Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Adult, Dystopian, Sci-fi
Publisher: Anchor Books
Date published: March 16th 1998
Page Count: 311
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 valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
I had been putting off reading this book because I was afraid that it was going to be a hard read. But I was really glad I took the chance. Despite being an adult book, it was not difficult to read. Atwood’s style of writing took some time for me to grasp at the beginning, but once I got used to Offred’s narrating and the shifts between the present and the past, I was fully immersed.
The book takes place in the Republic of Gilead sometime in what should have been 2005. With a diminishing birth rate due to the rise in sterility, the social classes are reconstructed including a class of “handmaids”, women who serve to produce children. Many other previous citizens that had different religions or ethnicities were forced to convert. If they refused, they would be hanged or exiled.
Human rights limited in Gilead, and the rights of women are further reduced. Women are now considered properties of their husband and are banned from reading.
Offred is a handmaid on her third assignment to a household. Here, she must bear a child, or risk being sent to “the Colonies”, known as the radioactive wasteland outside of Gilead. As a handmaid, she wears a long red dress and must cover her face whenever she goes out. She is now considered the property of her new Commander and must bear the hatred from the Commander’s wife.
Yet, she continues to ponder about the past: what was and could have been. In most of her reminiscences, she thinks about the times before she was stripped of her rights and freedoms as well as her training in integrating into the new society as a handmaid.
Rather than a story with a plot, I found the book to be more of a look into the mind of Offred in the newly constructed society. Much of the book had been set out to describe the Republic of Gilead and Offred’s past, so I felt like things really began to happen near the end of the book.
Even though it explained Gilead so thoroughly, from the hierarchy of social classes to the mapping of the entire town, there were so many gaps in the past of Offred. She recounted stories, yet the information about herself remained left out. But this really reflected on how of little importance the past should have been for handmaids. They were supposed to leave behind their old family life, their beliefs, and their names, and they were forbidden to talk about them.
Offred wasn’t the typical heroine in YA where you’d expect her to suddenly stand up and defy the rules of her society. In fact, she was quite passive. However, it is fully understandable that in such an oppressive place like Gilead, defying attitudes of such just meant death. She did rebel in her own ways. That lead to parts near the end of the book where I sat on the edge while reading what happened. My heart rate during the first half of the book and second half of the book was different by nearly ten folds.
Although I tend to not like ambiguous endings, I thought that it was perfect for the book. It almost reflects on the nature of a dystopian world: you never know what path it will take. It really left me to continue to wonder about Offred and Gilead.
I found that the dystopian world that Atwood introduces us to is really different from the ones we are used to. Unlike others, there were still traces of the old world. In Gilead, Offred and the other are the first generations of handmaids and still have memories of the past. I really loved this touch, because, with YA novels, we’re used to being set in dystopian worlds where there is essentially no past that the characters can reflect on. Here we are brought into a transition from society as we know it into Gilead. The fact that we can still see our own society as the in the rear view mirror makes the story all the scarier.
I found the book really interesting and a totally different take on a dystopian world. There were so many possible interpretations and underlying themes. I would definitely call this book out for another reread once I’m older.