Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

‘The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.’

This is an amazing dystopian novel about a not so distant future in a totalitarian society where the role of men and women is stripped down to the bare necessity. A societal setting in which I felt the echoes of communism, where women wear a color which shows her status in society. Dull green for the servant Marthas, blue for the upper class/commander’s wives, the econowives wear stripes (!!) and the handmaid’s wear red. Once you wear one of these colors you are supposed to act in a predefined way.

We see Gilead and its people through the eyes of Offred. The narrative is fragmented by flashbacks to the past which gives us a glimpse into how this new world has come to be. Offred’s life was an ordinary one, a life so close to how we live now. She had a family, friends, a job and all the things we consider normal in the 21st century. What she has now is a bare room, her handmaid’s clothes and the duty to breed. Even her name is taken away from her. Her whole identity is stripped down to her ability to have children. I wonder how she keeps sane!

‘But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of live we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person.’

Gilead is a republic where the eyes are everywhere and the slightest transgression will get you on the wall, hanging, or sent to the colonies, doing hard manual labor if you’re lucky. A deeply religious republic where religion is law, and complying with the law is every citizen’s duty.

The Handmaid’s tale is a retelling of Offred’s life during her stay at the commander’s house. It’s beautifully told but disjointed story because it’s not quite a diary, it’s written from memory thus facts are mixed with imagination and wishful thinking. This is probably the reason why I did not feel completely connected to the story and its characters. I felt distanced from it all. Almost like a nightmare you had which you keep remembering.

I wish I would have gotten more insight into how the other characters. I wish I would have found out more about the resistance and what happened to Offred. More so, how did Gilead came to be and why? we get the answers as to why and the reasons are chilling to the bone.

‘We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the single bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of human misery.’

This is not the typical action based dystopian book. It’s character driven and the pace is quite slow. Actually not much happens throughout the 300+ pages. In a way, this makes this book unique, especially if you’re into dystopian books (like me). It focuses on the details which are never explored in a more action-packed narrative.

Offred’s rebellion against the regime is completely internal. She knows she’s not allowed any mistakes. All she has to keep her floating is her imagination, memories, and sense of humor.

‘At last the Commander on charge of this service comes in. He’s balding and squarely built and looks like an aging football coach. He’s dressed in his uniform, sober black with the rows of insignia and decorations. It’s hard not to be impressed, but I make an effort: I try to imagine him in bed with his Wife and his Handmaid, fertilizing away like mad, like a rutting salmon, pretending to take no pleasure in it. When the Lord said to be fruitful and multiply, did he mean this man?’

Read this book if you love:

  • slow-paced narrative
  • character-driven stories,
  • stories about not so distant dystopian futures rooted in the world as we know it,
  • exploring subjects like feminism
  • to speculate about what our future might be, and how societies transform,
  • ideas, ideals, and idealism.

Read this book because it’s simply a must-read.

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