Handmaid’s Tale Review - by Jenny Ward
In my writing I am very interested in dystopian societies; in looking at the issues of today’s world and exaggerating them to future extremes. Hence, I was naturally interested in this book by Margaret Atwood in which the anti-feminist movement is extrapolated to a point where, in the fantastical city of Gilead, all women have been cut off from money, “can’t hold property any more” and are either housewives of the men who run Gilead or Handmaids, described by the narrator Offred (a handmaid herself) as “walking wombs”. These handmaids are specifically hired by families to have intercourse with the husbands (while the wife is in the room as part of the conception ceremony) and bear the families children.
What particularly grasped me about this novel was the degradation of Offred from a modern woman with a daughter and a lover, as we see through Offred’s narration of her memories, to the reified, dehumanised cog in the system which Offred has become. In the city of Gilead she loses all identity, forced to wear a shapeless red burka-esq outfit that turns her into a “nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Offred is even denied a name, her name derived from the name of her captain; she is “of Fred”. This adds another level of reification in which she is defined solely through her ownership. Her lack of identity, isolation and the slow degradation of her humanity that we see through the novel, especially in contrast with her previous life, is beautifully described and structured by Margaret Atwood, making “The Handmaids Tale” a truly poignant novel.
One description that really stuck in my memory is the description of Offred laughing in chapter nine, a sensation Offred does not recognise, feeling she has “broken, something has cracked, that must be it”, describing how laughter is an “emotion inappropriate to the occasion” and “could be fatal”. This section is so beautifully sad, showing how much she has changed from her previous life, even to the extent that she has forgotten and is afraid of happy emotions, or even any emotions as she “prays to be empty”.
In conclusion, I would really recommend this book to anyone; it stands out not only in its interesting plot but also through Margaret Atwood’s ability to build a complete, unfamiliar world whilst still moving the story along. She feeds the dystopia to the reader through every pore of the novel, even in her use of syntax; in which there are no speech marks, lessening the dramatic quality of dialogue to create an empty, hollow feeling to Offred’s narration. It is this careful and subtle world building which I admire most, and aim to achieve in my own novel.