The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published: Houghton Mifflin/McClelland & Stewart, 1985
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula & Locus SF Awards
“In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words, because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....” ~from WWEnd.com
The Handmaid’s Tale was the November selection for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club. My autumn ended up being pretty busy, and I didn’t get some of the novels read in time. With this, I’ve finished reading and reviewing all of the Book Club’s 2011 selections. Reviews of the last two novels from the Women in Fantasy Book Club, and the last novel of Calico Reaction Alphabet Soup Challenge are coming up later this January.
The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the perspective of the nameless Handmaid Offred (as in ‘Of Fred’, the man she serves). Offred is an unreliable narrator who tells a disjointed story. While the narrative does follow one chronological chain of events, Offred constantly jumps back to tell stories from different parts of her past. Sometimes she abandons telling these stories partway through, or even fabricates tales of her past that never really happened. She’s a very passive protagonist, and she mostly just tries to keep her head down and survive. As a result, she doesn’t really have much to tell us about the overall organization or purpose of her society. In some ways, she is a very effective narrator, but seeing the world through her passive, blinkered eyes could sometimes be very frustrating.
I think that Offred’s namelessness and non-heroic nature are meant to make it easy for readers to imagine themselves in her place, and to force us to imagine what it would really be like to live in such an oppressive society. Instead focusing on the large-scale structure of the society, The Handmaid’s Tale features a very small-scale story of a single household. Instead of dramatic rebellion, we see Offred’s daily life and the little mental tricks she uses to try to keep from despairing. The writing itself is very plain, terse, and given to a clumsy kind of poetic rambling that one could easily attribute to a person of Offred’s position. The whole story is told as a reconstruction of events from the mind of Offred, so she also inserts many introspective comments about herself and other characters along the way. Overall, it felt like reading someone’s diary, and that’s exactly what I believe the narrative is meant to resemble.
The dystopia itself was highly detailed, even though we mostly see just Offred’s small corner. Men and women were strictly separated by their defined functions, and sexuality was strictly controlled. All the details of the society were carefully defined, from public and private social rituals, to punishments for deviation, to the role-defining color-coded clothing each person wore. There were comments about how ‘the details were still being worked out’, but they were typically said with respect to fairly trivial matters. The dystopia is explicitly connected to the novel’s contemporary society, and I had a hard time believing that such a thorough set of changes could be forcibly implemented in only a few short years.
While I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it is definitely a product of its time. For the more trivial 80’s connections, there were a number of pop culture or slang references that lost most of their resonance with me. In more serious territory, I’m guessing this was written with the recent shocking Iranian revolution (in 1979?) in mind, carrying the implication that something similar could happen in the US. While things probably felt different in the 1980s, I don’t think that the current US is in danger of this particular kind of pseudo-Christian revolution. As a result, the tale felt less like a warning and more like a compelling depiction of a fictional society that is truly horrific—not just for women, but for everyone.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting take on an oppressive, theocratic dystopia. The narrator Offred is a very small, passive person in the midst of a huge societal change, and she mostly just tries not to attract attention to herself. As a result, she does not have an awful lot of insight on the workings of the society beyond the house where she lives. However, the story is more about the state of mind of ordinary people who are caught up in this kind of a situation. Rather than rebellions, gunfights, or protests, Offred demonstrates the ways, both beneficial and not, that people might try to manage their own minds, to keep themselves sane and alive for a better future that may never come.