“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
There are few books that have caused me to experience anger, discomfort and nausea in equal measure. Put simply, The Handmaid’s Tale was a terrifying read. Atwood has succeeded in creating a universe that not only seems entirely plausible, but that is built on ideals and beliefs that are prevalent in our present-day reality. She was writing in 1985, yet this work of captivating, feminist prose arguably rings truer now than ever before.
The story takes place in the not too distant future, but a dystopian future nonetheless, and is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid. Her former name is forbidden, as she is now named for the Commander who owns her, a man who is not her husband but who uses her solely as a means for procreation. She and her fellow Handmaids fare better on the social hierarchy than most women (those incapable of getting pregnant are sent to the colonies, and worked to death), but have been stripped of all freedoms, and are expected to be modest and obedient.
We learn about Offred’s life before the Republic of Gilead was established; that she had a husband, a child, and a job. As her husband was previously divorced, their marriage is considered null, and she an adulteress. It is as though her former life is taken from her almost overnight. She is stripped of all financial means, her daughter is taken away, and she is forced into an academy and trained up as a Handmaid.
The narrative is fairly slow-paced, but so full of abhorrent, engrossing detail that it’s scarcely noticeable until events begin to pick up towards the end of the story. It is reminiscent of dystopian novels like Fahrenheit 451, which I reviewed earlier in the year, in that it is less drama-led and focuses more on political and societal issues. Unsurprisingly, feminism and gender roles feature heavily in The Handmaid’s Tale, and since these are subjects that really strike a chord with me, I was intrigued from the beginning.
Offred remains largely a mystery. Though she recalls her real name, we as readers never learn it. She is an everywoman, made accessible by her first person narration and relatively faceless identity. It was not difficult to imagine being in her position. Perhaps that’s what made the novel seem so horrifyingly real.
Moira, a friend of Offred’s, was the character that really stood out for me. Her unwavering resistance to the regime that has been imposed upon her proved a welcome relief from the constant fear that underlies the entire novel. Appropriately, she will be portrayed by the endearing Samira Wiley in Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of the story (Orange is the New Black fans rejoice!).
It seems cliché and lazy to deem a novel as impactful as The Handmaid’s Tale as simply ‘important’, but at the same time there can be no truer description for a story so relevant to our time. It isn’t an easy read, far from it, but books that leave their mark very rarely are. The feminist rhetoric that Atwood delves into is capable of striking a chord with women and men alike, and if it doesn’t, it ought to. Her novel warns us that a series of small, seemingly insignificant changes can amount to something far more sinister. It urges that you take note of political and societal transitions, form a resistance, and simply look around you before it’s too late. If this novel was intended as a warning, then the alarm bells have never sounded so clear.