Note: This is a spoiler-free review
The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, is set in the not too distant future (at the time of the book’s publication). Because of the decline in birth rates, the nation of Gilead was born from America with the sole intent of regulating and controlling the population to prevent birth rates from continuing to decline. Each citizen is Gilead has been sanctioned into a single, societal status. All of the remaining, fertile women, have been re-assigned as Handmaids. Because of their ability to procreate, the Handmaid’s rights and freedoms are the most restricted among the entire population. Offred, one of these Handmaids, is not only not allowed to read (like other Giledean women), she must follow a strict daily schedule, must perform public tasks with another Handmaid at all times, refrain from making eye contact, and where a bright red dress everywhere she goes- as a symbol of her status. Her entire worth- and even her life- depends on her ability to get pregnant- yet Offred can remember a different time. When she had a job, friends, a husband, and a daughter. When she had freedom and control over her own life- and body.
As a brief disclaimer- I have not watched the tv show on Hulu. I did not know much about this book going into it- other than it was dystopian novel where women are oppressed. While I can’t say that in my middle school years I was deeply embedded into the whole young-adult dystopian novel trend, I had my fair share of exposure to a few (The Hungar Games, The Maze Runner, Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Gone as examples) I can’t say that I really fell in love with any of them. While I thought a lot of these books feel into the same tropes and characters, there was something that fascinated me about the whole dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre, so I was curious about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian book that was not only written before the whole trend started, but one not specifically geared towards the young adult demographic. Believe me, I was not disappointed.
While most dystopian novels depict a world far into the future (or one with an unknown time period), Margaret Atwood presents a character, Offred, who can remember a time in which everything was normal. This creates a fascinating narrative in which Offred leads us through (little by little) how Gilead formed, slowly but surely. The transition from America to Gilead is both disturbing and all too realistic, creating a greater sense of dread, fear, and isolation, as Offred reveals to us how this future came to be.
Outside of the times in which timelines and character’s backstories are revealed to us, the actual plot of the story is mostly complicated in how it reveals information. Something Atwood does flawlessly is jumping around from pre-Gilead days, to Offred in the Red Center, to the present day, with Offred going about her daily routine. This leads to the formation of a rich and fully realized world. Not only do we learn about the philosophies and rules of this society and justifications for why things are the way they are, but we get to learn (through Offred’s eyes) the Handmaid’s- and other character’s- purpose in society, and the oppressive laws and restrictions that society (specifically Handmaids) is subjected to.
In addition to the fully realized ins and outs of this society, something that Atwood does masterfully in her writing is creating this sense of quiet and paranoia. There’s this constant feeling that someone is watching you, and even the simple act of looking someone in the eye could have you dragged off, punished, and put on display for others. All of this oppressive rules and restrictions does lead to some interesting moral questions about how far people are willing to go to keep the population under control, or what lengths people will go to during a growing epidemic?
Let’s talk about the characters. Offred herself isn’t super interesting, but what really makes her a protagonist that we want to follow is how she was a relatively normal women who was forced into this horrific and restrictive new life and society. We want to follow Offred and see this world through her eyes, the different roles people play in this new society, and what’s it’s like being the most “valued” person in this society, and yet being the one most at the whim of others. We learn through Offred how things came to be, and while I won’t spoil it, Offred’s situation becomes a bit more intriguing as compared to other Handmaid’s, and we become more and more engrossed into her story, as she learns more about Gilead. The story is told entirely from first person, which I think creates a rather unique narrative as we never quite know what happens to certain characters, or what people’s true intentions might be. It all comes from Offred’s limited- yet very observant- speculations.
There aren’t many characters besides Offred that we get to know first hand. The only one that gets the most development and backstory, besides Offred, (that we meet) is Moira, who might be my favorite character. She brings some much needed comic relief to the story and, out of the supporting cast, was for me the most interesting and entertaining character.
If there are any critiques or negative opinions I had of the book (and there are very, very, few), I thought that the message the book was trying to get across was pretty on the nose. While I understand that most dystopian societies are meant to center around a social anxiety or impending issue in the world (such as global warming or nuclear war), a lot of characters, dialogue, and settings are centered around this theme, or warning, that the book presents with this society. While this aspect could just be a product of it’s time (as in this theme or idea wasn’t as present in media in the 80s) I just feel like a lot of these themes could have been presented more subtly. I also feel like a couple of the characters were not fully realized, especially the Commander. I was often confused how I was supposed to feel about him. While I know that the author wants us to questions what his motives are (as we never get inside his head) I feel like he was kept too ambiguous to the point where it was hard for me to get invested in his actions.
Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solidly entertaining read. If you love dystopian fiction but are sick of the y-adult dystopian fiction novels that have been published to death in recent years, or if you just love entertaining reads with interesting themes and world-building, this is definitely one to check out.