With the recent release of television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I made a realization: I am a Canadian who has never read anything by Margaret Atwood before. And she a national treasure!!! You’d think I would have at least come across something in my school curriculum, especially given that I even studied English as my minor in university. Really the only prominent Canadian author I had as assigned reading was Alice Munro. That seems… odd to me. But in any case, here we are now, and boy was it a treat to have a forward by Atwood herself regarding this novel in the digital edition I ended up with. Most specifically, her discussion of how the control of women is one of the most important and prominent features in oppressive societies/when one group wants to stifle the other. And what a great time to read this novel, given the current political climate today, and also being at a point in my own life wherein I can recognize and relate to a lot of the gender-issues presented therein: were I younger, a lot more of it may have gone over my head. Because we aren’t supposed to think of this stuff, are we? We are supposed to take what we are given and be grateful, right? Well, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Or maybe… not?? Hmmmm.
But let’s dive in. Spoilers are to follow, both in description of the novel’s events, as well as subsequent discussion:
The Handmaid’s Tale follows the narration of a woman known only to us as Offred, in a not-so-far-off future dystopian society wherein women are divided into categories based on their status, ability to have children, following/faith in the new government, etc. Offred is a handmaid, who is essentially the property of a man we only know as the Commander, and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred’s purpose is to have a child for the family, as fertility rates in this new world have decreased dramatically (due to various toxicities in the world). We follow Offred as she recounts the beginnings of this new world, her life being trained as a handmaid, finding allies amongst her fellow women and the stirrings of a rebellion, and trying to find new connections in this world where her every move is so closely monitored and restricted. Offred used to have a husband and a child, and she desperately clings to memories of them, and of her freedoms that perhaps at the time she took for granted. As time goes on Offred starts taking risks in order to learn information about her family and friends, to survive, and even to just find a connection and intimacy with another person: did you know that we can be starved for affection, human interaction, and even touch? Such rigidity and oppression can rob people of these extremely human facets of life.
It’s a scary world, and leaves us with somewhat of an ambiguous ending, and the scariest part of it all is that it doesn’t read like fantasy at all, not like some of the other popular dystopian novels today: there is no crazy technology or magic, it’s all so real and draws upon such real issues and emotions. An absolute gut-punch, thinking about how this novel relates so well to today, to the issues facing women everywhere in the world. Control of our bodies and our choices to have children? Check. Women’s inability to work and vote in some places? Check. Men thinking they know what’s best for women? Yep. People telling women that we should be grateful for all that we have when we are being mistreated or oppressed in some way, because others out there have it worse? Got that here too. Oh, but we shouldn’t complain about anything, should we? Because everything is a product of the choices we have made in our lives, right?
Speaking of which, that is just one of the important and prominent themes to be found in this novel: the subject of blaming the victim/oppressed for the position that they are in. We see this first and foremost with the character of Janine, another handmaid during her training, being told she is a disgusting woman who is at fault for everything that happened to her during her life. How often do we see the first line of defense in assault cases being to discredit the victim by asking what they were wearing, were they drinking, etc etc? Mhm.
We also see another instance of the oppressed being told it is their own fault/choice to be in the position they are in through Offred, saying that the sex she has with the Commander is not rape, as she chose this position as a handmaid. But is that really true? Her choice was to do this or to clean up toxic wastes and essentially die within a few years? I have heard too many stories of women who didn’t really want to have sex but felt pressured to, and so they said yes, when really they wanted to say no. And then they blame themselves for feeling confused or not right afterwards, because they said yes, right? Even though they felt like they had to for whatever reason. But if there is pressure or an ultimatum, etc, is that yes really valid?
Related to this idea of Offred making choices as available to her in her state of oppression, we see the subject of what people are willing to put up with or put themselves through in order to survive. Offred makes the choice to be a handmaiden rather than go to the “colonies”. She makes the choice to be a vessel for another, while others would see this position as degrading. We also see women choosing to be “jezebels” or sterilized prostitutes for the high-status men, including Offred’s best friend, Moira, who is a lesbian woman: she chooses to allow her body to be used by men, just so she can stay alive and not go to the colonies. Other people would prefer death. Everyone defines rock bottom differently, and everyone is willing to accept different levels of fate in order to keep living.
