After a little break in the Atwood Project, I’m back with The Handmaid’s Tale. I decided to skip a couple of the novels as I really wanted to jump to the books I was desperate to read. I’m hoping to go back to Life Before Man and Bodily Harm at some point, most likely towards the end of the year. In order to make it a more comfortable challenge I have abandoned the idea of reading chronologically as it places too much stress on the challenge, and this is meant to be fun!
Fun is probably not the best word to describe The Handmaid’s Tale, though. I knew what to expect going in, such is the legacy that this book has. It was clear from before the cover was lifted that I would endure a fundamentalist state in which women are knocked down the totem pole to languish as slaves and biological machines. Such is the force with which Atwood writes, I couldn’t shake a feeling of rage throughout my entire read.
In our current time, society is being pulled up on sexism, racism and bigotry, so The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant now as it was in 1985. Many of the issues and nuances can be seen in attitudes around the globe. Particularly with the recent news of rape in India, this novel carries a vast weight. And, what perhaps garners the most fear is the fact that the situations dealt with in the novel don’t seem unlikely. Atwood portrays the arrogance of man and our ‘want’ to adapt in horrific detail. Men see women as the weak link in a chain; it is shades of history coming full circle – Ouroboros at its finest.
“You can think clearly only with your clothes on.”
I suppose the one thing we fear is making the same mistakes twice. We have oppressed women in the past and deemed them a lower class. Here, society is doing it again, but in a much more brutal and upsetting approach. The central character Offred is used in such a way that only connects to the audience through pain. Whether she is forced to have sex with the commander to produce children (as she has been deemed fertile by the government) or whether she is covered to stop her “blatant appeal” to all men. This is a world in which people cannot help themselves any more, a percentage of them is practically parasitic.
Atwoods’ trademark feminism is striking on each page and how could it not be? In her previous books she has tackled how women are forced by society to see themselves; here we see how society sees them. They are there to reproduce, to clean, to prostitute themselves when no other avenue is available. Heaven forbid they be barren and sent to toil in the fields or cleaning up radioactive waste. But there is no voice of reason. Offred becomes confused as to whether women do in fact deserve this life. We, the audience, must keep the morals alive in our hope for change.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
Perhaps the most interesting section of the novel comes at the end, where we hear from a conference in the future where they discuss this period of upheaval. We hear more of the backstory and we begin to define the nuances with clarity. Atwood flits between using speech marks and leaving dialogue open for certain reasons, which are revealed at the end, but hinted to within the text.
While I found minor issue with certain aspects of the timelines, the novel transported me to a place I would never want to see again, but learned so much from. While Atwood’s earlier novels set up her future as a commentator of the times, The Handmaid’s Tale defines her as one of the best to perceive humanity as it truly can be. Not only that, but it elevates her into a renowned status as one of the finest literary minds the world will ever see.
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
*It’s worth noting that everything above is my own perception of the metaphor and plot, and is of course very basic (I am no expert in any field and am just an everyday reader).*