As the recent television adaptation is being celebrated far and wide, I decided it was time that I read it before jumping on the binge watching bandwagon. This is one of those novels that I dived into completely blind without looking at the blurb or synopsis but I wish that I had. I am certain I would have read it a little sooner had I been a little better informed. This is a dystopia, humanity is on the edge of extinction and few women can produce viable children. These women, the red Handmaidens, are treated like cattle, or a walking incubator. A surrogate without autonomy, they are moved from household to household, stripped of their real names and once a month submit to medical examinations and fertilisation from the eligible male in the house.
The Handmaid’s Tale turns women into objects unable to rule themselves, sex into that which is pleasureless, and pregnancy is rewarded with social status and privilege. The other side of this coin is that the inability to reproduce is punished, abortion and (presumably) birth control are illegal, and this totalitarian society will kick you to death while it softly smiles.
I don’t think I love this novel, but the Handmaid’s Tale has given me some complicated feelings. It is a novel that seems to look at you accusingly. I don’t know how or whether this is intentional, but I had that overwhelming sense of silent judgement, but it is a gaze that stares at you directly, unflinching, while a very frank narrative is unwoven. But this accusation, this sense of guilt that comes from this novel is delivered from a protagonist who is in a position least able to accuse. Offred is required to be passive, but we hear the narrative through her introspection. She is also a character who is forced to hide her face, to walk with subservient posture and is not to directly put her will on anyone beyond her intended purpose. This results in the only safe place for Offred is within her own mind.
The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel uncomfortable and powerless, particularly because this society seems to be built overnight. Assigned gendered roles, laws suddenly dismantling lives and how helpless Offred is within this tsunami is harrowing. While reading it I could not help but think how easily it would be for Offred to drown, how easily under these circumstances one’s will could break. It is as if Atwood has shifted the entire cosmos off it’s recognisable axis, but left enough that read with the right set of social opinion this is a horror story. But read by the casual observer this is still a novel dares you to say these circumstances are humane and are something for a society with a dropping population to aim for.
Offred’s position as a Handmaiden is relatively routine. She does the shopping, getting items in exchange for plastic tokens. She daily has to pass the Wall of dead traitors, displayed like a butterfly collection. She has to navigate other Handmaidens, probing for who is a true believer and who is part of the underground movement. She witnesses births. She reflects upon her own life, grieving for her family and once a month she joins the Commander and his awful wife, Serena Joy in the bedroom.
I should also mention that in this world, men don’t have an easy ride with sex either. Men aren’t allowed to have sex unless it is properly sanctioned.
The monthly ritual is a loveless affair, much like ploughing a field. And life, I expect, would’ve continued like this until something very odd happens. The Commander invites Offred into his study one evening, requests her to kiss him like she means it, and to play scrabble with him. This sounds like the cheesiest date in the world, but Offred is not allowed to read or write, she is not allowed to kiss or be kissed by the Commander and she is certainly not allowed to be alone with him in his study.
Offred agrees to spend time alone with him curious to where these meetings will take her and he gives her old magazines to look through and they often fall into discussions in a way that two people with these very different social positions shouldn’t. While this is going on the oblivious Serena Joy seems to be hatching her own plan. The usually terrible woman offers Offred a plan and a cigarette in an unexpected moment of kindness. But things of course don’t work out as intended (but you’ll have to read it to find out why).
Although this novel left me with conflicting feelings I really enjoyed it. Atwood seems to take pleasure in delivering her horrible world and it is beautifully written at times. The candid intimacy between Offred and reader that cuts close to the bone and Atwood also writes a whole host of women who are convincing and believable. From Offred struggling in the now, to her reflections on her wild feminist activist mother, to her old friend Moira, to the wives and the other handmaidens. The world of women dominates this novel, albeit it is a helpless and horrible one and of course, who do you trust when everyone is waiting for everyone else to slip up? Men in power seem to circle above these women dipping in and out only to pick at the carcass that is left for them as if these little shreds they grab are trophies.
There is really something terribly sickening and emotionally exhausting about this novel but also it awakens that enduring rage and drive that is ever rekindled by social issues. The Handmaid’s Tale jolts awake the senses with a powerless protagonist who has had her choices taken away but who is suddenly given unexpected options. This is an important novel. Put it on your ‘novels to read this year’ list.