The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood Review
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words, because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if they ovaries are viable. If not, they are sent to a place where their future lies in uncertain darkness.
It is difficult to discuss the book without giving away its most potent secrets. Any detailed discussion of its narrative structure might give away its most powerful trick. Suffice to say the book offers real surprise, challenging the conventional wisdom of the reader on how stories can be creatively told. The book’s narrative gamble doesn’t fully pay off though, the end feeling quite clunky, the book unable to sustain its narrative tension as the story shifts its gears.
What the story lacks in momentum, it more than makes up for in its world. This is a very expertly realized and cohesive world, a religion-based totalitarian regime that doesn’t feel outdated and far-fetched at all, despite its publication date. It is actually very realistic in a sense that it satirizes sexism within our corrupt society that, in turn, makes chilling warnings about the future of humankind.
More than that, the book grapples with giant questions about rights and identity, diving deep into a morass of issues that offers no easy answers. This seemingly simple handmaid’s tale explores complex ideas about the human condition, with these characters beholden to the past, struggling to feel right. Offred’s passiveness may not make her the most likable protagonist, but her strength to persevere in spite of the unfair conditions is noteworthy and a symbol of hope within a society brimming with lies and deceit.
The Handmaid’s Tale is wholly captivating. It is also eerily prophetic, the fact that this was published in 1985 still amazes me. It may be lacking in momentum that drives the narrative tension, but the future envisioned years ago is truly impressive. The narrative structure is also creative, subverting expectations at every turn as it takes the story and the world into far bolder directions that other dystopian novels are afraid to venture into. Through it all, the tremendous themes exhibited weaves these complex ideas into an enticing whole. This may not be the easiest nor the most fast-paced read, but the picture formed is haunting, and one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.