And then there are those women who choose to go against their fellow women: those women who scapegoat in order to keep their positions and possibly get ahead. Also those women who choose the position of “Aunts”, which means that they have some power and control over the other women, teaching them how to act according to the new rules of society and punishing those who don’t. I feel as if in our world, women are so often pit against each other, whether for the purpose of male attention, status, or power. Betrayal can happen for any of these reasons, and when the stakes are so high in the world of this novel, that betrayal can seem all the more stinging. Because of this idea that anyone can give you away or turn against you just for their own survival, there is a loneliness found in novel (as in life) as women are constantly considered rivals. Offred has difficulty connecting to other women, and yet so much strength can also be found in the coalition of women: it is a powerful thing, and it feels to me that women are made to fight amongst themselves in order to stay where they are and not push ahead. The reason we are where we are today is because women banded together to fight for our rights. Yet even then, these women were scorned for being too loud, too pushy, not “real” women who followed all the prescribed gender roles. Why are they not happy with what they have? (We see that sentiment presented in The Handmaid’s Tale as well, how lucky the handmaids are to live where they are with all the privileges they have, how could they ask for anything more?). This is why I love the movement I see in young girls today, trying to be supportive of one another: we need to stand together in order to move ahead.
But speaking of moving ahead, I think I will now speak to the ending of the novel. I got a little confused regarding the extra historical notes and whether this was really a part of the story as my e-reader was being odd and sort of split up the sections in an weird way?? The core story of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an ambiguous fashion, and it’s an absolute gut-punch: what happened to Offred after the story? Was she on her way to freedom or something worse? That uncertainty is so terrifying and is such a great ending. The whole story is also presented in such a beautiful and intimate way, as though Offred is recording her story just for the sake of recording it, and we just happen to be the one who is being shared with. Kind of like how Valerie writes her story in V for Vendetta, unsure if anyone will read it, but hopeful that one day someone will learn all that she has been through. This makes the whole thing feel very personal in a way, and stopping with Offred’s uncertain ending makes the whole thing even more gut-wrenching as she is cut off and you can’t be clear what this means for the women who just shared her whole life with you. You really could just stop there. But then there were the historical notes, presented as a part of a lecture on Offred’s story at a later date, after being found recorded on a number of tapes years later.
These notes sort of take away from the uncertainty of the ending in some ways, as we can deduce that Offred was found or taken to some kind of underground safe-haven and therefore able to recount her story. It also takes away from the intimate feeling gained from reading her story: now I know that I am not the recipient of her personal story as chosen by fate, but that everyone has now heard it and scrutinized it. But there is something to be said for having this later discussion/talk regarding her tapes: that is, we are able to see reflected the way in which people view history, saying “how could people let this happen?”, all while ignoring how their own world is evolving and could very well do the same thing again. We get to see people doubting her story as if it is just some kind of hoax or way to present the old government in a particular way. But I think of all the other personal documents we have found over time and made stories of/used as actual pieces of history (most iconic of all, the diary of Anne Frank), and wonder if we scrutinized these in the same manner, questions if it was even real at all. Such is nature, isn’t it, to always question the validity of what someone is saying? Particularly when it comes to not wanting to believe something that might confirm our own faults and misdoings. Ultimately, I’m a bit conflicted about the historical notes at the end of the book.
I do wonder, however, what a male’s perspective might be on this book? I say this because I know plenty of women who have read it over the years, but cannot personally think of single man who has. What would they think of Offred’s life and thoughts regarding her situation? I cannot help but think of that Pajiba post a while back regarding Things Men Don’t Realize Women Fear and how maybe some of the little intricacies might go over a few heads, while other parts would stand out more that didn’t for me? I mean, we all read things from our own personal viewpoints and places in life, so I feel like there might be some differences to be found. I think of this specifically because of the parts of the book wherein the Commander is taking Offred out for the night, and to him it almost seems like a game, but to her, she is risking her life. Or how even Offred’s husband responded to her not being about to work at first, versus her own reaction. There are some things that men just… don’t get. Because they haven’t experienced life from a female perspective. (Yes yes, not all men fall into that generalized category, but those aren’t the men I’m talking about here, is it? I’m talking about the ones that DON’T GET IT, which unfortunately is far too many).
All in all, I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be phenomenal. At first I was worried that maybe it had been hyped up too much and I would be disappointed (as has happened to me with a lot of books, movies, etc) or that given how I’ve heard a lot of people call it a “classic” the language and writing might be hard to get into (once again, something that has happened to me quite a few times with other books) but ultimately I loved it, given everything that it stirred in my brain: it made me think of a lot of different issues present in the world today, all of which are important. As a novel, it is both entertaining but also profound: the odd simple line here or there just jumped out and struck me. I would love to revisit this again in the future, to see if as I grow older I feel things differently about it, or even begin to notice different things that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time through.