The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Apologies everyone but I finished this a while ago and it’s taken me ages to get around to writing a review!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood took FOREVER to get through (about 5 weeks to be precise). I’m going to blame that mainly on my dissertation, but one thing I will say is that this book is difficult to read. You have to sit down fully prepared for a coarse subject matter and for me the last thing I felt like doing at the end of a long day was sitting down to oppression, corporal punishment and an appalling lack of human rights.

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a young woman, Offred (Of Fred, as in belonging to her commander, Fred). Society has transitioned around her and there is no escape. Through flashbacks we learn her old life was a domestic one, complete with boyfriend Luke and daughter, but now her family has been taken from her and she is made to act as a concubine for the wealthy men, the commanders, in the hope of giving them children. Fertility rates have declined rapidly due to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and problems with contraception. There are very few woman left able to bear children. Those who have proven they are able through previous conception are the handmaids, the concubines like Offred. They are made to dress in flowing red gowns and headpieces to disguise their sexuality and given extremely limited freedoms. Their diets are controlled and smoking, drinking and the use of any other substances is banned. They have regular health screenings and do little other than perform routine tasks for the household. Their existence has one purpose: to procreate.

This novel is creative but it’s not innovative. Atwood uses only laws and beliefs known to exist in certain cultures around the globe. The novel depicts Gilead as a homophobic nation, the women are made to cover their skin with long gowns and winged hats and are not allowed to leave the house without permission and the chaperoning of another handmaid. The novel explores the class system – the women dress in coloured gowns depending on their position in society – and the power of political extremism. No one breaks the rules through fear of death, those who do find themselves swinging from ‘the wall’. The leadership have eyes and nothing escapes their notice. The novel incorporates ceremonies and rituals not too dissimilar from those in some far corners of the world and then there’s ‘The Red Centre’, the camp created to re-educate these women. Through the medium of fiction Atwood has merged some of the worst violations of human rights imaginable into one nation. The result? Something scarily a little too close to reality.

Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, I am about to discuss Saudi Arabia today. I realise there is a flaw in this plan but I doubt much has changed (for the worse anyway) in the last 31 years and will therefore plough ignorantly on. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied, they must be escorted by a guardian (known as a Mahram) wherever they go. Saudi women are banned from driving, opening bank accounts without their husband’s permission and from wearing any clothing or make up that enhances their beauty. In fact most women wear abayas (long black cloaks) and headscarfs. Their faces need not necessarily be covered but this is to the chagrin of some hardliners. Saudi women risk criminal charges should they spend time with any male outside of their family and reading uncensored material is banned. It’s not too hard to see where Atwood may have gotten some of her extremist ideas from. The Handmaid’s Tale may exaggerate some of these beliefs – in the novel the handmaids are not allowed to read at all and all reading material is said to have been destroyed – but they are very much present in today’s society.

The Handmaid's Tale

I praise Margaret Atwood for the ingenuity of this novel. She has uniquely combined some of the world’s most major flaws and also predicted some of the issues the world would face in this rapidly-changing modern era.

Now enough of the mechanics of the novel and down to the nitty-gritty.

The Handmaid’s Tale is excellently written. The language is eloquent without standing out as being pretentious and the plot is well paced. My one issue with the structure of the novel is that it is very segmented. Each section (I say section because it is structured with chapters within chapters) is typically only 3 or 4 pages long, which can become jarring if you are tempted to only read a couple of pages before putting it down like I am. In fact, I think this style encourages you to only read a few of pages before replacing it on coffee table , and whereas on the one hand this can make it disjointed, it also allows you time to stop and think. And that’s what this novel really wants you to do: think. It is aware of its power and its message. Without wishing to sound like an A Level student I need to mention metafiction. This novel is very self-aware. Every few pages there is some reference to writing or the knowledge of a reader. There are a lot of direct addresses, and although this is usually something I like as narrows the gap between reader and text, coming from a character so alien, I found it a little uncomfortable.

The Handmaid's Tale

Now to the ending. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I wanted a little more. I thought the final section with Professor Pieixoto was a clever way to tie loose strands together but I wanted a more definitive answer. I suppose I’m just the kind of person who is never happy with anything that even hints at an open ending. I imagine most readers would have been satisfied, but I wanted to understand how society had changed since the last mention of Offred. I was eager to know more, but I suppose that’s just how this novel functions – it gives you snippets of information until you have a whole picture. From the very first page you are thrown into the deep end and have to wait for things to unravel – it’s like you can hear the little clicks in your brain as you read and learn about Gilead. That’s why I wasn’t totally convinced by the end; I wanted the clicks to keep coming, I wanted the story to continue. I wanted more, and that must be the sign of a very good book.

Over and out –

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3 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

  1. I read and studied The Handmaid’s Tale in depth for a piece of coursework. I really liked the excessive religious rules, the totalitarian state and parallels with writers like Orwell & regimes like the Nazis. I thought that was really well-done, but I personally thought the “backstory” was under-developed and I thought the feminist overtones were a time a bit over the top. Still a good read though! – Judith 😊

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