Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic book written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. It explores a new regime in America borne of an infertility crisis which levels the country’s population numbers. In it, the protagonist Offred takes her place as a Handmaid, one of a group of women who are still fertile, given the task of breeding for the sake of the country, now named Gilead. Aside from Handmaids there are: Commanders, men in a high position of power; their Wives; Marthas, who are often women of colour and act as servants/housemaids; Guardians, personal guards for the commanders; and Angels, or soldiers as we know them.

The book is eloquently and thoughtfully written. The narration is from Offred’s viewpoint, and throughout she reminds us of the nature of stories: they’re a fiction, often embellished for the writer’s benefit. ‘If it’s a story I’m telling, she tells us, then I have control over the ending.’ ‘This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction.’ She’s trying to understand her situation, its stark difference her previous life, and often in this book she is compassionate and empathetic to those around her. Even her tense relationship with her Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, is punctuated by an acceptance of the difficulty of her situation: her infertility, her arthritic, her vapid Wifely duties. She offers meditative observations on her surroundings. At one point she describes the sunlight catching an egg in exquisite detail. She then quickly justifies her decision to describe the egg: in this world, an egg is all you have.

A point is made throughout the book that Offred’s empathy and romanticism are useless in this world. Her emotional side makes her vulnerable. The contrast stands Moira, Offred’s friend from college, who is a militant feminist, aggressive in her views and mannerisms. She manages to get out of the options offered to most women: wife, Martha or handmaid. Instead, this almost masculine woman becomes a sex worker for the Commanders, which gives her certain level of freedom compared to most women in Gilead. She is able to talk more openly and express more emotion than Offred. However, she is, like all women, unable to escape this situation either, and misconstrues this relative freedom as complete freedom.

While the story of the book does redeem the situation in some ways, the epilogue of the book confirms this: women’s emotions, those of empathy, compassion, and romanticism, have no place in this world. Those seen possessing those traits are considered misguided, and the only benefits of womanhood are the bodily ones. Fertility and sensuality are the only traits for which women should be celebrated, the focus depending on whether you are religious or not. Passivity is dismissed, treated with scorn. A woman, in this world, is only as good as her body. Intellectually, masculinity and dogmatism are seen as the only agreeable traits, as it is assumed that masculinity must coincide with being Active. Despite knowing this, Offred remains more true to her femininity than any other characters in the book, an impressive state in a world which crushes the Woman. For those who identify as feminine Offred’s honesty to herself is inspiring, and much needed in our own world.

It is a wonderfully readable book, very self-aware in places, and I think the epilogue is extremely important in framing this novel, which otherwise might just be a compelling read without a richness to mine interpretations from.

Further reading:

Marita Sturken – Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering

Naomi Woolf – The Second Sex

Nina Power – One Dimensional Woman

Arial Levy – Female Chauvinist Pigs

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

Ian McEwan – Atonement