The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a direct product of before and after the establishment of the new Republic of Gilead. Once a free woman who could do as she pleased, Offred wakes up in a world of nightmares where her life has drastically changed in a short span of time. After the leaders of Gilead have decreed all capable women must dedicate their lives to reversing the country’s fallen birthrates, Offred becomes nothing more than a vessel waiting to be filled. In turn, women who cannot conceive nor give birth are assigned other roles and and become stuck to the bottom of the societal totem pole. The women who do not fit into either category, otherwise known as the old and unruly, are sent to the dreaded Colonies.
Offred’s duties as a handmaid are to respect her Commander, serve the Commander’s wife, and deliver the family a baby after a successful ceremony. But Offred can’t help wonder, is all female automony really gone, or is there a resistance flickering in the distance?
“We learned to whisper almost without a sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,” (4).
“I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace,” (12).
“There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes,” (22).
“The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deadwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion,” (112).
“They [men] aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right?” (121).
“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation,” (146).
“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 cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city,” (191).
“There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves,” (195).
“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening,” (222).
“I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack,” (249).
It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up a book that is a page-turner yet difficult to read. Somehow I think this is what Atwood intended, but it still startled me. I figured it would be shocking and a call-to-action, but in some ways I guess didn’t really expect how much the topic matter would affect me. I picked up this book a couple of months ago on Independent Bookstore Day at the Green Apple on Clement Street. I had heard of it and had wanted to buy it for awhile but for whatever reason I held off until that day. Currently The Handmaid’s Tale is surging in popularity due to the release of the new Hulu series (which I have yet to watch, but I’m sure it’s great) and the current political climate.
About 25 pages or so into the book I updated my progress on Goodreads and noted: “I love the way Margaret Atwood keeps me on my toes. At times the atmosphere will feel idyllic. She illustrates soft pastels of the wives’ clothing, neat gardens, and gentle whispers. And then suddenly, she brings the tension back with one unsettling line. It’s a striking balance.” When I think about the beginning in particular, this is something which makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel unique so I’m glad I wrote down my first impressions.
The setting Atwood creates is meant to be disquieting, but parts of it are familiar. In my mind this vague familiarity helps orient the reader while also keeping them off-kilter long enough to know something about this world is very wrong. Offred lives in what appears to be some kind of town but it’s a community (of sorts) nonetheless. She lives in a house, shops for groceries (with a partner for supervision of course), takes baths, and eats meals. There are blooming gardens in the background and cars to be washed on the driveways. But life is not anywhere close to normal. Often Offred will go from being treated as a prized farm animal to a slave and there isn’t too much in between.
Offred’s situation isn’t revealed in the beginning, but there are hints along the way. About halfway through I got a good sense of what was going on but it was also mysterious enough to keep me reading. I appreciated these small unveilings throughout the book because they sustained a web of tension and prompted character development. Most of all, I felt a sense of patience reading each clue which really made me respect Margaret Atwood as an author. When I’m writing I always want to give away the punchline, but Atwood does an amazing job of holding off until she’s ready to reveal her secrets.
The ending wasn’t quite what I pictured, but it was everything I could hope it would be. Even though I finished this book a couple of days ago I still find it hard to think about. Maybe it’s because there’s never a definite conclusion about how to reverse the wrongs. How do we re-orient ourselves after everything has turned upside down? In a world where women have been stripped of their rights and turned into objects only good for housework and babies, it’s a terrifying future to conceptualize. The power in The Handmaid’s Tale is it extends beyond a grim prediction into a warning. What that warning is may be up to you. For me, this may be a book I need to re-read because it just hits so close to home.