[Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Ahead]
I’ve always been into dystopian novels, so it’s a bit surprising to me that I waited until recently to pick up The Handmaid’s Tale. 1984 and Brave New World have always been some of my favorites reads, so it was only a matter of time before got to this. After reading this in 2017, I have to think Margaret Atwood is a true visionary and her writing from over 30 years ago is more relevant than ever in today’s political climate. This isn’t a full comprehensive book review, but rather some highlights of the pieces that stood out to me.
While this book has a huge, overarching theme of female oppression and women being reduced to nothing but singular roles (e.g. birthing vessels, cooks, maids, trophy wives, etc), I mostly enjoyed so many of the small details that led to and resulted from this oppressive government. It’s stated that the rise of feminism throughout the 1970’s is the direct cause of this new oppressive government, and that allows them to use anti-feminist and religious rhetoric to strip women of all rights (e.g. women rights = access to birth control = drop in birth rate = bad for society…). I really enjoyed details about Serena Joy being an extreme fundamentalist and popular televangelist in her past life who once advocated for stripping others other their rights now being trapped as wife to the Commander, showing that those who advocate for oppression are not always immune to the results of their messages.
All of the throwbacks to Offred’s mother protesting and the small details that led us through her journey and life as a passionate feminist left a huge impression on me. I thought the little mentioning of her mother being shamed by her feminist friends for having a child is one detail that had a big impact. Nonconformance of all ideals in a movement can be incredibly divisive within those groups, whereas solidarity and persistence are what’s most important. I also enjoyed the little details about Offred openly questioning whether her mother needed to still be protesting after rights were won. In the case of this book, it was particularly important that they keep protesting as the battle was never really won. The book doesn’t go into huge detail about the start of Gilead, but there are also some mentions of how quickly it all happened. It’s chilling to read about Offred’s hindsight perspective referencing the little hints of oppression that built to a quick collapse of modern society. Perhaps the subtlety is the best part about this book.
Finally, in the epilogue, two things stood out to me. First of all, the details revealed about the Commander were a nice juxtaposition to all of the humanizing moments that Atwood gives him in the second half of the book. How he craves human interaction and gives Offred gifts, yet he is still purely evil and directly responsible for some awful aspect of Gilean society. Second, it’s interesting to read from a historical academic perspective at the end of the book after spending 300 pages recounting a first-hand perspective of all the pain and suffering that Offred experienced. The way professors minimize her pain and even make jokes about early Gilean society makes me think about how we think about past suffering of fellow humans in early societies (or even current suffering of human beings in oppressive societies like North Korea today).
These are just some of my thoughts on the The Handmaid’s Tale (link here if you are interested). I’d definitely suggest it to anyone who enjoys dystopian literature. 1984 has a terrifying and mysterious Big Brother force and Brave New World shows a subdued society of brainwashed citizens in a classist system, but The Handmaid’s Tale does an excellent job of characterizing and even humanizing some of villains. I’m planning on watching the adaptation soon and will report back on that. In the meantime if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, let me know your thoughts on the book!