The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Here's a book I wish I would have read years ago, maybe college-age. Certainly I might have changed my mind about some things sooner rather than later. I might have recognized rape culture for what it is and my role in it.


As it is, The Handmaid's Tale is still revolutionary. It's still applicable; its dangers are still real. There are even some dangers that have only grown since the book was published in 1985, such as the way computers and the internet could very easily be used to deny rights and identities.


One of the story's traits that emerged as unique and notable to me was the protagonist's less than heroic journey. She is not a rebel; she takes stupid risks, but even those are just like the personal risks her predecessor likely took. She is an ordinary woman and likely thinks and acts just as most of us would in her position.There's something both identifiable about that also potentially unsympathetic. We've grown accustomed to heroines who make big moves, who are courageous for those big moves, like Katniss Everdeen. We go harder on people like us because we know we'd make the same mistakes, fail to make the big moves.


Offred's story is presented as a historical document, but we only learn the probable details of its telling at the end of her story. It's simultaneously funny and infuriating to see how her tale is being presented, by male scholars at a conference set in the future, when Gilead is in the past and a part of history. We don't learn Offred's exact fate, only the possibilities. We learn who her Commander was likely to be, which adds a layer of comprehension and contempt. The scholar reminds his audience to be conscious of the present context in interpreting and understanding history. This complicates the story's telling, for the fictional scholars and for us as readers, even if Offred's story and world are a fiction.


I have to mention also the writing and structure. It's obvious Atwood is also a poet, but her language never becomes overbearing in its lyricism, filtered through Offred's perspective. The structure impressed me with its shifting between past and present just at the right times. The "historical notes" at the end indicate that the scholars ordered the telling of events, as the story was found recorded on a set of cassette tapes. I love that little addition. It's Offred's story but has been assembled by men (in a book written by a woman).


The structure works also in the impressions it creates regarding the male characters, especially the narrator's husband, Luke (we never learn Offred's real name). He isn't very layered (purposely), but my thinking of him changed from the beloved to the reality that he's just another man in certain ways, too. There's an implication that inside every man there's the desire for total possession of women.


I underlined sentences in this book as well as circled some sets of pages. It's smart, suspenseful, and wonderfully written. I'm glad I FINALLY read it.