A dystopian classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of Offred – not her real name, but a patronymic given to her by the new regime in an oppressive future America– and her life as a Handmaid. Forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of higher social status, Handmaids undergo regular medical tests and a monthly Ceremony in which their Masters attempt to impregnate them. As the novel progresses, Offred learns that many people bend the rules of the theocracy, even the ones who helped to put them in place. People who fought the hardest for a return to “simple values” refuse to live by them, rendering the theocratic government even more intimidating for its hypocrisy.
Offred’s shadowy memories of her husband and daughter provide relief from the brutality of her new life. But these remembrances are tenuous, made all the more indistinct by Atwood’s lyrical prose. Facts appear to merge into one another. History becomes immaterial. Despite the horrific regime and unimaginable tortures she endures, Offred’s voice is reflective. Rather than bitterness and rage, there’s a sense of ennui about her. She’s not completely passive though. Throughout the narrative, she shows flashes of contempt, desire, slyness, and, of course, anger. The mosaic style composition works well, but can also make the story hard to follow. All the same, Atwood’s astonishing skill as a writer and brilliant characterization kept me turning the pages.
This book scared the hell out of me: the idea that women could be reduced to nothing more than invisible, powerless vessels. As my father is fond of saying, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with good intentions.”
Bottom Line: Fiercely political and bleak, yet witty and wise, this novel is a must read.
Favorite Line: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others….We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
What I learned: As much as you can, strive for relevance. The book is a classic because it speaks to something deep in the human psyche: fear of the loss of freedom, basic human rights and liberties. It’s powerful stuff, made even more powerful by Atwood’s skill.
Coming up next week: “Poison Study” by Maria V. Snyder.