The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Nine stars

I may be a little late getting to the party, but when I crafted the topic for my reading challenge that handled books that have an associated movie/television programme, I knew this would be the perfect fit. I chose to binge watch the first two seasons of the show and then dive into the book. It opens that age-old dilemma of comparative medium, but permitted me to draw stronger parallels between them, as well as offer a book review as soon as I turned the final page. Margaret Atwood’s novel has been resurrected (pun intended) over the last few years, particularly because of the television programme, but also some of her cultural foreboding with the rise of an America under the auspices of a power-hungry group of men who would write and interpret the rules as they saw fit. As the reader discovers early on, the book is a perspective piece written by Offred, a handmaid, one of the new classes of women in Gilead. This country is the dystopian near-future America after a second Civil War, whose laws are strongly tied to biblical teachings. The upper echelon is a male collective, known as Commanders, who rule each household and meet as a council to make decisions for the larger community. Each commander has a wife, though these women are either barren or past the stage of fertility, thus introducing the importance of the handmaid. She is, for lack of a better word, a fertile vessel to ensure that future generations can be born within the country. Offred sheds light on the horrid act of attempted conception, which is lost in the written narrative, but the television show makes all the more graphic. Offred describes how each girl was stripped of her name before being taken in as a handmaid and given a moniker that speaks of her dependence to the commander of her household. They are denoted by their long, red dresses and ‘winged headgear’, quite puritanical, particularly when seen on-screen. As the story progresses, the reader learns of the inculcation these women receive to be the best possible handmaids and not to stray from the teachings of the Council, which suppresses women and their rights to the point of making any reading by a woman to be an ultimate sin. These teachings are primarily led by a steel-willed matron, Aunt Lydia. Many handmaids seek to flee, looking North to Canada, but those who are unsuccessful face brutal punishment at the hands of those responsible for keeping the girls in line. Life in Gilead is anything but bucolic, though Offred does offer a glimpse of hope that somehow, some way, she will escape and try to build a life safely away from the country that metamorphosed before her. A brilliant piece of social commentary by Atwood years before things began going extremely sour, it is surely a must-read for those who are curious about all the hype. I’d strongly recommend reading the book and watching the programme, which branches off into new and interesting pathways, furthering the thought processes.

There is so much that could be said about the book and television interpretation, though I wish not to spoil it for anyone who remains on the outside, as I did for too long. I admit, it is difficult for me to divorce this book from the television programme that continues to build, as well as from the puritanical and punitive measures being taken in the modern America, though I readily admit that Atwood’s novel stands well on its own. It seeks to depict a world that is both forward moving and yet reaching backwards to right itself, as though the leaders of Gilead joined in a chorus of ‘Make America Great Again’, much before they could Tweet on their pocket computers. Exploring the characters of this novel, Atwood places Offred front and centre, depicting the world that she sees while offering flashbacks to a world that existed before much of the dramatic overhaul, including memories of her family. Offred, a woman of thirty-three, has much insight and backstory, as well as development while ‘caged’ in her red dress and winged headgear. She, as well as many of the other handmaids, put a new flavour of teenage rebellion into the piece, offering up a mind that is strong enough to know they do not like what is happening but not fully able to push back and forge a unique path. Atwood creates many symbols for her handmaids, tying them inextricably to their commanders, but also to one another and the household, as if the are an essential cog in the wheel. While I am not one to dig for symbolism in all that I read, I could not ignore the narrator’s moniker serving two purposes: Of-fred , denoting her tie to Commander Fred Waterford, and Off-red, speaking of her desire to push away from the role (read: red dress) she is forced to master. Other characters within the novel offer up interesting glimpses into the larger Gilead, as well as some personal struggles faced by those who live in this newly washed land. Be they serving a role or preaching new truths, Atwood places each one in a spot of prominence to give the reader something to digest with each turned page. Perhaps the most curious of character interactions can be said to be that of Offred and Commander Waterford, seen from many angles and with various emotional results. The story is hard to explore, as it is both a journey and a personal collective of thoughts and sentiments. As Offred discusses mid-way through the book, these are her depictions of events and told through a storyteller’s eyes, whereby facts and circumstances are omitted, while delivering a version of events. For those who have seen the television programme, much more detail is offered and the story’s thread is stronger with tangential happenings. However, as a baseline, Atwood gives the readers enough on which to chew so as to pass their own judgment about Gilead and its dystopic existence. The narrative tells a true story and one that each reader can interpret themselves. I found the mix of book and television programme to be the ultimate treat to better seeing the new America in all its glory. I admit, had Atwood written a series of novels about this, I would likely read them all, but I am just as happy to indulge in the on-screen interpretations of events and branch-offs to deliver the knockout punch that I so enjoy at the end of each hour. One final thought on the subject. Has Atwood offered strong foreboding about what is to come in America? Likely not, at least in its current state of affairs. While there surely has been some verbal and physical beating back of opposition, current American leadership (even donning their Russian marionette strings) could never execute a plan as thoroughly conniving as depicted in here. It takes a lot more than two typing thumbs and radical racism to bring about a revolution at the top. From the bottom… let’s see what 2020 has in store!

Kudos, Madam Atwood, for this thought-provoking piece. I hope many who, like me, have not taken the time to read and/or watch what you laid out so effectively will do so and add fuel to the discussion about all topics on offer.

This book fulfills Topic #4: Gateway Reading for the Equinox #4 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: