‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an ominous tale of power, abuse and isolation; the repercussions of which are seen through the eyes of Offred, a handmaid given to a household for reproductive purposes. Her purpose is childbearing, but underneath that she also bears the pressure of a society suffocating its people in primitive roles.
It was difficult to get into at first, because Offred’s story is so vague: nothing is ever explicitly stated, which builds the threat throughout the story of discovery and consequences, which reaches a state of catharsis in the final chapter. As such, initially it is hard to construct this post-apocolyptic world, because nothing is certain. However, it soon becomes evident that this is Offred’s life; she knows nothing and wonders about everything, and can only exist through snippets of reality that seep through into her consciousness, and it is only by adhering to this vague writing style from the outset that Atwood is able to create the ever-increading tension. Who can be trusted? What are the viable alternatives to this lifestyle? And, personally, a big question: who is Offred? We don’t even learn her name, which I believe would have ruined the notion of power subsuming identities, and added to the dark and horrific notion that we can all be demeaningly subordinated to fulfil the duties prescribed to us.
As such, this book is also a warning; mankind can be the creator of wonders, and the ultimate destroyer of human life. The story focuses around the limitations of life under the rule of the Eyes and the Guardians; no man has free will, even acts of rebellion are limited by expiry dates – look at Moira’s role as a prostitute, where she knew that, inevitably, she would be scrapped when authority figures no longer required her services. Likewise, the hatred between the Econowives and the Handmaids: the unseen divisions created by authority figures are the cause of social and emotional divides, where people cannot coexist without being painfully aware of their shortcomings in relation to others.
What I found most intriguing about this book is the voyeurism; in a world where everything is forbidden, we gain what we assume is a rare insight into the inner workings of the average handmaid, fighting for survival in a new and cruel world. These are words which she cannot even write initially; we are privy to her innermost thoughts, providing a fascinating insight into the unknown, particularly on the part of the reader who is unsure of what this world permits and how survival is facilitated. Alongside this, we see why someone would still find it imperative to survive; Offred has every reason to feel like the girl who previously occupied her room, and yet she finds reasons to live – hope for the future, love of her family, forging those connections which make her feel part of a community…Seeing Offred’s struggle through her own eyes, and experiencing her life in detail allows us to build this empathetic connection with the subjects presented in the book, and as such Atwood is able to substitute a physical reality for an emotional one: although this world is not certain to us, the reactions to it make us build a relationship with it.
One thing I did have a problem with is the historical notes section at the end. Boring. It detracted from the secrecy of the book by making it a public spectacle, and suddenly the sanctity of Offred’s darkest and intimate thoughts became commonplace, ruining the assumedly privileged position of the reader.
That aside, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ goes alongside the likes of ‘1984’ in showing a society that should be repelled, and the daunting prospect of a world in which privacy is illegal, and freedom is outlawed; it also demonstrates the immeasurable strength of the human mind in resisting attempts at sublimation, and the wonder of human resilience.