The Handmaid’s Tale
‘Maybe the life I think I’m living is a paranoid delusion…Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.’
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. Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful vision of the future gives full rein to Margaret Atwood’s irony, wit and astute perception.
I must surely have been in a rapidly shrinking pool of people who had neither read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, nor seen the recent television adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss. I decided to temporarily forgo the latter and enjoy the novel without anyone else’s imagining of the story influencing me.
Originally published in 1985, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ depicts a dystopian America in which fertile women are precious commodities owned by those in power. Our protagonist Offred is one such fertile woman, and as such her one purpose in the world is to bear a child. Offred is denied her own name, the chance to form her own relationships, and the rights to her own body. Any handmaid caught reading, writing, drinking, taking drugs, or any of the other innumerable actions considered illegal in Gilead is liable to be hung or to be sent to the colonies to clean up radioactive waste. It is under this oppressive and male-dominated theonomy that our protagonist must survive.
I found the world of Gilead immediately compelling. Atwood does not attempt to create a pseudo-future but relies rather upon a world which is remarkably similar to ours. This brings the horror of Gilead’s society into full focus and emphasises how fragile our own laws and morality really are. The happenings that prompt the creation of this society, religious fanaticism and environmental disaster, are possibilities in our own time, making the reasoning behind Gilead’s cruel misogynism follow a twisted and insidious logic.
What at first sight appear to be clear-cut characters are in fact three-dimensional and able to elicit a huge array of emotions from the reader. The Commander, a serial rapist, is also a vulnerable and lonely man, eager to impress and to establish his masculinity. Serena Joy, his wife, is cruel, jealous, and an enabler of her husband’s crimes. She is also a victim of domestic abuse in her own right, and her clumsy attempts to make a confidante of Offred betray a need for companionship. Offred herself is variously bitter, vengeful, brave, and empathetic, eking out a relationship with the Commander’s driver whilst still harbouring fantasies of escape. The only monochromatic character is that of Gilead itself, and ‘The Eyes’, the secret police who put into question the motivations of every character except Offred. The undercurrent of a watchful state is an often-used device in literature, but is used so skilfully here that Offred walking to buy groceries with Ofglen becomes a nail-bitingly tense scene as each character weighs the chances of the other being an informant.
I found Atwood adept at keeping me on the edge of despair on behalf of Offred. Interspersed with the grim struggles of the protagonist are memories from happier times, when she was in a happy relationship and retained her independence. This regular juxtaposition simultaneously lightens the tone of the book whilst emphasising the bleakness of Offred’s new existence. Her ever-more reckless dalliances with Nick, the Commander, and Serena Joy provide a heightening sense of disaster, and so it proves. A last desperate dash into the unknown for Offred leaves us wondering whether she is going to her redemption or doom. A brilliant, dark read that will never lose its relevance.
Thanks for reading. Find my other reviews below…