The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published in 1985
Genre: Dystopian, speculative fiction
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian future where a religious sect has taken over the United States of America and transformed it into the Republic of Gilead. Patriarchy reigns supreme and a bastardized version of Christianity is the law of the land. Due to this, the Handmaid’s job is to be the sacred vessel for the coming generations. Read: used strictly for procreation. These Handmaids are indoctrinated and made to do their “duty” (awkward and uncomfortable sex) through unquestioning faith. The main character, Offred (whose name is based on the name of the Commander that she serves. Literally meaning “Of-Fred”, it is more of an identification of property. Other characters are named Ofwarren and Ofglen), recounts her experiences as a Handmaid and through her recollections pieces together the change undergone by an entire country and culture.
I believe that structure is one of the most integral parts of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is non-linear story, meaning that the events are not necessarily presented in chronological order. The timeline skips and flashes back in order to give context and insight into Offred and her life. There is also no definite or closed ending for Offred; we are left at the cusp of the climax. Will she escape or will she be hung like the unfortunates seen earlier in the book? We do not know because the ending is left open.
Another part of the non-linear structure is the use of stream of consciousness writing. At times, It seems that Offred’s narration goes off in tangents and a lot of her word association brings up memories that have little or nothing to do with what she was previously talking about.
Around halfway through the book, Offred begs us to question the validity of her memories. She continually says that “this is a reconstruction”, warning us that things may or may not be as she recalls them. There is a scene in which she describes the three possible outcomes of her husband, Luke. She knows he is either dead, alive and being tortured, or alive and has escaped. She feels that she must keep these three possibilities alive (lazy pun slightly intended) because if she doesn’t, she will lose all hope.
Since the only information we get about Offred is filtered through what she decides to tell us, we don’t get any physical description until around the halfway point in the book. While this would typically come about in the early stages of the novel, the non-linear structure allows the belated revelation to work because up until that point, the importance of the story comes through Offred’s account. This distance between her thoughts and appearance parallels the separation between her mental and physical selves in the execution of her “duty” (such uncomfortable sex) as a Handmaid.
Along with the structure, the craft of The Handmaid’s Tale serves a necessary purpose as well. I noticed a couple of chapters in that Atwood doesn’t use quotation marks around her dialogue exchanges. This is something I have run into before with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, but the strange thing was that around page 183 in my copy, they suddenly appear. Then, a few chapters later, they disappear again and reappear sporadically for the remainder of the book. I searched around the internet for a time to see if anyone had some insight into the reason for this. So far, no such luck. I personally saw no connection between the quoted dialogue exchanges but it definitely seems deliberate.
Since much of the story is told in retrospective first hand accounts, there is some exposition present but the vast majority comes in the epilogue. We learn more thanks to the efforts of a future academia in its pursuit to understand what happened in the Republic of Gilead. *Spoiler alert* It is revealed that Offred’s account is taken from cassette tape recordings that were recovered by some college professors who were unable to figure out who she really was. This lends some practical credibility to the stream of consciousness in the book since we often branch from one topic to another in our speech.
Atwood’s writing itself absolutely stupendous. Her use of poetic imagery through Offred’s recollections shows the character’s attempts to find beauty in a world where there is so little to cherish. At times, the descriptions and events are both heartbreaking and gorgeous simultaneously. There is one passage in which she says, “I feel like the word shatter.” I can’t tell you why, but the way in which she builds the sentences leading up to this statement embedded the emotional pain in my consciousness. (I guess you’ll just have to read the book. Mwahahaha)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a well executed cautionary tale at its worst and an immensely thought provoking story of struggle at its best. Atwood crafts a jumbled but coherent account of a servile position that no one would wish to find themselves in and shows us a female character that makes her own choices despite the overbearing oppression that surrounds her. Offred is uniquely real and she has quickly become one of my favorite characters. Go read The Handmaid’s Tale now; you won’t regret it.
Verdict: 5 awkward and illegal games of Scrabble out of 5
Recommended for: Those who enjoy strong female characters who find their own agency in a patriarchal theocracy (kind of a niche market, but there it is), lovers of non-linear fiction, and people that like poetic imagery and the triumph of the human soul over adversity.
Not recommended for: meninists, children (mature subject matter and language), the close-minded, or the illiterate.