serious; a little too dramatic and emotional. And repetitive. I liked the ambiguous ending to Offred’s story, but couldn’t see the point of the epilogue at the end of the book. It felt far too explanatory (spelling out aspects of Gilead that were subtly placed in the story itself), and didn’t reveal any new information, aside from the fact that the society had eventually failed (something I think most readers would have assumed, or at least have enjoyed wondering about).

I really liked the way Atwood structured the story – balancing immediate and detailed descriptions of Offred’s daily life (shopping, sleeping, fucking) with glimpses of her past as a free woman. In this way, the world of Gilead was revealed slowly, and held my interest. Atwood is certainly a beautiful writer, with a gift for descriptive language. I was never bored, and overall I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be enjoyable, at times disturbing, and perhaps a little too “speculative”.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer. Her novel The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize in 2000. The Handmaid’s Tale has been challenged by some high schools for its explicit content. In 1990 a film version of the novel was released, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. 

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