“I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.”
Written nearly 30 years ago, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian literary masterpiece tells the story of Offred, a Handmaid living in the near future in what was once the United States. A new theocratic regime called the Republic of Gilead has come to power and changed life as she knew it.
Once Offred had a her own name and a loving family—a husband and daughter—both of which were taken from her; now she belongs to the Commander and his hostile wife, and her only value lies in her ability to bear a child for them. She used to read books and learn; now such things are forbidden to all women.
Gripping, disturbing, and so relevant today, The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant novel and a chilling warning about what can happen when extreme ideas are taken to their logical conclusions.
Olive & smith thoughts:
Rating: 5 out of 5 ★★★★
A well written, well-received novel that challenges the permanence of societal constructs. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale leaves the reader with a very real portrayal of the inner-workings of a women thrown into a despondent reality as she struggles to let go off the past and mannuever her way through this new, unfamiliar world. Full of secrecy, sex, hilarity, sadness, and small flickers of hope. Would recommend this book to any reader who looking for a dense, challenging read that still delivers the same entertainment factor that other Books-To-Big Screen are known for.
I’ll be honest- I had no idea what I was getting into when I purchased this book for my August read. Up until now, I’ve mainly gravitated towards “easy reads”, love stories, celebrity memoirs, sci-fi, etc. But I’ve always had a soft spot for novels that are able to make the transition to the big screen (or in our case, Hulu). Cover wise, this book looks like something you would have read in English Lit. Heck, even the title sounds like something you should be sourcing Spark Notes for your essay due at Midnight.
The first thing I noticed about this novel was its sentence structure and style of writing. It is dense. The descriptive style is hard to follow at times, and I found myself re-reading paragraphs- just to ask myself ‘What exactly did I just read?” Which isn’t a bad thing. It kept me consciously engaged and I liked the challenge of reading something more difficult than I’m used to. I didn’t do any research about the background of this novel, so I had no idea what was going on in the first few chapters, but slowly, I started to put everything together. And from there, my attachment to this book grew…
For starters, here’s what I figured out:
This book is all happening in the near future- and its not a great time for women! Environmental disasters, government attacks, and a creepy, traditional religious sect have transformed America into some misogynistic, uber-traditional culture where women are not allowed to read, write, or express themselves. Infertility (potentially due to a toxic planet) is common and women are being used as servants whose sole purpose is to reproduce offspring for barren wives and their government-officiant husbands. Not that this doesn’t sound bad enough, but handmaids (sex slaves) are required to wear a red dress/robe/cloak and a matching white headpiece veil that looks like something from a textile mill in the 1800s. Every month Handmaid’s are expected to participate in “ceremonies” between the head of the household and their spouses in hopes of becoming pregnant. The story surrounds Offred, a Handmaid, whose dialogue is mostly internal, but converges between flashbacks of old memories and her present situation.
Let me just say- I really like Offred. My heart goes out to this fictional character. She’s smart, relatable, and did I mention- she’s smart? She doesn’t particularly enjoy her new threads or job as baby maker for strangers but she’s not stupid. She plays her part and avoids causing too much trouble. Offred understands that any resistance could result in being sent the colonies (still not sure what’s so bad about the colonies, other than toxic waste making your skin fall off?), or worse- declared an “unwoman” (still not sure about this, either). Offred maintains her sanity throughout the book, but she experiences low points like anyone else would, I imagine. She does what she can to escape within her mind, relying on memories and stories to keep her and the reader involved.
Although this book’s feel is very sullen and reserved, there are moments of excitement that tease the reader- secret, platonic rendezvous between Offred and her commander, discrete intimate moments between Offred and Nick- the houseman, and the occasional forbidden cigarette. All of these details kept me turning the page, hoping more was to come for our handmaid.
But with the book’s conclusion, we learn that everything departs open-ended, Which I didn’t mind. As readers, we aren’t sure if Offred was sent to the colonies for having a secret relationship with her commander? Or did the wife found out about her affair with Nick? Were the men in the van taking her to be marked as an “unwoman”? Or were they masked Quakers helping to free her?
“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”
“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
“But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.”