The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

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Summary: Offred lives in a dystopic world in which the society she knew fell apart and was replaced by a militaristic, uber-religious, man-controlled culture. She has been taken as a “handmaid” – a new form of the Biblical consort with whom married men of wealth can have children if their own wives can not conceive. (That is, of course, the men believe that the problem of conception is with the woman and not with the man.) When people around her begin to act in ways that the new culture will not abide, she must make a choice of whom to trust.

My Thoughts: This is my first Atwood book, and I’m very impressed. Yes, ok, it’s not for people who dislike books that make you uncomfortable. But if you’re in the right mood, this was thoughtful feminist writing full of symbolism. Atwood is a real pro at subtley-but-somehow-harshly making a point. I know, it sounds like making such a point is impossible, but somehow Atwood managed. I am eager to read more of her books.

 

5 snowflakes

 

Spoilers Below

I am currently on a project outlined by Susan Wise Bauer in her book The Educated Mind. In it, she provides a list of questions to ask while you’re reading a book. Although this is not one of the books in her list, I think it is worthy of asking those questions.

๐Ÿ‘ฝWhat is the most central life-changing event?

This “central life-changing event” usually takes place at the beginning of the book, according to Susan Wise Bauer…and understandably so. But in this case, the book takes place with a lot of flashbacks. I’d say the revolution that overturned society would be the central life changing event for Offred. It is because of this that she lost her job, her husband, and her child. It is because of this that she was forced into handmaidenhood.

It is easy to confuse the reader with too many flashbacks that inform the reader (possibly a little late) what happened to bring the character to her current spot. However, Atwood did an amazing job, and I applaud her seamless work of giving us just as much information as we need, but still leaving mystery and not forcing information into the narrative unrealistically. This takes talent. I could easily believe that Offred really was writing the story with the understanding that her audience would know the background of the revolution and the norms of her society. Facts were not forced upon us, they were casually, and naturally, dropped.

๐Ÿ‘ฝWhat does the central character want? What is standing in his or her way? What strategy is pursued to overcome this block?

Now this is a hard question. Offred wants a lot of things, and some of them conflict. She wants life to be back the way it was before the revolution. She also, more realistically, wants to be safe – and therefore to get pregnant. But she also wants to live her life, which is why she dares to do things that endanger her. She wants to be unique in a world where even her name is taken away from her.

How do you even list all the things a character like Offred wants? Some of the things she wants are specific to her character, but I think Atwood meant her to represent every woman who has ever felt oppressed. In which case she wants freedom. She wants to speak out. She wants equality. She wants to be an individual who is valued. It is because of these more subtle desires of Offred that I can say Atwood can be harsh but subtle at the same time.

๐Ÿ‘ฝWho is telling you this story? Is this person reliable?

Offred is telling this story, but who Offred is has become a question at the end of the book. Is she reliable? Well, yes and no, I think. I think she is honestly relaying what is in her heart at any given point in the narrative, but she also has a constricted view of what is going on in the world. She is not allowed to see the mechanizations of society or of the people around her from her current position, so she has to relay things only as she perceives them and perhaps not as they are.

๐Ÿ‘ฝย Does the end have a resolution or a logical exhaustion?

In the end, the story is artfully left open to interpretation. Did she escape? Was she caught and punished? We don’t know. But this, I think, was the best ending that could happen given the overall meaning of the book. Since Offred represents the wants and needs of all women in the world, and some women are eventually liberated and some continue to be oppressed, there is only one way to end the story – by leaving it open.

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  1. It has been a few years since I read this. I agree that it is very impressive. I also agree that it is an uncomfortable and disturbing book. I have not actually seen the new television, I think that watching something like this week after week would really be disturbing.

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    1. Yeah, I will avoid watching the TV series now that I have had time to think about it. I will also avoid the movie of The Hate U Give. Wonderful book, but I just don’t like to deal with those sorts of emotions when I am watching TV.

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  2. What a fantastic place to begin with Atwood’s writing! I appreciate your observation about how restricted she was in terms of how she can narrate the story and how she has to leave out what she has no view of (I think a lot of people miss that it’s not possible for her to see more than she tells us and are simply frustrated with the lack of information). Also, what an interesting list of questions to use while exploring a book: are you doing that with other reads as well, or have you moved on to other ways of engaging with your reading? (Also, thanks for sharing the information about the event!)

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  3. I agree with BIP – The Handmaid’s Tale is a great place to start! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I agree with your assessment of the ending – that was the only way to end the book. It makes me wonder how I would react to it now compared to the last time I read it, which was about 10 years ago.
    Thanks for taking part in MARM!

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