Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: May 19 to 26, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended for: anyone who hasn’t read it yet
Like the Daily Telegraph quote on the cover says, “compulsively readable,” which sounds too casual for this book. So I’ll add: striking prose and imagery, a memorable POV, and a story that stays with you for a long time. The overall effect of this book is meant to do that–stay with you. Margaret Atwood chose her words carefully to weave this tale.
Finishing this book left me in a strange mindset that lasted for days. Speculative dystopian fiction tends to do that. What’s different about this book, though, is I can easily–too easily–imagine a theocratic regime, like the one in the book, taking over society after the country experience a crisis on the national level. I suppose this is due to Atwood’s superb writing. It’s hard not to imagine such a world. After finishing the book, I went back over a select passages and was amazed how realistic the descriptions of each scene were, still. These images are meant to stay with the reader. And perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to imagine life as we know it devolving into such a state. But perhaps it’s because many aspects of society has already began to devolve, bit by bit every day.
Offred, the titular handmaid whose name is literally “of Fred,” speaks of her current existence and explains many aspects and nuances of her life in this post-nuclear meltdown society where a theocratic government (“The Sons of Jacob”) has taken control.
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.
The new social order is set up according to the Old Testament. Women’s roles are restricted to those that concern the household and raising children. They can’t own property or work outside the home; they essentially become property again. These changes didn’t happen overnight though, but gradually over a short period of time, following a period of unrest after the new theocratic regime took control.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
Birth rates have decreased dramatically due to radiation poisoning. So to help raise those numbers, handmaids are “indoctrinated” and dispersed. For a few select men in power called “Commanders,” a handmaid is provided for their households. The handmaid’s singular role, like in Biblical times, is to breed. The belief is that in a few more generations this “handmaid system” will become accepted as part of the functioning society, and that “wives and handmaids will live together under one roof in harmony.” But the unfortunate thing for Offred is that she is a handmaid of the first generation and she, as well as every woman forced into acquiescence, still remembers how life used to be before the collapse. In her former life, she was college-educated and had a job; she was also married and had a daughter. Following the collapse, she was sent to be a handmaid, and what became of her husband and daughter is revealed later in the story.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Offred lives every moment with the fear of imminent death hanging over her head. At any moment, or at the whim of the Commander or his wife Serena Joy, she could be reported for violating the code of conduct and be sent to the colonies where the condemned are forced to clean up nuclear wastes. Basically, a death sentence, a slow painful death sentence. Everyone in the society lives in fear of the being sent to the colonies, but women, handmaids especially, are most vulnerable. If they’re deemed unfit or no longer of use, they’re shipped off. Each handmaid gets three chances to bring a baby to term. Once a handmaid has given birth successfully, she is exempt from the threat of the colonies. But a handmaid who cannot bear children will be labled an “unwoman” and off to the colonies she is sent. Offred is on her third and final chance.
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
Although inwardly she fights her role as handmaid and against the social structures that bind her, outwardly Offred appears to accept it and tries not to be a burden on anyone. The power dynamic as portrayed in the book is fascinating and should be explored further; it touches on and echoes many of the struggles we still encounter today. Although the picture painted is one of complete oppression, there are many subtle but well illustrated nuances in Offred’s narration that explore the extent of her subjugation. Another fascinating thing is the set-up of the theocratic society. It looks ludicrous when you first read about it–like, really, how could anyone subscribe to these ridiculous laws??–but then as you get further into the story, it makes sense in an absurd way–like, yeah, now I can see how that would work. What Margaret Atwood get at here is the mindset of the people in power. Offred’s perspective is sympathetic, of course, because it’s her story and she’s the one being held down, but in contrast to that, there’s the people holding her down and the intricacies of their hold on power. Many of the Sons of Jacob aren’t even aware how others suffer because of their will. For this alone, I’d shelve this book as horror.
Atwood’s writing is exceptional, and she juggles nuances with expert control. I especially like the way she transitions from Offred’s current life to her former one and back again throughout the story; the contrasts between past and present are jarring, but at the same time, exquisitely done. What amazes me the most, although it really shouldn’t, is that Atwood not only created such a believable nightmarish society but that she followed through and really delved into Offred’s life and the theocratic society. Everything is laid out, and she leaves no stone unturned. Well, almost no stone. The ending is left to your interpretation.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…
But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.
Although it’s not an easy read, I love almost everything about this book. My only issue is the lack of quotation marks. It’s Atwood’s style, I know, but it makes it difficult to differentiate between thoughts and conversations. Overall though, this is a disturbing story beautifully illustrated.