Book Review – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood first showed us a world terrifying in its plausibility. A frightening precursor to the devastated land of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is more focused on the rights of women, though the environmental concerns that would color some of her later work is present as well.

The narrator is known only as Offred (though she tells others her old name, her true name, she never shares it with the reader). Offred recalls the time before she was made a handmaid under the new regime and she struggles to maintain whatever connection to her past she can before her current identity can erase it and she loses her sense of self entirely.

Flitting back and forth in time, Offred forces herself to tell the reader what she can remember of life before, how the new regime took power and what they went through for indoctrination. She adds to this with events of her daily life and minor insights and episodes of the religiously tinged ceremonies that create the boundaries of life. The religious origins of many of the regime’s main teachings are haunting in their possibility.

The feminist leanings of the novel are undeniable and are embodied by Offred’s most tangible link to the past, her best friend from college, Moira. A fighter, Moira protests the most during indoctrination and soon parts ways with the narrator but her words and spirit help Offred as she pushes through from one day to the next. Her contrasting perspective provokes Offred in her own insights.

Though the relationships between Offred and her Commander and Nick show some male/female interaction, the novel’s main focus is the female/female interaction, the way the different positions and expectations for each group of women impact their relationships with one another.  Their roles are more than rigidly defined, they are imprinted on the women through the color coded regulation clothing they must wear. The green of the Marthas, blue of the wives, and red of the handmaids divides the women into cliques in the larger society that carry over into the way the households they share are run.

A compelling story from those first pages, it was, once again, those last pages that brought my appreciation for this novel to another level. This epilogue of sorts was an original way to compensate for the limitations inherent in a first person narrative. I believe it helps to take an ending that can be ambiguous and pushes it towards the optimistic possibilities. It answered almost all of the questions that remained unanswered through much of the novel and left me wishing I had read this two years ago so that I could have used it in a particular term paper. Atwood was able to weave tactics and elements of historically notorious regimes seamlessly into the events observed by Offred.

Since The Handmaid’s Tale is a self-contained story and there is still no release date for the rumored Maddaddam, I will simply have to dive deeper into Margaret Atwood’s other works for the time being.

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