The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Series: The Handmaid’s Tale, #1
Page Count: 311
Publisher: Anchor Books
Original Publication Date: 1985
Genre(s): Dystopian, Classics, Fiction
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, the totalitarian and theocratic rule that has replaced the government of the United States. Women can no longer have jobs, own money, read or write, or do much of anything anymore, other than what they’ve been assigned. Handmaids are assigned to high-status married couples without children, their sole purpose to bear a child for them, as normal birthrates in the area have significantly plummeted. The trouble is, Offred remembers a time when things were different. When she had a job, a name, a husband and a daughter… She remembers, so how can she go on like this?
I’m not sure if, like many other students in America, you read The Handmaid’s Tale as assigned literature. I did not have that pleasure, so I’m making it a point to read it now, well into my twenties. Here in the U.S., I’m pretty sure sales have skyrocketed for this novel since 2016, when Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. I didn’t read it then, and I regretted that for a long time. But today, I’m actually quite glad I waited until January of 2021 to read this tale. Americans are not soon to forget the events of January 6th, 2021, when pro-Trump supporters (AKA Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, idiots with guns) stormed the U.S. capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the counting of the electoral ballots. Having witnessed that horrific event via news reports and social media livestreams, I think I can more easily believe the events that happened in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the fictional world, the president has been shot, Congress dismantled, the United States Constitution retired. I’ve always been a little paranoid about this type of fictional future becoming a reality, but it never really resonated with me that it could truly happen so quickly and so absolutely. But after watching that horror unfold a few days ago… It really made my reading experience that much more frightful.
The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first-person POV from Offred’s perspective. Offred is not our narrator’s real name—we are never provided that information. Instead, we only get her “new name,” which is a combination of the possessive “of” and her Commander’s name, Fred. Of Fred. Offred. The story jumps backwards and forwards along the timeline of Offred’s life, often quite jarringly: her life before, her life after, her life now. Offred occasionally addresses us as the reader, though at the end of the novel (I’ll get to that in a bit) we discover really she was recording her life on tape, speaking to us, the reader. Which makes the constant shifts in time feel much more realistic. For the first few chapters I was really put off by this constant time-jumping, but I quickly became used to it. I think this form of storytelling was more effective at setting the tone of the novel rather than just telling the story linearly.
The novel is not at all what I expected it to be. I’m not quite sure what I expected going into it, exactly, but definitely not that. The story itself is terrifying, though it doesn’t try too hard to be—it’s more like subtle horror, a glimpse of it here and then let’s talk about something else. I definitely felt sadness and anxiety and horror and sick while reading, but I think the most overpowering emotion for much of the novel was longing. Offred handles her situation really quite well. I think I would be more of a Janine, like that one scene where she just kind of loses it and starts crying and zoning out. But Offred just suffers in silence. Her story is filled with longing, though. Longing for her life before: her best friend, her job, her mother, her husband and daughter. It’s so painful to read, and it makes me ache. This is definitely a tough story to read, but an important one.
I loved the ambiguous ending. Knowing that Atwood did write a sequel (I’m sure inspired by the success of Hulu’s adaptation of her novel) where everything is tied up in a neat bow and all the dots are connected is a little sad. I enjoy standalone novels with ambiguous endings. I hate when authors think they need to write another book. I will most likely read the sequel, but I’m sad that we do get one. I would prefer the ending we got. Though after the story ends, we do get a sort of epilogue that I was mentioning earlier, called “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s set much, much later in the future, at a symposium at a university in the Arctic. Offred’s recorded tapes of her story have been found and published as a manuscript, which a professor discusses in depth at this symposium. Offred is long gone by now, and the Republic of Gilead is no more. It’s just a moment in history. I found these pages to be extraordinarily boring and slow, and quite unnecessary. I just didn’t care for it. I’d say that’s the only part of the novel that I really disliked. I didn’t need any “historical” context, I just wanted that ambiguous ending.
Overall I really enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Another “right time, right book” situation that really heightened my enjoyment (and paranoia). Though it was a little slow in some parts, and I disliked the “epilogue,” everything else was fantastic. I’m interested in watching the Hulu adaptation and reading Atwood’s sequel, and I’ll be sure to let you all know how it goes!