The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, Vintage 1996. Copyright 1985
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the Handmaid’s Tale by now. I for one am looking forward to watching the Netflix adaptation now that I’ve finally read the novel. This is actually my second Atwood book- the first was Penolopiad which I NEEDED LIKE WATER IN A DESERT after studying The Odyssey in a male dominated classroom.
The Handmaid’s Tale sets place in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the U.S.A where our protagonist Offred serves a family as the role of a handmaid. Or more crudely as the role of a breeder. Women have been separated into different roles to serve this very patriarchal society with Wives at the top and Unwomen at the bottom. Offred can either submit or be hung on the wall as a traitor.
This is a very powerful book. I imagine it would have been shattering if I had not already read works like The Power recently. It’s hard to believe this was published in 1985 especially when you look at the U.S.A now. Atwood is brilliant at describing the long slow suffocation of a person who remembers the freedom of a previous life. I also love that Atwood doesn’t paint the previous world (our present one) as a perfect one where women were completely free. The attitudes stay the same but the structure changed.
I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
I also appreciated the flashbacks of Offred’s former marriage and how atypical yet intimate it was.
The lack of knowledge is at the heart of the book. Offred and so we the readers have no idea what is going on in the world outside of the tiny bubble of Offred and the Commander’s household except for brief glimpses. Everything even with the spurts of violence is muffled like the writing of a person in shock.