Handmaid’s Tale Review - by Jenny Ward
In my writing I am very interested in dystopian societies, especially dystopias which look at the issues of today’s world and exaggerating them to future extremes. Hence, I was naturally attracted to this book by Margaret Atwood in which the anti-feminist movement is extrapolated to a point where, in the fictional 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.
Through the course of the novel Offred is gradually degraded from a modern woman with a daughter and a lover, as we see through Offred’s narration of her memories, to the reified (in this instance meaning reduced by society to a state where she is viewed as an object or machine), dehumanised cog in the system. This reification is accentuated by both Atwood’s description of Offred’s isolation, and also her portrayal of Offred’s acute isolation.
Offred’s identity is stripped from her, firstly, through her clothing; she is forced to wear a red shapeless burka-like outfit that turns her into a “nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Secondly, Offred is even denied a name, her character name derived from the name of her captain; she is “of Fred”. This adds another level of reification as she is defined solely through her ownership, portraying to the reader how dehumanised the society has forced her to become. This loss 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. It is structured in chapters titled merely by stages of her day i.e. “Nap” and “night”. From this structure we not only get a portrayal of how mechanical Offred’s life is but an accurate depiction of how memory works from Atwood. The memories we get from Offred are narrated mostly in her nap times or “night”, the first flashback not occurring till chapter three, when Offred’s mind is free to wonder. Through this the novel appears fragmented, leaving the reader the task of gradually piecing together the sections of Offred’s life throughout the novel. This is not only an accurate impression of memory, but also gives the reader a sense of the struggle in Offred’s personality between the powerful, carefree woman in her fragmented flack backs, and the reified person Gilead has made her into.
This struggle is poignant in itself but, as to poignancy, one example has always stuck in my memory. There is a 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 gradually allows the reader to discover the world of Gilead, portrayed even in her use of syntax; in which there are no speech marks, lessening the dramatic quality of dialogue, but nevertheless not lessening the interest in the plot, 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.