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 valued only 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….1
I can’t say I had actually heard of the Handmaid’s Tale before seeing that the book had already been turned into a TV show and was well into its first season. After reading Oryx and Crake in college, Jamie recommended the book to me and I actually didn’t mind it, marking it as the first Margaret Atwood book that I’ve read. Margaret Atwood is a world famous author and activist and a jewel to the crown that is Canada and recognition is necessary where credit is due, but with that being said let us discuss the book at hand.
I haven’t really seen a full preview for the Handmaid’s Tale TV show so nothing was really spoiled for me other than a woman that appeared to be a nun wearing red rather than black, but that is all. When reading the books, the handmaid’s are often described wearing these winged headcovers like a nun’s habit. The way Atwood speaks of them as being protective and tunneled I more expected them to be wearing birdlike plague masks than habits. In this dystopian tale, the world has gone to crap and naturally the only way to fix problems caused by men is to suppress and destroy the lives of women. Women viable for childbirth are taken to facilities run by Sisters where they are taught their new way of life and how to be more submissive. While there are those who attempt to escape through various routes, many times the result is being shipped off to a place only known as The Colonies. The Handmaid is given to a family run by a Commander, a man in a position of power. Their lives are dictated by religion, routine and fear. An organization known as The Eye runs everything and has people hidden throughout to ensure things run according to the new laws. A Handmaid, while precious, is also replaceable and the bodies hanging on the wall in town are an ever-present reminder of this. Our Handmaid is known as Offred, a nod to the name of her Commander. The name she used in the past is not one to be spoken. If she is successful in completing her duty she will be sent to a new Commander and given a new name.
Offred gives us a glimpse into a dystopian world where the things that were once trivial and rarely given a second thought are things you could now only dream to exist. Though I haven’t looked into any other works by Atwood this would be the second dystopian work of hers that I’ve read and it would not surprise me to find more. Atwood is a well-known poet and as I mentioned before, a jewel of Canada and worth recognition. For someone like myself who enjoys writing, books, movies, and music you would think that poetry would be part of my repertoire but there is something about most poetry that I find to be pretentious and painful. Atwood’s award-winning poetry skills are prevalent in the book, though perhaps a better choice of word would be rampant if not long-winded. Though not to cast stones too harshly, I did flag the following as an interesting aside, though Atwood’s writing style makes the actual story more of an aside than the asides.
p. 221 “Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.”
This is a fine example of a great and beautiful thought turned ramble, brought back to the topic only to disappear in a cloud of smoke once more. There are a time and place for prose, but when 3/4 of the novel consists of these asides and rambles it is hard for your mind not to drift away to other more interesting things. When you do come back to the novel you realize you’ve gone on a tangent longer than a page and still have not come back to the actual story letting you know that your daydreaming can continue until familiar words and phrases signal that we are getting back on track.
I couldn’t help but flag two more passages from the book where Atwood is so in tune with her reader and how they may be perceiving the book.
p. 149 “I’m too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one. This is the story of what happened to Moira.”
At times I too was too tired to go on with the story and to think about where in the lost prose I was. That is when my mind too found a different story to drift to, a better one.
If this does not appease you to Atwood’s connection to her reader let us turn to p. 307 and 308 and unearth a few more gems.
“I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light….
I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments…
Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story…”
Too right you are Atwood, too right so I will end your suffering now. The book isn’t without its merits. The few lines of an actual story were intriguing enough to get me through and I’m actually interested to see the TV series, though I can’t imagine how they were able to continue into a second season. The Handmaid’s Tale is best left to a quick online search for a plot summary and perhaps sticking strictly to the TV series. Having not seen the series yet, I can’t guarantee it will be any better, though going into a second season it may be just as time-consuming.
- Book summary courtesy of Penguin Random House book page.