Desert Isle Keeper
The Handmaid's Tale
If there is one word that describes Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it will have to be harrowing. But it is also compulsive, and perceptive, and heartbreaking. First published in 1986, it’s been dissected in countless student papers and erudite commentaries. But a raving review about such a classic never comes too late.
In her book, Atwood envisions an America that has been taken over by an ultra-conservative group. After the President and members of the Senate were assassinated, the previously democratic nation is now very similar to Iran’s religious dictatorship. Note that as a dystopia, the book doesn’t literally describe what’s likely to happen; rather, it magnifies the perceived harmful effects of certain trends. A classic dystopia is George Orwell’s 1984, to which The Handmaid’s Tale has often been compared.
Under the new order, called the Republic of Gilead, women’s roles are sharply defined. There are the Wives, spouses of high-ranking officials called the Commanders. There are the Marthas, who do the housekeeping. Then there are the straitlaced, bitter Aunts, used by the Republic to keep their fellow women in line. Still another class of women work at Jezebel’s, a clandestine sex den frequented by well-connected Commanders. These women aren’t given an official label because prostitution is forbidden in Gilead.
Finally, there are the Handmaids, whose main job is to bear the Commanders’ children. When the Handmaid gives birth, the baby is claimed by the Commander and his Wife. The Handmaid’s job is over, though she may be transferred to another household in case her reproductive services are still needed. If she is fertile, chances are she will not be taken to the “Colonies,” a toxic swamp where “Unwomen” are forced into slave labor. Thus, it is every Handmaid’s goal to conceive lest she be declared an Unwoman.
Atwood tells the story of a Handmaid whom we get to know only as Offred. Some parts of it are flashbacks of her life before the rise of Gilead: we learn that she had a husband named Luke, with whom she had a little daughter. Some are vignettes from her training as a Handmaid, in which she and her friend Moira are subjected to the cruelty of the Aunts. The rest are descriptions of what is happening in the present, in which she has already joined the household of a Commander.
Because of these confusing time shifts, the opening chapters are difficult to get into. But while the first half unfolds leisurely – tantalizing you with the sensational aspects of Gilead – the pages simply fly in the second half. By this time, you’ve already gotten to know the strong yet vulnerable Offred. The need to know what happened to her loved ones, as well as the outcome of her current subversive activities, provokes an anxiety so keen you literally won’t put the book down until it’s finished. Since the story is told through Offred’s perspective, toward the end you can’t help but wonder: What is she not telling? What really happened? You can only mentally squeal as the remaining pages dwindle and that cataclysmic closure is still nowhere in sight. The ending is almost traumatic, but Atwood caps it off with a clever epilogue. And the last line is sure to leave you thinking about the story for a long while.
Writing at a time when anti-feminism was the trend (these were the Reagan years, after all), Atwood doesn’t shy away from examining crucial feminist debates. I don’t want to go into detail about the issues she challenges in this book, but she challenges several feminist utopias and guards against naive, trusting belief in feminism. Sexual politics is a recurrent theme in her work, and here she explores not only men’s oppression of women, but more importantly, women’s oppression of other women. And yet, as a book that takes a dead serious look at women’s situation, The Handmaid’s Tale adamantly resists the idea that feminism itself is passé.
Finally, a common criticism of Atwood’s writing is that it’s cold. Offred may at first seem detached in her account of Gilead’s brutality and injustice, but her matter-of-factness renders it all the more poignant. The unusual love story that develops illustrates the basic nature of human needs, showing that even a novel with such an anti-romance premise can actually be, in a sense, romantic. It is certain to wring tears out of even the most cynical of readers.
Unlike other beloved keepers, this book is probably not one you’ll want to read again and again. But because it simply demands a grade no lower than A, I wholeheartedly recommend it. However, please consider yourself forewarned that it’s not for the faint of heart.